Settle Mechanics’ Institute 1831-1887

Sylvia Harrop
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Following Rita Hudson’s article in last year’s Journal on ‘The Rise and Fall of a Building - Settle Mechanics’ Hall’ we now know where the Institute Hall was; this following article provides some more detail on the hall and the programmes offered there, and seeks to put the Settle Hall and Mechanics’ Institute into their national context.

Settle plays a major part in the history of mechanics’ institutes because the man regarded by many as the founder of the movement, George Birkbeck, was born in the town in 1776 to one of the town’s wealthiest families (Kelly, 1957, Ch. I.). The Birkbecks were descended from an old Westmorland family, and George’s great-grandfather established himself in Settle at the end of the seventeenth century as a woollen, leather and general merchant. He became a Quaker, a leading member of the local Quaker community, and his business flourished. In 1791, with two local solicitors, the Birkbecks set up the Craven Bank, with branches in Settle and Skipton. After attending a number of local schools, George trained for medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1799. Soon after, he was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at Anderson’s Institution, Glasgow (the forerunner of Glasgow’s Royal Technical College, now the University of Strathclyde). It was here that the incident took place which was to play a part in the development of mechanics’ institutes.

On appointment to his post, Birkbeck lacked suitable apparatus for his lectures, and had to have a whole new set made by a variety of tradesmen under his supervision:

... on one occasion, in particular, my attention was arrested by the inquisitive countenances of a circle of operatives, who had crowded round a somewhat curious piece of mechanism which had been constructed for me in their workshop. I beheld, through every disadvantage of circumstance and appearance, such strong indications of the existence of unquenchable spirit, and such emanations from “the heaven lighted lamp in man”, that the question was forced upon me, Why are these minds left without the means of obtaining that knowledge which they so ardently desire, and why are the avenues of science barred against them because they are poor? It was impossible not to determine that the obstacle should be removed: and I therefore resolved to offer them a gratuitous course of elementary philosophical lectures (Kelly, 1957, 28).

There was a fair degree of scepticism about this idea from his colleagues, but the trustees of the college approved the plan for a ‘Mechanics’ Class’, and Birkbeck prepared the publicity for the course prospectus of his lectures at Settle during the summer vacation.

Public lectures on scientific subjects became very popular from the end of the eighteenth century, and lecturers moved round the country giving lectures on such subjects as ‘Electricity’ and ‘Magnetism’. We know from the diary of William Lodge Paley, the schoolmaster of Giggleswick, that a Mr. Jackson gave a series of lectures in Settle in May 1823 on a number of subjects, including Electricity and Galvanism, Light and Optics and Thunderstorms, Earthquakes and Volcanoes - with audience participation. The tickets for such lectures, which were aimed at the middle classes, were quite expensive; but their ‘syllabuses and prospectuses often bear an extraordinary resemblance to what was later done in the mechanics’ institutes’ (Kelly, 1957, 59-60).

In 1823 the Glasgow Mechanics’ Class broke away from Anderson’s as the first Mechanics’ Institute, followed soon after by the London Institute for which, as stated above, Birkbeck has been given the credit by many writers. Kelly’s view is that: ‘he was not the founder in the literal sense that he conceived the idea of the Institution and took the first step to bring it into being’; but that ‘it was upon the foundation of Birkbeck’s earlier work that the Institution was built, and he himself was after the opening phase its principal architect.’ From Glasgow the title Mechanics’ Institution spread throughout Britain (Kelly, 1957, 72-75, 76). Within three years there were nearly 100 institutes, as they were commonly called, spread across the country, with a concentration in London, the Lancashire and Yorkshire industrial areas, Glasgow and Edinburgh; and by 1851 they were to be found in almost every town of any size (see the maps in Kelly, 1957, 210, 261). In Yorkshire, the first institutes were founded, as might be expected, mainly in the large industrial towns, such as Leeds, Bradford and Halifax. Skipton had an institute in 1825, but this appears to have been short-lived, and then re-founded twice, in 1839 and 1847 (Gibbon, 1958, n.p.). Kendal’s institute was very early, founded in 1824 - one of only ten in England by that date, and it is tempting to link this fact with the close links between the Birkbeck family and Kendal (Kelly, 1957, 209). Settle was one of the first small towns to have a mechanics’ institute, in 1831 (see list in Kelly, 1957, 320-323). It is, of course, not surprising that Settle should have had an institute at a relatively early date when George Birkbeck was born in the town.

