The Mechanics’ Institute: Part I – Cultivating Minds

We hear from regular guest author Tony Scaife on the Secret Library this week. This is the first of a series on the Leeds Mechanics Institute, sourced from books and other resources available in the Local Studies & Research department at the Central Library

Undated. The Mechanics Institute – now the Civic Theatre. (c) Leeds Libraries,

When I first moved to Leeds, I was struck by how powerfully the building of the former Leeds Mechanics Institution for Science Art and Literature dominated one side of Millennium Square. It was in fact the third location of the Institute but by far the grandest. Historic England explains its Listed Grade II* status thus:

At the start of the 1860s, the architect Cuthbert Brodrick, who also designed the nearby Town Hall, was commissioned to design a new building in Cookridge Street (now Millennium Square), which took five years to build and cost £20,000…  At the centre of this French Second Empire style building was a lecture hall seating 1,500 people, with a balcony supported on cast iron columns. Around this were arranged on two floors the library, reading room, classrooms, laboratory, art studio and various other facilities, including a dining room. The Institute became Leeds College of Art in 1903 and the interior has been much altered through the 20th century, with the lecture hall used as a theatre. It is listed Grade II* and now houses the city’s museum, with the central circular lecture theatre converted into exhibition space.” (Historic England 2017 p 7-8)

But what were the motivations that led to the creation of this magnificent building?  As always, the only place to start is the Local and Family History library. Where there is an extensive collection of material relating to the Leeds Mechanics Institute (LMI). Especially an extensive collection of LMI Annual Reports.  Material enough indeed to require several blogs to do it all justice.

In this first exploration I shall be concentrating on the lofty ambitions of the ‘towns movers and shakers’ for the LMI’s teaching role in the decades before the 1868 opening of the building we can still see. As we shall see the supporters of the LMI frequently campaigned in poetry to promote its growth. (Though they governed in dense bureaucratic prose.)  Believing wholeheartedly in the need to spread widely knowledge of, and thus opportunities from, the technical, social, and economic revolution surrounding them.  But for me, the truly epic poetry, is to be found in the details of the arduous struggle of Leeds’ Nineteenth Century working-class to be their own active agents in that revolution.

Edinburgh had established a Mechanics Institute in 1821 and by 1824 the “relatively well healed members” of The Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society recognised the need to offer  working class people the opportunity for self-improvement. They then raised funds to open their own Mechanics Institute in a house in Park Row in 1825. (Thornton p. 125) It was in fact two rooms in a house at the back of Park Row: one set aside for a library and one a classroom. “Where the promoters undertook to supply, at a cheap rate, to the different classes of the community instruction in the various branches of science.”  (LMI sketch p 5. ) The well to do sponsors, drawn from the manufacturers and merchants, of the town had a self-interest behind their apparent noblesse oblige “if we had an unintelligent, sluggish population around us , we would not prosper”  (Baines LMI [1] 1842 Report p 13)

So for example by 1860 the more enlightened employers  had even developed  a  kind of sponsorship scheme  where their employees could attend classes at a reduced rate. One firm had 93 workers enrolled. There was a belief that “employers [should] take a deeper interest in the moral and intellectual culture of those under their care,[thus] it would be a powerful means of improving the character and habits of the employed “(LMI 2 Annual Report 1860 p 7- 9)

The Local and Family History printed records for this early period are scant. But we can assume that the Institute prospered.  We know that in 1842 the Leeds Mechanics Institute merged with the Leeds Literary Institution to form the Leeds Mechanics Institution of Science, Arts and Literature on June 29, 1842. Initially they occupied premises in South Parade and later rented additional rooms in East Parade. It is the records of the LMI from 1842 that form most items in the Local and Family History collection.

