The Institute in its heyday

Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey
Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey

Roger Hawkins continues his look at the Morpeth Mechanics’ Institute in his latest Morpathia nostalgia feature.

JAMES Fergusson became the Librarian of the Institute in 1869 and Secretary two years later. At some stage, probably after the Town Hall was rebuilt in 1870, he began to organise ambitious programmes of winter lectures.

Here is the programme for 1878-79:

Programme of Lectures, &c., for 1878-9


Nov. 13th, (Wednesday), Albert Grey, Esq., on Australia.

Dec. 4th, (Wednesday), Lord William P. Lennox, on Personal Recollections of Wellington.

Dec. 18th, (Wednesday), Mr. Dennison W. Allport, London, on Daniel Defoe.


Jan. 24th, (Friday), Miss Marianne Farningham, on The Women of Today.

Feb. 18th, (Tuesday), a Musical and Literary Evening, by Local Talent.

March 26th, (Wednesday), Mr. George Grossmith, on The Comic Side of Life.

Admission – To numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6, single tickets for each, Front seats 2/-, second do. 1/-; to number 3, Front seats 1/-, second do. 6d.; or by season tickets, Front seats 4/6, second do. 2/6. Members of the Institution at half these rates. Non-Members will obtain their season tickets of Mr. W.J. Atkinson, the Treasurer; and Members theirs (which are not transferable) at the Library. Season Ticket-holders are expected to be in their seats at each Lecture at least ten minutes before 8 o’clock.


Secretary and Librarian,

Mechanics’ Institute,

30th Oct., 1878.

Albert Grey, 1851-1917, was a tall, clever, handsome aristocrat and keen sportsman. He accompanied the Prince of Wales to India in 1875, stood for South Northumberland in 1878, lost by one vote, but was elected two years later.

He never seems to have visited Australia, but had an idealistic enthusiasm for the British Empire. He was later associated with Cecil Rhodes, became 4th Earl Grey and was Governor General of Canada.

William Pitt Lennox, 1799 -1881, 4th son of the Duke of Richmond, served at Waterloo and on the Duke of Wellington’s staff, retired in 1829 and became a journalist, novelist and miscellaneous writer.

His works included Three Years with the Duke of Wellington and three volumes of personal reminiscences.

He was not in the same situation as Mr Grey and would certainly have to be paid.

Marianne Farningham, really Mary Anne Hearn, 1834 -1909, was well known in non-conformist circles for her contributions to Christian World and the Sunday School Times.

She wrote many hymns and poems, including Just As I Am, Thine Own To Be.

Though largely self-taught, Miss Hearn was an inspirational teacher, especially for girls. Having led a young women’s bible class for several years, she says: “In 1877, there was much talk throughout the country on ‘Women’s Rights’.

“I was vain enough to think that I had something to say on the subject, and it occurred to me that I might have a public to listen.”

She called her lecture The Women of Today and drew packed houses, usually at church-related venues.

She continues: “Of course, I was very thankful for the fees these lectures produced and glad that almost immediately after invitations flowed in from all parts of the country.”

One of these was from Morpeth Mechanics’ Institute.

George Grossmith, 1820-1880 – evidently the star attraction – specialised in giving readings at institutes.

Typical of his material were Gems from Dickens and The Humour of Mark Twain.

He was also Chief Reporter for The Times at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, and was the father of George and Weedon Grossmith, who wrote Diary of a Nobody.

George Junior, who sometimes toured with his father, says that the lecturing season lasted seven months.

The usual fee was five guineas, but institutes often asked for a reduction, and they sometimes performed at small institutes rather than lose a day between more lucrative engagements.

I can find nothing about Mr Allport, but he was presumably a professional lecturer.

The fact that his lecture was half-price suggests either that the secretaries of several local institutes clubbed together to arrange a series of lectures for a single fee, or that he had other bookings in this area during that week and accepted a reduced fee to fill up his time.

Such professionals made at least part of their living – sometimes a very good living – working the national circuit of institutes. But they were expensive.

A five-guinea lecture would need an audience of over a hundred to break even at 1/- a head and, although Fergusson continued to put on similar programmes, he became less ambitious.

In 1901, for instance, for the theme Nineteenth Century England, the furthest travelled speaker came from Bridlington and the rest probably no further than Newcastle.

The first lecture, which was advertised as the star attraction, was on Ice and Glaciers, with lantern illustrations, by A. Thornton, Esq., MA, Headmaster of Bridlington Grammar School, with the Mayor, Alderman Gillespie, taking the chair.

Subsequent lectures were Influential Men and Women by the Rev A.H. Drysdale, M.A, Presbyterian minister at Morpeth, Leading Ideas of the 19th Century by Professor Vaughan, Newcastle; Some Great Surgeons of the 19th Century by T.W. McDowall, M.D; Growth and Progress of London by J. Lea, Esq.; and Music of the 19th Century by Mr Thomas Robinson, Organist of St James’s Church, with vocal and instrumental illustrations.

Admission was cheaper than in 1878, 6d. per lecture for front seats, and 3d. for second, but were there really only two rows?

It is even unclear where the lectures took place.

If in the Reading Room, now the Mayor’s Parlour, then it is hard to imagine more than 30 people getting in, but if in the Ballroom, then over a hundred might easily be accommodated.

Season tickets now cost 2/- front and 1/- second, “Members of the Institution, half-price to front seats only.” James Fergusson wasn’t going to get less than 3d. for any seat. Schools, however, were allowed half-price for each pupil, presumably for block bookings.

Members obtained their season tickets from the Librarian, non-members from Mr James, Bookseller, and the advert ends rather grandly: “By Order, J. Fergusson, Secretary and Librarian.”

On January 8, there was a concert in the Town Hall in aid of the funds.

Interestingly, women performers outnumbered men.

The vocalists were Mrs White, Miss Bullock, Miss Buckley, Mr George Paulin and Mr W Stuart, with Mr C.E. Proctor, accompanist, and Miss Maggie Middlemiss, violin.

Tickets were, front row 2/-, second row 1/-, and third row 6d., roughly four times the price of the lectures.

I should imagine that, while at least some lectures took place in the Reading Room, concerts would always be in the Ballroom.

These winter programmes of concerts and popular lectures are a good example of the Institute giving members what they wanted. Classes in the Use of Globes, Chemistry and Modern Languages are fine for people with a studious bent, but most of us want something that stimulates the intellect without being too demanding, especially when you think of the long hours people worked in those days.

We will leave the Mechanics’ Institute now. It no longer flourished after Mr Fergusson retired and came to a sad end soon after the Great War.