The written purposes of the institutes were very similar. For example, those of Leeds Mechanics’ Institute, founded in 1824, included: ‘... to supply, at a cheap rate, to the various classes of the community, the advantages of instruction in the various branches of science which are of practical application to the various trades or occupations’. Practically all the Yorkshire institutes had a reading room and news-room, which usually meant a library from which members could borrow, and where they could read the latest newspapers. Most provided evening classes, teaching elementary subjects, and then a number of other subjects according to demand. Discussion of religion and politics was usually forbidden. The institutes provided adult education, mainly to the skilled working classes and lower middle classes, many of whose members wanted to be better educated. Their schooling had often been limited and short, if they had had any at all.

So, what do we know about the Settle Institute? It was established on 19 November 1831, at a public meeting of the inhabitants of Settle and its vicinity held in the National School, on a motion proposed by William Birkbeck, Esq., George Birkbeck’s elder brother (1772-1838) (Brayshaw Collection - BC 1831). William had built Ashfield in the early years of the nineteenth century, and had already given financial support to the new London Institute in 1824. He was a strong supporter of the Settle Mechanics’ Institute, as was George’s nephew Thomas, who was a member of the original committee (Brayshaw and Robinson, 175; Kelly, 1957, 93; BC 1831). The meeting resolved: ‘That a Society for the promotion of useful knowledge among the Artisans, Apprentices and others, residing in Settle and its Vicinity, be formed in this Town’. Members were to pay a subscription of 6d. per month, except for apprentices under the age of 21, who could become non-voting members for 2s. per annum. The Committee was to have the power to establish classes, for instructing members ‘in the elementary branches of Education’. A Library was also established, but ‘No political books, or books on controversial Divinity, [were] to be admitted into the Society’. The printed catalogue of the library as originally set up in 1831 lists 119 books, including just one on theology, Echard’s Ecclesiastical History, in two volumes (still there in 1853). Novels were normally forbidden in early institute libraries, and the only novel listed was Gulliver’s Travels. The library was open every Tuesday from 12 to 1, and every Saturday evening from 6 to 7, times when its working members could attend (BC 1831).

Early support for the mechanics’ institutes came largely from dissenters, and Quakers especially were in the forefront in providing and supporting adult education for the working classes. In Settle there was also an unusual level of support from Anglican clergymen. The Rev. Rowland Ingram, curate of Giggleswick and headmaster of Giggleswick Grammar School, became the institute’s first president; and it is interesting and surprising that his presidential address to the first annual meeting of the institute was actually a strong religious sermon - presumably not regarded by him, at least, as ‘controversial divinity’! (BC 1833).

