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The Beginnings of Scientific and Technical Education

The higher instruction given to workers was mainly concerned at first with science. As early as 1760 a professor at Glasgow, named Anderson, had begun to hold evening classes in science, which working men were encouraged to attend. In his will he left an endowment for a chair of natural philosophy at the University. Its first occupant was George Birkbeck (1776-1841), who held a degree in medicine. When he started his lectures in 1799 he found it necessary to have a good deal of apparatus, and while this was being made under his instructions he became acquainted with a number of Glasgow artisans. He found them so intelligent and so eager to learn that he resolved to start a course of lectures and experiments in mechanics 'solely for persons engaged in the practical exercise of the mechanical arts, men whose situation in early life has precluded the possibility of acquiring even the smallest portion of scientific knowledge.' The lectures proved a great success. After Birkbeck removed to London in 1804, the lectures were continued by the next occupant of the chair; and finally, in 1823, the members of the class organised it into a 'Mechanics' Institute'. Its purpose was defined as 'instructing artisans in the scientific principles of arts and manufactures'.

Mechanics' institutes soon sprang up in many parts of the country. They were supported by subscriptions from the members and by donations from sympathisers. By 1845 there were 610 institutions, with 102,050 members. They were naturally most popular in the manufacturing districts, such as London, Lancashire, and Yorkshire; but there were a few successful institutes also in such rural centres as Lewes, Basingstoke, Chichester and Lincoln. Each Institute usually included a library, reading-room, and museum of models and apparatus. Lectures were provided on mathematics and its applications, and on natural and experimental science and drawing. Sometimes literary subjects, such as English and foreign languages, were included. Travelling lecturers and circulating boxes of books helped to keep the smaller institutes in touch with one another.

The mechanics' institutes played an important part in English education, and yet they were only partially successful. By 180 two changes had become noticeable. Their membership consisted more of clerks and apprentices and middle-class people than of working men, for whose benefit they had been founded; and, as a corollary of this, their syllabuses had tended to change. There was less purely technical instruction and more recreational activities and popular lectures. Discussions, debates, and even social courses tended to take the place of ad hoc courses designed to help artisans. There were several reasons for this change. The artisans and working classes had not yet received an elementary education, which would form an adequate foundation on which to build a superstructure of technical education. Reference has already been made to the meagre limits of education provided by the monitorial schools and other elementary schools. It must also be remembered that some of the children of the poor hardly went to school at all and that the average length of school life was in any case only one and a half or two years. Moreover, a great obstacle to the spread of knowledge at this period was the high cost of newspapers, owing to the Government duty: from 1819 to 1836 there was a stamp duty of 4d. a copy. In a Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834 there occurs this passage: 'The dearness of newspapers in this country is an insurmountable obstacle to the education of the poor. I could name twenty villages within a circuit of a few miles in which a newspaper is never seen from one year's end to another.' Again, the fees for membership and classes in mechanics' institutes tended to be too high for those for whom they were originally designed. At the London Mechanics' Institute in 1823 the annual subscription was fixed at 1, and this seems to have been a fairly usual charge. In 1826 1,477 workmen paid this fee at the London Institute: but it would be a rather high fee for people of that type even today, and it must have been much more onerous in the Corn Law days, after the Napoleonic Wars, when wages generally were low. Thus the mechanics' institutes tended to decline in importance and change in character. But some of them retained much of their original character and were stimulated into new life by the development of technical education during the second half of the nineteenth century. For example, the London Mechanics' Institute was the forerunner of the present Birkbeck College, which caters for evening students but is a constituent part of the University of London. In the broadest sense, the mechanics' institutes have laid the foundation for the development of our modern technical schools and colleges.

(From A Short History of English Education, by H. C. Barnard.)