As it had been in 1824 the LMI continued to be managed by the proprietors: prominent Leeds’ citizens like Baines, Kitson and Marshall. But the bulk of the membership were annual subscribers. Whose sliding scale of fees reflected their ability to pay and Victorian class sensibilities. The better off paying 15/- per year in instalments whilst the Mechanics Class paid 12/- or even 8/-. For their subscription they all got access to a library and reading room. A lecture hall offering an eclectic series of lectures through an Autumn and Winter annual programme. Some  were delivered by LMI members and others by visiting lecturers. There was usually an annual mid- Winter evening soiree and an annual Summer excursion to places like Castle Howard and Wentworth Castle.  From 1846 the wives and daughters of subscribers were admitted for an additional 5/-. Girls also got their own day classes with their own governesses. (LMI 1 Annual Reports 1846 p 3) But it would be 1860 before the Ladies Educational Institution gave specially designed classes for adult women “especially designed to meet the needs of young persons who are engaged during the day and have but an hour or two to devote to their mental improvement…” (LMI 2 Annual Report 1860  p 25- 26) We will shortly look more closely at the evening classes for working people but it is worth briefly looking at what the day school classes were set to achieve for the sons and daughters of the better off.

Day school, and evening school, classes always charged additional fees. Annual Reports frequently bemoan the need to continue to subsidise some classes from subscription income.There was a ‘core curriculum’ of classes in Mathematics, Writing and Grammar, Geography, French and Chemistry. Over time though other classes were added.  In the day school all classes were delivered by paid, often graduate, teachers.

The day school was to fulfil the following purposes:

  1. Implant principles of morality,
  2. Impart sound, practical education,
  3. Prepare pupils to be men of business,
  4. Maintain their position in society with credit and respectability” (LMI[1] Report 1848 p3)

The efforts of the nascent LMI were applauded by Lord Brougham (then a prolific pamphleteer on education and social reform) as an example to be followed in other towns. (LMI sketch p 5). Brougham himself  devoted a whole pamphlet to working class education. The working class “… had to be the source and instrument of their own improvement “but they were hindered  by “want of money and want of time”  (Brougham p 3-4). Education was not to be free “mechanics must pay for their instruction” but in return they were to “have the principal share in the management of the institute” (Brougham p 15)  The working class could have some capacity for  agency in the technical, economic and social revolution around them  if “… the working class …by great effort …may secure the inestimable blessing of knowledge” (Brougham p 28)

At least one a worker led education movement did arise outside the LMI with the 1844 Leeds Mutual Improvement Society. In February four young men “met to improve themselves by mutual intercourse“, in the house of one of their mothers. Within a month numbers had grown to such an extent they had to move to “… a garden house at the top of Richmond Hill “. Within one year, they had moved again to rooms in St Peter’s Square and, with no advertising, had 100 regular pupils. Teachers gave their services free, on three evening per week, for classes in Chemical (sic), Elementary reading, writing and arithmetic. On Tuesday evenings the pupils held self -managed discussion classes:

That men, most if not all of whom, had worked a hard day’s work should come together night after night to seek instruction – to gather knowledge, to cultivate each other’s minds , to expand their intellectual gaze, to find pleasure in science, literature and art. … is a most gratifying  and delightful sight; more gratifying  to me than all the other signs of  development and progress in the age we live in” (Smiles p 2) [emphasis added]

The Mutual Improvement Society may have  been short lived for, by 1849, the LMI had responded with its own Mutual Improvement Class, costing 6d per fortnight, and aimed to meet the needs of those who “had no education or had lost any they had acquired in childhood“. The teachers were described as gentlemen volunteers. (LIMI 1 Annual report 1849 p 6) By 1851 there were 55 boys and young men “employing three evening per week in the acquisition of elementary instruction, and in many cases eager to obtain a wider range of knowledge, is highly gratifying and eminently useful” (LMI 1 Annual Repot 1851  p. 7)  For example the Drawing Class, what we now call technical drawing, had a regular attendance of 15, of boys aged 12 to men aged up to 34. The older students were employed as masons, bricklayers, joiners, cabinet makers, engravers, engineers, mechanics, millwrights and blacksmiths: “all practising such part of linear drawing as were suitable applications to their several occupations. (LMI 1 Annual Report 1859 p 9)

Attendance could never be guaranteed for  “working late in the mills [this] has occasioned a falling off [of attendance]” ; this despite the class having “… supplied the want so much felt by the labouring people“ (LMI 1 Annual Report 1853 p 7). There was a recognition that trying to acquire an education for  adults with no prior school experience meant real privation and was likely to be only partially successful. Thus, it was unrealistic to expect too much (LMI 1 Annual Report 1856 p 11):

