Mechanics' institute

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The Leeds City Mechanics' Institute's building

Mechanics' institutes, also known as mechanics' institutions, sometimes simply known as institutes, and also called schools of arts (especially in the Australian colonies), were educational establishments originally formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men in Victorian-era Britain and its colonies. They were often funded by local industrialists on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees. 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.

Many of the original institutes included lending libraries, and the buildings of some continue to be used as libraries. Others have evolved into parts of universities, adult education facilities, theatres, cinemas, museums, recreational facilities, or community halls. Few are still referred to as mechanics' institutes, but some retain the name and focus as centre of intellectual and cultural advancement. A 21st-century movement, originating in Victoria, Australia, has organised a series of conferences known as Mechanics' Institutes Worldwide Conferences, at which information and ideas for the future of mechanics' institutes are discussed.

Origins and history[edit]

The foundations of the movement which created mechanics' institutes were in lectures given by George Birkbeck at the Andersonian Institute in Glasgow. His fourth annual lecture attracted a crowd of 500, and became an annual occurrence after his departure for London in 1804, leading to the eventual formation[1] on 16 October 1821[2] of the first mechanics' institute in Edinburgh, the Edinburgh School of Arts (later Heriot-Watt University[2]). Its first lecture was on chemistry, and within a month it was subscribed to by 452 men who each paid a quarterly subscription fee.[3] This new model of technical educational institution gave classes for working men, and included libraries as well as apparatus to be used for experiments and technical education.[1] Its purpose was to "address societal needs by incorporating fundamental scientific thinking and research into engineering solutions".[citation needed] The school revolutionised access to education in science and technology for ordinary people.

The first mechanics' institute in England was opened at Liverpool in July 1823.[4]

The second institute in Scotland was incorporated in Glasgow in November 1823, built on the foundations of a group started by Birkbeck. Under the auspices of the Andersonian Institute, where Birkbeck had been chair of natural philosophy from 1799 to 1804 and instituted free lectures on arts, science and technical subjects from 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. He was appointed director of the institute, which he had originally endowed with the sum of £3700, and held the office till his death in 1841.[5]

Manchester Mechanics' Institute, Cooper Street, in 1825
Wakefield Mechanics' Institute (1825), later a museum

The London Mechanics' Institute (later Birkbeck College) was opened in December 1823, and the mechanics' institutes in Ipswich and Manchester (later to become UMIST) in 1824.[6] 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, 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.[7][8]

In Australia, the first mechanics' institute was established in Hobart in 1827, followed by the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts[9] 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.[10]

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.[11][better source needed]

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.

Some mechanics' libraries lasted only a decade or two, and many eventually became public libraries or (in the United States) 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.[12] However, by 1900 there were over 9,000 mechanics institutes around the world.[3]

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.[11] 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.[13]

G. Jefferson explains:

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.[14]

21st century revival[edit]

Across the world, there is a move to sustain and revive mechanics' institutes and related institutions as subscription libraries, sometimes incorporating or expanding their earlier functions. There have been several worldwide conferences, known as the Mechanics' Worldwide Conference, of representatives of, or people who have an interest in, mechanics' institutes.[15] As of 2021, there have been five such conferences:[16]

By country[edit]

Thousands of mechanics' institutes buildings still operate throughout the world, mostly now used as libraries, parts of universities, adult education facilities, and a few still use their original names and function as a society or other type of organisation.


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

In the Australian colonies, Mechanics' Institutes were often called Schools of Arts, and they were more likely to be run by the middle-classes. The provision of reading rooms, museums, lectures and classes were still important, but the Australian schools were also more likely to include a social programme in their calendar of events.[21]

The earliest and most prominent institute in Tasmania was Van Diemen's Land Mechanics' Institution, also known as Hobart Town Mechanics' Institute, Hobart (1827–1871), co-founded by George Augustus Robinson.[22][23]

The Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts (1833), in Sydney, New South Wales, is the oldest school of arts still operating[24] and the largest institute in Australia.[25] Others in NSW include the Moruya Mechanics' Institute[26] and the Scone School of Arts.

In South Australia, the South Australian Institute (1838, then 1847–),[27] was the forerunner of the State Library of South Australia, the South Australian Museum, and the Art Gallery of South Australia.[28]

The first institute in the colony of Victoria was the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute, created in 1839. It was renamed The Melbourne Athenaeum in 1873, and continues to operate a library, theatres and shops in the original building.[15] Many mechanics' institutes, athenaeums, schools of arts and related institutions in the state of Victoria are well documented by the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria, Inc., whose members range from the well-resourced Melbourne Athenaeum to the tiny Moonambel Mechanics' Institute in Moonambel.[29] In the following decades, almost every town in Victoria had a mechanics' institute, usually including a hall, library and reading rooms, games facilities, and both educational programs and entertainment.[30]

The first Western Australian institute was the Swan River Mechanics' Institute, established in 1851, later renamed the Perth Literary Institute.[31]

In Queensland, the Brisbane School of Arts was created in 1873, in a former servants' home. The building was added to the Queensland Heritage Register in 1992.[32]

Over time, as local and state governments started providing libraries, community centres and other types of educational facilities, mechanics' institutes became less important in communities.[30]


Bytown Mechanics' Institute
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)

United States[edit]


Existing names and uses[edit]

