The Mechanics’ Institute movement for the education of the working classes began in Scotland in 1821 and spread like wildfire once the many benefits of ‘education for working men’ became clear.
On the 16th October 1821 the first Mechanics’ lecture on Chemistry was organised by Leonard Horner at St. Cecelia’s Hall in Edinburgh. From this one lecture grew the Mechanic’s Institute movement that was to profoundly change the educational prospects of working men, around the world, over the next century.
That lecture was the first in a series run by the newly formed College of Arts in Edinburgh, attended within a month by 452 men who each paid a quarterly subscription. Those with a thirst for education, and self-betterment, attended courses of evening classes after work, in a model of adult education that underpinned the Mechanics’ Institute movement. So successful was it, that by the end of the 1820s there were at least twenty-four Institutes around Scotland alone, and a number also in America, Canada and Australia. For an idea of the rate and scale of the spread of institutes in Scotland see:
The ambitious organising committee for those first lectures emphasised that:
‘It is not intended to teach the trade of the Carpenter, the Mason, the Dyer, or other particular businesses; but there is not trade that does not depend, more or less, upon scientific principles…’ So they taught those.
By 1900 there were over nine thousand Mechanics’ Institutes worldwide. This extraordinary movement that changed the lives of so many over its 200 year history, but has been virtually forgotten in many places. In a few places the Institute buildings still provide a local community resource, while in fewer still full courses of mechanics evening classes are still being offered. See for instance the classes currently on offer at The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York: www.generalsociety.org
Many Mechanics’ Institutes eventually went on to become Colleges and Universities, or libraries and community halls. Others became hotels or offices, or were demolished.
The School of Arts in Edinburgh evolved eventually in Heriot Watt University, that in Glasgow into Strathclyde University, and in Dundee into Abertay University.
Two hundred years on from that first lecture, Heriot Watt University is celebrating this extraordinary movement with a conference in St Cecelia’s Hall, a poetry and photographic competition and a dinner in Edinburgh. Please join them if you can, by sending in an abstract for a conference paper telling of your own work on the Institutes, or a poem or picture for the competitions:
Join us also for the great Scottish Mechanics’ Institute Hunt if you can help us build a more complete history of the movement in Scotland:
Leonard Horner, the Whig reformer organised the first Mechanic’s Lecture in Edinburgh
On the 16th October 1821 the first Mechanics’ lecture was given in St Cecelia’s Hall in Edinburgh where the 200th anniversary of that lecture will be celebrated on the 16th October 2021
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