Opening a new chapter on the history of the Mechanics

Morpeth Mayor's Parlour
Morpeth Mayor's Parlour

In this week’s Morpathia, historian ROGER HAWKINS takes a look at the men who made the Mechanics’ Institute.

LAST autumn we looked at the history of the Morpeth Mechanical and Scientific Institution, better known as the Mechanics’ Institute. Many people made their contribution to its survival and success, but two stand out, William Wilson and James Fergusson.

William Wilson was its librarian for 40 years, from 1825 to 1865. His was the only paid position, being required to attend on three nights a week.

Secretaries served for a year. In the early days there were normally two, acting jointly. Later secretaries acted singly and held office for longer, but the librarian was a permanent appointment.

William and his father, also William, were members of the provisional committee appointed at the meeting of ‘mechanics and others’ at the Bay Nag’s Head Inn in 1825.

One of them, and probably both, were schoolmasters. But after 1837 we find William acting as auditor to the Morpeth Board of Guardians.

He could not have lived on his salary as librarian, but he had a systematic mind and may have been an accountant.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it was usual in those days to make one’s living by a variety of means.

He was appointed librarian from the start, and to him must have fallen the task of cataloguing and numbering the original stock of 574 books and organising their issue and recovery.

He was certainly responsible for the new catalogue in 1830, arranging the books under six heads.

There was no Dewey decimal system in those days so librarians had to work out their own scheme of the division of knowledge.

He was present throughout the triumphs and troubles of the Institute’s early years, and no doubt bore his share of the rancour and ill feeling of those people opposed to the Institute, who did their work ‘from behind a hedge.

He must have been appalled at the unintended consequence of his splendid catalogue, which nearly resulted in all novels in the library being removed from the shelves.

If this seems far-fetched, consider the Sheffield Mechanics’ and Apprentices’ Library, which accepted a set of Shakespeare as a legacy, sold them at auction and applied the proceeds to the funds.

William must have been equally closely involved in the committee’s decision to recommence the buying of novels in 1838, and in the choice of novels bought, including the latest works of the most popular writers. It was the right decision, and in 1847 the Institute began to open every night except Sundays.

In 1854 the Morpeth Herald reported that: ‘the Committee expect to receive from the Society of Arts, in September, a superior assortment of Photographs, which they intend, with other objects of interest, to arrange as an exhibition, during a limited period, and to have lectures in connection with it.’

A more ambitious exhibition was held in 1856.

It was, says Fergusson, ‘open for three weeks, during which time 12 lectures were delivered by gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood, and three concerts were given. It was a decided success.’

These concerts, 30 years after the Institute was founded, are the earliest evidence of actual entertainment being provided.

We cannot know what part, if any, the librarian played, but it seems unlikely that he would not be involved.

Mr Wilson died in harness. In his sermon on Sunday, March 5, 1865, following his death, the Rector Canon Grey said that he would be ‘missed in the Library, where the place which he filled so regularly night after night, shall know him no more.’

The Institute had come a long way as in 1825 it offered both leisure and serious reading.

But experience of 40 years showed that scientific lectures, as envisaged by the early promoters of mechanics’ institutes, were too heavy-going for most members, and expensive as well, while exhibitions, concerts and entertaining lectures were both popular and made money.

Three events led to the final transformation of the Institute.

James Fergusson came to Morpeth in 1864 from the Free Church School at Lochmaben to be Master of St George’s Presbyterian Day School.

A trained teacher in his late 20s, with excellent testimonials, he joined the Institute, became librarian in 1869 and secretary two years later.

The changes that took place over the next few years were largely due to his energy and leadership.

In 1869 a fire destroyed the Town Hall. Even without it, the Town Hall had become dilapidated with age and was unfit for present needs. It was designed for the administration of justice, its main apartments being the jury room and courtroom.

But Morpeth had a new court house and what was wanted was an assembly room for dances, a butter market and a corn exchange.

The building belonged to the Barony, and the trustees, the 8th Earl being an invalid, generously undertook to rebuild it completely.

In September 1870, after a year in temporary accommodation, the Institute entered its new rooms above the Corn Exchange.

Fitting them up cost £135, equivalent to £13,000 now, and the annual meeting of the Northern Union of Mechanics Institutes was held at the Town Hall soon after, presided over by the Rt Hon Sir George Grey.

The rooms were entered through swing doors, which still survive. What is now the Mayor’s Parlour was the Reading Room, and the room opposite the council chamber, now a suite of toilets, was the library.

The late Mr James Mackay told me that when he left school during the Second World War, he went to work for the ARP at the Town Hall.

The Reading Room was still called that, but held only the Mayor’s regalia, the Institute having long since ceased to exist.

In 1871 ‘the constitution of the society was entirely remodelled,’ as Fergusson proudly says, ‘on the most liberal basis – the management of its affairs being so placed, by means of the ballot, in the hands of the members.’

The time was past when local gentry wanted to suppress any and every manifestation of democracy. The franchise had been extended to all male householders in 1867.

More reforms – universal suffrage, secret ballot, even votes for women – were in the air.

So while it was James Fergusson who led the reform of the Institute, it is equally certain that the members were ready for it.

At its jubilee in 1875 the Institute had 253 members and a library of 4,000 volumes catering for all interests, including plenty of fiction and two valuable reference collections.

The 50th anniversary meeting was held in the Reading Room on July 8, 1875, the Mayor in the chair.

An exhibition in September occupied almost the whole of the Town Hall and was open for 10 days.

Two public meetings were chaired and addressed by local dignitaries, with again a programme of concerts.

James Fergusson was so active in the life of Morpeth that he warrants an article on himself alone.

Suffice it that, besides being secretary and librarian, he also founded a Field Club which made good use of the excellent microscope and telescope given to the Institute in 1871.

Further reading: Wilson’s Handbook of Morpeth, available at Appleby’s Bookshop.