Manuscripts and Special Collections

Knowledge is Power

This exhibition runs from Thursday 27 October until Sunday 12 March 2023, at the Weston Gallery, Lakeside Arts.

The University of Nottingham was a pioneer in providing education for working class adults. It was here, in 1920, that the first department of adult education in Britain was established, followed by the appointment of the first professor of adult education, Robert Peers, in 1922.  

Over the next 70 years, the Adult Education Department worked with unions, employers, local councils and voluntary organisations, offering courses in workplaces and communities across the East Midlands. Many of its students and staff were leading figures in the labour movement locally and nationally.

The department also shaped the region in the development of local historical, archaeological and geological societies. It provided a location for civic discussion and voluntary action in towns and, perhaps especially, villages. 

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Adult education classes and students provided the core for trade union organisation in many industries. Students and former students became leading figures in local and national politics, as councillors and MPs. 

Drawing on the records of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), University College Nottingham, the papers of Ken Coates and many others, this exhibition showcases how adult education enriches the lives and culture of ordinary – and extraordinary – people, and helps build a fairer and more democratic society.   



In this online version of the exhibition you can read a selection of the exhibition boards and find out more about the exhibition content. 

A series of events will take place in connection with the exhibition.

Knowledge is Power: Class, Community and Adult Education is jointly curated by Professor John Holford and Manuscripts and Special Collections.


Exhibition themes  

Six exhibition boards are on display in the Gallery. Two of the boards can be downloaded or viewed online as Adobe PDFs. 


 Accessing items from our collections

Items from our collections are available to consult in the Manuscripts and Special Collections reading room on King's Meadow Campus.

You can search our catalogues to find items in the manuscript and printed collections relating to the University of Nottingham's archives, the papers of Ken Coates, and various East Midlands related mining and trade union collections. 


Films: Watch our series of films about items which feature in the exhibition

Co-curator Dr Rebecca Moore discusses work by artist and adult education tutor, Marjorie Arnfield. 

Co-curator Dr Rebecca Moore presents material relating to Ken Coates and Bill Silburn's St Ann's Study.






From the blog

Read our blogs and guest blogs about adult education 

Adult Education Archives


Helena Souza Lima reflects on her work experience placement working with material from the archives

Go to the blog

One hundred years on: New types of University and new possibilities for lifelong education?


Dr Iain Jones reflects on a century of Adult Education

Go to the blog




Programme of talks and film screenings coming up at the Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts. Recordings of some of the talks will be available after the exhibition closes.

Adult Education and the University of Nottingham

Tuesday 8 November, 1-2pm

Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts

Nottingham pioneered the education of adults from the 1870s onwards. John Beckett, Emeritus Professor and historian of the University, looks at how adult education emerged as a separate field after WWI and flourished for 80 years, before going into decline in the 1990s.

Book tickets


Adult Education and the Left: Culture, Democracy, and Labour


Tuesday 31 January, 1-2pm
Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts

Professor John Holford reflects on how adult education has shaped British politics and culture – and why we need it even more today. 

Book tickets

Film screening: St Ann's (U)

Friday 2 December, 7pm (90min)
Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts

A chance to see Stephen Frear’s 1969 documentary about daily life in St Ann’s, Nottingham, shortly before its so-called “slum clearance”. The film is based on research by Ken Coates, Bill Silburn and a University of Nottingham/WEA adult education class. A panel discussion will follow the screening. With thanks to the BFI National TV Archive.

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Learning Through Adversity: Educating Adults in a Post-Pandemic World

Thursday 24 November, 1-2pm
Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts

Professor Sarah Speight discusses education affected by crisis between 1922 and 2022, in the aftermath of world wars, global pandemics and environmental change. She considers how adult education reshaped itself to serve its constituents through the darkest of times – and helps us face today’s challenges. 

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Workers' Education and the Co-operative Spirit

Tuesday 14 February, 1-2pm
Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts

Professor Cilla Ross, former Principal of the Co-operative College, reflects on Nottingham’s first adult education professor, Robert Peers.

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Film screening: Portrait of  a Miner and Band Fever (15)

Thursday 9 March, 7pm (85min)
Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts

A unique opportunity to see two short films made by the National Coal Board about Nottinghamshire miners and their communities: Portrait of a Miner (1966), shot at Thoresby Colliery, while Band Fever (1978) focuses on a juvenile jazz band competition in Mansfield. A panel discussion on adult education, trade unions and Nottinghamshire’s mining communities will follow the screening.  

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Manuscripts and Special Collections

Kings Meadow Campus
Lenton Lane
Nottingham, NG7 2NR

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 4565
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