Insights and Connections


As we reach into midsummer and beyond, I am now at the stage where the last of the interviews I have undertaken has finally been transcribed – a painstaking, and much lengthier process than I thought (!!), made easier by the wonderful College volunteers, as I mentioned previously – and the interviews are all now being thoroughly analysed and coded for key themes and threads. This sounds like a dry process which belies the often deeply personal nature of the interviews and the transformational quality ascribed to the learning people experienced at Attingham College.
Reading through all the interviews again has been revealing and powerful. With the passage of a year, in some instances, I am viewing them afresh and recognising the full importance of what was said, in the context of all the information I have gleaned since. I am also even more aware now of how great a privilege it was for me to hear people who experienced the College first hand speak so openly.
Two more recent encounters have enriched my knowledge and understanding considerably, particularly of Sir George Trevelyan. In March this year I met Martin Bulmer, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Surrey University, and Sir George Trevelyan’s half-brother. There is a forty year age gap between Martin and Sir George but Martin saw him at the Trevelyan’s Wallington estate in Northumberland periodically, where he grew up, though George’s visits were infrequent. Martin was particularly interesting on the division between George and his father Charles, which has been referred to a number of times in different interviews.
Sir Charles was a radical socialist, a Labour politician (though expelled at one point for his support for a “popular front” against the National Government) who served as President of the Board of Education in 1924 and between 1929 and 1931 in the first two Labour administrations of Ramsay MacDonald. He was much loved by the miners of the area who called him ‘Good Old Charlie’. Charles had a hammer and sickle erected at the Wallington Estate entrance, on the opposite side to the family’s heraldic statues, sadly no longer there! No-one throughout the interviews I have undertaken has any recollection of Sir George discussing or referring to politics. His only reference to the broadly political issue of class is referred to in his article Adult Education and the Living Idea (year unknown) in which he talks about the importance of modern education working in a ‘manner fitting for our more or less classless society’ (p.1). This notion would not, perhaps, have sat well with his father and Charles was also impatient and exasperated, at best, by matters spiritual and George’s pursuit of them.
Martin said –
‘I think there was a divergence because my father was interested in politics and George wasn’t – my father was not interested in spiritualism and George was and that’s really what divided them – even had George inherited Wallington I think he might well have used it for adult education purposes – there were suggestions that he had ideas along those lines…’
And for Sir George adult education itself was profoundly spiritual, as a means for ‘living ideas to work down into our society, and adult education has here a special, and in some sense, a priestly, task’ (Ibid., p.3).
Nevertheless, this passion for the spirit and concept of spirituality transcending the bounds of class and background seems to have motivated George throughout his life. Interestingly, his father too had an interest in adult education and had given the stable block at Wallington over to the YMCA and also to the Post Office. Martin commented on this and said –
‘so annually the Post Office used to have an open day at Wallington for – well it seemed to me to be for the young members of staff but it may have been for any members of staff but it was particularly aimed at people called telegraph boys in the early post-war period’.
Sir Charles was also interested in the work of Kurt Hahn, who founded Gordonstoun where Sir George taught before working at Attingham. There is perhaps more of a convergence of opinion – at least in terms of adult education and an untrammelled approach to it, allowing for freedom of the spirit – than the two men were able to articulate to each other.
My own ambivalence about the spiritual courses and the way in which they are sometimes presented as eclipsing all the other pioneering work Sir George achieved at Attingham perhaps suggests some similarity with Sir Charles’s views. I can’t deny that I am a political person and that I believe that political struggle matters profoundly whilst ever we have such a deeply unequal society. However, I also believe strongly in the spirit, in art, poetry and creativity as a means of transcending sometimes the most inauspicious of situations and enabling people to come alive as fully realised human beings. Sir George, I believe, was motivated by this view and this remained with him all his life.
I was fortunate enough to interview Walter Drews in June this year. Walter is former Principal of one of the short-term residential adult education colleges which existed at the same time as Attingham, Wansfell College, and is also tutor at another, Knuston College. He is also writer of the scholarly PhD thesis ‘The British short-term residential colleges for adult education 1945-1995’, (a great help to me). Walter had the privilege of meeting Sir George as a very old man, shortly before he died, in around 1994, for his thesis. He talked about Sir George’s pure generosity of spirit, his desire to help and give all he could to the interviews, despite being very frail and bent double with arthritis. As Walter and his colleague, Brenda Harris, arrived, Sir George came out of the house. Walter described it thus:
‘He was a very old man – bent over on a stick – he took us up in his house – he couldn’t have travelled anywhere. He came out first of all and we introduced ourselves and I said Brenda would take notes and he came out and he said ‘aah, my beloved Cotswolds’ and I liked the man immediately there was bit of ‘heimat’ about him, belonging to somewhere – wonderful chap’
Brenda remembers the beauty of the furniture he proudly showed them, how he touched it and stroked it with pride – ‘He took us into his living quarters and there was beautiful, beautiful furniture that he was very proud of …he was physically very frail’. She recalls him saying, despite being tired, ‘please ask me some more questions if you need to’.
I think that encapsulates that spirit of generosity and love of humanity very poignantly and rather beautifully.

Sir George lecturingSirGeorge - Jonathon Parker


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