What were the origins of Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools of Arts?

Q&A #2

Dr Roger Morris, AM

President, AMISA

George Birkbeck 1776–1841 by Samuel Lane 1830, Photograph of original(s), Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Birkbeck_1776%E2%80%931841_by_Samuel_Lane_1830.jpg

George Birkbeck 1776–1841 by Samuel Lane 1830, Photograph of original(s), Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

George Birkbeck, a wealthy Quaker MD, who was a professor of natural philosophy at Anderson’s Institution in Glasgow, from 1799 to 1804, began to offer, in 1800, a free course of Saturday evening lectures for mechanics or artisans [or in today’s terms, skilled trade persons], designed to familiarise them with the scientific principles that underpinned the work that they did and the tools and machinery that they used in their everyday work.

The class met with immediate success [soon some hundreds of mechanics were attending each Saturday evening] and survived its originator’s departure from the institution. In 1822, a number of former participants in the classes begun by Birkbeck, formed a separate body, the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute and invited Birkbeck to be its first president even though he was then no longer living in Glasgow.

He was living in London, where he was practicing medicine. Later the suggestion was made that Glasgow example should also be followed in London. The result was the creation of the London Mechanics’ Institute, the development of which became the lifelong work of the man whose name it now bears, Birkbeck College, a college of the University of London.

In the meanwhile (1821), a similar institution had been founded in Edinburgh called a School of Arts; as we noted in our last Q & A the term ‘arts’ as it was used here meant the practical arts in much same way as NSW high schools used the term ‘Manual or Industrial’ Arts.