Mechanics' institute

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The Leeds City Mechanics' Institute's building Leeds City Museum.jpg
The Leeds City Mechanics' Institute's building

Mechanics' institutes, also known as mechanics' institutions, sometimes simply known as institutes, and also called schools of arts (especially in the Australian colonies), were educational establishments originally formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men in Victorian-era Britain and its colonies. They were often funded by local industrialists on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees. The mechanics' institutes often included libraries for the adult working class, and were said to provide them with an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs.


Many of the original institutes included lending libraries, and the buildings of some continue to be used as libraries. Others have evolved into parts of universities, adult education facilities, theatres, cinemas, museums, recreational facilities, or community halls. Few are still referred to as mechanics' institutes, but some retain the name and focus as centre of intellectual and cultural advancement. A 21st-century movement, originating in Victoria, Australia, has organised a series of conferences known as Mechanics' Institutes Worldwide Conferences, at which information and ideas for the future of mechanics' institutes are discussed.

Origins and history

The foundations of the movement which created mechanics' institutes were in lectures given by George Birkbeck. His fourth annual lecture attracted a crowd of 500, and became an annual occurrence after his departure for London in 1804, leading to the eventual formation [1] on 16 October 1821 [2] of the first mechanics' institute in Edinburgh, the Edinburgh School of Arts (later Heriot-Watt University [2] ). Its first lecture was on chemistry, and within a month it was subscribed to by 452 men who each paid a quarterly subscription fee. [3] This new model of technical educational institution gave classes for working men, and included libraries as well as apparatus to be used for experiments and technical education. [1] 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 first mechanics' institute in England was opened at Liverpool in July 1823. [4]

The second institute in Scotland was incorporated in Glasgow in November 1823, built on the foundations of a group started by Birkbeck. Under the auspices of the Andersonian University, where Birkbeck had been chair of natural philosophy from 1799 to 1904 and instituted free lectures on arts, science and technical subjects from 1800. This mechanics' class continued to meet after he moved to London in 1804, and in 1823 they decided to formalise their organisation by incorporating themselves as the Mechanics' Institute. He was appointed director of the institute, which he had originally endowed with the sum of £3700, and held the office till his death in 1841. [5]

Manchester Mechanics' Institute, Cooper Street, in 1825 Manchester Mechanics Institute (1825).jpg
Manchester Mechanics' Institute, Cooper Street, in 1825
Wakefield's Mechanics' Institution (1825), now a museum Wakefield Museum.jpg
Wakefield's Mechanics' Institution (1825), now a museum

The London Mechanics' Institute (later Birkbeck College) was opened in December 1823, and the mechanics' institutes in Ipswich and Manchester (later to become UMIST) in 1824. [6] 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. 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 radical George Holyoake was arrested and then convicted on a charge of blasphemy. [7] [8]

In Australia, the first mechanics' institute was established in Hobart in 1827, followed by the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts [9] 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 and just over 500 remain today, and only six still operate their lending library services. [10]

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. [11] [ better source needed ]

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.

Some mechanics' libraries lasted only a decade or two, and many eventually became public libraries or (in the United States) were given to local public libraries after the Public Libraries Act 1850 passed. Though use of the mechanics' libraries was limited, the majority of the users were favourable towards the idea of free public libraries. [12] However, by 1900 there were over 9,000 mechanics institutes around the world. [3]

Beyond a lending library, mechanics' institutes also provided lecture courses, laboratories, and in some cases contained a museum for the members' 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. [11] Some mechanics' institutes also offered a programme from the arts; Wisbech Mechanics' institute booked Mrs Butler to give readings from Shakespeare's plays and Milton's Paradise Lost to audiences of nearly a thousand. [13]

G. Jefferson explains:

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. [14]

21st century revival

Across the world, there is a move to sustain and revive mechanics' institutes and related institutions as subscription libraries, sometimes incorporating or expanding their earlier functions. There have been several worldwide conferences, known as the Mechanics' Worldwide Conference, of representatives of, or people who have an interest in, mechanics' institutes. [15] As of 2021, there have been five such conferences: [16]

By country

Thousands of mechanics' institutes buildings still operate throughout the world, mostly now used as libraries, parts of universities, adult education facilities, and a few still use their original names and function as a society or other type of organisation.


Ballarat Mechanics' Institute building Ballarat mechanics institute.jpg
Ballarat Mechanics' Institute building
American and Australian soldiers in the reading room of the Ballarat Mechanics' Institute in 1942 BallaratMechanicsInstitute1942.jpg
American and Australian soldiers in the reading room of the Ballarat Mechanics' Institute in 1942

In the Australian colonies, Mechanics' Institutes were often called Schools of Arts, and they were more likely to be run by the middle-classes. The provision of reading rooms, museums, lectures and classes were still important, but the Australian schools were also more likely to include a social programme in their calendar of events. [20]

The earliest and most prominent institute in Tasmania was Van Diemen's Land Mechanics' Institution, also known as Hobart Town Mechanics' Institute, Hobart (1827–1871), co-founded by George Augustus Robinson. [21] [22]

The Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts (1833), in Sydney, New South Wales, is the oldest school of arts still operating [23] and the largest institute in Australia. [24] Others in NSW include the Moruya Mechanics' Institute [25] and the Scone School of Arts.

