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City Lit has an impressive history and a strong commitment to education. Since opening in 1919, we have played a significant role in providing opportunities to a diverse range of learners across London. With over 5,000 courses available, City Lit has clearly evolved to meet the educational needs and interests of our community. We currently serve over 60,000 Londoners, which is a testament to our dedication to make education accessible.

A new movement for London

City Lit’s story began with London’s literary institute movement, which came into play after the First World War. A report to the London County Council suggested introducing better provisions for the needs of a large number of students who seek education other than vocational, with a coherent programme of studies related to leisure, in 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, alongside Plumstead and Woolwich, Marylebone, Dalston and Peckham. 

We welcomed our first students 1919, with T.G. Williams soon taking the place of Captain, and 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. 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 encouraged to experiment and learn at their own level. 

Our popularity grows

In the late twenties, accommodation for evening classes became an increasing problem, with classes taking place across 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’.

Blitz spirit

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. Students had flocked back at the end of the war and reached 10,000 by 1948. In line with the provisions of the 1944 Education Act, Government meetings to plan for nationwide Local Authority provision of adult education were carried out at the City Lit. Sadly, national resources had to be diverted to urgent housing needs and the opportunity was lost for an extensive and ring fenced provision across the UK. 

Buoyant in the 1960s and 1970s

This was a period of expansion: of courses, new initiatives, and collaboration with a wide variety of education and arts organisations. The initiative ‘Preparation for retirement’ launched in 1960 which was later implemented throughout the country. 

Much effort was put into organising student assemblies, the City Lit Association and student places on the governors. This was building on the previously strong but more informal contact with students looking for full student participation and involvement both domestically in planning new course directions and democratically in the need to fight for the future of adult education. A full-time student advisor had been in post since 1963, easily available each day/evening to student enquirers. Good initial personal advice for individuals on their study plans and choices underpinned the much-observed strength of student commitment to courses and contributed to the development of new ones. 

This period saw major developments in three areas. 

Fresh Horizons:
Fresh Horizons, a totally new concept, offered a fresh start in education for adult learners. A mixture of full and part time intensive courses of general education offered a springboard into further education and new career directions. Starting in 1966, by the early 1970s a number of universities were accepting the course in lieu of A levels. A huge compliment to the quality of our teaching. Its success relied on a combination of teaching and personal counselling, essential for the success of so many individuals in redirecting their lives. Over 1000 people went through these courses between 1966 and 1980, with the majority moving onto further education afterwards.

Centre of Deaf:
Work with deaf students began in the earliest City Lit days but this developed to become the thriving Centre for the Deaf with its first full time member of staff in 1973. It finally reached its home in Keeley Street  in 1977, and was recognised as the Regional Centre in 1974. In the early 1970s the wide gap in provision for young adults on leaving the support of their special secondary schools had been identified, leading to multiple courses for lip reading at all levels, for those with a stammer, training teachers in lip reading, plus a range of general education full/part time courses delivered to these young adults with career advice. An increasing amount of one-to-one support to deaf students in other colleges was also introduced. The Centre for the Deaf was recognised as the Regional Centre for the South East in 1974.

Adult Education Training Unit:
The third area of development was the Adult Education Training Unit. This launched in 1967/8 with unique courses for Principals and Vice Principals. In parallel, in-house tutor training was introduced with observation and sharing of best practice. This was an entirely new venture in the UK and seen as a constructive process. Ron South, Principal (1958-1984), felt that the most successful tutors take time out of their busy lives to share their knowledge and expertise for a few hours. Training should feel integrated and not be seen as an external process. This approach became popular and other colleges displayed interested in implementing this training strategy. Classes were increasingly turning from the traditional lecture format to a flexible, modern seminar style which was much helped by the training group discussions and sharing of practice among the extensive group of part time tutors. The training unit grew very quickly within City Lit and in collaboration with education and arts organisations in Greater London and beyond.

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.