Elizabeth Middleton Ord Marshall believed that people from across the Empire would benefit from direct interaction between themselves – and the best place to start was between children. So, in 1901, she established the League of the Empire (renamed the LECT in 1963) and encouraged children from across the world to write to each other. Soon teachers from Canada and Australia began visiting British schools to further this ‘friendly and educational communication’. From 1919 these visits became organised exchanges between teachers in the UK and those living across the world – all either current or old parts of the Empire, and later the Commonwealth. The majority of exchanges were with teachers living in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but over the years British teachers exchanged with those living across the world including Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and Jamaica. (As I sit and write this on a chilly January day I have particular envy for those who managed to organise exchanges to Mauritius, Antigua, the Seychelles, and the Maldives!) Apart from a break during the Second World War, exchanges continued for the next 92 years, until July 2011 when funding was withdrawn by the UK government. The final exchanges were completed by August 2013 and the records passed to the Institute Archives.
Many of those who took part in the exchanges, particularly early on, were unmarried young women, with the number of women outnumbering men five to one. The LECT archives record information about these individuals, who would set out on journeys across the world by boat. Many either didn’t come home, or left the UK soon after their return. As fighting broke out in 1939 many were stranded in their host countries, with a small number not returning until the war had ended.
Exchanges were designed to be between two teachers of similar experience and many found the experience one of the best of their lives. The League recorded when teachers stayed in contact, or wrote to inform them of their experience overseas. Such as elementary teacher Miss Elsie Birbeck, who exchanged with Miss Mary McLeod of Coleman, Alberta in 1923. On her return she wrote to the League saying ‘It would be well nigh impossible to describe all I have seen. I am indebted to the League for one of the happiest and most interesting years of my life’.
The records we hold comprise all the exchange record cards for the period 1919-2001. They can be used to research teacher exchanges by geography (both by country and region), date and an individual’s name. Access to the collection is restricted as the cards record sensitive personal information. However earlier records are accessible and we will be able to help you with your research if you are interested in using the collection. We are, of course, also very happy to check the records for anyone who thinks their ancestor completed an exchange. The full catalogue is here and you can contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org providing as much information as you have.