The Mechanics’ Institute: Part II – “Commensurate with the growing intelligence and prosperity of the people.”

The second part of guest author Tony Scaife‘s series on the Leeds Mechanics Institute, sourced from books and other resources available in the Local Studies & Research department at the Central Library. Part I can be found here.

Earlier we have seen how, in 1824, the leading citizens of the town planned to create the Leeds Mechanics Institute (LMI), aiming to improve the “sluggish and ignorant population” of Leeds. Though in reality the people of Leeds quickly proved themselves to be far from sluggish. Within twenty years their demand for access to books, lectures and above all education classes meant the original LMI Park Row premises were so overcrowded, as to become, according to Edward Baines, “a miserable building”. ( LMI Annual Report 1863 p 8) Thus the LMI moved in 1842 to buildings in East Parade and quickly added more accommodation in South Parade. In another twenty years overcrowding was again a major problem. Two or three evening classes were being taught simultaneously (if not entirely successfully) in the same room (LMI Annual Report 1859 p 18). Furthermore “the Chemical Class was in a cellar and the Art class in a garret.” (Edward Baines LMI Annual Report 1863 p 8)  

The search was then on for premises that were to be commensurate with a population now deemed to be intelligent and prosperous. (LMI Annual Report 1863 p 3) This paper will look at how they finally got to the splendid building which still dominates the Cookridge Street side of Millennium Square.

Photograph of the Mechanics’ Institute, page 72 in Lindstrum (1999)

The earliest LMI ad hoc evening class provision had been taught by gentlemen volunteers; to no settled curriculum and no formal certification. It must then have been a proud moment for  Edward Baines, and other early supporters, when, in 1860, the LMI Secretary presented a report showing nearly 5,000 people were being directly benefited by the LMI. 800 of the subscribers were persons in receipt of weekly wages and over 2,700 children of the working class were being taught art. (LMI Annual Report 1861 p 17) The Annual Reports also begin to mention, often in some detail, formal examination successes – firstly for the Day School students in the 1850s, then by the 1860s for the evening class students. Qualifications being awarded were by the Society of Arts, University of London Matriculation and Associate of Oxford University (LMI Annual Report 1861 p 17)

As it had been from the beginning it was the self-appointed duty of the Institute to put “within …reach an institution where those … [with] real desire to know may have the opportunity of getting the best information at the smallest cost”. Furthermore “Knowledge is Power … it is a power mighty and potent everywhere and by its diffusion… the world  shall one day be regenerated. Knowledge is power in the hands of the poor man. Poverty is no crime; neither is it incompatible with the pursuit or possession of scientific knowledge and of high mental and literary acquirements” (LMI Annual Report 1861 p 3 -4).

Knowledge may well be power, but money is needed to unleash that power. Local people would have to raise the money and it took them nearly two decades to do so. Though they started very well with a major coup in enlisting the support of both the Sovereign and the Prime Minister. Queen Victoria, who had recently and very successfully opened the new Leeds Town Hall, agreed to be patron of a grand charity fund raising bazaar. Held from May 3- 6 1859, in the Victoria Hall of Leeds Town Hall, it was a social and financial success for which the ladies of the LMI were thanked for their major role in the event (LMI Annual Report 1860 p 4). Even more profitable though was the appearance of the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, at a Victoria Hall soiree on October 10 1860; probably the town’s social highlight of the year and almost certainly a calculated ‘photo. opp.’ by a Liberal PM in a Liberal town.

The noble Lord acceded with his characteristic kindness to a request to preside over the occasion… [he] was received by one of the most brilliant assemblies ever.” There were 2,000 people present with local aristocrats and notables including Sir Titus Salt.  (LMI Annual Report 1861 P 6) Palmerston himself donated £50 and others gave pledges totalling £5,000. The annual report has a full list of pledges made, a list arranged in order of the value of the pledges rather than alphabetically. Clearly, there was nothing subtle about what was expected of anyone who wished to maintain, or improve, their position in local society.

The organisers certainly judged it to have been a triumph. Sufficient funds were pledged  to start the detailed planning  for “…one of the finest and most complete buildings of its kind in the country“ (Historical Sketch p 6). Planning, and later building, went hand in hand with money raising. Activities were slightly stymied in 1867 when another money-making great bazaar had to be cancelled because it clashed with a similar event to fund the Leeds General Infirmary. (LMI Annual Report 1867 p 3) The following year though they went ahead with a grand bazaar from May 26-30 1868, this time under the illustrious patronage of Queen Victoria, Eugenie the French Empress and Victoria, the Prussian Crown Princess; 10,000 people visited and donated £3,600. An added bonus was the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales, to Leeds on May 19 1868, where he too gave his support, but no recorded cash, to the project (LMI Report 1869 p 5). With the sale of the existing buildings in East Parade, and elsewhere, alongside the fund raising, this meant that two thirds of the cost of the new building were covered. A final push in 1875 came when there was the last fund-raising Great Exhibition in the Old Cloth Hall, opened by Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and attended by 21,000. It raised enough to clear the remaining debts on the building that we can still see. (Historical Sketch p. 6)

