Mechanics' Institutes

Mechanics' Institutes
The Leeds City Mechanics' Institutes Buildings

Historically, Mechanics' Institutes were educational establishments formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men. As such, they were often funded by local industrialists on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees (such philanthropy was shown by, among others, Robert Stephenson, James Nasmyth, John Davis Barnett and Joseph Whitworth). The Mechanics' Institutes were used as 'libraries' for the adult working class, and provided them with an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs.



The world's first institute was established in Edinburgh in October 1821 as the School of Arts of Edinburgh (later Heriot-Watt University), with the provision of technical education for working people and professionals. Its purpose was to "address societal needs by incorporating fundamental scientific thinking and research into engineering solutions". The school revolutionised access to education in science and technology for ordinary people.

The second institute was incorporated in Glasgow in November 1823, built on the foundations of a group started at the turn of the previous century by George Birkbeck. Under the auspices of the Andersonian University (est. 1796), Birkbeck had first instituted free lectures on arts, science and technical subjects in 1800. This Mechanics' Class continued to meet after he moved to London in 1804, and in 1823 they decided to formalize their organisation by incorporating themselves as the Mechanics' Institute.

The London Mechanics' Institute (later Birkbeck College) followed in December 1823, and the Mechanics' Institutes in Ipswich and Manchester (later to become UMIST) in 1824.[1] By the mid-19th century, there were over 700 institutes in towns and cities across the UK and overseas, some of which became the early roots of other colleges and universities. See for example the University of Gloucestershire which has the Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute (1834) and Gloucester Mechanics' Institute (1840) within its history timeline. It was as a result of delivering a lecture series at the Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute that the famous radical George Holyoake was arrested and then convicted on a charge of blasphemy.[2]

In Australia, for example, the first Mechanics' Institute appeared in Hobart in 1827, followed by the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts [3] in 1833, Newcastle School of Arts in 1835, then the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute established in 1839 (renamed The Melbourne Athenaeum in 1873). From the 1850s, Mechanics' Institutes quickly spread throughout Victoria wherever a hall, library or school was needed. Over 1200 Mechanics' Institutes were built in Victoria but just over 500 remain today, and only six still operate their lending library services.[4]

Manchester Mechanics' Institute, Cooper Street in 1825

The exponential growth and needs of the Industrial Revolution created a new class of reader in Britain by the end of the 18th century, ‘mechanics,’ who were civil and mechanical engineers in reality. The Birmingham Brotherly Society was founded in 1796 by local mechanics to fill this need, and was the forerunner of mechanics institutes, which grew in England to over seven hundred in number by 1850.[5]

G. Jefferson explains that:

The first phase, the Mechanics Institute movement, grew in an atmosphere of interest by a greater proportion of the population in scientific matters revealed in the public lectures of famous scientists such as Faraday. More precisely, as a consequence of the introduction of machinery a class workmen emerged to build, maintain and repair, the machines on which the blessing of progress depended, at a time when population shifts and the dissolving influences of industrialization in the new urban areas, where these were concentrated, destroyed the inadequate old apprentice system and threw into relief the connection between material advancement and the necessity of education to take part in its advantages.[6]

Small tradesmen and workers could not afford subscription libraries, so for their benefit, benevolent groups and individuals created "mechanics' institutes" that contained inspirational and vocational reading matter, for a small rental fee. Later popular non-fiction and fiction books were added to these collections. The first known library of this type was the Birmingham Artisans' Library, formed in 1823.

Wakefield's Mechanics' Institution (1825) put to a new use in the 21st century

Some mechanics' libraries only lasted a decade or two, many eventually became public libraries or were given to local public libraries after the Public Libraries Act 1850 passed. Though use of the mechanics’ library was limited, the majority of the users were favourable towards the idea of free library use and service, and were a ready to read public when the establishment of free libraries occurred.[7]

Beyond a lending library, Mechanics institutes, also provided lecture courses, laboratories, and in some cases contained a museum for the member’s entertainment and education. The Glasgow Institute, founded in 1823, not only had all three, it was also provided free light on two evenings a week from the local Gas Light Company. The London Mechanics' Institute installed gas illumination by 1825, revealing the demand and need for members to use the books,[5] (founded at the same time as Glasgow's).

Existing Mechanics' Institutes

Ballarat Mechanics Institute building
American and Australian soldiers in the reading room of the Ballarat Mechanics Institute in 1942

There are thousands of Mechanics' Institutes which are still operating throughout the world, some as libraries, parts of universities or adult education facilities, theatres, cinemas, museums, recreational facilities or community halls.

