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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Pioneer Programme supporting entrepreneurial students at Birkbeck kicks off with a bang

Students on the Pioneer programme began the journey to develop their entrepreneurial skills with an inspiring session on Innovation and left feeling energised and motivated for the year ahead.

On Saturday 17 November, nearly 200 Birkbeck students started their journey on the Pioneer programme, a 7-part course that develops their entrepreneurial skills and knowledge and culminates with a Pitch and Celebration Evening in June 2019.

The programme, in partnership with Santander Universities, began with an inspiring and energetic session on Innovation from serial innovator and entrepreneur Julie Holmes, who motivated the students to pursue their ideas and turn them into reality. In between science-experiment style fireworks and top tips for starting a business, Julie kicked off the Pioneer programme with a bang and prepared the audience for a brilliant programme ahead.

Students also heard from Ambi Mistry at Creative Entrepreneurs, a movement that brings together the resources, roles models and networks creative people need to turn their ideas into successful businesses. Ambi delivered an invaluable networking session to encourage students to collaborate and think outside the box when it comes to making connections for their business ideas.

Jenna Davies, Programme Manager for Pioneer said, “Pioneer offers a fantastic platform for students who have a business idea or who are keen to develop entrepreneurial skills. Julie and Ambi have started this year’s programme in incredible fashion; the students were genuinely buzzing when they left the building.”

Baldeep Hothi, Programme Coordinator added, “The students will benefit immensely from Pioneer and it’s clear that they have already gained so much from this first session. Santander’s support has made this happen and we can’t wait to continue the journey in the coming months.”

Pioneer continues in December followed by a monthly workshop on a range of topics including Lean Business, Start-up Marketing, Funding, Pitching and more.

Further information:

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Birkbeck welcomes generous alumni back to Malet Street

The College invited alumni and guests to learn about the difference gifts in wills can make to Birkbeck’s students and community.

Master of the College, Professor David Latchman (r) speaks with an alumnus over tea.

Many Birkbeck alumni and supporters have generously chosen to help secure Birkbeck’s future by remembering Birkbeck with gifts in their wills. On Tuesday 13 November, the Master of Birkbeck, Professor David Latchman CBE, invited some of the College’s alumni to Malet Street to tell them more about this way of giving and to thank those who have already remembered Birkbeck in their wills.

Gifts in wills have made a huge difference to Birkbeck. From 2016-2018, Birkbeck received £2.5million from gifts in wills. These gifts have supported Birkbeck students,  provided for student-centred facilities as well as enabled world-leading research projects.

The late alumna Constance Kenway provided a very generous gift to the Psychology Department to support excellent students in financial need. Christine Ozolins, recipient of the Constance Kenway Scholarship in 2017, spoke to the guests about her story.

Christine Ozolins, recipient of the Constance Kenway Scholarship, addresses the group.

She said: “As a child, I had a difficult home life and was unable to finish my schooling.  I spent many years working in a variety of different jobs. However, I always felt unfulfilled and longed to be in a career where I could help others and fulfil my potential.  It took me years to get the courage to change my life, but when I eventually did, I commenced a BSc in Psychology here at Birkbeck.  This degree transformed my life in ways I never could have imagined. I fell in love with the brain and with cognitive neuroscience, something I was not expecting.”

Christine graduated with a first-class degree, and went on to a master’s degree. When her marriage broke down, she worried she would no longer be able to afford to continue her studies. She applied for, and was offered, the Constance Kenway Scholarship which is available for postgraduate psychology students experiencing financial hardship. The scholarship enabled her to complete her MSc.

She continued: “I believe it is so important that people like myself are given a chance to fulfil our potential and create value for society in the present and the future. I believe Birkbeck stands alone in its mission to provide the highest quality education to everybody, regardless of age, background or gender.”

Christine now plans to start a PhD, and she is putting all her energies into finding a way to fund her studies. As there are few funding options available for part-time candidates, she plans to become successful enough to leave money in her own will to support students like herself and to make the path easier for those who will come after her.

Chris Murphy, Director of Development and Alumni and himself an alumnus of Birkbeck, also addressed the group and explained that he and his wife had both chosen to leave a gift to the College in their wills. Gifts in wills, Chris noted, are one of the most private and therefore most generous ways that alumni and supporters can give to the College.

The tea was an opportunity for some of our supporters to find out how integral these types of gifts are to the future of the College. They fund a variety of research projects and support students in different ways. Whatever the amount, gifts in wills make an enormous difference to the College and to students who may otherwise be unable to continue in education.

Legacy gifts of every size have a lasting impact and help to ensure that Birkbeck’s high-quality teaching and world-class research continue to serve future generations of students. If you would like to know more about remembering Birkbeck with a gift in your will, please get in touch with the Development & Alumni Team by calling Kara McMahon on 020 7380 3187 or sending an email to

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