George Birkbeck died in November 1841. The members of the Settle Institute wished to establish a memorial to him; and soon after his death they appealed for subscriptions for a monument to his memory to be sited in the recently completed Church of the Holy Ascension in Settle. In February and April 1842 John Wildman, the Secretary of the Institution, wrote to Lord Brougham, a lifelong friend of Birkbeck and strong supporter, with him, of workers’ education, asking him to write an inscription for the monument. This was to take the form of a mural tablet with a head of Birkbeck, and was to be executed by J. B. Leyland of Halifax, a young sculptor whom Birkbeck had befriended when he was a student on London. Difficulties arose as to the placing of the monument, and the illness and subsequent death of the sculptor caused further delays (Kelly, 1957, 200-1). [There is some discrepancy over the date and circumstances of the relief. Pevsner says it is by Leyland and Bromley of Halifax and Leeds; Kelly gives the date of completion as 1842, but also states that the illness and death of the sculptor caused delays. Since Leyland didn’t die until 1851, it is all a bit confused (Pevsner, 1967, 217; Kelly, 1957, 301, 200). A cutting from The Settle Chronicle of December, 1854, however, makes it clear that events had caused the monument to be delayed, and a further appeal for funds was being made for its completion and placing in the Settle church (BC Brown, I, 384).] In the event, when at last completed, the monument was erected, not in Settle church, but in the Mechanics’ Hall. Later, in 1893, the churchwardens of St. Alkelda’s applied for the monument to be removed to Giggleswick Church, which was agreed by the Committee of shareholders (NCRO/ZXF/24/21/1). It can still be seen there (see illustration). It is interesting and frustrating that in a list of institutes in the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics’ Institutes of 1849 Settle is not included. The nearest institute to Settle is Skipton, but unfortunately there is no full report for the institute there (Report App. 2, 1849). Godard states that the institute ‘had fallen into decay’ by the early 1850s; and it seems that the 1840s, a decade of depression nationally, were difficult years not only for the institute, but also for other similar Settle organisations, such as the News Room (Godard, 1884, 230; BC Brown, IV, 401).

From evidence to the Select Committee on Public Libraries in the late 1840s it is clear that very few of the Yorkshire institutes owned their own premises, but met in any convenient building, such as Sunday-schools, schools, private houses, a Baptist chapel and, as at Settle, the Thorne Institute met in a court house. (Report App. 1, 1849) It was in the Court House, Settle, that a meeting was held in January 1853 with the object of reviving the mechanics’ institute, by raising funds through shares to build what was to be called ‘The Hall of the Mechanics’ Institute’. Thomas Birkbeck, George Birkbeck’s nephew, was in the chair, and took one of the largest blocks of shares. (The largest block was taken by the Rechabite Society, an independent Masonic order said by Speight to be ‘the oldest, largest, and wealthiest Temperance Friendly Society in existence’. Their members met every fourth Monday in the Mechanics’ Hall in the 1890s (Speight, 1892, 93-4)). Within three weeks a plan was adopted for the building and a Building Committee set up. All the shares were taken up and covered the original costs; and by December 1854 the shareholders held their annual meeting in the new hall, which contained a large hall for lectures on the first floor and lower rooms for committee and club meetings. By 1856 there was a newsroom, and one room housed the Institute’s library. The first year of the hall’s existence, however, was not as successful as had been expected, for two main reasons. First, the Independent United Order of Mechanics (who were shareholders) had not taken up the meeting-room as expected; and second, the formal opening of the large room as a Mechanics’ Institute by the Earl of Carlisle had to be cancelled at the last moment, meaning that expenses had been incurred and the expected profit not made. After this unfortunate start, however, the Earl came a few months later, finances were almost always healthy and a dividend averaging around 1/10d. was paid to shareholders in most years into the 1890s (LRO ZXF/24/21/1). The seventh Earl of Carlisle (1802-1864) had recently succeeded his father, and was an eminent statesman. As Viscount Morpeth he had been Whig member of parliament for first, Yorkshire, and then the West Riding and among other important government posts was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster from 1850-52. He was a firm supporter of reform, supporting religious equality, the 1832 Reform Act, factory laws and the 1848 Public Health Act. He was also an author and in 1852 published his Lectures and Addresses in Aid of Popular Education. He was a keen supporter of education for the people, and assisted the establishment of mechanics’ institutes. Also a friend of the President, Mr. John Birkbeck, he appears to have been the ideal person to open the Settle Institute, especially since, in addition to all his other accomplishments, he was ‘a notably fluent speaker’ (Machin, 2004-5; Godard, 1884, 230).

