Mechanics’ Institutes: celebration and survival

Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Adviser at Birkbeck, reports on the 2018 Mechanics’ Institute Australia (MIA) conference, where he explored the College’s origins as the London Mechanics’ Institute, under the leadership of George Birkbeck and its continued endurance.

In November 2018, I spoke at the Mechanics’ Institute Australia (MIA) conference in Ballarat, Victoria. MIA 2018, hosted by the Mechanics’ Institute Victoria (MIV) at the Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute, was a conference held every three to four years highlighting the work of the Mechanics’ Institute movement in Australia. So why was this important to Birkbeck?

As we approach our 200th anniversary in 2023, I, along with other colleagues in Birkbeck, am revisiting some of our history and origins. Birkbeck as it now is started out life as the London Mechanics’ Institute (LMI) in 1823 and George Birkbeck was its first Chairman. George Birkbeck had been involved in establishing part of this Mechanics’ Institute movement in Glasgow, in the 1800s. Later Mechanics’ Institutes were set up in Edinburgh, London and Liverpool. This movement was bottom-up, non-conformist had no hierarchical structure or formalised grouping. They later emerged in other industrial cities and towns such as Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, Swindon and Bury.

These ideas were rapidly taken up by parts of the now Commonwealth and are particularly prevalent in Australia and New Zealand and some institutes are even still going strong in the USA. The Mechanics’ Institutes were designed to provide learning ‘the diffusion of knowledge’ and learning space (outside the office or factory) so that the ‘mechanics’ (a nineteenth-century term which meant anyone in a skilled trade) could learn more about their own industry and take their skills to a higher level or learn something new like history, art or literature.

Most of the Institutes outside of the UK have retained a community feel and remained in the heart of the community, often as community libraries or lecture theatres. However, many of the UK-based Institutes grew in stature and gradually turned into Universities such as Heriot-Watt, Huddersfield and, of course, Birkbeck.

MIA 2018’s theme was ‘Celebration and Survival’ and Birkbeck’s contribution was requested partly to connect the link with George Birkbeck himself but also to share how Birkbeck’s origins from the London Mechanics Institute to its membership of the University of London has seen it survive and thrive.

The conference itself consisted of many presentations as to what was happening on a local level with the states of Australia interspersed with contributions from different parts of the UK and saw presentations on ‘The Purest of Institutes?’ by Professor Rory Duncan, Senior Academic lead for Strategy at Heriot-Watt University, the ‘Mechanics Universities’ by Dr Martyn Walker at Huddersfield University, ‘The South Wales Miner’s Library’ by Sian Williams of the University of Swansea and my own presentation on Birkbeck ‘Surviving and Striving into the Future’.  Sadly my paper is not available online but I can share a copy if needed. Please email me for a copy.

A further part of the conference saw a tour of Mechanics’ Institutes in Melbourne. Some of these were in their original form – in the case of Footscray and the Melbourne Athenaeum their original building – while others have changed use over the years. A final stop on the tour was at Prahran Mechanics’ Institute (PMI) in inner-city Melbourne. PMI is now located in a modern building after the original location was taken over by Swinburne University of Technology. Prahran is also home to the (State of) Victoria History Library. I was also able to present a second time to guests invited by the PMI.

All in all, it was a useful conference to connect with others across the international Mechanics’ Institute community and I even met two Birkbeck alumni at the conference too! The MIA is certainly a group that can help promote the wider brand of Birkbeck, as well as our history, as we approach our 200th anniversary.

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Students continue their entrepreneurial journey with the Pioneer Programme 

Successful and aspiring entrepreneurs joined together to discuss how to grow a business and the value of authenticity.

On Saturday 1 December, the second session of Birkbeck’s Pioneer programme took place where students gained valuable advice for their business ventures from a range of entrepreneurs. Students heard from a successful freelancer, social entrepreneur as well as a specialist in growing businesses to learn about the various types of entrepreneurship.

