Did you know that Clarendon Park once contained an Adult School? I didn’t even know such a thing existed but a chance mention in a newspaper got me searching. The Adult Schools movement began in the second half of the nineteenth century, when members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) established Sunday morning schools across the country to instruct in reading, writing and Bible study. The movement provided non-denominational, but religiously-based education for the working classes and as such Clarendon Park was the ideal location for an Adult School. By 1889 there were ten schools in Leicester with over 500 members. A wooden hut in Avenue Road Extension – Clarendon Park Mission Room, erected c1881 – was the venue for adult teaching of both sexes (but never together) from about 1883-4. One of the founding teachers was Miss Hannah Margaret Stafford (1852-1905) of Elmsleigh Hall, Stoneygate, who taught for over 20 years until just before her death in 1905.
The standard of teaching and discussion was high. In March 1897 the Mens’ Morning Class discussed the oppression of Cretan Christians by Turkey and urged the British government not to support the Turkish cause. There was a whist league in competition with other adult schools (Clarendon Park lost to the Paradise Mission in 1908) and a cricket team. There was also a thriving football team for many years – Clarendon Park Adult School FC. Sadly at least two team members were killed during the First World War – Private Arthur Bree of 252 Avenue Road Extension (killed in action 16th August 1917 aged 21) and Private Frank Owen Tighe of 10 Westbury Road (killed in action on 17th July 1916 aged 22).
It was the social changes that took place after war that began the decline of the Adult Schools movement. In Leicestershire membership of mens’ groups fell by 38% between 1921 and 1937 and after the second world war this only worsened, partly due to competing leisure activities but also because there was more adult education provision on offer. Clarendon Park Adult School had closed by 1970 and the premises were used by Knighton Park Table Tennis Club. The wooden hut was demolished in 1979 and replaced with a brick building.
As always with these articles I start with one small thing and end up finding out hugely fascinating stories. So I’d like to tell you now about a man who was involved in leading Clarendon Park Adult School and who as a consequence took Adult Schools to other parts of the country and even to New Zealand. Edwin Gilbert was born in Oadby High Street in 1859 and baptised at Oadby Parish Church on 9th Sep 1860. His parents were Martha Bromley (c1834-1906) and Edward Gilbert (c1834-1914), who was a Baptist minister connected with the chapel in Charles Street. Edwin had two sisters including Elizabeth, who later ran a shop at 192 Clarendon Park Road. Edwin married Lilla Ireland (1857-1938) in 1880. The couple initially lived with Lilla’s father at Crescent Street. Edwin worked as a commercial traveller. They had three children: Elsie Lilla (1881-1973), Harry Edwin (1887-1977) and Leslie Howard (1892-1987).
In July 1895 Edwin became involved in the Adult Schools movement and with Clarendon Park Adult School in particular. I don’t know whether this was because he had already joined the Society of Friends, or whether his work in this area led him to become a Quaker, but the two were strongly linked whichever order they happened in. He received an invitation from “a humble old man,” a member of the school. Soon after the Gilberts moved to Salisbury. They returned to live in Leicester in around 1897, settling first at 111 Clarendon Park Road and then by 1903 at 198 Clarendon Park Road. Between 1901 and 1904 Edwin worked as a registration agent for the Liberal Party and from 1902 he took a salaried role in the Leicestershire Adult Schools Union and was later described as being the “leading mover in its extension work…He combined enthusiasm, a wonderful power of attracting men and organising ability.”
Meanwhile daughter Elsie trained and worked as a nurse, firstly at Gilroes Hospital for Infectious Diseases and then in Birmingham, before marrying Quaker doctor Joseph Tyler Fox. On leaving Leicester the Gilberts moved to Bournville where they lived during the War. This was not surprising as Edwin was by now an associate of the Cadbury family who were involved in Quaker philanthropic work. By 1911 Edwin was the national organising secretary for the Adult Schools movement and in 1913 he visited New Zealand, establishing Adult Schools there.
Edwin’s obituary in The Times later stated “In the years just before the War, he arranged interchange visits of British Adult School members and German workmen in the interests of international understanding. Although the effect of these seemed lost during the War, it was found afterwards that the memories of them often facilitated the relief work of the Society of Friends in Germany.” At the beginning of the war Edwin worked with other Quakers to provide relief – including education – for ‘enemy aliens’ interred in camps. He joined the actively anti-war Birmingham city branch of the
Independent Labour Party in 1916. Later Edwin was asked to take charge of a prison for conscientious objectors at Warwick and afterwards at Wakefield Prison. He resigned following a revision of the regulations brought additional unnecessary hardship on the objectors. Son Leslie volunteered with the Red Cross in France as an orderly in the Friends’ (Quakers) Ambulance Division, an extremely dangerous job but avoiding fighting. Meanwhile daughter Elsie joined her husband on a visit to Russia in 1916 with Dr Tyler Fox acting as chief medical officer to the Friends’ War Relief Expedition.
Immediately after the War Edwin joined a party of Quakers in visiting Germany to investigate conditions in children’s homes and hospital. Gilbert shared their experiences in a newspaper article to raise awareness and raise relief funds, quoting Frederick Merttens: “The little babies were a heart breaking sight…and we turned away too overcome for words.” In 1919 Edwin helped to found a community centre in Plymouth called Swathmore Hall. He was appointed President of the National Adult School Union in 1922.
Edwin and Lilla lived in Thurmaston during the 1920s, moving to Bournemouth in 1930 where they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. Edwin died on 2nd December 1933 a few days after undergoing an operation at the Royal Victoria Hospital. After Edwin’s death Lilla moved to York. She died in 1938.