The Mechanics Institute began with a meeting between William Fairburn, Thomas Hopkins and Richard Roberts, who agreed to each contribute £10 towards the foundation of an Institute to teach young men the application of science to manufacturing and art. Fairburn was a noted engineer, born in Scotland, who had come to Manchester in 1813 where he made mill-machinery before moving into making boilers and ship-building. Roberts was also an engineer, born in Wales, who came to Manchester about 1815 and made his money in manufacturing high precision machine tools and also through inventions such as the self-acting spinning mule. All three men were members of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society, at which Hopkins had contributed a number of papers.
Following this initial meeting, a public meeting was held at the Bridgewater Arms public house on High Street on 17 April 1824, chaired by Benjamin Heywood, the banker. Those present resolved to set up an institution to be known as the Manchester Mechanics Institute with the object of delivering lectures on the various sciences and their application to the arts and also to establish a reference and circulating library. Sufficient funds were pledged to allow land to be purchased on Cooper Street, where a building costing £7,000 was put up.
Control of the Institute was firmly in the hands of Manchester’s self-made manufacturing class who firmly rebuffed any suggestions for change from the working people attending the lectures. In March 1829 Rowland Detrosier led a breakaway group who founded their own Institute. Detrosier had been abandoned as a child and brought up in Manchester by Charles Barnes, a member of the Swedenborgian church. He worked as a clerk and also lectured at the Swedenborgian Sunday school. For a time he was connected with the Stockport Bible Christian church.
Although Detrosier moved to London where he lectured and became secretary of the National Political Union, he retained his links with Manchester and on 25 March 1831 he gave a lecture at the New Mechanics Institute which was later published as a pamphlet entitled On the Necessity of an Extension of Moral and Political Instruction among the Working Classes with the assistance of Francis Place, one of his London friends.
Lacking the funds of its wealthy parent, the New Mechanics Institute was based in a joiner’s shop in a timber yard near the top of Brazenose Street. It was run on democratic lines and had a small library. This group of working people appears to have connections with the Owenite movement for they were amongst those who encouraged the Owenites to build the Hall of Science in Campfield. The New Mechanics Institute appears to have lasted ten years and it seems likely that once the Hall of Science was opened they transferred their classes and library to the new building which survived until 1844.
The original Institute held regular classes in music , French and German, nature study, art appreciation and science. In 1837 it was agreed to hold classes for women for, as one of the directors pointed out, “much good would arise from the proper cultivation of their minds”. Victorian notions of the proper place of women were much in evident, however, for their classes included how to make wax flowers and household management. In addition to classes for adults the Institute also ran a school for boys and girls from 1834, which was attended by several hundred pupils.
In August 1847 a meeting was held in the Institute to set up the Lancashire Public School Association with the aim of “promoting a general system of secular education”. At this time there was no state education, only private schools which few could afford. There were religious schools but, of course, these naturally promoted the particular religion they were affiliated to.
The Institute was able to attract well-known personalities including the actors William Macready (famous for his Shakespeare performances) and Fanny Kemble (who was active in the anti-slavery movement) and Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Institute eventually outgrew its original building and a new building was constructed on Princess Street (then called David Street), costing £20,000 which opened in 1857. The architect was John Edward Gregan. It opened with a major exhibition which thousands visited.
In June 1868 the Institute was used for a congress of trade unions, the first such meeting to be held and which annual meeting continues to-day
In 1870 the government passed an Education Act which for the first time made education compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 12, establishing elected School Boards were set to build and run the new schools. This made some of the work of the Mechanics Institute unnecessary as basic provision for children was now under the aegis of the School Board. In September 1883 a Technical School was opened in the building by Oliver Heywood (son of Benjamin, who was continuing his father’s charitable work and whose statue can be seen in Albert Square). It was absorbed into the Manchester education system in 1892.
In 1910 a Day Training College was opened in the building to train teachers properly for there had been complaints for many years of the poor standard of teaching in schools., especially by pupil teachers who often had no formal training at all.
In 1917 another change took place when the building was designated the Municipal High School of Commerce. It ran day and evening classes for those hoping to pursue careers in business and included foreign languages in the curriculum. It moved out of the building in the 1960s.
By the mid 1970s the Institute was in a very bad state of repair although registered as a grade 2 listed building. Concerned trade unionists set up a campaign called MANTUC with the aim of restoring the building and re-opening it but after several years work this was not successful.
Another attempt succeeded some years later when, as the building neared collapse, a Trust was formed with backing from the City Council and the trade unions which restored the building and re-opened it as a trade union centre with meeting rooms, a main hall and a bar. The restoration included a meeting room set out with furniture, wallpaper and portraits in the style of 1868.
In 1990 the National Museum of Labour History moved its labour history archives into the ground floor of the building. (The galleries were in the Pumphouse). The official opening was on 7 May 1990 when the opening address was given by Jack Jones, former general secretary of TGWU and chair of the museum’s Trustees. In his speech he said
“I strongly believe that this gem of a museum is going to prove of great benefit to Manchester and the North of England, because of its special interest to trade unionists, members of the Co-operative movement and activist in the cause of women’s equality and progress will attract visitors from Germany, France, the other European countries and America as well as people from all parts of these islands.One of our prized possessions in Tom Paine’s table on which he wrote important parts of his famous work The rights of man. This writing of his made an enormous contribution to the American revolution and had some influence on the French revolution….
The many colourful and unique items on show to-day and others which we will be exhibiting will, I believe, demonstrate the real history of working people and their efforts to rise out of their poverty. This, I suggest, is much more important and educational than the drearysome recounting or reciting of dates of Kings and Queens and battles of the past.
All of us have a responsibility to cherish and preserve the essentials of historical development. It would be foolish to and indeed criminal to ignore and neglect that responsibility. Instead of respecting our past all too often very many objets of considerable historical value have been wantonly or inadvertently destroyed in the past by trade unions…It surely behoves both sides of industry and citizens generally to assist in avoiding the destruction of significant relics of people’s history.”
In March 2010 the labour history archives were moved out to a new home in the extended People’s History Museum (as the NMLH had by now rebranded itself). The Mechanics Institute remains open for meetings and other functions. For information on facilities offered in this historic building, please visit their website.
Article by Michael Herbert