The Institute fights back courtesy of political verses

A bust of the 7th Earl of Carlisle, which is on the grand staircase in the Town Hall.
A bust of the 7th Earl of Carlisle, which is on the grand staircase in the Town Hall.
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ROBERT Blakey, founder of Morpeth Mechanics’ Institute, says that soon after its establishment, ‘we were doomed to hear the doleful predictions from the Tory press about the dangerous nature of scattering knowledge indiscriminately among the people.

‘It tended to unsettle, nay, almost to revolutionise, public feeling on public affairs. It was said that radicalism and every species of political inflammation would find ready fuel in the knots and cabals of half-educated mechanics.’

James Fergusson, writing in 1875, confirmed this. Its foundation, he said, ‘was the occasion of a large amount of rancour and ill feeling, and evoked considerable opposition—not the less determined because it did the greater part of its work from behind a hedge.

‘It is to the credit of the founders and early supporters of the institution that they held on the even tenor of their way, regardless of the ridicule and personal abuse of fellow townsmen, who had not the manliness to appear at the public meeting in the Town Hall, and there, in the face of the inhabitants generally, state their objections.’

We have two handbills that relate to this episode. Innocent as they seem, this was political stuff:

Babes and sucklings, from Psalm 8 and Matthew 11, means the workers. Educated people in those days knew their Bible, and would immediately recognise the warning not to despise the poor, but to cultivate humility.

The quotation from Ezekiel is about rich people keeping the poor in ignorance. That from Alexander Pope tells them to beware in case they get lampooned themselves.

The verses work in a different way, by self-mockery.

Us Committee are not agitators, but well-meaning bumblers. Their learning would take only a day to tell!

We follow virtue, vice suppress, is about Malthusianism. Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population describes three processes that limit population. Late marriage and abstinence are preventive checks.

Disasters that arise from the laws of nature, like epidemics or bad harvests, and those which we bring upon ourselves, like vice and drunkenness, are positive checks.

The resulting misery and death drive the population down to what the food supply will support.

Whatever its scientific merits, the middle classes approved of Malthus’s theory.

They exercised virtuous restraint by amassing a competency before marrying and having children.

Improvident people didn’t, and suffered accordingly.

So our Committee, whatever their other shortcomings, were at least good Malthusians!

The Institute mirrored society at large. A Patron and a President ensured its respectability, along with 22 vices from the local gentry.

Their guineas and half-guineas paid the bills, which the ordinary members’ shillings could not do.

The committee, all local trades and professional men, are identified by nickname. Somebody, probably William Woodman, pencilled in a few real names, and others we can guess with reasonable certainty.

Domini is William Wilson, schoolmaster, or possibly his son, also William. Pleadwell is Anthony Charlton, solicitor. Long John is John Jackson, chemist.

Robin Readypenny – Bob – is Robert Blakey, hatter and furrier. He cut rabbit furs, hence skin a coney, always paid in cash, and bought the books for the library in Edinburgh. Use of globes meant geography and astronomy.

Tommy Rex is Thomas King, stonemason, contractor, and proprietor of the waterworks at Allery Banks. King’s Avenue is named after him.

The Kyloe is Gibson Kyle, who built the Courthouse and police station.

Two Millwrights are John Watson, Bagpipe Hall, and Thomas Walker, King Street; Sherry, William Bell, wine and spirit merchant; and Mainspring, Michael Clarke, watch and clock maker. Either he or Michael Bates could vibrate like a beam – Vibrate? Do beams vibrate?

J.M. Poet Laureat is John Manners, cabinet maker; but Obstreperous, Zoophyte, and Man from Zealand are undecipherable.