In the early 1850s, then, the Mechanics’ Institute appeared to be flourishing. It had its own premises, a membership of 88 and a large library of 680 volumes (Hudson, 2005, 25). A Catalogue of Books in the Library of the Settle Mechanics’ Institute printed by John Wildman, one of the hall’s shareholders and a previous secretary of the Institute, in 1853, is held in the North Yorkshire County Record Office, and makes interesting reading. As seen above, libraries were formed in many institutes from their foundation, with an emphasis on books of a scientific nature and improving reading. Novels and political books were often forbidden - but were also often what working and lower middle-class people wanted to read. J. W. Hudson, writing in 1851, observed that: ‘Those institutions which have adhered to their original scheme, rejecting novels from the library and newspapers from the reading-room have, for the most part, become extinct ...’ (Hudson, 1851, xii-xiii). Settle appears to have learned this lesson, for in 1853 the library was divided into the following sections: Biography and General History (70 titles); Geography, Voyages and Travels (40 titles); Mechanical, Physical Science and Arts (57 titles); Poetry (10 titles); Theology (13); Fiction (61); and Miscellaneous Literature (97). The wide range of subject matter by 1853 is an indication that the Settle Institute had moved from the early practice of severely limiting the contents of institute libraries. One notable item under Miscellaneous Literature is Lectures and Addresses by the Earl of Carlisle. Three monthly periodicals were taken by the library in 1853: Chambers’ Journal, London Journal and Leisure Hour; and one bi-monthly, Chambers’ Repository. (Others were added later). There is no mention of newspapers, but it is likely that these would have been available in the Newsroom, which is mentioned by 1856. It is important to remember that these libraries and reading-rooms provided very valuable means of education at a time before public libraries came into existence.

In March 1857 the institute also made an important contribution to the population it was seeking to help by establishing the Settle Penny Bank. Up to the end of 1870 296 accounts had been opened, 199 closed and 14 renewed. The bank was open for the transaction of business at the Mechanics’ Library Room every Wednesday evening from 6 to 7 p.m.. As the poster illustrated here states: ‘Nearly the whole of the 8,120 deposits made were by young persons...most of whom have begun to highly appreciate and value the principle of early saving, thus providing against Need, Sickness, and Old Age.’( BC Brown, IV, 201). Unfortunately, however, the young persons of Settle were not joining the institute as members. As early as 1862 a report stated: ‘This Institute, which ought to be a very useful one, has latterly we regret to say exhibited unmistakeable signs of being in such a languishing condition that its utility appears almost to have departed from it’. The ‘trivial’ sum of 7s. 6d. had been spent on purchasing books in the previous year, and there were only 41 members - but of the classes ‘who ought to be the principal recipients of the benefits to be derived from Mechanics’ Institutes’ there were only 16 members. ‘The young men of Settle surely are not so much intellectually exalted above their fellows in other places, that they need no assistance from such institutions ... we are assured that it is not so’ (BC Brown, I). The evidence shows that these young men continued to ignore the benefits that others thought they should embrace.

According to the minute book of the Mechanics’ Hall proprietors, the Mechanics’ Institute was one of several bodies paying rent for the room(s) it used. In 1869 the normal item on the accounts for payment of rent and gas by the institute was no longer there, and did not reappear. In its place was 10 shillings rent for the books of the Mechanics’ Library, a sum which continued until 1886. The evidence appears to suggest that the institute ceased to exist in 1869 or thereabouts, leaving only its library, which would appear to have still have been available for use. This library itself disappears from the accounts in 1886; and in the following year there is the following entry: ‘Winding up of the Mechanics Institute 4/6.’ Kelly gives the dates of its existence as 1831-c.1884 (1957, 323), but it is now clear that it finally ceased to exist in 1887. A (United) Mechanics’ Club appears in the accounts from 1880 onwards, but this is not the institute. It is presumably the Friendly United Order of Mechanics, original shareholders of the hall, mentioned by Speight, and the Lodge whose advertisement is featured in Rita Hudson’s article (Speight, 1892, 94; Hudson, 2005, 26).

