The London Mechanics’ Institute: Its Foundation

Helen Hudson Flexner discusses the inception and impetus behind the creation of The London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823.      

London Mechanics’ Institute, Southampton Buildings, Holborn: the interior of the laboratory, in a cellar. Wood engraving by W. C. Walker after Mr. Davy [1828].
1828 By: Davyafter: William Chester Walker
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

‘Knowledge is Power’ was the rallying cry that launched Birkbeck College in 1823, in its first manifestation as the London Mechanics’ Institute (LMI). These words, designed to appeal to uneducated men, headed the Mechanics’ Magazine proposal for a new technical institution and it couldn’t be missed, as the huge-selling magazine was a favourite among artisans interested in the latest inventions. Today large companies control major manufacturing sectors. Back then, a man could make his fortune with a new process or speedier production. So the LMI was set up to empower men with the latest science in this ‘steam intellect’ society.

George Birkbeck, radical teacher and London physician, was immediately on board.      Such was his standing that he chaired the inaugural meeting at the Crown and Anchor on 11 November 1823.  Many who flooded into the tavern were proudly working class: carpenters, jewellers, iron mongers, weavers, precision instrument makers, engineers, and printers. They were necessarily autodidacts, simply because there was no state funded education at the time. The metropolis, with its well-paid artisanal base, provided a ready audience for the new institute.

Although others who came to the launch and joined the LMI were not working class, the Institute was designed for the ‘lower orders’. Indeed, Birkbeck, president of the Institute from 1823-1842, reported in 1837 that two thirds of the membership had always been working class. The Institute even legislated to ensure that two thirds of the management committee was working class, and on nomination a man’s class had to be identified. Thus, the workers’ interests were always represented. Soon, some of the working-class members were running classes themselves, while their inventions were showcased in lectures. The Institute’s egalitarian ethos even extended to women who could attend lectures from 1825 and were able to become members in 1830.

Fees weren’t extravagant: five shillings a quarter, probably a day’s wage for an artisan, or £17 in today’s money. For this, the men gained access to workshops, a chemistry lab, an apparatus room containing geological specimens, drawing equipment and mechanical instruments, a good library, classes and lectures. In these decades before professionalisation, the lecturers encouraged their audiences to challenge what they heard. William Frend, a unitarian radical who had been expelled from Cambridge University for campaigning against the Thirty Nine Articles of the Anglian faith, told the LMI audience to ignore any ‘appeal to the wisdom of our ancestors’. Their new world was in the making.

Working Londoners made the most of this liberating environment. Some used it to change their vocation, which itself could bring higher status.  George Francis was a shoe-maker, but made his name in optics at the LMI. Called to the LMI stage to explain his improved eye glasses, he was described as ‘a plain and unassuming workman’ who ‘addressed the assembly … in very clear and intelligible language, though evidently unpolished by the refinements of education.’ By 1828 Francis had become ‘an optician of some celebrity’. The early history is replete with such examples.

So in its founding incarnation, Birkbeck College was a revolutionary educational institution encouraging and enabling social mobility. Within a year mechanics’ institutes sprouted up across England and Scotland. But none of them was so progressive. None had the two thirds rule. None appealed so consistently to working men. Our London institution remained the radical leader.

Helen Hudson Flexner is the author of The London Mechanics Institution: Social and Cultural Foundations 1823-1830‘, PhD thesis, UCL 2014. 