Steve Folland, freelance video and audio producer and host of podcast ‘Being Freelance’, shared tangible guidelines for getting your first client along with his advice when starting out. He shared his experience in growing his freelance business and told students to be bold, keep meeting new people and always have a marketing focus among a plethora of other top tips and tricks.

Social entrepreneurship has proved a popular arena among Birkbeck students and Adeseye Lawal-Solarin shared his experience in setting up Young & Giving, an online platform using AI match individuals with mentors. Adeseye spoke about the importance of authenticity and the value of having advisors to support you along your journey. Entrepreneurship is a challenging route and being able to talk through the difficulties and gain thoughts from peers and advisors was a key piece of advice discussed.

The third talk of the session came from Clwyd Probert, CEO and Founder at Whitehat, who delivered an insightful session on growing a business with an effective inbound strategy. Blogging, sharing ideas and creating interest were among Clwyd’s top tips for students to enhance their ventures. A crucial discussion point was around dealing with setbacks and Clwyd advised students to ensure they gave themselves the headspace to deal with challenges that will inevitably arise.

After some fruitful networking and conversations around the different types of entrepreneurship presented, students got the chance to get their questions answered in an information-packed panel discussion. Kicking off with the topic of resilience in business, panellists revealed their key recommendations and reflections having been through the process in starting and growing their businesses. The ultimate advice? Keep pushing forward, step back to look at the context of situations, and make sure you are looking after yourself along the way.

The Pioneer programme, in partnership with Santander Universities, takes students on a journey to develop their business ideas and their entrepreneurial skills. The monthly workshops continue in the New Year.

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Mongrel Tongues/Mongrel Nation: William Matthews Lecture 2018

On Thursday 29 November, author Bernadine Evaristo delivered an insightful lecture exploring how and why authors create voices that challenge the predominance of Standard English as the literary and cultural norm.

If you were passing the Beveridge Hall in Senate House on Thursday 29 November, you may have been surprised to hear a speaker addressing her audience in a language decidedly far from Standard English. Indeed, it wasn’t just author Bernadine Evaristo’s voice that filled the hall as she gave her fascinating lecture entitled ‘Mongrel Tongues/Mongrel Nation’, but the voices of countless others who have been left out of traditional English literature. From the pidgin English of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy [soldier boy] (1985) to the inner city gang slang voiced by Evaristo’s protagonist in Hello Mum (2010), this year’s William Matthews Lecture challenged our ideas of the language that should be spoken in literature, and opened the floor to include every voice in the discussion.

Following a welcome from Professor Heike Bauer, Head of Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, Bernadine Evaristo, who has written eight books and numerous other publications, began the lecture with a discussion about belonging. Having grown up in Britain with a black father and a white mother, Evaristo knows what it is to feel different. Recalling the disapproval of her mother’s family when their daughter married a Nigerian, Evaristo explains “My father always said that he became a black man when he arrived in England … Black British people were not seen as fully, properly British, and from this I absorbed the concept of ‘blackness’ as a negative.” This idea was explored in her first novel, Lara (1997).

Evaristo herself felt like an outsider for much of her youth, neither fully belonging to her father’s Nigerian culture nor the British one in which she was growing up. “People don’t know you, but they think they do,” she explains, “they know ‘your kind.’” Such was Evaristo’s father’s concern that she should be fully integrated into British culture, that he deliberately avoided passing his own language and heritage onto his children. Perhaps it is due to this loss that Evaristo is determined to broaden our understanding of the value of a range of different voices in literature.

Through the evening’s discussion, Evaristo asks “Can you truly capture characters’ lives in Standard English?” Take the aforementioned Sozaboy, for example. His stream of consciousness is punctuated with non-standard phrases that form part of the pidgin English spoken by 75 million people in Nigeria. Evaristo argues that by using Sozaboy’s language, its author, Ken Saro-Wiwa, establishes the setting, society, culture and context that make up Sozaboy’s world. The use of dialect, far from patronizing the protagonist, means that “we are charmed by him”, and “when he goes to war, so do we.”