One problem the Mechanics’ Institute faced was competition from other social and educational societies and groups, a situation that had partly, at least, led to the building of the hall in the first place. Local writers are all agreed about the situation. Godard states that the institute’s ‘chequered career [was] doubtless largely traceable to the fact that the Literary Society, Friends’ Institute, political clubs and other similar agencies keep inhabitants well supplied with intellectual food’ (Godard, 1884, 230). Speight, writing in the early 1890s, agrees that: ‘the town is well provided with institutions and clubs for the social and educational wants of the people’. As for libraries, the Settle Literary Society alone owned a library of about 10,000 volumes, though these may not have been available to all classes who might have wished to borrow (Speight, 1892, 93). In addition, it is certainly likely that the Adult School (held in the Quaker Meeting House) would have been running the elementary classes that were the mainstay of many mechanics’ institutes ( Brayshaw and Robinson, 1932, 196).

Brayshaw and Robinson (1932, 96) state that: ‘Though the effort was only partially successful, the new hall was found a useful centre for local gatherings, and it was here on Jan. 29, 1863, that the great actor, famous in later life as Sir John Hare, made his first theatrical appearance in public’. The annual accounts for the hall give a glimpse into the activities and entertainments going on in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1856, for example, there was a concert, lectures of various sorts, and the rooms were used by the Town’s Yearly Meeting, a Bible Meeting and meetings of the Agricultural Society, the Temperance Society and the Gas Company. By the 1860s the hall was still being used for meetings of societies and groups, but also for balls, parties, lectures, musical evenings and by the Friends’ School. In 1870 the Mill Girls held their Tea Meeting there, and continued to do so for some years. In 1851 Hudson condemned the ‘extreme and injudicious course’ of some institutions, which ‘have been led into unhealthy excitement by weekly lectures, frequent concerts, ventriloquism [yes, they had that in Settle] ... directing their chief energies into a wrong channel and involving the societies in debt and difficulty.’ (Hudson, 1851, xii-xiii). There would undoubtedly have been more ‘debt and difficulty’ if this course had not been followed in Settle - and elsewhere. In 1866 a leaflet for the Penny Readings stated that ‘the continuance of the Library, Reading and Amusement Rooms at the Institute depends almost entirely on the FINANCIAL SUCCESS of the Readings’ - and as early as 1874 the shareholders were considering offering the hall for sale by auction (BC Brown, IV, 350). The sale did not take place, but the next 20 years’ accounts show a gradual decline of the hall’s original activities and a departure from the intentions of its founders; and two unsuccessful attempts on the part of the managers to get the shareholders to agree to sell the building. What became of mechanics’ institutes? Some were short-lived; many struggled to survive; and not a few were founded, gave up, and then were re-founded later - like Skipton. They were dependent on local economic conditions, which dictated whether the working men (and sometimes women) at whom they were targeted could afford the membership fees, and had the time, energy and inclination to attend classes and lectures. They often had to turn to providing more entertainment to attract local people. Many, however, have left a lasting legacy as their various functions were taken over by the state:

By 1900 ... it was clear that their day was past. Many had already disappeared, and others were but shadows of their former selves. The reason for this change was simply that the functions the institutes had formerly fulfilled were now increasingly being taken over by local authorities. (Kelly, 1962, 199)

These functions included particularly elementary, art and technical education, and libraries. It is worth also mentioning that the movement was carried overseas by British emigrants, while other institutes sprang up independently, predominantly in the United States and Australia. It was a truly national and international adult education movement (Harrop, 1994, 371; Kelly, 1957, 254-256).

