The Mechanics’ Institute: Part III – “…In no small measure to contribute…to the advancement of the community.”

The third and final part in guest author Tony Scaife’s trilogy exploring the Leeds Mechanics Institute. All three articles were researched using books and other resources available in the Local Studies & Research department at Leeds Central Library.

We had left the story of the Leeds Institute with the 1865 opening of the Cuthbert Brodrick-designed building that still stands on Cookridge Street, and described by many contemporaries as one of the finest examples of its kind in the country. Taking the story forward the Local and Family History’s collection has nothing on the Institute until we get to the carefully bound, perfectly type set, magnificently detailed, and, for the general reader, indescribably dull, volume of the 1899 – 1906 syllabuses of the Leeds Institute.

Undoubtedly this must be the apogee of the Institute’s role in technical and vocational education practice in Leeds. Developed in response to nearly a century of social, economic, and technical development, these syllabuses were to prepare students for a variety of national written examinations covering the following departments:

  • The Leeds Technical School
  • The Leeds School of Art
  • The Commercial Evening School

From this high point we shall see, however, the Leeds Institute not being able to respond to the change in the new century. Its role in technical and vocational education, and the  prestige and revenue it brought, would be quickly gone. The public library service was growing and from the 1920’s onwards newspapers, cinema and especially the wireless (radio) were significant counter attractions.

The Leeds of the 1900’s had a reputation for progressive education – especially secondary. So it was inevitable then that when national government policy began to favour public provision of post -secondary education that Leeds would quickly follow suit. First to go into Corporation control was the College of Art in 1903. To be followed shortly by the College of Technology (later Kitson College) and the College of Commerce (later Park Lane College) (See Thornton p 201). The College of Music, however, remained in the Leeds Institute building.

From 1907 the Leeds Institute, shorn of its education role, was focussed on serving the approximately 2,000 subscribing members (Morrish p 109) and the patronage of the public. Clearly this was not enough to maintain the status quo for in 1912 we find the Charity Commission authorising the sale of the land and buildings of the Leeds Institute to Leeds Corporation for “not less than £39,000”; which sum would be used to clear the debts and mortgage of the Leeds Institute. For its part Leeds Corporation would grant the Leeds Institute Trustees a 999-year lease on the Cookridge Street building for a peppercorn rent. So, the Institute were now simply tenants in the building their predecessors had enlisted the support of a Monarch and a Prime Minister to have built only about fifty years earlier.

The members retained access to a library / reading room, the well-established annual programme of public lectures and the café. (Leeds Institute … Syllabus 1907 -15)

Image shows an empty lecture theatre
(c) Leeds Libraries

Starting in October and going through to March there were 21 or 22 lectures on Wednesdays starting at 7:30 pm. At Christmas there was a matinee event – often musical – aimed at children. Members attended lectures for free, but anyone else could buy a single admission ticket for a pricey 2/-.

The published programme (syllabus) had photographs and biographies of the lecturers and a synopsis of their lecture. There were now frequent references to accompanying lantern slides but never film.  As they had since the earliest days the lecture topics usually included travel, popular science, history, literature, philosophy, and music.  But there were never any overtly party political or denominational religious topics. An attempt to book the Albert Hall by the Solidarity with the Russian People Convention in June 1917 was refused; perhaps at the behest of the Institutes’ landlord. (Thornton p 186)

The annual programme was regularly praised, not least in the programme itself,  for being varied and comprehensive. Though, to modern eyes, perhaps, the  lecturers no longer had the national prominence of the earlier days. Then, Prime Ministers and the likes of George Stephenson, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde spoke; in contrast, Mrs Beerbohm Tree’s 1907 dramatic recital or, much later, Vera Britten talk on her Testament of Youth  did not have the same name check impact as those earlier luminaries. That said, Giovanni Marconi’s, to be scheduled appearance in 1908, was undoubtedly a significant name. Whilst members waited for Marconi to appear after completing his business in America what else could they do?