2 thoughts on “The London Mechanics’ Institute: Its Foundation

  1. Sean Boyle

    “A scheme more completely adapted for the destruction of this empire could not have been invented by the author of evil himself than that which the depraved ambitions of some men, the vanity of others, and the supineness of a third and more important class, has so nearly perfected ”.
    The “scheme” condemned by the ‘St James’s Chronicle’ in May 1825 was no anarchist plot or revolutionary movement. It was, in fact, the inauguration some 18 months previously of the London Mechanics Institution, later to develop into Birkbeck College. Today, it is difficult to conceive of the hostility which a plan to widen educational opportunity could produce yet the Chronicle could assert that “every step which they take in setting up the labourers as a separate or independent class is a step taken, and a long one too, towards that fatal result” (i.e. the ruin of the country). And so it must have seemed to a conservative-minded observer in the England of the 1820s.
    The era of prosperity and power which was about to unfold was not to be reached without drastic social upheaval, economic crisis and political change. The French and American revolutions were still within living memory, the mass movement from the country to the towns was underway and the persistent demands of the growing merchant and manufacturing classes for representation and freedom from restrictive trade laws were growing more strident.
    The Chronicle writer’s apprehension in the face of this new departure is understandable. The social ferment of the times gave rise to new forms of political organisation and social concern, of which the movement for popular education was but one expression. Others included the reform of parliament, the abolition of slavery, corn law reform, trade unionism, temperance and the ubiquitous if unorganised self-help philosophy. Again and again the same names crop up in all these connections but two main strands are discernible. On the one hand there is the generous, if paternalistic concern of the upper and upper-middle classes for the condition of their inferiors. Mainly Whigs, frequently dissenters, Quakers and the like, strongly influenced by the optimistic philosophy of the Benthamites, they were enthused by the notion of progress and the perfectibility of human nature. Owing in their wealth and liberty to the spirit of the new age, they felt it both their duty and in their interest to promote opportunities for advancement and moral improvement wherever they occurred.
    On the other hand we find the push from below, from the skilled craftsmen, mechanics and artisans for whom the traditional learning of the classics, law and theology had little appeal but who saw in the new discoveries of ‘natural and experimental philosophy’ a means of promoting the status of their skills and of distancing themselves from the growing mass of unskilled workers, although the impetus of the thirst for knowledge among intelligent if uneducated craftsman must not be underestimated.
    With hindsight what we see is the emergence of a new class elbowing its way between the ruling elite and the mass of the labouring poor into a niche created by the social conditions of the time. Here for probably the first time is expressed the idea that one’s station in life is not irrevocably fixed, that by dint of self-improvement, thrift and the maintenance of a moral upright character, one could take one’s place in ‘the higher walks of life’:
    “Of a great number of individuals who were for a number of years regular attenders on the lectures, and readers from the library, very few remain in the rank operatives which they then occupied, but with very few exceptions, they are either managers of works in their respective trades or…. succeeding in business on their own account”. (Report of the Glasgow Mechanics Institution, 1832)
    This, then was the context in which the London Mechanics Institution was formed. It was not the first of its type but it was probably the most influential and was eagerly copied. It was not in any modern sense of the term a “working class” college. In a society where there were few recognised professions other than the church, law and medicine (and the latter not very highly regarded) the skilled craftsman occupied a position analogous to that of a middle manager today. The unskilled poor of the new factories and coal mines and country estates were probably in no condition to benefit from lectures on hydrostatics and phrenology. The champion of the lumpenproletariat was yet to come.
    Yet from the outset the LMI was a decidedly radical venture (though the extent of its radicalism was a contentious issue for many years to come). The idea was first proposed in 1823 by JC Robinson editor of the Mechanics Magazine and his assistant Thomas Hodgskin, later a prominent socialist, precursor of Marx, and author of ‘Labour Defended against Capitalism’ and ‘Popular Political Economy’. It immediately attracted the attention of Dr. George Birkbeck and Francis Place ‘the radical tailor of Charing Cross’. Birkbeck had been giving classes to mechanics in Glasgow as far back as 1800 and since moving to London to establish a successful medical practice had associated with the leading radical intellectuals such as James Mill, Grote, and Ricardo. Place was an active campaigner against the anti trade union Combination laws and later a leading Chartist. Though an artisan, he also had contacts with the leading middle-class radicals and was instrumental in securing the support of Brougham, Durham, Burdett, Hobhouse and Bentham among others. A preliminary meeting at the Crown & Anchor Tavern on the 11th of November 1823 reportedly attracted over two thousand people but “not a single Tory attended the meeting or contributed to the support of the Mechanics Institution”.
    Two major issues dominated the early days of the institution. The first concerned the issue of finance: was the institution to be self-supporting on members’ subscriptions or should it accept donations from the wealthy? The second concerned the content of instruction . In practice, the two were related and are still with us today in modern guise. Robertson and Hodgskin hoped that the institution would be self-supporting and become an instrument of political, social and economic emancipation. Birkbeck had a more romantic view of education and as a scientist he was more interested in exploring the principles of chemistry than in directly promoting change. He and Place thought that patronage was necessary to provide proper facilities and were successful in having their views accepted. But public support would not be forthcoming for an institution already connected with extreme radicals if it were believed that the instruction it provided should prove subversive. Among the more conservatively minded, the range of subjects appropriate for study by the lower classes was narrow indeed. Mathematics was thought “to lead to scepticism…science might obscure the distinction between the class which commanded and the class whose function it was to obey… and economics, connected uncomfortably with moral criteria of social habits, might subvert the customs to which the prudent believed the undoubted excellence of the nation to be due”. Consequently Birkbeck in his opening address as President disclaimed all intention to interfere with political questions and felt that any influence on the views of the mechanic would “invigorate the attachment which must ever exist to every wise and well-constructed system of legislation”. The warning from on high was spelled out clearly by the Duke of Sussex presiding at the second anniversary who declared “that anything like debating upon political or theological subjects would be at once seized hold on for their destruction as a body”.
    But the concerns of the times could not be completely excluded. Hodgskin was able to deliver his lectures on political economy and within three months of the Duke’s speech the committee was letting their hall on Sundays “and it soon became the forum of the Owenites, the Cobdenites, the Huntites and the anti religionists Carlile and Taylor”. However the institution did not bring about the destruction of the empire or the ruin of the country as predicted. Kelly, in his history of adult education, points out that in the end “money talked and the result was that the institutes…became on the whole supporters of the existing social order. It should however be said that had the policy of working class independence been rigidly adhered to, the institutes could hardly have become either so widespread or so successful educationally as in fact they were”.

  2. Sean Boyle

    My extended comment above was written over 40 years ago when I was a Research Assistant at Birkbeck. but never published. I came across it again recently, so here it is for what it is worth. It includes some contemporary quotations which complement Dr Flexner’s piece, though I acknowledge that it emphasises the ‘social control’ model which Dr. Flexner’s research has challenged, and I was unaware of the LMI’s role in promoting women’s involvement in education.


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