In South Australia, the South Australian Institute (1838, then 1847–), [26] was the forerunner of the State Library of South Australia, the South Australian Museum, and the Art Gallery of South Australia. [27]

The first institute in the colony of Victoria was the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute, created in 1839. It was renamed The Melbourne Athenaeum in 1873, and continues to operate a library, theatres and shops in the original building. [15] Many mechanics' institutes, athenaeums, schools of arts and related institutions in the state of Victoria are well documented by the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria, Inc., whose members range from the well-resourced Melbourne Athenaeum to the tiny Moonambel Mechanics' Institute in Moonambel. [28] In the following decades, almost every town in Victoria had a mechanics’ institute, usually including a hall, library and reading rooms, games facilities, and both educational programs and entertainment. [29]

The first Western Australian institute was the Swan River Mechanics' Institute, established in 1851, later renamed the Perth Literary Institute. [30]

In Queensland, the Brisbane School of Arts was created in 1873, in a former servants' home. The building was added to the Queensland Heritage Register in 1992. [31]

Over time, as local and state governments started providing libraries, community centres and other types of educational facilities, mechanics' institutes became less important in communities. [29]


Bytown Mechanics' Institute Bytown Mechanics' Institute cornerstone from the original building.jpg
Bytown Mechanics' Institute
Montreal Mechanics Institute (established 1828) Relief of a torch at the Montreal Mechanics Institute.jpg
Montreal Mechanics Institute (established 1828)
Mechanics Institute Toronto Mechanics Institute Toronto.jpg
Mechanics Institute Toronto

Atlantic provinces



Atwater Library of the Mechanics Institute of Montreal Atwater Library of the Mechanics Institute of Montreal 02.jpg
Atwater Library of the Mechanics Institute of Montreal

Hong Kong

New Zealand

United Kingdom

(alphabetical order by town or city)

United States


Existing names and uses

In addition, each state and territory in the US has at least one land grant university that includes a college of agriculture and a college of engineering, as provided for by the Morrill Land-Grant Acts to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts as well as classical studies.

See also

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Swinburne University of Technology</span> University in Victoria, Australia

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George Birkbeck

George Birkbeck FRS was a British physician, academic, philanthropist, pioneer in adult education and a professor of natural philosophy at the Andersonian Institute. He is the founder of Birkbeck, University of London and was head of the Chemical Society. He is one of the creators of the earliest chemistry laboratory for undergraduates at University College London, and is also known for the creation of mechanics' institutes in Scotland and London.

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Birkbeck, University of London, is a public research university, located in Bloomsbury, London, England, and a member institution of the federal University of London. Established in 1823 as the London Mechanics' Institute by its founder, Sir George Birkbeck, and its supporters, Jeremy Bentham, J. C. Hobhouse and Henry Brougham, Birkbeck is one of the few universities to specialise in evening higher education in the United Kingdom.

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Athenaeum may refer to:

Mechanics Institute, San Francisco

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State Library of South Australia Reference library in Adelaide, South Australia

The State Library of South Australia, or SLSA, formerly known as the Public Library of South Australia, located on North Terrace, Adelaide, is the official library of the Australian state of South Australia. It is the largest public research library in the state, with a collection focus on South Australian information, being the repository of all printed and audiovisual material published in the state, as required by legal deposit legislation. It holds the "South Australiana" collection, which documents South Australia from pre-European settlement to the present day, as well as general reference material in a wide range of formats, including digital, film, sound and video recordings, photographs, and microfiche. Home access to many journals, newspapers and other resources online is available.

Prahran Mechanics Institute

Prahran Mechanics' Institute (PMI) is a community-owned subscription library situated at 39 St Edmonds Road, Prahran, Victoria, Australia. The library focuses on collecting resources about every locality in Victoria and every aspect of the history of the state. The library was previously situated in High Street, Prahran from 1915 to 2014 and Chapel Street, Prahran from 1854 to 1915. It is one of the oldest surviving Mechanics' Institutes in Victoria and one of only six still operating as a lending library. It is the only mechanics' institute in Victoria still governed by its own Act of Parliament.

Melbourne Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne, Victoria

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Subscription library

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Cultural institutions in Australia

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Lenton Parr

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Sydney Mechanics School of Arts

The Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts (SMSA) is the longest running School of Arts and the oldest continuous lending library in Australia.

Wilcannia Athenaeum

The Wilcannia Athenaeum is a heritage listed, rusticated sandstone building in the town of Wilcannia, New South Wales. Built in 1883 and located at 37 Reid St, the Athenaeum was established to be an institution for community education, a school of arts and included a public library. It has served a number of functions including as a social centre, a library, a newspaper office, a municipal council meeting place, the Wilcannia Telecentre and is now a museum.

The Prahran College of Advanced Education, formerly Prahran College of Technology, was a late-secondary and tertiary institution with a business school, a trade school, and a multi-disciplinary art school that dated back to the 1860s, populated by instructors and students who were among Australia’s significant artists, designers and performers.

Mechanics institutes of Australia

Mechanics' institutes were a Victorian-era institution set up primarily to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working-class men, which spread to the corners of the English-speaking world, including the Australian colonies, where they were set up in virtually every colony. In some places, notably throughout the colonies of Queensland and New South Wales, they were often known as schools of arts.

Lincoln Mechanics Institute

The Lincoln Mechanics' Institute or Lincoln and Lincolnshire Mechanics' Institute was founded in Lincoln, England in 1833. It was one of the many Mechanics' institutes which sprang up in the early 19th century and was the first Mechanics' Institute to be founded in Lincolnshire.


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Further reading