Walker, Martyn (2012) The banquet was prepared for guests who did not come: A study of the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics' Institutes and its contribution to 19th century adult working-class education, 1838–1900. In: Buildings Books and Blackboards:Intersecting Narratives Conference 2012, 28th Nov-1st Dec. 2012, Melbourne, Australia.

Dr Martyn Walker, ‘The banquet was prepared for guests who did not come': A study of the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics' Institutes and its contribution to 19th century adult working class education, 1838 - 1900
The first mechanics’ institute in Britain was founded in 1823 at Glasgow in Scotland, with Dr George Birkbeck, an Englishman, as its first president. The Institute was the successor of the Andersonian Institution which had been established in 1796 by Dr John Anderson ‘for the good and improvement of mankind’. With the success of the first institute, the movement spread throughout Britain and abroad, including of course, Australia.
Historians have argued since the 1950s that the Mechanics’ Institute Movement in Britain was not a success. While the aim of the Movement had been to offer education to the newly developing working class, several academics in this field suggest that those institutes that did continue beyond a few years of their opening, tended to offer only advanced scientific public lectures which were mainly patronised by the professional classes. Studies have tended to concentrate on the movement up to the 1850s, when it was believed that mechanics’ institutes were no longer of relevance in supporting educational developments.
This paper challenges the generally accepted view that mechanics’ institutes in Britain made little contribution to adult working-class education and lasted for only a short period of time. In particular, it questions to what extent was the impact of the movement upon adult working-class education in a regional context. The paper argues, referring specifically to the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics’ Institutes, that there is much evidence to support the claim that the Movement actually went from strength to strength throughout the nineteenth century, The basis for this research has been the use of the Annual Reports of the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics’ Institutes, which were published in Leeds at the Union’s Headquarters, from 1838. They are made up of individual institute committee reports, supported with statistical data for each one, listing membership (male and female), number of library volumes and membership costs. For the purpose of this paper, research has concentrated on the distribution patterns, noting that Union institutes were not only to be found in the urban and industrialising towns, but were also located in the rural and semi-rural areas of the Yorkshire Dales, Pennines and beyond. Through mapping their location, this paper has also identified several clusters of institutes, which will be looked at, if briefly, in a local, regional and sometimes national context.
With the passing of the Technical Instruction Act in 1889 and the Local Taxation Act in 1890, many institutes were taken into State ownership and become technical schools, technical colleges and, in several cases, universities. The smaller institutes often became satellite centres for colleges, public libraries and museums. Thus, this paper provides ample evidence that puts beyond doubt that the Mechanics’ Institute Movement in Britain was successful, with regard to its original aim, in providing education to the working classes in support of industrialisation.


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