Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Mechanics Institute

The current hand-wringing over council library closures conveniently manages to ignore the remarkable survival of the very first lending libraries in England - the Mechanics Institutes. Not the sort of places to be known to the like of Lady Toynbee, what with all those screws, nipples and shafts (sorry Mr Arthur, journals) these were founded in the early nineteenth century before even the rotten boroughs were abolished and our first round of democratic reforms. 

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?


Edward Spalton said...

There was a similar, beautifully appointed Institute in Derby. We occasionally hired the public rooms for business presentations and for private parties. Its library was reputed to be excellent.

Now, of course, we have the Derby Tech, promoted to glory as the University of Derby, turning out graduates in media studies and the like.

Wildgoose said...

From memory there's also one in Eyam, the famous "plague village" in Derbyshire. (It might be a neighbouring village, it's a few years since I went into the building - but the point is that these didn't only exist in larger towns and cities).

Edward Spalton said...

Our own village of Etwall used to have a Parish Reading Room where newspapers and periodicals were available - another example of local enterprise. This was from a time when newspapers were taxed quite heavily and so too expensive for most people. Even well-off people would not have taken more than one.

I also have some copies of Punch from this period, addressed to an ancestor who farmed four or five miles away from where I live now. They were addressed to some tea rooms in Derby. I am not sure whether that was just so that he could share them with friends on market days or so that his landlord would not know that he was taking it. Punch was a radical rag then, opposed to the Corn Laws and would have been like a red rag to a bull for any right-thinking Tory landowner.

PanScourer said...

Despite living in Ipswich, I have to admit that I have never crossed its portal, although I knew it was there, and pass it often. It always seemed private, or some sort of club. I had no idea it was open to the hordes.

Mind you, Ipswich has plummeted so far down the scale, I doubt there are many here likely to be able, never mind want, to take advantage of it.

Cheers, Scrubber.