Radical Voices: Mechanics' Institution Libraries

On 3rd March 2017, as part of its ‘Radical Voices’ season, Senate House Library is hosting a conference entitled ‘Radical Collections: Radicalism and Libraries and Archives’. With this in mind, this blog post looks at an almost 200-year-old attempt to increase access to literature and science for the working class, via the libraries of the Mechanics’ Institutions. Senate House Library holds numerous primary texts from a wide range of Mechanics’ Institutions, many of them located within the special collection ‘Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature’; a significant proportion of these are also available digitally via the electronic resource ‘Making of the Modern World: Goldsmiths’-Kress Library of Economic Literature 1450-1850’.

Whilst there had been attempts to provide library services to the working class before the 19th century this provision was largely unsystematic and ad-hoc. The Mechanics’ Institutions responded to this dearth of provision to such a degree that by the mid-19th century there were around 700 such institutions in England (Kelly, p.187) aiming to instruct workers, especially those of the skilled mechanics class, in the study of science and practical arts via three core functions: lectures, classes and a library. The Library was deemed the most important and influential aspect; indeed, many Mechanics’ Institutions remained as libraries after the other elements had ceased functioning.

One of the texts held at Senate House Library is an 1825 pamphlet by Henry Brougham, co-founder of both the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the University of London (later University College London), entitled ‘Practical Observations upon the Education of the People Addressed to the Working Classes and Their Employers’. (Brougham was not the only link to the future University of London. George Birkbeck was president and founding influence of the London Mechanics’ Institution, later to become Birkbeck College).

title page of Brougham pamphlet
Title page of Brougham pamphlet

In this pamphlet Brougham makes reference to the libraries within Mechanics’ Institutions, beginning by highlighting the difficulties and deficits of circulating library provision for workers who lack both money for books and leisure time to read them; these libraries “are little suited to those who have only an hour or two every day, or every other day, to bestow upon reading” (p.6). This comment is written in the context of an increasingly literate urban workforce and at a time when the cost of a novel was high relative to the average weekly wage.

Brougham also comments on his ideal system of book collection within these nascent Mechanics’ Institutions. Following the provision of a few necessary, initial donations from rich benefactors, the member subscribers – the mechanics – should oversee the process. Brougham also believes the role of a librarian in this process would be “a faulty arrangement … unless the officers are themselves chosen by the readers” (p.7). This is a relatively radical statement suggesting as it does management and selection from the ground upwards, albeit via an elected committee.

Bound with the Brougham pamphlet are examples of rules and regulations from a variety of Mechanics’ Institutions, including those relating to the Hackney Mechanics Institution and its library.

London Mechanics' Register cover
Cover of London Mechanics' Register, August 13th 1825

An early mention of the formation of the Hackney institute is in a letter to the editor of the ‘London Mechanics’ Register’ on Saturday 13th August 1825 the cover of which journal, with rotated steam combustion illustration, is shown here.

This letter relates a meeting held at a famed Hackney pub, the Mermaid Tavern, a hostelry used to ideological uplift having not many years previously witnessed hot air balloons rising from its pleasure garden. George Birkbeck chaired the meeting and it was here that a literary and mechanics institute for Hackney was formed, the aim of which was to impart knowledge to all “however low or humble they may be in the scale of society” (p.265).

This impulse to broaden education for all is an honourable one although in reality the “all” related specifically to mechanics, an aristocracy amongst skilled workers. However, despite the limitations of their ambitions these institutes were trying to change the aspirations of a hitherto ignored section of workers, even if often that impulse was somewhat patriarchal as this comment from the Hackney meeting, voiced by a Mr Rutt, shows: “if men can read, there must be something provided for them to read; for if we do not give them proper books they will find improper ones” (p.266).

The ‘Rules and Orders’ of the Hackney institute exhort that at least a third of committee members must be from the working class. Reading the list of committee members it does seem this aim has been achieved as there are, listed amongst the more numerous middle class roles such as surgeons and architects, representatives from the skilled trades such as printers, carpenters and paper hangers (p.4).

These ‘Rules and Orders’ also show how important the libraries were for achieving the aim of educating the mechanics as it outlines procedures for the donation of books, a library of reference, a circulating library and a reading room (p.3). Reading these now there is much that will be familiar to today’s library users.  For instance, the circulating library allowed members to suggest stock additions; books were to be stamped with the Hackney institute’s name; loan periods were stated on the book covers; renewals were allowed if not requested by another reader; fines were charged for late returns; damaged or lost books were recovered by the reader. It is only the quantity of books borrowable at any time (only one) which has fundamentally changed since 1825.

