City Lit Blog

City Lit celebrates its centenary this year

Story added 4th Feb 2019

A century old - A century young

This year we enter our second century – an important milestone for any organisation. We were originally one of five literary institutes to open in London and we are the only one to have survived and prospered.  

Since we opened in 1919, we have welcomed tens of thousands of Londoners every year, with probably well over a million people having benefitted from our unique offering over the last century. We are based in Covent Garden in the heart of our city, where Londoners from all walks of life come together to try something new, learn a new skill, follow a passion, and find a community and their cultural expression.

We are open and welcoming as we have always been – throughout the most challenging times of the last century. The Mayor states that “London is Open” – I am proud to say that City Lit has had a century of unbroken support for Londoners.

Our Centenary affords us the opportunity of looking back and celebrating moments from our history, but as a leading cultural institution and beacon of learning in London, we are always keen to look forward and ensure we are ready for the future. 

Amongst the very first courses we offered when we opened in 1919 were lipreading classes for Londoners returning with damaged hearing from the battlefields of the First World War. A century later our Centre for Deaf Education is campaigning for action to improve the awareness of how lipreading can transform lives and increase the availability of lipreading. Hearing loss can lead to a dramatic loss of independence, confidence and quality of life. Lipreading is proven to successfully limit the impact of acquired hearing loss, helping people lead healthier, more productive lives. As more of us live longer this is a hidden crisis which we need to address. Currently 11 million people in the UK suffer from hearing loss. By 2031, 1 in 5 of us will experience hearing loss. That’s 14 million of us at risk.

Everyone who seeks help for their hearing loss should receive advice on lipreading. Unfortunately, there are too few classes and access is a postcode lottery. Our goal is to train more teachers to teach more classes nationwide.

This is why we launched our #HearMyLips lipreading campaign in Parliament in November last year. We received support from across the political spectrum, interested sector organisations and individuals involved in this work for many years, as well as from the patron of our campaign, Turner Prize-winning artist and City Lit Fellow Grayson Perry CBE RA. This was a great start to our centenary year, as the campaign will be a focus of our efforts now and in the future. 

We first took enrolments on 15th September 1919 and we’ve got an exciting calendar of centenary events and activities planned including exhibitions, performances and festivals both at City Lit and across the city. We’ll be releasing our ‘100 Things to Do in London for Free’ programme too, it’s a perfect way to give back and say thank you to Londoners for supporting us over our first century – by giving opportunities to enjoy a free course, workshop or event at City Lit during our centenary year.

We will mark a key part of our heritage with a special event in Aldwych Tube Station to commemorate how City Lit and London remained open and defiant during wartime. We never closed our doors in the Second World War; during the Blitz on London classes were held in Tube station air raid shelters in Covent Garden and Aldwych and we regularly wheeled a piano to the underground for music recitals and to lead sing-songs to keep spirits up for the people spending their nights away from the bombing.

Piano in tube shelter

As the culmination of our Centenary we will be opening a brand new gallery and performance space, partly funded by The Mayor of London, which will provide a unique West End showcase for our learners’ work and celebrate our communities of practice, whilst developing student skills in organisation, curation and the promotion of work. The gallery will also create a more welcoming and open environment fit for a modern approach to lifelong learning.

We are living and working longer, so the place of learning throughout your life is more important than ever.  It doesn’t matter which of life’s transitions you are going through; fulltime education to the world of work; changing careers; personal circumstances; or moving from work to an active retirement; education is a crucial enabler to ensuring success in those transitions. 

We all need to continue to develop our passions and learn new skills to thrive throughout our lives – so City Lit is more relevant and essential to London’s future than it’s ever been.  A key part of this learning is understanding and debating the issues we all face, and we will be running a new public lecture series London Talks. This will be a lecture series with a difference, as London Talks is where Londoners can come together for conversations led by exciting guests on the issues they feel passionately about in an open, friendly and respectful space.  We will be launching this on ‘Brexit Day’ this March with Professor Ian Morris of Stanford University exploring Britain’s historic and tempestuous relationship with Europe at an event at The British Museum.

Many of the other events that already take place in our busy and exciting calendar will continue in our centenary year. Our annual Deaf Day this April, is in its 23rd year is one of the biggest events in the deaf community calendar and our annual Mental Wealth Festival that we host together with our partners Beyond Words and The National Gallery will return in the autumn.

Whilst City Lit has evolved since it was founded in 1919, I am confident that it remains true to its ethos of inspiring passions and realising ambitions throughout our lives.  Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds MP, said:

“I want to congratulate City Lit on their 100th year, and the landmark achievement of reaching a Centenary. It marks a century of commitment to London, as City Lit has adapted and innovated to meet London’s changing needs and to make a difference to the lives of those who live there.

City Lit helps people overcome barriers many people experience when considering learning. It provides evening and weekend opportunities for those who work, as well as a welcoming environment and easily accessible courses.”

Damian Hinds MP and Mark Malcomson

I am proud to lead this organisation, mark this significant moment in history, and ensure it remains as vibrant and relevant for the next century.

During this year, I really hope that people will join the City Lit community to celebrate, and maybe learn something new and exciting.

Mark Malcomson
Principal and CEO at City Lit


This article was featured in TES on 1 Feb 2019 - read the article here