Literary, Scientific, and Mechanics’ Institutions

9781108009379fc3dJames Hole was probably born in Manchester in 1819 or 1820, and his father was probably a tailor. While working in the cotton industry, he attended evening classes, and later moved to Leeds, where he became the confidential clerk of a textile manufacturer. In 1864, he published (anonymously) the first version in English of Renan’s hugely influential Life of Jesus.

Hole worshipped at the Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel in Leeds, where Joseph Priestley had formerly been minister, and was influenced by social reformers such as Robert Owen, and thinkers such as Ricardo (coming soon!) and Carlyle. He was also a leader of the co-operative movement in Leeds, and chairman of the Leeds Industrial Co-operative Society from 1849. Convinced of the imperative need for universal education for both sexes, he focused on the availability of education for working-class adults – where a start had already been made by the creation of ‘mechanics’ institutions’ in the late 1700s.

The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, whose President was at the time the Prince Consort, offered a prize (a medal and £50) in 1852 ‘for the best Essay on the History and Management of Literary, Scientific, and Mechanics’ Institutions; and especially how far they may be developed and combined so as to promote the moral well-being and industry of the country’. The prize was awarded to ‘the Essay with the motto “Nemo Labori Musas vetet” [Let no-one bar the arts and sciences to Labour]’, and the work was published by the Society of Arts in 1853.

Hole begins with a reference to the Great Exhibition of 1851, and a consideration of its legacy, both in London and across Britain. He forcefully asks, ‘If so much had been done without any special culture on the part of the people, how much more might be done with it?’, arguing that the education of the working class is not only their right, but also an immeasurable moral and commercial benefit to the country as a whole.

Surveying the history of ‘Literary, Scientific, and Mechanics’ Institutions’, which (while acknowledging earlier precedents such as the work of George Birkbeck in Glasgow and London) he describes as beginning with the formation of the London Mechanics’ Institution in 1823, he bluntly states that after an encouraging start, the movement was, after thirty years, a failure.

George Birkbeck (1776–1841). Credit: Wellcome Library, London

George Birkbeck
(1776–1841). Credit: The Welcome Library

On the face of it, this was not the case: there were currently 700 such institutions, with 120,000 members, large libraries, and thousands of lectures delivered yearly. But examining these figures in more detail, Hole shows conclusively that there was a failure both to attract the ‘mechanic class’ (as opposed to merchants, manufacturers, clerks, shopkeepers, etc.) and ‘to impart scientific instruction’. In Leeds, one of the biggest and best organised institutions in the country (and of course the one of which Hole had best personal knowledge), he calculated that only one in fifteen of the workers for whom it was intended ‘have embraced the advantages of the Institution’.

Not only that, but the pedagogic purpose of the institutions was being undermined: the libraries were stocking too much fiction and too many periodicals; musical evenings were replacing lectures; but lectures, when they did happen, were usually of no use to their hearers, because they lacked the basic education – which they should have received as children – to profit from them. A vicious circle of ignorance, boredom and apathy thus set in which drove away the people whose lives the institutes had been designed to enhance. (However, they drew in the middling and aspirational classes, in exactly the same way that, apparently, ‘early years’ initiatives set up to help struggling families today are being ‘hijacked’ by the middle classes.)

Hole drew statistics and anecdotes from Europe and America (including Charles Lyell’s account of his lecture tour of the United States) to back up his own suggestion, that using qualified teachers to provide structured classes for adults in reading and writing, mathematics, political economy, and the sciences, should be the main aim of the institutions, but that additional lectures, occasional exhibitions, and even musical evenings and sporting events, should also have a place, not only to provide wholesome relaxation but to draw in young men who might otherwise be resorting to drinking dens or worse in their scanty leisure hours.

In appropriate areas, vocational training should also be available: for example, explanations of the chemistry of dyes and fabric printing in the textile towns – so that the worker understands why he is performing the tasks he is set, what their consequences are, and the significance of his own role. The educated mechanic  (see John Banks’ A Treatise on Mills, coming soon) instead of being a mere machine operating a machine, has his head trained as well as his hands, and can better adapt to change, and indeed suggest changes and improvements himself, if his mind and not just his body is engaged in carrying out his work. (Ruskin and Morris would both have approved.)

Hole goes on to deliver specific proposals about the organisation, management, and (crucially) funding of the institutions in the future: he believes that state aid is not only desirable but necessary in an area that was traditionally supported by the random philanthropy of the wealthy more than by the subscriptions of the poor. (A sort of postcode lottery, in effect.)

He believes (like Baroness Burdett-Coutts) in a joined-up system of education. He realises that universal childhood education is ‘out of scope’ (as we say these days) for the purposes of his essay, but he envisages that the built and human resources of the institutes could also be used to educate children, and he is forthright on the need to educate women to at least the same level as men, and to provide vocational training to enable unmarried women to earn their own livings. Not only this, but there is no reason why men and women should not share classrooms and lecture rooms – just as, he points out, they share places of worship.

Radical stuff for the 1850s, but Hole was part of a movement which paved the way for the more radical reformers of the 1870s and 1880s. He quotes John Stuart Mill on the education of women, and writes approvingly of the efforts of Sir Benjamin Heywood (grandson of Thomas Percival), a wealthy banker who was a founder of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute (and whose brother James was a trustee of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester (where William Gaskell was the minister for sixty years)), and was instrumental in removing the religious test at Oxford and Cambridge, and later in supporting Emily Davies’ efforts to found Girton College.

Hole continued to pursue schemes for social reform for the next forty years. He worked with Henry Solly, and was active in the Commons Preservation Society, which led to the foundation of the National Trust. As with Octavia Hill, decent housing for the poor was a preoccupation, and he personally bought up properties in London, rendered them habitable and rented them out at affordable prices.

Desirable accommodation in London. One room of several in a house in Gray's Inn Lane, in 1850. Wellcome Library, London

Desirable accommodation in London. One room of several in a house in Gray’s Inn Lane, in 1850. Wellcome Library, London

Judging from this readable, closely argued work, Hole deserves to be better remembered than he is, as a pioneer of social and educational reform.

Caroline

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2 Responses to Literary, Scientific, and Mechanics’ Institutions

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