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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