Abstract of rules
From the Abstract of 'Rules and Orders' for the Hackney Mechanics Institution

One of the main criticisms of the Mechanics’ Institutions was their concentration on one type of working man. The very poor, women and children were not usually part of the plan for the education of all. However, the Hackney institute documents contain an ‘Abstract’ of the rules; here, hidden at the end in a couple of short sentences, is a mention of women and children. Sons and apprentices of members may attend for a fee whilst a further bye-law, which feels rather an after-thought, states “Female friends or relatives of Members may be admitted to the Lectures” for a fee slightly higher than that of the male children. There is no mention, however, of either being admitted to the library.

1826 saw the publication of ‘The First Year’s Report of the Hackney Literary and Mechanic Institution’. It is heartening to read that the library already had 333 volumes (although 123 of these were donated), forty pounds had been spent on books including literature, and at one point a high of 30 circulations had been seen in one month. Four periodicals were available for perusal in the Reading Room which, crucially, was open from 7-10pm each evening, outside working hours.

The issue of donations mentioned here was one of the most problematic for the Mechanics’ Institutions, relying on them as they did for the founding of the libraries. Accepting donations meant they had little control over the content of the works accepted, a situation which caused a moment of controversy during the Hackney institute’s first year. The ‘Report’ mentions (p7) a subject which “agitated” members, that is “what books were or were not suitable for the Library”, which arose following a gift including 5 volumes from the Christian Tract Society. The offending tracts were accepted leading to accusations that the institute was disseminating “mere party opinions” (Italics from the original text) (p.8).

This issue led to a new ruling providing the committee with the freedom to reject books that espoused political or religious bias and a stricter obligation to ensure they were purchasing works on science and literature. This issue is still evoked in library services today; the quest for objectivity jostling with the obvious biases of published works (and the library staff themselves).

Despite claiming to refuse bias, one notable and controversial aspect of Mechanics’ Institution libraries was their aim to impart only knowledge which was deemed “useful” (p.3 ‘Rules and Orders’), a bias in itself. Books were judged for their utility, for their ability to educate the mechanics in subjects useful to their work. Learning for the sake of learning, or reading for entertainment, were not part of the Mechanics’ Institution ethos. Friedrich Engels criticised the Mechanics’ Institutions on this very point believing that they were “for the dissemination of science useful to the bourgeoisie” (Marx & Engels, p.274).

Books held at Hackney Mechanics Institution
From the book catalogue of the Hackney Mechanics Institution

The books held in the Hackney institute by the end of their first year certainly reflect this bias, although a small amount of history and poetry has also found its way onto the shelves. The catalogue is arranged alphabetically by title in sections ordered by book size (Quarto, Octavo and Duodecimo plus Tracts and Maps) thus helping us today visually imagine the library shelves. The image here shows the inclusion of the offending, agitating, religious tracts.

Whilst the Mechanics’ Institutions and their libraries developed rapidly in the first half of the 19th century they were by mid-century, in the most part, deemed to have failed in their attempt to fill the gap in library provision for workers. The libraries, although the most successful parts of the institutes, suffered greatly from the condition of the books – both physically and theoretically – and the institutes were unable, or unwilling, to widen their appeal to unskilled workers, the poorest in society, women and children.

Probably the most radical influence they have had is one that still affects us today. The Mechanics’ Institutions and their ultimate failure were in part responsible for the 1849 Select Committee on Public Libraries, which noted the lessons learnt from this failure and the need for a systematic approach to libraries for workers, and which in turn led to the first Public Libraries Act in 1850. As our public libraries close around us, perhaps it is a lesson that needs reviving?


Brougham, H. (1825) Practical observations upon the education of the people, addressed to the working classes and their employers. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green.

Hackney Literary and Mechanic Institution [1825?] Rules and orders of the Hackney Literary and Mechanic Institution: established August 2nd, 1825. [Hackney: no publisher].

Hackney Literary and Mechanic Institution (1826) The first year’s report of the Hackney Literary and Mechanic Institution, read August 3rd, 1826: to which are annexed catalogues of the apparatus and books belonging to the institution. Hackney: [no publisher].

J.C. (1825) Letter to the Editor. London Mechanics’ Register, August 13, pp.265-268.

Kelly, T. (1966) Early public libraries: a history of public libraries in Great Britain before 1850. London: Library Association.

Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1953) On Britain. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.