‘The Road to Learning’: Re-evaluating the Mechanics’ Institute Movement
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This thesis is a re-evaluation of a movement founded to provide what Samuel Smiles called “the road to learning” for workers in the nineteenth century. Mechanics’ institutes emerged during the 1820s to both criticism and acclaim, becoming part of the physical and intellectual fabric of the age and inspiring a nationwide building programme funded entirely by public subscription. Beginning with a handful of examples in major British cities, they eventually spread across the Anglophone world. They were at the forefront of public engagement with arts, science and technology.
This thesis is a history of the mechanics’ institute movement in the British Isles from the 1820s through to the late 1860s, when State involvement in areas previously dominated by private enterprises such as mechanics’ institutes, for example library provision and elementary schooling, became more pronounced.
The existing historiography on mechanics’ institutes is primarily regional in scope and this thesis breaks new ground by synthesising a national perspective on their wider social, political and cultural histories. It contributes to these broader themes, as well as areas as diverse as educational history, the history of public exhibition and public spaces, visual culture, print culture, popular literacy and literature (including literature generated by the Institutes themselves, such as poetry and prose composed by members), financial services, education in cultural and aesthetic judgement, Institutes as sources of protest by means of Parliamentary petitions, economic history, and the nature, theory and practice of the popular dissemination of ideas. These advances free the thesis from ongoing debate around the success or failure of mechanics’ institutes, allowing the emphasis to be on the experiential history of the “living” Institute.
The diverse source base for the thesis includes art, sculpture, poetry and memoir alongside such things as economic data, library loan statistics, membership numbers and profit / loss accounts from institute reports. The methodology therefore incorporates qualitative (for example, tracing the evolution of attitudes towards Institutes in contemporary culture by analysing the language used to describe them over time) and quantitative (for example, exploring Institutes as providers of financial services to working people) techniques. For the first time, mechanics’ institutes are studied in relation to political corruption, debates concerning the morality of literature and literacy during the nineteenth century, and the legislative processes of the period.
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