Mechanics' Institutes

The Mechanics’ Institutes originated in Glasgow in the free public lectures Dr. George Birkbeck gave on scientific subjects, beginning in around 1800,28 in the context of a wave of popular science lecturing across the country.29 The most famous was the London Mechanics’ Institute (later Birkbeck College) set up by Francis Place, a tailor, in 1823, with help from Jeremy Bentham and Lord Brougham.30 Place had read some ancient authors in translation as a youth, but his ignorance of the Latin and Greek languages made him rather ambivalent about their utility.31 The hundreds of other institutes which mushroomed in the earlier 19th century, especially in Scotland, the Midlands and the north of England,32 were designed to instruct workers with little prior education in the sciences and technical subjects.

Unlike the Mutual Improvement Societies, they tended to be established not by workers but by philanthropic landowners and businessmen, and not always with the cynical intention of discouraging political activism. But the general top-down nature of the provision made many workers suspicious of these institutes, some of which were undoubtedly intended to counter the appeal of the Mutual Improvement Societies—breeding grounds for radical dissent, both political and religious.33 Many Institutes even banned political and religious discussion in the classes.34 This patently did not work, but all the same the Institutes, of which by mid-century there were more than 600 in England alone, with 100,000 members,35 had largely become the preserve of shopkeepers and clerical workers— the membership that survived Chartism was predominantly middle-class. The general pattern shows workers flooding back to the mutual model of education in their own often poorly funded but independent and well-organised improvement societies and reading groups.36

One such ‘Evening Institute’ was founded by the wife of a businessman in a weaving community in Lancashire. We know about this apparently small-scale enterprise because it was attended by the weaver, Elizabeth Blackburn, whom we met earlier (p. 187). The classes were taught by a ‘University woman’ named Miss Paget-Moffatt, whose passion for English Literature rubbed off on the teenaged Elizabeth, who had by this point begun work in the mill and was attending the Institute after work. ‘The long hours of weaving provided an ideal opportunity for learning poetry’, she reflected in one of her autobiographical pamphlets.37

Elizabeth was born into a family where adult education was the norm. Both parents were involved in WEA and Adult School activities. They appear, to judge by the newspapers they read, to have been socialists, with an interest in the Co-operative Movement.38 Her introduction to Classics, however, came from a neighbour, probably a fellow weaver:

Here and there you would find a man or woman in whom even a limited schooling had lit a spark for learning. It was in the home of such a neighbour, a man with six children, where I first met the Greek classics. I can see him now reading them with a baby on his knee, apparently quite oblivious to all the noise and activity of the family around him.39

The Evening Institute frequented by Blackburn appears to have been relatively small compared to the one, for example, in Birmingham, founded in 1826.40 Even in the larger cities, some working-class autodidacts put the quality and convenience of educational provision before their own political or religious convictions. It is common to see the same individual cherry-picking educational opportunities from various sources.

In practice, the educational provision of the ‘Mechanics’ Institutes’, supposedly vocational, was diverse. Further research is urgently needed in local archives into the courses they each offered. The Birmingham Institute offered lectures on Arts subjects. In 1834 a class was run called ‘Introduction to the Latin Language’, with a textbook written by a young member named Joshua Toulmin Smith, who later became a prominent political theorist and editor of Thomas Keightley’s popular History of Rome (1836).41 In 1836 Smith also wrote ‘A Popular View of the Progress of Philosophy among the Ancients’, almost certainly for delivery at the Institute.42

By the 1840s, the Institute failed, mainly because its membership was divided over supporting the Chartist movement and the use of violence. An important alumnus was George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), reformer and inventor of the term ‘secularism’.45 The son of a Birmingham whitesmith and button-maker, Holyoake had begun work at the age of eight in a local foundry. He started evening classes at the Birmingham Mechanics Institute in 1836, where he first came under the influence of the ideas of Robert Owen and joined the Chartist movement. Even if the membership fees and middle-class presence often discouraged the poorest workers, the very offer of education meant that Mechanics’ Institutes were rarely free from radical ideas.44

The architecture and internal decor of the Institutes and their associated buildings (libraries and lecture halls) were frequently neoclassical, with grand columns and arches, as were their printed advertisements, syllabuses and other paraphernalia. (Figure 9.1) The flying god Mercury adorns a prize medal struck to commemorate the opening of the Birmingham Mechanics’ Institute in January 1826. The medal bears the inscription ‘Knowledge is Power’. The Institute’s avowed purpose was ‘the Promotion of Knowledge among the Working Classes by means of Elementary Schools, a Library and Lectures on the different branches of Art and Science’. Mercury sits in an industrial landscape, with tall factory chimneys smoking behind him in the distance and a variety of artisanal tools lovingly outlined on the lower right. The Birmingham working men’s economic relationship with the British Empire, on the profits of which their own opportunities

th Century Prize Medal for Birmingham Mechanics Institute. Reproduced by courtesy of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

FIGURE 9.1 19th Century Prize Medal for Birmingham Mechanics Institute. Reproduced by courtesy of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

for self-improvement ultimately depended, is signalled by the inscriptions on the two coffers, ‘Africa’ and ‘East Indies’. Coins are strewn at Mercury’s feet near the ‘East Indies’ chest, on which he sits and nonchalantly rests his caduceus, a recognised symbol of trade and negotiation. These medals were won by junior members who excelled in study, and their distribution is said to have ‘excited a valuable spirit of emulation’.45

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