THE Mechanics’ Institute was viewed with suspicion by some of the richer members of society.
Even those who supported it often saw it only as a place for working men to gain scientific and technical knowledge.
The story of how this paternalistic organisation came to give its members what they wanted, rather than what their betters thought they ought to want, is about three Ns – Novels, Newspapers and En-tertainment!
The original book stock included over 20 novels, but in 1830 somebody – we don’t know who – objected to them.
The members voted in favour, but the Committee were under pressure, and although existing novels were allowed to remain, new acquisitions were banned.
We don’t know what changed, but something did, because in 1838 they bought a new set of the Waverley Novels, the originals having become ‘utterly dilapidated’ through being ‘more frequently and generally read than any other class of books in the library’.
The next year, the Committee bought 121 new books, including ‘works on the Arts and Sciences, together with approved Encyclopædias by the best Authors’.
This, too, met the needs of ordinary readers.
You can skip from topic to topic in an encyclopaedia without having to concentrate too hard, in contrast to ploughing laboriously through a scientific textbook.
In 1840, they bought Our Village by Miss Mitford, a gently humorous work with a local connection, since Miss Mitford was related to the Mitfords of Mitford Hall.
Non-fiction books were issued free of charge, but novels cost one penny per issue.
In 1841-42, Walter Scott’s novels raised 16/-, and those of other writers 15/-, making 372 issues in a library of 1,200 books and about 140 members.
Speaking of mechanics’ institutes generally, Richard Altick says: “The greater part of a typical institute library slumbered undisturbed on dusty shelves, while the minority of truly popular books were read to tatters.”
This was never completely true of our Institute.
Right from the start, it had plenty for the middle-brow reader; and taking it all round, if I had to confine my reading to what was in the library in 1840, I think I should be well satisfied.
At first, membership was for men and boys only, but no doubt their wives and daughters were avid readers as well, and in 1849, there were three female members.
By 1854 ,the library had 2,700 volumes and, in its Jubilee Year of 1875, it was described as a large room with over 4,000 volumes including standard and recently published works.
Books were now classified in eight categories, including one for Fiction – in contrast to the 1830 catalogue, which carefully avoided using the F-word!
But the feeling persisted that fiction was somehow improper and an editorial in the Morpeth Herald later in the century (I have lost my note of the date) expresses mild regret that the members preferred novels to the sort of thing the institutes were set up for originally.
In 1870, the Institute moved into new rooms above the Corn Exchange.
Newspapers were the only means of broadcasting political news, and throughout the early 19th century the upper classes had a morbid fear of working people reading even ‘respectable’ ones, though these presented no threat because poor men couldn’t afford them.
Cheap radical papers, however, were another thing.
In 1819, Lord Ellenborough introduced the 4d stamp duty on newspapers, directed, he said “not against the respectable Press but against a pauper Press, which, administering to the prejudice and the passions of a mob, threatened the most material injury to the best interests of the country”.
These fears arose from the real possibility of rebellion among the lower orders.
The rich blamed demagogues and the French Revolution, but the real cause was the growth of capitalism.
Enclosure and industrialisation combined to make poor people poorer and increasingly powerless.
Things were not too bad when there were good harvests and plenty of work, but a bad harvest or a trade recession left the country like a powder keg waiting to blow up.
Government had no policy for alleviating distress and there was no police force outside London.
All that local magistrates could do to suppress riots was to call in the army and hang the ringleaders.
Various factors brought about change.
The Reform Act broke the political mould, even though working men still couldn’t vote.
The Municipal Reform Act permitted boroughs to set up police forces.
Newcastle did so in 1836, and Morpeth – with one policeman! – in 1840.
In 1836, the newspaper stamp was reduced to a penny, resulting in a rapid increase in the number of papers published.
The Chartist movement of 1838-1848 was a failure, but sympathy for working men to have the vote grew steadily and one of its offshoots was the campaign against the newspaper stamp duty, which was finally abolished in 1855.
Although the Institute took magazines from the start, newspapers were forbidden fruit until 1848, when various gentlemen in the town lent the Institute back copies of their newspapers.
In 1851, the Committee began to take The Times on its own account, and the next year set up a proper news room.
The report for 1852 says: ‘The originators of Mechanics’ Institutions wisely considered it unjustifiable to appropriate any portion of their funds to the purchasing of newspapers and used an indispensable circumspection in rigidly excluding all discussion of matters touching politics or theology.
‘But after the lapse of 27 years, the time has arrived when the free expression of opinion, then so much dreaded, is not only tolerated, but has become habitual, and when the working man will consult the newspaper and if denied the use of it in the reading room of the Mechanics’ Institution, is tempted to seek for it elsewhere.’
The Morpeth Monthly Herald, in its third issue of June 1854, describes the advantages of living in Morpeth: ‘There is a flourishing Mechanical and Scientific Institution here with 202 members, containing a library of about 2,700 volumes, upon literature, history, biography and science.
‘There is also a reading-room where several daily and local papers are received; and parties may avail themselves of these institutions at the cost of a few shillings per annum.’
Many towns and villages now had institutes, and the Northern Union of Mechanics’ Institutes came into being.
Its report for 1856 says that Morpeth took no less than 21 newspapers and magazines, being one daily, five weekly, four quarterly and 11 monthly.
For many years the Institute was content to provide the library and occasional lectures and competitions.
It was essentially serious. The report for 1839 refers ‘with no slight degree of pleasure’ to donations received, of ‘Books, Models, Casts, Fossils, Coins, and other matters, curious or interesting’.
But it met a need and, in 1847, after 22 years of opening three nights a week, it began to open every night except Sundays.
Next week, we look at how it developed as a place of rational entertainment.
l Further reading: Richard Altick, The English Common Reader. Donald Low, That Sunny Dome, a Portrait of Regency Britain, for Lord Ellenborough’s speech. Woodhorn Museum, for documents relating to Morpeth Mechanics’ Institute.