10.3. Mechanics’ Institutes and Reading Activities

The better members of the factory classes and the men working in engineering workshops, as well as clerical staff in the factories, and small tradesmen, went to study in Mechanics’ Institutes in the evening. These gave classes on technical subjects, physics and chemistry; some gave classes of German and French. The concept started in the 1820’s, and by 1850 there were 700 institutes in the United Kingdom with 120,000 members. Many of the workers who improved themselves in these classes went on to be engineers, plant supervisors, or designers. The institutions were often partially subsidized by the better classes, who also donated books for libraries. On occasion, starting from 1840, the members went on educational train journeys to other cities, and to meet the members of other institutes. 

(Tylecote, 1957, Ch. III. Origins and Development in Lancashire and Yorkshire)

In Nottingham the cost was one shilling per quarter. The subjects taught were science, French, engineering drawing and architectural drawing. For those with lesser formal education, there were classes in English grammar and advanced arithmetic. Individual lectures were given on, for example, physiology, astronomy, railways and silk manufacture.   

At South Shields, the first year’s courses were: history of chemistry, attraction of gravitation, chemical affinity, heat, light, electricity, and electro-negative bodies. All were attended by eighty to one hundred listeners. 

There were large institutes in Manchester and Salford (Report of a Committee of the Manchester Statistical Society on the State of Education in the Borough of Manchester, 1834, pp. 17-18, pp. 30-32), and Ancoats – the area of Manchester with the most important mills and lower working-class housing – had its “Lyceum” (Love, 1842, pp. 177-184).

The Institutes held a number of exhibitions for the public, to improve their general technical knowledge. The first large exhibition was presented by the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute in 1837. Exhibits included 31 model steam engines, 79 models of “useful machines and ingenious mechanical contrivances”, 12 models of public buildings, 90 scientific instruments, 140 India ink and coloured designs and drawings, 28 specimens of glass, painted and stained glass, and 10,000 insects. Other exhibitions were organized at Bradford, Halifax, Todmorden, Leeds, Huddersfield (*), and Birmingham; these included arts, and scientific experiments in front of the visitors. Without doubt, these exhibitions paved the way for the Great Exhibition of 1851; Prince Albert specifically requested the inclusion of working men on the Committee. 

(Walker, 2010, Chapter Three “The Great Exhibition and the Mechanics’ Institute Movement”)   

(*) There was an independent “Huddersfield Female Institution” from 1849, with 100-200 members, and with women teachers.

There was also a “Mechanics’ Magazine” with a high level of general technical knowledge. It began in 1823, with 32 pages, at 3 pence a week. It had a circulation of 16,000 in 1824, but we can assume that in general, each booklet was read by more than one person.

(“Mechanics’ Magazine”, No. 1, August 30, 1823, p. 47)

It is not clear where these 16,000 men obtained the technical education necessary to understand these articles, in the years before 1823; it is also not clear in which industries they worked.

Thus we see that a certain proportion of the workers were interested in improving themselves, and could give up their time and money for this purpose. 

Mr. Zacharias Allen, a visitor from the United States in 1825, was shown round the largest flax mill in the country by the owner, Mr. Marshall:

“The proprietor, Mr. Marshall, showed us the library formed for the use of the workers of the establishment. This library is sustained by a small periodical payment by those who use the books, for the reception of which a room is appropriated. The volumes bear evident marks of having been well thumbed. These mill-libraries, if the term be allowed, are of late established by many of the propietors of large manufactories in England, and are very creditable evidences of their liberality and personal exertions, to render the men who are engaged in their employments both more intelligent and virtuous. For this excellent purpose, numerous mechanic’s libraries have also been established throughout England; ….”