A chess club had long used the Reading Room and there had been occasional mention in the annual reports of short-lived experiments with discussion groups. Now we find the Leeds Institute cast in the role of community hub, hosting a whole range of clubs and societies: The Leeds Institute Literary Circle, the Leeds Institute Vocal Society, Geographical Society, Parliament and Debating Society, Chess Club, Leeds Modern School Old Boys, Leeds Symphony Society, Dickens Dramatic Society, Photographic Society, Camera Club, Naturalists and Scientific Society.

The Trustees continued the long- standing practice of hiring out the Albert Hall itself, or other rooms, for a sliding scale charge from of £6 a day, with an additional charge for electricity if the Hall was used after 10:00 pm. Each printed programme is also well supported by paid local advertising – often men’s outfitters, high end furniture suppliers, insurers, cafes and restaurants. It is of passing interest to note how more and more advertised firms began to include their telephone number as the years progressed.  With echoes of previous fund raisers there were also several programmes for pre-First World War events like the Oct 7-10.1908 Old English Autumn Fair.

The Institute café was also heavily promoted. Open from 11:00 am to 10:00 pm offering lunches (1/8d or 2/-) and an Institute Tea: 1/8d with fish or cold meat, 1/- for tea, bread, jam, and cake. One could also hire the café for whist drives or other events. There was a regular appeal to ladies to take afternoon tea or otherwise arrange to entertain their guests. From today’s perspective being able to get poached eggs on toast and tea for 8d , in Leeds up to 10:00 pm seems a very welcome option.

Shows a dining room or cafe with tables and chairs
(c) Leeds Libraries

There is a gap in the collection until 1927, but then we find even more testimonials  to the value of subscribing to the Institute: “Perhaps the best guinea’s-worth which Leeds has to offer to its citizens is to be found in the investment of that amount in the Leeds Institute… A leading London authority, after reviewing the Leeds Institute syllabus has declared it to be the finest in the provinces.” (Daily Chronicle)

Furthermore, the syllabus quotes Prof. A J Grant: “The lectures at the Leeds Institute have continued to appeal to a large public when elsewhere attendance at lectures have flagged and failed” (p.4 Leeds Institute Syllabus 1927 – 1929)

From 1927 onwards no matter how impressive the Winter Lecture series were judged to be there were now more accessible and cheaper options available. Firstly, Leeds had many local newspapers (Thornton p. 1988-99); secondly, cinema – from its beginnings with the 1912 opening of the 600-seat Rialto cinema in Briggate (incidentally the same year the Trustees surrendered ownership of the Cookridge Street building). By the 1930s there were new cinemas “opening every month”. (Thornton p. 186). Perhaps an even more direct competitor was the coming of the wireless (radio) to Leeds, starting in 1924 and offering ‘talks’ as part of its regular programming. (Thornton p. 199)

The 1927 programme also contains the first mention of a play being staged in the Albert Hall – a performance of Elizabeth Baker’s Bertie’s Girl on Dec 7 – though the British Drama League had in fact been staging plays in the Albert Hall from 1925, starting with a production of Sutton Vane’s Overture.

In response to this changing social and media landscape the final volume of the Institute’s syllabus 1933- 1940 in the LFH collection is largely unchanged from that of  1907. Lord Halifax – then Foreign Secretary – is the now-Institute President. But there is the same typeface and monochrome printing, with the same layout and even the same two photographs of the Albert Hall and the café. The lectures are drawn from same subjects, though becoming much more topical towards the end; for example, on Dec 2 1936 ,Lt Col Stewart Roddie lectured on “Germany: through revolution… to Hitler “; and, on Dec 1 1937, the Rt. Hon Wedgewood Benn lectured on “Troubled Europe”.

