Mechanics' institutes

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The Leeds City Mechanics' Institute's building

Mechanics' institutes are educational establishments, originally formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men. Similar organisations are sometimes simply called "institutes". As such, they were often funded by local industrialists on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees (such philanthropy was shown by, among others, Robert Stephenson, James Nasmyth, John Davis Barnett and Joseph Whitworth). The mechanics' institutes often included libraries for the adult working class, and were said to provide them with an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs.

Origins and history[edit]

The world's first mechanics' institute was established in Edinburgh, Scotland, in October 1821 as the School of Arts of Edinburgh (later Heriot-Watt University), with the provision of technical education for working people and professionals. Its purpose was to "address societal needs by incorporating fundamental scientific thinking and research into engineering solutions". The school revolutionised access to education in science and technology for ordinary people.

The second institute in Scotland was incorporated in Glasgow in November 1823, built on the foundations of a group started at the turn of the previous century by George Birkbeck. Under the auspices of the Andersonian University (est. 1796), Birkbeck had first instituted free lectures on arts, science and technical subjects in 1800. This mechanics' class continued to meet after he moved to London in 1804, and in 1823 they decided to formalise their organisation by incorporating themselves as the Mechanics' Institute.

The first mechanics' institute in England was opened at Liverpool in July 1823.[1] The London Mechanics' Institute (later Birkbeck College) followed in December 1823, and the mechanics' institutes in Ipswich and Manchester (later to become UMIST) in 1824.[2] By the mid-19th century, there were over 700 institutes in towns and cities across the UK and overseas, some of which became the early roots of other colleges and universities. For example, the University of Gloucestershire, which has the Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute (1834) and Gloucester Mechanics' Institute (1840) within its history timeline. It was as a result of delivering a lecture series at the Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute that the radical George Holyoake was arrested and then convicted on a charge of blasphemy.[3][4]

In Australia, the first mechanics' institute was established in Hobart in 1827, followed by the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts[5] in 1833, Newcastle School of Arts in 1835, then the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute established in 1839 (renamed the Melbourne Athenaeum in 1873). From the 1850s, mechanics' institutes quickly spread throughout Victoria wherever a hall, library or school was needed. Over 1200 mechanics' institutes were built in Victoria and just over 500 remain today, and only six still operate their lending library services.[6]

Manchester Mechanics' Institute, Cooper Street, in 1825

The Industrial Revolution created a new class of reader in Britain by the end of the 18th century, "mechanics", who were civil and mechanical engineers in reality. The Birmingham Brotherly Society was founded in 1796 by local mechanics to fill this need, and was the forerunner of mechanics' institutes, which grew in England to over seven hundred in number by 1850.[7]

G. Jefferson explains that:

The first phase, the Mechanics Institute movement, grew in an atmosphere of interest by a greater proportion of the population in scientific matters revealed in the public lectures of famous scientists such as Faraday. More precisely, as a consequence of the introduction of machinery a class workmen emerged to build, maintain and repair, the machines on which the blessing of progress depended, at a time when population shifts and the dissolving influences of industrialization in the new urban areas, where these were concentrated, destroyed the inadequate old apprentice system and threw into relief the connection between material advancement and the necessity of education to take part in its advantages.[8]

Small tradesmen and workers could not afford subscription libraries, so for their benefit, benevolent groups and individuals created mechanics' institutes that contained inspirational and vocational reading matter, for a small rental fee. Later popular non-fiction and fiction books were added to these collections. The first known library of this type was the Birmingham Artisans' Library, formed in 1823.

Wakefield's Mechanics' Institution (1825) put to a new use in the 21st century

Some mechanics' libraries lasted only a decade or two, many eventually became public libraries or were given to local public libraries after the Public Libraries Act 1850 passed. Though use of the mechanics' libraries was limited, the majority of the users were favourable towards the idea of free public libraries.[9]

Beyond a lending library, mechanics' institutes also provided lecture courses, laboratories, and in some cases contained a museum for the members' entertainment and education. The Glasgow Institute, founded in 1823, not only had all three, it was also provided free light on two evenings a week from the local gas light company. The London Mechanics' Institute installed gas illumination by 1825, revealing the demand and need for members to use the books.[7] Some mechanics' institutes also offered a programme from the arts; Wisbech Mechanics' institute booked Mrs Butler to give readings from Shakespeare's plays and Milton's Paradise Lost to audiences of nearly a thousand.[10]


Ballarat Mechanics' Institute building
American and Australian soldiers in the reading room of the Ballarat Mechanics' Institute in 1942

Thousands of mechanics' institutes still operate throughout the world—some as libraries, parts of universities, adult education facilities, theatres, cinemas, museums, recreational facilities, or community halls.



