Tag Archives: Birkbeck 200

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. 

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Black History Month 2019: Marcus Garvey at Birkbeck

Ahead of Birkbeck’s 200th anniversary, Professor Joanna Bourke explores the history of the College in this blog series, starting with a look at Jamaican political activist, Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey’s time at Birkbeck. 

Birkbeck has always been a diverse community. In the 1910s, one of our students was the Jamaican revolutionary Marcus Garvey, who later co-founded (with Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood) the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League.

In 1912, 25-year-old Garvey stepped off the boat at Southampton docks. He had just arrived from Jamaica. According to the census of 1911, there were only 4,540 “Africans” (which included West Indians) living in the United Kingdom at the time. Garvey, who had just begun thinking seriously about issues of identity and race, spent the next two years travelling about the UK. His base, however, was London where, between 1912 and 1914, he attended classes in law and philosophy at Birkbeck.

He always looked back at his time in the College with fondness. His time in London had been enriched by meeting Dusé Mohammed Ali, a Sudanese-Egyptian, who worked as a journalist and stage actor but also wrote In the Land of the Pharaohs. It was Ali who vouched for Garvey’s honesty when he applied for a readers’ ticket admitting him into the rotunda of the British Library. This was where Garvey first read Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. As he later recalled, this book made him realise his “doom – if I may so call it”: the possibility “of being a race leader dawned on me”.

Garvey was a keen and vocal Birkbeck student; he could occasionally also be heard haranguing crowds at Hyde Park’s “Speakers’ Corner” and supporters could read his articles in the African Times and Orient Review. In the Review’s October 1913 edition, Garvey contended that the British West Indies was “the Mirror of Civilization” and he saluted “History Making by Colonial Negroes” as an achievement that should be celebrated. His time at Birkbeck was revelatory. He asked himself:

“where is the black man’s Government? Where is his King and his kingdom? where is his President, his country, and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs?”

When he realised that he “could not find them”, he contended that he had a duty to “help to make them”. On 17 June 1914, he boarded the SS Trent as one of only three third-class passengers and made his way back to Jamaica. During the month-long voyage, he had time to reflect on what he had learnt at Birkbeck and in the UK. Five days after arriving back in Jamaica, the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League was born.

Throughout his life, Garvey spoke warmly about his time at Birkbeck. His affection was not dented even after he discovered that, in the early 1930s, the College had (briefly) employed Sir Fiennes Barrett-Lennard as a lecturer. In 1929, when Sir Fiennes had been Chief Justice of Jamaica, he had not only imprisoned Garvey for contempt of court but had also confiscated the property of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey was later to sardonically observe that there seemed to be:

“a kind of inseparable relationship between us and the ex-Chief [that is, Sir Fiennes as Chief Justice of Jamaica]. By goodness, he is to be connected to our Alma Mater. Little did we believe twenty years ago that Sir Fiennes would have become a member of the faculty of the College where we spent a little time.”

Garvey admitted that he would “feel very much embarrassed on a visit to England” if, while attending a graduation at Birkbeck, he discovered that the former Chief Justice was “the guest of the evening”. Garvey need not have worried: Sir Fiennes was marginal in the College and was certainly never invited to speak at any official ceremony.  Despite his disappointment in Birkbeck’s choice of lecturer, Garvey insisted that the “tradition of Birkbeck College is one that every student can be proud of”.

Joanna Bourke, Professor of History, is writing a history of Birkbeck for publication during the College’s 200th anniversary in 2023. Joanna is also the Gresham Professor of Rhetoric (London) and you can find out more about her Gresham College public lecture series at https://www.gresham.ac.uk/series/exploring-the-body/

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