In addition, each state and territory in the US has at least one land grant university that includes a college of agriculture and a college of engineering, as provided for by the Morrill Land-Grant Acts to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts as well as classical studies.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Smith, Mark K. (1997). "George Birkbeck and the London Mechanics Institute". The encyclopaedia of informal education. Archived from the original on 17 August 2010.
  2. ^ a b "Mechanics Institute Worldwide 2021". Heriot-Watt University. 5 November 2021. Retrieved 31 December 2021.
  3. ^ a b "[Home page]". Mechanics Institutes. 25 May 2021. Retrieved 31 December 2021.
  4. ^ Speeches of Henry, Lord Brougham Vol. II, 1841, Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia
  5. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Birkbeck, George" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  6. ^ Kidd, Alan J. (1993). Manchester (Town and city histories). Manchester: Ryburn. pp. 57–8. ISBN 1-85331-016-6.
  7. ^ Politics in Mechanics' Institutes 1820–1850, Turner, C. M., Thesis (PhD), 1980 (thesis). Leicester University. January 1980. hdl:2381/35680.
  8. ^ "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.
  9. ^ "SMSA (Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts)". SMSA.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b Kilgour, Frederick. The Evolution of the Book. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 99.
  12. ^ Harris, Michael. History of Libraries in the Western World. 4th ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1995, p. 153.
  13. ^ "Wisbech". Cambridge Independent Press. 16 December 1854. p. 8.
  14. ^ Jefferson, G. Libraries and Society. Cambridge & London, Great Britain: James Clark & CO. LTD., 1969, p. 21.
  15. ^ a b "History of Mechanics' Institutes". Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria Inc. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  16. ^ "Mechanics' Worldwide". Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria Inc. 15 October 2021. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  17. ^ 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
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ Reynolds, Sue; Carroll, Mary (1 July 2013). "Buildings, Books and Blackboards – Intersecting Narratives". The Australian Library Journal. pp. 88–89.
  20. ^ "Reinvention: Thriving in the 21st Century -". Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  21. ^ "Old Town Hall (entry 600566)". Queensland Heritage Register. Queensland Heritage Council. Retrieved 31 December 2021. Text may have been copied from this source, which is available under a Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence.
  22. ^ "Catalogue of the library of the Van Diemen's Land Mechanics' Institution". 1843 – via Open Access Repository, University of Tasmania.
  23. ^ "Hobart Town Mechanics Institute (1827-1871) - Corporate entry". Encyclopedia of Australian Science. 12 December 2017. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  24. ^ "About". Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts (SMSA). 25 November 2020. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  25. ^ Wotherspoon, Garry (2008). "Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts". The Dictionary of Sydney. Retrieved 31 December 2021.
  26. ^ "Mechanics Institute". New South Wales State Heritage Register. Department of Planning & Environment. H00485. Retrieved 18 May 2018. Text is licensed by State of New South Wales (Department of Planning and Environment) under CC-BY 4.0 licence.
  27. ^ "South Australian Institute". Trove. South Australian Advertiser. 27 October 1863. p. 4. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  28. ^ "A Brief History of the South Australian Museum" (PDF). South Australian Museum. 2004. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 April 2019. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  29. ^ "Victorian Members". Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria Inc. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  30. ^ a b "What is a Mechanics' Institute?". Prahran Mechanics Institute. 8 November 2012. Retrieved 2 January 2022.
  31. ^ "The Perth Literary Institute". The West Australian. Perth: National Library of Australia. 13 January 1951. p. 22. Retrieved 28 October 2011.
  32. ^ "Brisbane School of Arts (entry 600072)". Queensland Heritage Register. Queensland Heritage Council. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  33. ^ "Brockville Public Library".
  34. ^ "Our History". Guelph Public Library. Archived from the original on 16 December 2012. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
  35. ^ "LIANZA Conference" (PDF). LIANZA – Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa. 8 September 2004. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 February 2018. Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  36. ^ Peter (27 August 2020). "Mechanics' Institute". Alnwick Civic Society. Retrieved 21 February 2023.
  37. ^ "Brechin Mechanics Institute". Brechin Mechanics Institute. Retrieved 9 June 2021.
  38. ^ Faulkner, T. (1845). History and Antiquities of Brentford, Ealing, & Chiswick.
  39. ^ Ronalds, B. F. (2018). "The Montgomrey Family of Brentford: Timber Merchants and Benefactors". London's Industrial Archaeology. 16: 57–69.
  40. ^ Lloyd, Chris (10 March 2014). "HISTORY: School for rude mechanicals". The Northern Echo. Retrieved 11 May 2014.
  41. ^ "Epworth Mechanics Institute". Archived from the original on 25 April 2013.
  42. ^ "Ipswich Institute – Reading Room & Library".
  43. ^ "Keighley College is Back". Keighley College. 7 September 2017. Retrieved 26 October 2023.
  44. ^ Mechanics, Marsden. "Home". Marsden Mechanics.
  45. ^ "The Nottingham Mechanics Institute History". Nottingham Mechanics Institute. Retrieved 1 November 2021.
  46. ^ A Course of Three Lectures on the Formation of a Spitalfields Mechanics' Institution. 1825.
  47. ^ "Victorian Wolverhampton, a town though its buildings". Wolverhampton History & Heritage Website. Archived from the original on 1 June 2013. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
  48. ^ "Miscellaneous institutions". British History Online. Retrieved 24 September 2021.
  49. ^ "Mechanics' Institute".
  50. ^ "Virginia Mechanics Institute Building – VCU Maps".
  51. ^ "Richmond Technical Center". Archived from the original on 17 December 2014. Retrieved 19 June 2014.
  52. ^ "A01.0 History, Accreditation and Legacy – University Policies – RIT". Archived from the original on 22 June 2013.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kelly, Thomas (November 1952). "The Origin of Mechanics' Institutes". British Journal of Educational Studies. 1 (1). Society for Educational Studies: 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.