United Kingdom[edit]


  • Wisbech Working Men's Club & Institute, Wisbech, Isle of Ely.[19]


Nottingham Mechanics Institute[20]


  • Epworth Mechanics Institute, North Lincs, UK,[21]


United States[edit]



New South Wales
Lilydale Mechanics Institute
Melbourne Athenaeum
Lilydale Mechanics Institute
Sorrento Institute
Maryborough School of Arts
Rockhampton School of Arts
South Australia
Mitcham Village Institute
Western Australia


Montreal Mechanics Institute (established 1828)
Mechanics Institute Toronto

Atlantic provinces[edit]



Atwater Library of the Mechanics Institute of Montreal

Hong Kong[edit]

New Zealand[edit]

United Kingdom[edit]

(alphabetical order by town or city)

Mechanics' Institutes, Eyam

United States[edit]

Land-grant universities[edit]

For a full listing, refer to List of Land-Grant Universities

Community colleges[edit]

Mechanics' Worldwide Conferences[edit]

Four conferences have been held on mechanics' institutes:

  • Buildings, Books and Beyond: Mechanics' Worldwide (2004) by the Prahran Mechanics' Institute at Prahran, Victoria, Australia.[53]
  • Self Help: Mechanics' Worldwide (2009) by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution at Bath, Somerset, England.[54]
  • Buildings, Books and Blackboards:Intersecting Narratives (2012) A combined conference of the Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society (ANZHES), Mechanics' Institutes Worldwide (under the auspices of MIV) and incorporating the 10th Library history forum.
  • Reinvention: Thriving in the 21st Century - International Conference of Independent Libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes (2016) by San Francisco Mechanics' Institute [55]

