The Cultural Legacy of the Mechanics’ Institute Movement in the North of England

  • Eve Hartley

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The objectives of the mechanics’ institutes evolved from the necessity to educate and instruct working people in the trades that they practiced, in order to promote advances to industry; whilst simultaneously providing the working classes with an opportunity for ‘moral and intellectual self-improvement’. Since the inception of the movement in the early nineteenth century academics have disputed the degree as to which the movement fulfilled its original purpose. Research conducted in the mid-nineteenth century, when the movement had entered a period of transition following the introduction of the 1850 Public Libraries Act, perpetuated the view that the movement had not reached and affected many working-class people. This study challenges the theory that the movement failed in its objectives, by examining the movement’s legacy beyond the nineteenth century. This thesis uses primary evidence from census records, annual reports, minute books and free public library and museum committee records from across the North of England in order to construct narrative timelines, illustrating how mechanics’ institutes evolved into present libraries, museums and further and higher education institutions. There are two parts to this thesis. Part one takes a unique approach to identifying the range of the influence of northern mechanics’ institutes. Using mechanics’ institute collections as a focal point to discuss how the northern mechanics’ institutes provided a venue, and receptacle for art, design and culture to be publicly disseminated, often for the first time, from the capital. This section of the thesis demonstrates the links between the original mechanics’ institutes and contemporary cultural institutions, concluding that the legacy of the movement continues to shape public cultural participation in Britain. Part two employs genealogy, a method not previously used to chart the occupations of all those enrolling at the Huddersfield Technical School, formerly Huddersfield Mechanics’ Institute in July 1873- years after the movement was described to have been in decline. Chapter three charts the occupations of subscribers’ fathers, the subscriber’s current occupation at the time of enrolment, and any change in the occupation of the students in the years following their instruction, creating a snapshot of the social mobility of people connected to the institution. Chapter four explores how the movement contributed to early public exhibition culture. This demonstrates that, beyond the walls of the classrooms and libraries, the institutes engaged with the general public, and working class through special events, day excursions and public exhibitions. Chapter five considers the impact of the mechanics’ institutes provision of a physical space for civic cultural activity in the nineteenth century. This thesis concludes that the legacy of the Mechanics’ Institute Movement continues to shape British culture. The movement was uniquely placed to provide the infrastructure for Britain’s free public libraries, provincial museums and adult education provision at colleges and metropolitan universities.
Date of Award6 Mar 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorBarry Doyle (Main Supervisor) & Martyn Walker (Co-Supervisor)

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