But a direct threat to the Institute were much closer to home. In 1937 the Leeds Education Committee proposed a major redevelopment in the Woodhouse Lane, Vernon Street, Cookridge Street and Great George Street area. The Trustees feared the plans may lead to the demolition of the very building itself. They pledged to defend the interests of the “the distinctive individuality of the Institute “ and hoped that the plans might mean that  its “powers of service greatly increased,” that it might “… in no small measure contribute to the intellectual and cultural advancement of the community”. ( p 55 Leeds Institute… Syllabus 1938)

Echoing the earlier decision to take the provision of adult education into city control the City Librarian now weighed in with his own proposal for a Cultural Centre, to be based on a much expanded Municipal Buildings footprint and to include a library, the art gallery, the museum and meeting rooms – all to be complemented by a 700-seat lecture theatre complete with a projection booth to show films more tasteful than those in the commercial cinemas. (1938 Annual report of [Libraries] Committee … of the City of Leeds)

Whilst these plans were all being debated, the 115th syllabus in 1938 -39 was delivered as scheduled, including Mrs Cecil Chesterton’s The Human Story Behind Soviet Russia” on Oct 26 and followed by the printing of the 116th syllabus for 1939-40, in which the café was scheduled to close at 7 pm. On Feb 14 1940 Lt. Col. Roddie was to return with a lecture entitled” Behind the scenes in Berlin: are we in a mould or melting pot?”  Poignantly the end paper of the 1939-40 syllabus carries a reassuring advert for Robinson’s Tours offering “Delightful tours of Holland, Belgium, France and Germany.” Furthermore, departing on Oct 25 1939 there were “cruises to Norway and Finland, the Mediterranean and round Britain”. But we now know the programming was redundant as other  events intervened.

There had been about 2,300 subscribing members in 1901 but by 1939 this had fallen to 1400. Some of these were now liable to be called up for military service and the civil defence regulations also meant that the Institute would have to close at dusk each day. There could, therefore, be no evening lecture programme or any evening meetings, The Trustees decided that the Institute could not continue under these circumstances, and they decided to seek voluntary liquidation. Some library books were donated to the hospitals and the colleges that had grown out of the Institute. Others were taken by members and the remainder sold. On May 21 1940 the Trustees’ lease on the Leeds Institute was surrendered to the Leeds Education Committee for a consideration of £2,310 9s 6d. (p 109 Morrish)

So, after 116 years, the Leeds Institute ceased to be. From the beginning Trustees and members had been tireless in their efforts to “cultivate the minds “of the people of Leeds. They had certainly achieved a building and a national image “commensurate with” the growing status of the city. The coming war precipitated the end. But perhaps the falling membership and unchanging nature of the published programmes from 1907 onwards indicates a wider malaise – an unwillingness or inability to respond to the needs and interests of the changing city it had helped create.

There is no doubt that the Institute had greatly “contributed to the advancement of the community”. But, with hindsight, was the Leeds Institute a victim of its own success? The universities, colleges, schools, arts and cultural institutions that owe their origins, in part, to the Leeds Institute  had, in the end, given Leeds’ citizens opportunities, skills, confidence and vision to pursue aspirations beyond what the Institute itself would ever have been able to fulfil.

Tony Scaife


Annual reports of [Libraries] Committee … of the City of Leeds L352.02  L517

Charity Commission.  Sale of the Leeds Institute of Science, Art and Literature to Leeds Corporation LQP 374.06 L517

Leeds Institute … Syllabus (1907 -15) L374.06 L517

Leeds Institute Syllabus (1927 – 1929) L374.06 L517

Leeds Institute … Syllabus (1933- 40) L374.06 L517

Leeds  Mechanics Institute Official Handbook: Old English Autumn Fair (Oct 7-10 1908) LP 374.06 L517

Leeds Mechanics Institute Syllabus (1899-1900 and 1905-06) L374.06 L517

Morrish, P S. Libraries in Leeds (Thoresby Society Vol 26, 2017-18)

Thornton, David. Leeds: The Story of a City (Fort Publishing: 2002)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.