  • Ballarat Mechanics' Institute, Ballarat
  • Briagolong Mechanics' Institute, Briagolong
  • Footscray Mechanics' Institute Inc. Library
  • Kilmore Mechanics' Institute & Free Library
  • Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria
  • Mechanics' Institute, Sorrento
  • Prahran Mechanics' Institute
  • Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts
  • Atwater Library of the Mechanics' Institute, Montreal, Quebec

Historical Mechanics' Institutes


  • Swan River Mechanics' Institute


  • Toronto, Canada
  • Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
  • Barrie Mechanics’ Institute
  • Bytown Mechanics' Institute
  • City of Toronto Mechanics' Institute
  • Elmsley Library Association and Mechanics' Institute
  • Elora Mechanics’ Institute
  • Farmers’ Mechanics’ Institute of Streetsville
  • Guelph Framers' and Mechanics' Institute
  • Halifax Mechanics Institute
  • Hamilton and Gore Mechanics' Institute
  • Kingston Mechanics' Institute
  • London Mechanics’ Institute
  • Mechanics' Institute and Athenaeum of Ottawa
  • Mechanics' Institute, Coldstream
  • Mechanics’ Institute (Orillia)
  • Mechanics’ Institute of Goderich
  • Mechanics’ Institute of Point Edward
  • Montreal Mechanics Institute
  • Napanee Mechanics’ Institute
  • Newmarcket Farmers' Mechanics' Institute
  • Owen Sound Mechanics Institute
  • Peterboro Mechanics' Institute
  • Quebec Mechanics' Institute
  • St. Catherine Mechanics' Institute Library
  • St. John Mechanics' Institute
  • Woodstock Mechanics’ Institute
  • Grand Trunk Railway Mechanics’ Institute
  • Midland Railroad Mechanics’ Institute

United Kingdom

United States of America

  • 1820 New York City establishes the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. It was renamed became the Mechanics Institute in 1858
  • 1824 The Franklin Institute opens in Philadelphia.
  • 1826 The Maryland Institute opens in Baltimore.
  • 1827 Boston establishes a Mechanics Institute.
  • 1828 Cincinnati The Ohio Mechanics Institute (OMI) is founded on November 20 in order to "facilitate the diffusion of useful knowledge" to "ingenious artisans and mechanics."
  • Richmond, Virginia, USA
  • Rochester, NY, USA renamed to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in 1944

Mechanics' Worldwide Conferences

Two conferences have thus far been held on Mechanics' Institutes.

  • Buildings, Books and Beyond: Mechanics' Worldwide 2004 by the Prahran Mechanics' Institute at Prahran, Victoria, Australia.[9]
  • Self Help: Mechanics' Worldwide 2009 by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution at Bath, Somerset, England.[10]

The next is to be held in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia in November/December 2012. It is themed 'Buildings, Books and Blackboards: Intersecting Narratives'.

See also


  1. ^ Kidd, Alan J. (1993). Manchester (Town and city histories). Manchester: Ryburn. pp. 57–8. ISBN 1-85331-016-6. 
  2. ^ Turner, C M, Thesis (PhD), 'Politics in Mechanics' Institutes 1820–1850', University of Leicester, 1980, and references therein
  3. ^
  4. ^ Lowden, Bronwyn (2010). Mechanics' Institutes, Schools of Arts, Athenaeums, etc.: An Australian Checklist - 3rd Edition. Donvale, Australia: Lowden Publishing Co.. pp. 64–111. ISBN 978-1-920753-16-0. 
  5. ^ a b Kilgour, Frederick, The Evolution of the Book. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 99.
  6. ^ Jefferson, G.. Libraries and Society. Cambridge & London, Great Britain: James Clark & CO. LTD., 1969, p. 21.
  7. ^ Harris, Michael. History Of Libraries In The Western World. 4th ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1995, p. 153.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Mechanics' Worldwide 2004 (2004)Buildings, Books and Beyond: Mechanics' Worldwide Conference 2009 - Proceedings of the first International Conference convened by the Prahran Mechanics' Institute... Prahran, Victoria, Australia:Prahran Mechanics' Institute. ISBN 0-975600-01-X
  10. ^ Mechanics' Worldwide 2009. (2009) Self Help: Mechanics' Worldwide Conference 2009 - Proceedings of the second International Conference convened by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution... Donvale, Victoria, Australia:Lowden Publishing Co. ISBN 978-1-920753-18-4

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