By giving the text the subtitle “A Novel in Rotten English”, Saro-Wiwa brings the discomfort that an audience accustomed to Standard English might feel on reading (and understanding) the book to the forefront. But Evaristo also draws attention to writers that go further than this, such as Junot Díaz, who leaves vast swathes of his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) in Spanish, without offering his reader a convenient explanation or glossary. This act, which Evaristo dubs “assertive non-translation”, forces the reader to engage with “the bilingual and bicultural reality of the text”, and begs the question: how far can we embed foreign words and phrases in our literature, without alienating our reader?

For Evaristo, the expansion of accepted novelistic languages is a welcome one, and she argues that writers and artists should have the freedom to write from any perspective (while amused by the fact that, as a self-titled black writer, she should be seen as more limited in subject matter than a white writer, given the vast cultural richness and experiences of the 54 countries of Africa and 33 countries of the Caribbean, not to mention the Americas and Britain itself). Indeed, in her 2010 short novel Hello Mum, she sought to get inside the mind of a teenage boy, conducting extensive research in youth detention centres and carefully mimicking the style of speech she found. For, as Evaristo says, “How do we begin to claim ownership of something as nebulous and transitory as culture?” It is not the right voice, but every voice, that should be heard through literature.

The annual William Matthews Lecture at Birkbeck is made possible by a bequest from the estate of the late Professor William Matthews for a lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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Reflections on hospitality, the hostile environment and the law

Netty Yasin, second-year part-time LLM student, and Patrick Page, Senior Caseworker, Duncan Lewis Public Law discuss the Birkbeck School of Law’s recent residential weekend at Cumberland Lodge, where they took part in discussions and workshops with eminent legal scholars.

Each year the School of Law at Birkbeck hosts a residential weekend at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, giving staff and students the opportunity to participate in discussions, workshops and lectures with internationally renowned researchers. This year the discussions centred around the themes of Hospitality, the Hostile Environment, and the Law. Two of those who attended reflect on the weekend’s events:

Netty Yasin, second-year part-time LLM Qualifying Law Degree student
The presentations covered a broad range of topics, including the creation of the ‘bad immigrant’, racist narratives in the sentencing of migrants, as well as detention and deportation policies and practices. Speakers included a former barrister, PhD students, a solicitor who shared some harrowing case studies from his experience of representing clients with medical needs in detention centres and even a personal perspective from a former detainee. Although there was a full schedule of seminars, there was also plenty of time to relax and enjoy the beautiful environment of Cumberland Lodge and its surroundings. It was also a great opportunity to network and have informal discussions with the speakers over dinner or drinks at the bar. It was a hugely interesting, informative and enjoyable weekend in a wonderful setting and I hope to return next year. Thanks to the School of Law for organising such a fantastic event.

Patrick Page, Senior Caseworker, Duncan Lewis Public Law
‘You don’t need permission to be anti-establishment.’ This was a response to a question by one of the speakers at the Cumberland Lodge conference on Hospitality, the Hostile Environment, and the Law. The speaker in question had been detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, and has since been shining a light on the injustice of immigration detention – what she calls ‘the hostile environment on steroids.’ For me, the answer encapsulated the spirit of the weekend. With its range of lawyers, academics and activists (many, indeed, wearing a number of these hats at once), the programme thoroughly exposed the hostile environment in all its manifestations. We were taken through the way in which the UK government has conscripted civil society in its racialised system of immigration control, how the ‘good migrant/bad migrant’ narratives dominate the legal system, and how executive powers to detain and remove have steadily expanded. Frances Webber, a barrister who has been working in this area for decades, put it simply: ‘it was never good, but it was never this bad.’ But this sombre tone was lightened by a cautious optimism that change is possible, that resistance isn’t always futile. As we saw with the Windrush scandal, those targeted by the hostile environment, like the speaker mentioned above, are increasingly mobilised to expose injustice. In the last talk of the weekend, we were reminded of the words of James Baldwin: “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”

Read more of Patrick’s thoughts on the Cumberland Lodge weekend at the No Walls blog

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