How Mechanics Institute lost its spark in Morpeth

Mechanics' Institute poster
Mechanics' Institute poster

In this week’s Morpathia article, ROGER HAWKINS looks at the end of the Mechanics’ Institute.

IN 1916 Morpeth Corporation bought the Town Hall from Lady Carlisle, along with the former Scotch Arms inn.

The Town Clerk quickly entered into new agreements with the various tenants, but the secretary of the Mechanics’ Institute prevaricated. He appears to have argued that the Institute had a perpetual tenancy under its agreement with the Barony and would answer to no other. Whatever it was, on September 21 he broke off negotiations, which were conducted thereafter by a solicitor.

Eventually, at the request of the Town Clerk, the Barony found its copy of the agreement. It was dated 1871, soon after the rebuilding of the Town Hall after it had been destroyed by fire. By way of compromise, the council now asked only that the Institute honour its obligations under that agreement, viz. to keep their rooms in good and tenantable condition, to pay £5 a year rent, plus rates and taxes, to pay for the gas lighting of the principal staircase and to keep it washed and cleaned.

In May 1917, the Food Control Committee arranged a food exhibition in the reading room. They found it ‘filthy, smelling, and dilapidated’, and asked to use the council chamber instead. This finally exposed the moribund state into which the Institute had fallen. It had clearly been in a bad way for some time. It could scarcely afford the £5 rent, and failed completely to meet its other obligations.

In August the council gave the Mechanics an ultimatum – either accept a new tenancy agreement on terms similar to those of 1871, and even then only until the end of the war, or quit the premises by March 31 next.

In December the committee called a special meeting to discuss the situation. The Chairman Mr Thomas Hudson was ill and sent his apologies so it was chaired by the Rector Canon Davies. The Secretary is never named, but whoever it was, they figure very little, and not at all after September 1916, even at the special meeting.

The remarks made during the discussion show how run-down the Institute had become. Mr Crawford, the Chairman of Morpeth Gas Company, said it had been unable to pay their way for a long time.

“Some years ago they had raised a fund by a bazaar, and they had been continuously nibbling away at the fund until it had all disappeared. With an annual rental of only £5 a year they could not keep it going on a sound financial footing, then how could they do it outside?”

Alderman Hood thought they needed a new system of subscriptions altogether: “If one gentleman subscribed half a guinea sometimes six of the family made use of the institution. That was very cheap.”

It is striking to see how far the original concept of the Mechanics’ Institute – to improve the scientific and technical knowledge of working men – had been forgotten. It was now purely a cultural organisation.

The Rector described it as “an institution which aims at developing the literary taste of the community.”

Mr RO Oliver said: “Of course there were many improvements wanted. There were, for instance, no modern books on the shelves, and they could not expect any number of people to be attracted to an institution without modern books.”

Mr Schofield, the chemist, said he was: “exceedingly grateful for the many benefits he had received from that institution in his younger days,” and hoped they could find a way of carrying it on.

Alderman Hood found himself especially embarrassed as secretary of the Northern Mechanics’ Union, he said, “and living in Morpeth, he would feel ashamed to see the institution in this town go down.”

The options were simple – either close down, or raise the subscription by a large amount, and only then if suitable premises could be found. This cast the council in the role of a cruel landlord, so the Town Clerk, at the request of the Town Hall Management Committee, gave a comprehensive statement to the Morpeth Herald.

In the course of it he said: “Mechanics’ institutions all over the country were then (i.e. 1871) extremely popular and useful institutions, and some have continued to be so, but the Morpeth institute has long since outlived its utility ... It probably does not number a single true mechanic in its present constitution, being now composed mainly of wealthy and leisured people, most of whom are living on their means, or able to do so if they desired, whilst the town’s working people have been driven to form clubs and institutes of their own, one of which – the Workmen’s Institute – is housed in the old Scotch Arms, next door to the Town Hall.”

And, he pointed out, whereas the Mechanics’ rent was £5 p.a., the Workmen paid £11 for less good premises.

In January, the council withdrew the notice to quit and let the Institute remain on the existing terms until the end of the war. In 1919, it was wound up and its library of 4,500 books transferred to the Town Council.

In England as a whole, the mechanics’ institute movement lasted about 100 years

The Newcastle institute survived until 1880, when it became the Newcastle Public Library. The London Mechanics’ Institution, re-named Birkbeck College, became part of London University in 1920.

The Alnwick institute still stands in Percy Street, its classical facade bearing the words ‘Mechanics Institute’, and serves a wide range of community uses.

At Wark, both building and library still survive.

In Morpeth, we had until recently a collection of books in the County Library, given to the Institute out of a public subscription in memory of George, 7th Earl of Carlisle, the lord of the manor and a distinguished scholar and statesman.

Each book had a gold-blocked dedication on the cover, a copperplate one inside, and a bookplate with a summary list of the collection.

Unfortunately, most if not all of them perished in the floods of 2008.

The gift also included a microscope and telescope. I once saw the telescope, a splendid brass instrument, when the late Nick Stawart visited The Kylins to value some of Castle Morpeth’s more interesting assets.

We had no use for it so it was merely kept in a store-room, but the microscope lived in the Environmental Health Department and continued in use for many years.

Both were sold when the council moved out to Longhirst Hall.

At least one item, however, and a valuable one, has survived – an original copy of William Turner’s Herball of 1551.

According to George Chapman and Marilyn Tweddle in the introduction to their modern edition, it was bequeathed to the Institute by Lord Carlisle himself.

When the library was dispersed, Morpeth Corporation kept this book in its own possession. It passed to Castle Morpeth in 1974, and was displayed at the Chantry in 2008 in the William Turner exhibition.

Further reading: Alec Tweddle’s Town Trail for Morpethians, No. 1. Morpeth Herald, December - January 1917-18, but especially December 21.