Tavern Street in Ipswich has remarkably few taverns, but is home to a Mechanics Institute founded by Dr James Birkbeck in 1824; the one he founded in London went on to become Birkbeck College, but Ipswich just went on doing what it had always done - providing a reading source and meeting place for the artisans of Ipswich. Anyone who knows Ipswich will recognise the doorway, but I'll guess few have actually been inside. It's a sort of secret. And MIs owe their name to a more ancient usage of the word than now applies; Shakespeare's mechanicals you will recall were a tinker, a tailor, a weaver, a bellows-mender and a joiner.
Just as the 1911 National Insurance Act crowded-out the flourishing private provision of insurance, savings, mutuals and co-operatives, so the well-meaning State and its library-building benefactors such as Mr Andrew Carnegie crowded-out many flourishing private Mechanics Institutes.
So what's the point of this post, apart from a puff for Ipswich? Well, there's a hugely resilient technical and vocational streak amongst us, one that I'm pleased to say feels very strongly about itself. The comments to a post below, which was actually about unskilled site labour, angrily upbraided me for seeming to suggest that foreign engineers were better than native ones. The MIs in the early and mid nineteenth century played an important part in nurturing the skills and innovation that was to place the country at the world's industrial forefront in the latter half of the century, and did so not as the result of central economic planning by the State but by ordinary 'technicals' banding together. Could the answer to Britain's competitive advantage in the twenty-first century again lie with the grass roots?