Opened in 1840 by the Owenite Co-operative Movement, the Hall of Science was a centre for working class education and social activity for a decade.
Salford was an important centre for those inspired by the writings and ideas of Robert Owen to set up Co-operative enterprises.
In 1831 a small group of Co-operators opened up a school for children and adults, making the furniture themselves. They taught the three R’s as well as music, drawing, singing and dancing. Within six months they had 170 pupils, ranging in age from 12 to 40, most of whom were local factory workers keen to improve their education. For many, schooling had been denied them as they had no money to pay. The teachers at the Co-operative School were unpaid and there was no charge for tuition.
At the 3rd Co-operative Congress, held in 1832, the Manchester Society presented a report urging all societies to establish libraries and reading rooms to spread Co-operative ideas. At this time few working people could afford to buy books or even newspapers.
Having outgrown their original premises in 1835, the Salford Co-operators built and opened the Co-operative Social Institute on Great George Street. The costs were met by a local glazier, Joseph Smith. Robert Cooper, one of the teachers at the Salford Co-operative School, described the hall as follows.
“The windows were of stained class, the floors carpeted and the platform neat and elegant, ornamented with mottoes in gilt mouldings. Altogether it bore an aspect of comfort and respectability , such as I never saw before or since in connection with an almost purely working class movement.”
George Holyoake, who later became the most well-known historian of the Co-operative Movement, visited the Institute and recorded it as “a pleasant structure, costing £850 and capable of holding six hundred persons.”
In February 1837 Robert Owen addressed large audiences at the Salford Institute. These meetings became so crowded that they were moved to Bywater’s Rooms on Peter Street, which held 3,000 people. Members were enrolled and they went on to set up local groups and spread the Co-operative Movement’s ideals and principles. The third Congress of an Owenite organisation, The Association of Classes of All Nations, was held in the Institute during Whit week, 1837, where they were addressed by Owen himself.
By 1839 the Owenites had outgrown the Salford Institute and they moved to a new home. In January 1840 the Hall of Science was opened by Robert Owen on Byrom Street in Campfield, just off Deansgate in the centre of Manchester. The building had cost £7,000 and was the largest lecture hall in Manchester, holding over 3,000. The hall bore the motto “Sacred to the Investigation of Truth.” There were evening and Sunday lectures and also concerts, parties and excursions. The Sunday school had 250 pupils by 1842. The hall also attracted opposition. In April 1840, for instance, an attempt was made to burn it down. The perpetrators were never caught.
In the summer of 1842 a great strike swept across the Lancashire cotton towns. On 16 August a delegate conference took place in the Hall, chaired by Alexander Hutchinson. The Chartist newspaper The Northern Star commented that the meeting had been marked by great earnestness and good order. Many of those attending were later arrested after the strike ended.
Frederick Engels arrived in Manchester in December 1842 to work in the family firm Ermen & Engels and soon found his way to the Hall of Science, which was just a few minutes walk from the firm’s offices on Southgate.
He wrote (somewhat condescendingly):
“At first on cannot get over one’s surprise at hearing in the Hall of Science the most ordinary workers speaking with a clear understanding on political, religious and social affairs..…I saw the Socialist hall, which holds about 3,000, crowded every Sunday.”
Engels engaged in political dialogue and debate with the hall’s main lecturer, John Watts, and also wrote for the Owenite journal The New Moral World.
He described a meeting in the Hall thus: Watts “without removing his hat …comes onto the platform on which there is table and chairs. After raising his hat by way of greeting those present , he takes off his overcoat and then sits down and delivers his lecture, which usually gives much occasion for laughter, for in these speeches the English intellect expresses itself.”
The Hall only survived until 1850 when, after splits and divisions within the Owenite movement, it was sold and the Manchester Free Library was established in the building. In 1877 the Hall was demolished after its structure had become weakened by the weight of books and the library moved to the former Manchester Town Hall on King Street and in 1934 to its present home in Central Library.