Sadly little is known about this remarkable individual and as a result he has not received the recognition that he truly deserves in the development of the Mechanics’ Institutions and in his contributions to adult and technical education. The testimony to his commitment and far sighted ideas on the Mechanics’ Institutions movement and adult and technical education is reflected in his seminal essay subsequently published as a book in 1853 (1) for which he received an award from the Society of Arts (SoA/[RSA]. The Society had organised an essay writing competition following their annual conference in May 1852 in which they had discussed the Mechanics’ Institution movement. It is a remarkable piece of work that is still relevant and merits reading today. The essay describes the part played by a number of educational agencies in the teaching of working people. The prize brought Hole to the attention of the Society of Arts and he was instrumental with two other members of the Society namely James Booth and Harry Chester in creating a national examination system (see history of technical and commercial examinations and the biographies).
James Hole was born in London in 1820 and moved to Manchester when still in his youth where he became an active member of the Mechanics’ Institution movement. He then moved to Leeds in the early 1840s writing a large number of books and articles in journals mainly focussing on improving the life of workers particularly through their education. Subjects covered by his writings included co-operative undertakings, housing and his main passion adult education. Hole was an Associationist, a movement pre-dating that of the Fabians, which advocated the benefits that would be realised by the best use of existing and emerging associations in the community, state-fostered or voluntary, to improve society. Hole argued strongly that everyone, and most certainly the working class, had a right to education. He continually argued that education was not a privilege but an absolute right. In spite of the fact that Hole had reservations he argued that a national system was essential as a wholly voluntary system was inadequate. He argued cogently that the government should provide funds at national and local levels although he expressed reservations about state control and the dangers of intervention and interference from the politicians. Hole was critical of the government’s earlier attempts to subsidise schools but praised the benefits of local and voluntary efforts by comparing ‘day work’ and ‘piece work’ in the businesses and factories. He felt that Mechanics’ Institutions should be supported by
central government but that they should not be in competition with government schools.He became very involved in adult education and the Mechanics’ Institutions in Leeds and Yorkshire holding the post of Honorary Secretary of the Yorkshire Union of Institutes between 1848 and 1857. In that capacity he became the most knowledgeable person about the Mechanics’ Institution movement. The essay referred to above provided a very systematic, detailed and reasoned analysis of the Institutions highlighting their weaknesses, benefits and potential. Hole did not write about education policy preferring to survey the educational agencies that were associated with worker education in Leeds. Agencies and institutions described in the essay included day and evening schools, Sunday schools, criminal and pauper education agencies and Mechanics’ Institutions. He was a very loyal, committed and highly regarded citizen of Leeds. A rare portrait of James Hole is shown below kindly sent to me by his great-great granddaughter Tina Ash.
He established an itinerant village library service in 1852 operated by the Yorkshire Union of Mechanic’s Institutions The travelling library issued boxes of fifty books every six months to subscribers who paid one penny per week. This invaluable service continued for over forty years.
As mentioned above Hole was instrumental with Booth and Chester in creating the Society of Arts examinations. Chester and Hole saw that an examination system could be a useful way of improving the effectiveness and management of the Mechanics’ Institutions. These two individuals began the development and James Booth then implemented the examination system. Hole felt that examinations were a relatively simple but essential way of reforming and improving the performance of the Institutions. Equally important was to provide high quality instruction for workers that prepared them for work and as members for society. Hole felt that the main weakness of the Mechanics’ Institutions was that they had adopted the wrong form of instruction. The three most common methods of learning were the library, lectures and class teaching. He observed that class teaching was the most effective but too often there were few good teachers and suitable classrooms. Other weaknesses highlighted included the mechanics’ inadequate elementary education and their reluctance to stay the course although in many cases this was understandable (see history of technical education). Accepting these weaknesses Hole felt that examinations could bring about improvements and act as a motivator. In his essay he proposed the creation of a national Union of Institutes and its examiners would establish greater confidence through the introduction of a comprehensive system of examinations rather than the somewhat divisive awarding of certificates of proficiency that often created ill-feeling amongst the learners.
Eventually he returned to London in 1867 where he died in 1895. Two years before his death is published a book on national railways arguing for a state owned system.
It is time to recognise more fully this remarkable individual and his thoughts, ideas and achievements on adult, social and technical education.
(1). Hole. J. ‘Light, More Light!’ on the Present State of Education Amongst the Working Classes of Leeds Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts. 1860.
Foden. F. ‘The Examiner –James Booth and the origin of common examinations’. Leeds Studies in Adult and Continuing Education. 1989.