When Kelly wrote his biography of George Birkbeck in 1957, 34 of the institutes founded by 1851 still survived in some form. (Kelly, 1957, 276). In Skipton, for example, ‘... [the Institute] had originated the local branch of the Yorkshire Penny Bank, done much to set up our Free Public Library and given us our Science and Art School’. The Institute is now a trust, which supports and encourages institutions and individuals ‘in the pursuance of studies of science, literature and the fine arts.’ (Gibbon, 1958, n.d.). In the first nine months of 2005 it had already paid out 14,550 in grants. (Craven Herald, 23.9.2005) In Settle, the Mechanics’ Hall was used in the early twentieth century by the Settle and District Technical Institute, and then by the Settle and District Higher Education Committee, but as has been seen above, the Mechanics’ Institute as such had ceased to exist long before (Hudson, 2005, 25). After the Technical Instruction Act of 1889 a number of institutes became technical colleges; and some of these, such as Huddersfield, Manchester and Leeds, in turn became polytechnics and universities (Kelly, 1962, 198-200). So, despite the link with George Birkbeck and the good intentions of a number of eminent gentlemen of the town, Settle’s Mechanics’ Institute struggled along for years, and finally expired. As it was being wound up in the 1880s, the Long Preston Mechanics’ Institute was just being founded, a curious and interesting fact that deserves someone’s attention.


I wish to thank Barbara Gent, the Librarian of the Brayshaw Collection at Giggleswick School for making it possible for me to work in the library; for her help in identifying source material; and for giving permission for me to use the illustrations of George Birkbeck and the poster of the Settle Penny Bank. My thanks also go to Nigel Mussett, churchwarden of St. Alkelda’s, Giggleswick, for providing me with the photograph of the memorial tablet to George Birkbeck, and for giving permission for its use in this article; and to Ian Smith (Settle), for providing information on Anderson’s Institution, Glasgow.


  • Gibbon, M.A., Skipton Mechanics’ Institute, Craven Herald, Skipton, 1958.
  • Godard, J. G., George Birkbeck, The Pioneer of Popular Education. A Memoir and a Review, London: Bemrose & Sons, 1884.
  • Harrop, Sylvia, ‘Mechanics’ institutes’, in Belchem, John and Price, Richard (eds.), A Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century World History, Blackwell, 1994, p. 371.
  • Hudson, J. W., The History of Adult Education, London, 1851.
  • Hudson, Rita, ‘The Rise and Fall of a Building - Settle Mechanics’ Hall’, North Craven Heritage Trust Journal, Settle, 2005, pp. 24-26.
  • Kelly, Thomas, George Birkbeck. Pioneer of Adult Education, Liverpool University Press, 1957.
  • Kelly, Thomas, A History of Adult Education in Great Britain, Liverpool University Press, 1962, 1970, 1992.
  • Machin, Ian, ‘Howard, George William Frederick, seventh earl of Carlisle (1802-1864), politician’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004-5.
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus, The Buildings of England. Yorkshire West Riding. Second edition revised by Enid Radcliffe, Penguin Books, 1967.
  • Pioneers and Patrons. A Celebration of 200 years of art patronage associated with Anderson’s Institution and the University of Strathclyde, University of Strathclyde, 1996.
  • Report from the Select Committee on Public Libraries with the proceedings of the Committee Minutes of Evidence. Appendix and Index. Education and Public Libraries IAppendix No. 2. List of Institutes in the Yorkshire Union of Mechanics’ Institutes [1849]
  • Speight, H., The Craven and North-West Yorkshire Highlands, London: Elliot Stock, 1892. Brayshaw Collection, Brayshaw Library, Giggleswick School [BC]:
  • Rules and Regulations of the Settle Mechanics’ Library, and A Catalogue of the Books in the Settle Mechanics’ Library, Instituted 1831, Walker, Settle, 1831.
  • Address to the Settle Mechanics’ Institute, Settle, 1833.
  • Brown, On Foot Round Settle, Scrapbooks, Vols. I & IV. North Yorkshire County Record Office, Northallerton:
  • Catalogue of Books in the Library of the Settle Mechanics’ Institute, Wildman, Settle, 1853, ZXF24/21/2.
  • ‘Hall of the Mechanics’ Institute’, minute and account book 1853-1899, ZXF24/21/1.

George Birkbeck
Birkbeck memorial in St. Alkelda’s. (Photograph kindly supplied by N.J.Mussett).
The Penny Bank

George Birkbeck

Birkbeck memorial in St. Alkelda’s. (Photograph kindly supplied by N.J.Mussett).

The Penny Bank