A new movement for London
City Lit’s story began with London’s literary institute movement, which came into being after the First World War. A report to the London County Council recommended making better provision ‘for the needs of a large number of students who seek education other than vocational’, with ‘a coherent programme of studies related to leisure, and an adult setting’. It is difficult now to understand just what a radical departure this was.
1919: the doors open
The college was in fact one of five literary institutes in the capital, including Plumstead and Woolwich, Marylebone, Dalston and Peckham.
City Lit welcomed its first students 1919, with T.G. Williams soon taking the place of Capt J.H. Menzies as ‘Master’. The college premises were four classrooms leased from a teacher training college in Greystoke Place, Fetter Lane. In his memoirs Williams said, “It was an act of pure faith. Principals were appointed before a single student was enrolled; their duty was first to create and afterwards to organise demand and it may well be that the boldest decision of all was to choose a site for one of the literary institutes in the heart of business London, the square mile altogether dedicated, as it might have been supposed, to the pursuit of material, rather than ideal, ends.”
But the popularity of the City Literary Institute’s evening classes was soon established: fees were set at 2 shillings per term, plus 1 shilling for each additional class, and by 1921/22 there were 1,200 students, rising to 5,000 in 1928/9. The Institute’s curriculum had the basic aim of cultivating the Humanities, and every student was allowed to ‘find their own level, and experiment is encouraged’.
In the late twenties, accommodation for evening classes became an increasing problem, with City Lit using 25 separate buildings. Fortunately the college was offered the chance to move to its own home in Goldsmith’s Street (now Stukeley Street). The building had been used for several generations for the disaffected youth of Seven Dials ‘in the interests of discipline and hygiene’, and contained two signs: ‘To the Mortuary’ and ‘To the Cleansing Station’. However, after obtaining access to the building by ‘unorthodox’ means and exploring it by candlelight, T.G. Williams was convinced that the building was appropriate, and by September 1928 it was ready for use.
Having its own building ensured that City Lit was able to run more efficiently and effectively, build up a resource base, develop its programmes of study and improve working conditions for staff and students. Within City Lit, clubs and societies thrived, and the list of academics and writers who taught, gave masterclasses and special lectures included Dame Edith Sitwell, T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, C. Day Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and Dylan Thomas.
But with these developments the institute soon outgrew its premises, and the Goldsmith’s Street building was knocked down and rebuilt as a purpose-designed facility. Opened in 1939 by poet laureate John Masefield, the new building contained a theatre, concert hall and gym. At this time a social committee was formed, for the purposes of ‘relieving loneliness, introducing strangers, organising timely help in circumstances of difficulty’.
City Lit from 1939-1945, although in a central position in London and with all the problems of travelling in wartime conditions, kept up a good level of enrolment. Classes took place in air raid shelters, on the platforms of both Covent Garden and Holborn tube stations – where a piano was made available for recitals – and a class in Greek proceeded whilst the caretaker dealt with a fire bomb on the roof! The Institute was also home to the local Fire Brigade HQ and to the Navy’s school of navigation – bombed out of their own buildings.
After the war: the last ‘literary institute’
In 1951 City Lit was declared ‘a major establishment’ by the Ministry of Education, and by 1969, fifty years since the founding of the Literary Institutes, City Lit was the sole survivor of the 16 that had operated in London over the years.
The 80s and 90s: innovation
In 1987 City Lit was enlarged to take on a community education role. However, with the demise of the Inner London Education Authority in 1990, it was restructured and the community work went to the local adult education institutes in the newly established London boroughs. However, the college continued to thrive during the 1980s, and in 1987-88 enrolments topped 15,000 for the first time. From 1992-3 enrolments first exceeded 45,000, that is 20,000 individual students.
Always innovative, City Lit continued to develop new educational initiatives, being the first place to provide training for adult education teachers, the first to offer Access courses to higher education and to provide post-school education for deaf students.
In the 1990s, the Institute was established as a free-standing charitable company (limited by guarantee) and, following the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992, became a ‘specialist designated’ college, funded by the Further Education Funding Council. In 2001, the FEFC was succeeded by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), which has since become the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), the organisation currently responsible for all post-16 education and training.
Europe’s largest adult education centre
A landmark decision was made in 2001 when the LSC agreed to support the construction of a new building on an existing City Lit site in Keeley Street, off Drury Lane. Designed by award-winning architects Allies and Morrison, the current home opened in May 2005 and makes City Lit the largest adult education centre in Europe. City Lit’s popularity continues to grow, with over 30,000 adult learners making use of this incredible resource each year.