The fifth conference is planned for 2021 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Speeches of Henry, Lord Brougham Vol. II, 1841, Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia
  2. ^ Kidd, Alan J. (1993). Manchester (Town and city histories). Manchester: Ryburn. pp. 57–8. ISBN 1-85331-016-6.
  3. ^ Politics in Mechanics' Institutes 1820–1850, Turner, C M, Thesis (PhD), 1980 (thesis). Turner, C. M., Leicester University. January 1980. hdl:2381/35680.
  4. ^ "Notes of Mr Hunt reporter August 15 1842, The Trial of George Jacob. Holyoake on an Indictment for blasphemy". British Library main catalogues. British Library.
  5. ^ "SMSA (Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts)". SMSA.
  6. ^ Lowden, Bronwyn (2010). Mechanics' Institutes, Schools of Arts, Athenaeums, etc.: An Australian Checklist – 3rd Edition. Donvale, Australia: Lowden Publishing Co. pp. 64–111. ISBN 978-1-920753-16-0.
  7. ^ a b Kilgour, Frederick, The Evolution of the Book. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 99.
  8. ^ Jefferson, G.. Libraries and Society. Cambridge & London, Great Britain: James Clark & CO. LTD., 1969, p. 21.
  9. ^ Harris, Michael. History of Libraries in the Western World. 4th ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1995, p. 153.
  10. ^ "Wisbech". Cambridge Independent Press. 16 December 1854. p. 8.
  11. ^ a b "FMI Library".
  12. ^ a b "Kyneton Mechanics Institute". Archived from the original on 27 December 2014. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  13. ^ a b Romsey Mechanics Institute
  14. ^ Trove.
  15. ^ Sydney Morning Herald 9 October 1933 page 6.
  16. ^ Catherine Freyne, 2010 The School of Arts movement.
  17. ^ Sunny Corner School of Arts Trust.
  18. ^ a b "The Warrandyte Mechanics Institute Hall". WMIAA. WMIAA. Retrieved 8 October 2015.
  19. ^ "Miscellanous institutions". British History Online. Retrieved 24 September 2021.
  20. ^ "The Nottingham Mechanics Institute History". Nottingham Mechanics Institute. Retrieved 1 November 2021.
  21. ^ Epworth Mechanics Institute Archived 25 April 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ "Marsden Mechanics".
  23. ^ Freyne, Catherine. The School of Arts movement. Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, 2010.
  24. ^ Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 3 June 1922, p.8.
  25. ^ Morris, Roger. 'Sydney suburban Schools of Arts: From and for the community' in Schools of Arts and Mechanics' Institutes: From and for the community – Proceedings of a National Conference, University of Technology, Sydney, 2002, p.79.
  26. ^ "Mechanics Institute". New South Wales State Heritage Register. Office of Environment and Heritage. H00485. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  27. ^ Maldon Athenaeum Library
  28. ^ Chris Healy, From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory (CUP, 1997) page 204.
  29. ^ Mechanics’ Institutes March 29, 2017 | historicalragbag.
  30. ^ These Walls Speak Volumes: A history of Mechanics’ Institutes in Victoria by Pam Baragwanath and Ken James ISBN 9780992308780
  31. ^ Ballaarat Mechanics' Institute.
  32. ^ Berwick Mechanics Institute and Free Library
  33. ^ Mechanics’ Institutes March 29, 2017 | historicalragbag .
  34. ^ A History of Mechanics' Institute Libraries.
  35. ^ Little River Mechanics' Institute.
  36. ^ Stanley Atheneum
  37. ^ Talbot Library
  38. ^ Mechanics Institute
  39. ^ "Brockville Public Library".
  40. ^ "Our History". Guelph Public Library. Archived from the original on 16 December 2012. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
  41. ^ "LIANZA Conference" (PDF). LIANZA – Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa. 8 September 2004. Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  42. ^ "Brechin Mechanics Institute". Brechin Mechanics Institute. Retrieved 9 June 2021.
  43. ^ Faulkner, T. (1845). History and Antiquities of Brentford, Ealing, & Chiswick.
  44. ^ Ronalds, B.F. (2018). "The Montgomrey Family of Brentford: Timber Merchants and Benefactors". London's Industrial Archaeology. 16: 57–69.
  45. ^ Lloyd, Chris (10 March 2014). "HISTORY: School for rude mechanicals". The Northern Echo. Retrieved 11 May 2014.
  46. ^ Ipswich Institute Website
  47. ^ A Course of Three Lectures on the Formation of a Spitalfields Mechanics' Institution. 1825.
  48. ^ "Victorian Wolverhampton, a town though its buildings". Wolverhampton History & Heritage Website. Archived from the original on 1 June 2013. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
  49. ^ "Mechanics' Institute".
  50. ^ "Virginia Mechanics Institute Building – VCU Maps".
  51. ^ "Richmond Technical Center".
  52. ^ "A01.0 History, Accreditation and Legacy – University Policies – RIT". Archived from the original on 22 June 2013.
  53. ^ Mechanics' Worldwide (2004) Buildings, Books and Beyond: Mechanics' Worldwide Conference 2009 – Proceedings of the first International Conference convened by the Prahran Mechanics' Institute. Prahran, Victoria, Australia: Prahran Mechanics' Institute. ISBN 0-9756000-1-X
  54. ^ Mechanics' Worldwide 2009. (2009) Self Help: Mechanics' Worldwide Conference 2009 – Proceedings of the second International Conference convened by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Donvale, Victoria, Australia: Lowden Publishing Co. ISBN 978-1-920753-18-4
  55. ^ "Reinvention: Thriving in the 21st Century -". Retrieved 11 April 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kelly, Thomas (November 1952). "The Origin of Mechanics' Institutes". British Journal of Educational Studies. Society for Educational Studies. 1 (1): 17–27. doi:10.2307/3119430. JSTOR 3119430.
  • Russell Rex C. (1994) Living and Learning in Lindsey, Lincolnshire: 1830-1890 - AHistory of Adult Education in North Lincolnshire. The University of Hull 1994. ISBN 0859580245.