(Allen, 1832, report of visit of 1825, pp. 208-209) 

Of the male workers in English factories in 1833, 86 % could read, and 43 % could write: 

(Factories Inquiry Commission: Supplementary Report of the Central Board, Part 1, Ordered by the House of Commons to be Printed, 25 March 1834; p. 42)

“The workshop depraves, but it throws open to the minds of the operatives a whole world of ideas. Spurred on now by destitution – now by high wages – they are continually struggling to attain a higher position, and feel the necessity of cultivating their minds. No county buys so many books as Lancashire. Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, which circulates to the extent of 85,000 per week, is read principally in the manufacturing districts; and Lancashire alone takes 20,000 of them. There is no portion of society which struggles with greater avidity for a better Future.”

(Faucher, 1844, p. 122)

According to the Select Committee on Public Libraries, 1849, the Mechanics’ Institutes in Lancashire and Cheshire, had 29 libraries with a total of 56,000 volumes:

Page scan of sequence 70

In Yorkshire, the Mechanics’ Institutes libraries had about 60,000 books, on average 900 books per library (Ibid., p. 124).

The Religious Tracts Society informed the Committee, that since 1823 they had formed 5,410 libraries in Great Britain and Ireland, with, on average, 100 books each (Ibid., p. 168).

“Having been so long associated as you have been with the working classes, can you give the Committee any information respecting their tastes and habits, and can you state how far, in your judgement, the establishment of public libraries is likely to be appreciated by them?” “I have witnessed a very decided improvement intellectually and socially among them, especially among the working classes of London, during the last 28 years of my residence here.”

“Can you give the Committee any instance of the improvement of their habits which you have observed?” “In the first place, they are not so drunken and dissipated in their habits as they were at that period; which beneficial change I attribute principally to the great increase of coffee-houses and reading-rooms; for at the period I refer to, the working classes generally took their meals at public-houses, which led to the formation of habits which I know to be the ruin of great numbers; the same persons now generally take their meals at coffee-houses and reading-rooms.”

“Can you give the Committee any idea of the increase of late years in the number of coffee-houses?” “I have no statistical information to give, but I should say they have increased five-fold within the last 17 or 18 years.”

“You possibly recollect the time when there was scarcely a coffee-house in London?” “I recollect when there were very few indeed, and unattractive, and these having few publications, owing to the high price they had to pay for newspapers. There was no cheap literature at that time, or very few cheap publications; there was the “Mirror”, one little publication, taken in by them, but I do not know any other at that period; and the consequence was that the working classes used to have their meals at a public-house.”

“The first of what may be called the modern coffee-houses was established in 1811, was not it?” “That was before my coming to London.”

“And they now amount to probably 2,000?” “I have been told 2,000.”

“Are not those coffee-houses the resort of the sober part of the working population?” “I should say so.”

“In fact, they have not there the means of indulging in dissipated or drunken habits?” “Not at all; you may go into those places, and see a great number of the working classes reading; I am told that somewhere about 500 of them have libraries connected with them; some of these libraries have as many as 2,000 volumes; there is one especially in Long Acre, “Potter’s Coffee-house”, I think it is called, where they have 2,000 volumes, it is said; and there are other parts of London where they also have large libraries.”

“Is that a mere coffee-house?” “Yes.”

“They do not sell spirits?” “Nothing but tea and coffee.”

“These houses are strictly for the sale of tea and coffee?” “Yes, except that in many of them they cook meat; which persons can be supplied with as well and tea and coffee.”

“They are not spirit-shops as well?” “Not at all.”

“Do the working classes take their meals in coffee-houses, rather than go home?” “I am speaking of the young men of London, and also of the married men who have to work at some distance from their houses. In London they have to go sometimes two or three miles away; their work calls them into different parts of the town.”

“Do not some of the proprietors of some of those coffee-houses expend hundreds of pounds a year in the purchase of periodicals, newspapers and books?” “They do; a gentleman, the proprietor of one of those places, told me that his average expenditure was about 5l. a week.”

“Are not some of those coffee-houses so much frequented that perhaps 1,500 persons pass through one of them in the course of a day?” “As to the exact number I cannot say; but you can seldom go into some of the large ones but you find them crowded with people mostly of the working classes.”    

(Ibid., p. 177, Mr. W. Lovett, manager of the National Hall in High Holborn, and superintendent of the schools)


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