We have a rich history and since opening in 1919, we've welcomed thousands of learners and received numerous awards, and now offer over 5,000 courses to more than 60,000 Londoners a year.
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
City Lit was one of five literary institutes in the capital, including Plumstead and Woolwich, Marylebone, Dalston and Peckham.
We welcomed our first students 1919, with T.G. Williams soon taking the place of Captain J.H. Menzies as ‘Master’. We originally leased four classrooms from a teacher training college in Greystoke Place, Fetter Lane to hold our classes. 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 our 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 curriculum had the basic aim of cultivating the Humanities and every student was allowed to ‘find their own level, and experiment is encouraged’.
Our popularity grows
In the late twenties, accommodation for evening classes became an increasing problem, with classes taking place in 25 separate buildings.
Fortunately, we were offered the chance to move to our 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’ (it even included signs ‘To the Mortuary’ and ‘To the Cleansing Station’). However, after gaining 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 our own building ensured we were able to develop our programmes of study and improve conditions for students and staff. 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.
With these developments we soon outgrew our building 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’.
War weary Londoners still turned up for classes throughout the years 1939-45. During The Blitz, classes took place in air raid shelters, on the platforms of both Covent Garden and Holborn Tube stations (a piano was made available for recitals), and a class in Greek carried on while the caretaker dealt with a fire bomb on the roof! We were also home to the local Fire Brigade headquarters and to the Navy’s School of Navigation - when both were bombed out of their own buildings.
Post-war: the last ‘literary institute’
In 1951, we were recognised as ‘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
We continued to thrive during the 1980s, and in 1987-88 enrolments topped 15,000 for the first time. In 1987, we grew to take on a community education role, but With the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority in 1990, the community work went to the local adult education institutes in the newly established London boroughs. Enrolments first exceeded 45,000 in 1992/93, with more than 20,000 individual students.
Always innovative, we introduduced the first training for adult education teachers, and were the first to offer Access courses to higher education, as well as launching post-school education for deaf students.
In the 1990s, we were 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 - one of the predecessors of today's Education & Skills Funding Agency.
21st century: Europe’s largest centre for adult education
Our current home - designed by award-winning architects Allies and Morrison - opened in May 2005.
Throughout the pandemic, City Lit continued to be open for learning. At the start of the lockdown we took the strategic decision to put as much of our course provision as possible online. We are now offering thousands of online and classroom-based courses.