The moral importance of maintaining the class… cannot be overrated. The pupils were generally young, poor and very defective in their education, and they were to esteem highly the full benefits … of the Institution. The fellowship of the workshop continued in the classroom … the artizans (sic) no doubt derived great pleasure and advantage from the … Institution connections introduced among them. A great point to be observed in the instruction of grown people whose early education has been defective .. is to present the principles in the most simple and elementary aspect possible , and in the most leisurely manner, and also to avoid surcharging the mind with too many  steps … [not]to distract by too many propositions” 

Students did complain when classes covered topics they could see little relevance in. (LMI 1 Annual Report 1857  p 12 -14 ) There were further complaints when the rented rooms in East Parade became overcrowded. At times three or four classes were being taught in the same room and, as a consequence, confused,  frustrated students were leaving after a few weeks (LMI 2 Annual Report 1859 p 18).  

Wedge-shaped street with unmade road and incomplete pavement, situated off Mabgate. On the left is a sign for the workshop of S.Cohen, wholesale cabinet maker. (c) Leeds Libraries,

These, at times ill served, students must have really esteemed highly the benefits given the sheer effort required to attend night classes. Men and women students would be in work since, if not, they would not be able to pay the even modest fees. The Factory Acts of 1847 and 1850, now limited work to a maximum 10 hours per day. But that still meant a gruelling sixty – hour work week. They then devoted up to four nights per week for classes from 8pm to 9:45 pm. (Smiles p1); to be followed by a long walk home, on ill-lit streets to all parts of the town. ( LMI 1 Annual Report 1858) Arriving back at homes that  were “mostly soul-less cottages about 5 metres square made up of a cellar, living room and a bedroom” and could be even much worse. (Thornton p 159)

The classes and opportunities provided by the LMI must have provided hope and goals for a life  beyond the drudgery of work. Those whom Baines had described as sluggish and unintelligent were clearly neither. As well as the LMI by the 1860s there were twenty-three other Mechanics Institutes around the area. (Thornton p 153) Indeed there were very many keen, committed independent learners; all committed to self-improvement.  As well as the basic skills classes in both the LMI and the Leeds Mutual Improvement Society there was a weekly self-managed discussion class offering a viable route to what Smiles describes as “…freedom of the mind – mental self-dependence – the free and unshakeable use of the human faculties  – earnest self-culture , so that the whole nature of man may become stronger, better, freer, happier.” (Smiles p. 4)

In that spirit and, continuing to recognise that without developing educational opportunities the city would not prosper, supporters of the Leeds Mechanics Institution of Science, Arts and Literature would go on to help promote the establishment of what eventually became Leeds University, Leeds Arts University and secondary technical schools like the Central High School. But these must be topics for another day.

For to end on a personal note the 1859 Annual Report speaks to me directly. Whilst I am not of the younger group who are  “… to forsake giddy and thoughtless companions, and to pursue the uneven and arduous track of knowledge”, I am of the older group who were to “… gather material for papers and lectures”. [ Emphasis added] (LMI   2 Annual Reports 1859 p. 5) Now my modest paper is barely a shuffle on the ‘arduous track of knowledge’. But I shall be irredeemably amongst the procrastinators of the ‘sluggish population’ unless it actually completed and delivered.


Brougham and Vaux, Henry Peter. Practical observations on the education of the working class: addressed the working class and their employers (London 1825) SR 374.1 BRO

Historic England. Mechanics’ Institutes: Introductions to Heritage Assets (2017)

Leeds Mechanics Institute. Annual Reports [1] (1842 -1858) L374.06 L517

Leeds Mechanics Institute. Annual Reports [2] (1858 – 1870) L374.06 L517

Leeds Mechanics Institution. Historical Sketch… (1901) L374.06 L517

Smiles, Samuel. The Education of the Working Class (Leeds 1845) STCM 374.942 SMI

Thornton, D. Leeds: the Story of a City (2002)

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