Our History

A Brief History of the Canterbury WEA

The Canterbury Workers' Educational Association (CWEA) has been a pioneering provider of adult education for more than 100 years.

The Association began in Christchurch on 4 March 1915, with the aim of providing university level education to working people. It was modelled on the English WEA, which had been founded in 1903.

A District Council comprising representatives of each class and of trade unions and other affiliated organisations took care of the day-to-day running of the Association, while a Joint Committee of the CWEA and Canterbury College (Canterbury University) oversaw the syllabus and teaching standards, and appointed and paid tutors.

Funding came initially from the University of New Zealand through Canterbury College. From 1919 until 1991 (apart from short periods in the early 1930s and early 1980s), the Canterbury WEA was supported in its work by direct Government funding. Since 1991, it has relied on various grants, course and membership fees, donations and bequests, and interest from investments.

The Association initially held its classes in a dingy rented room down a back alley in Hereford Street; from 1917, it rented rooms in the Trades Hall in Gloucester Street; in 1957, it purchased its current home at 59 Gloucester Street.

Each student attended a weekly two-hour evening tutorial class from May to October for three years. The classes, of up to 30 students, consisted of an hour's lecture followed by an hour of discussion. Seventy-one students – 64 men and 7 women – enrolled in the two economics classes and one psychology class in the first year.

The location and variety of courses and number of students rapidly expanded from the 1920s. The Association took its educational activities to North and South Canterbury and to the West Coast. Student numbers peaked at nearly 4000 in 1961.

The Association pioneered various educational innovations in New Zealand. It introduced summer schools that comprised a week or so of educational and recreational activities. The CWEA held its first summer school at Oxford in 1920/1; they continued through until the 1980s.

The Association introduced a box scheme in 1926 under which it circulated study material in sturdy boxes to groups in small towns and country districts. From 1930, it operated a travelling library scheme that was the genesis of the Country Library Service and one of the forerunners of the National Library of New Zealand.

Other innovative schemes included a prison lecture programme at Paparua Prison (Christchurch Men’s Prison) from the late 1920s; a literacy programme from the 1970s that became the autonomous Adult Reading Assistance Scheme (Christchurch), and a Wider Horizons programme from the 1970s that revolutionised adult education for retired people.

The earthquakes of September and December 2010, and February 2011, caused minor damage to the WEA building although a brick garage and toilet had to be demolished. Ten weeks after the February 2011 earthquake, the WEA was back on site offering its usual mix of courses. Allen Dingwall House, a property the Association had purchased across the street in 1981, was badly damaged and sold.

In 2015, the Canterbury WEA continues to hold more than 130 courses each year: a mix of general adult education, recreational classes and clubs, and lectures and seminars dealing with social, economic and political issues. An independent North-west Branch, based in Bishopdale, offers popular weekly lectures. An innovation since the earthquakes is the holding of a limited number of courses at St Faith's church hall in New Brighton.

Further reading:

Ian Dougherty, The People’s University: A Centennial History of the Canterbury Workers’ Educational Association 1915-2015, Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2015.

The "Canterbury WEA Box and Books Scheme" was ahead of its time and  provided an impetus for the development of the Country Library Service and  even Book Discussion schemes. Thank you to Ian Dougherty for  his research and access to this article.