Though there were “doubters, procrastinators and doomsayers” the LMI were resolute that work must proceed on the new building deemed so essential to fulfil the needs of the people of Leeds. Land had already been acquired on Cookridge Street; now all they needed was a design. (LMI Report 1860 p 3) In total there were seventeen designs submitted to a competition, of which three were shortlisted. It was the design of Cuthbert Brodrick that was finally selected by an LMI committee; that, incidentally, had taken no professional advice.  The Builder magazine carried complaints about both the competition process and Brodrick’s design. Eventually, grudgingly, The Builder finally recognised that the internal layout was “all that can be desired” and that overall, it was “a grand and well -designed structure”. But they waspishly lamented that the plain upper third of the building would blacken in the Leeds’ smoke and would be like “a huge leaden coffin, sepulchral, heavy and excessively ugly.” (Linstrum 1999 p 68-69) The committee’s hand was strong though for they had forestalled the doomsayers, by making sure the LMI Secretary had shown to Lord Palmerston Brodrick’s design and had received in return “his Lordship’s complete approbation” (LMI Annual Report 1861 p 10)

On August 311865 (five years and two months after Brodrick’s design was first accepted) John Crosland’s firm began work and by 1868 had delivered a building crowned by a pavilion roof, whose “…principal feature … is the Lecture Room, rising to a height of 52 feet. It has a roof of somewhat novel construction; it is designed on the wheel pattern. The nave or hub of the wheel is an iron band which surrounds the central lantern, which rests on the rim formed by the walls of the circulator hall beneath”. This hall could seat 1,500 people. (Wilson 1937 p 27) The lecture theatre was 73 feet in diameter, two storeys high, with a gallery supported on iron columns and brackets. (Linstrum 1999 p 70) Users were particularly impressed with the improved lighting and ventilation of the new lecture theatre. (LMI Report 1869 p 3)

On the first floor there was a picture gallery, and rooms for drawing, painting, modelling, and exhibiting mechanical and architectural objects. Whilst on the ground floor there were classrooms and a library/reading room. The elevated site, with its monumental steps, makes the building appear larger than it actually is. (Linstrum 1999 p 70, 72). The final layout was much as the LMI had envisaged in their original design brief – including a basement tearoom ((LMI Annual Report 1861 p 9-10)

This fine building then enjoyed another thirty years of success. With its thriving library/reading room and annual, winter , series of lectures, alongside a thriving, growing, education provision. In 1898 the LMI had the following departments: Leeds Girls Modern School, Leeds Boys Modern School, Leeds School of Art, Leeds Technical School, Leeds School of Music, Commercial Evening School. (Historical Sketch p 21) But it was living in a changed world. Both national and local government had become powerful players in areas, like education and libraries, where once the LMI had been the sole, relatively accessible, provider.

For example, in 1871 the first Leeds public library had opened, albeit, in the completely unsuitable old infirmary building in Infirmary Street. From 1884, however, the library moved into newly built rooms within the municipal buildings across the street from Leeds Town Hall; where, incidentally, the Local and Family History still occupies the rooms built for it over 140 years ago. The city was also building schools like the Central High School and encouraging the foundation of the University of Leeds.

So we find that in 1903 the Leeds School of Art, which had been a nationally important, innovative development by the LMI in the 1850s, had out grown its home; first moving to premises in Vernon Street, where it enjoyed high prestige, as the renowned Leeds College of Art, before becoming today’s Leeds University of Arts. Over time, the day school and vocational schools became city council ventures, leaving the LMI with its school of music, library/reading room and lecture theatre. By 1925, however, the Lecture Theatre  was taken over by the British Drama League and in 1949 the whole building become the Civic Theatre, before returning towards its roots and becoming the home of the Leeds City Museum. The Civic Theatre, Cookridge Street, Leeds (

Today, after all the changes of ownership and use, the façade is unchanged. But inside little remains of the original room layout – except that the tearoom is still in its place on the lower ground floor. Though the two-storey high, galleried Lecture Theatre is no more, it’s central lantern, and hidden, welcome ventilators, continues to looks down on the city’s intelligent and prosperous people.


Derek Linstrum. Towers and Colonnades: the Architecture of Cuthbert Brodrick  (1999) 720.92 BRO

Leeds Institute of Science, Art and Literature. Historical Sketch: 1824 -1900

Leeds Mechanics Institute. Annual Reports (1858- 1871) L374.06 L517.

T. Butler Wilson. Two Leeds Architects: Cuthbert Brodrick and George Corson (1937) SR720.92BRO

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