Saturday, February 20, 2010

Banbury, Oxfordshire

On course

When I first saw this building, its vast windows shining in the sun across a car park, I thought it must be a school. Did the stone torch at the tip of the main gable confirm this? It certainly seemed to. But a closer look revealed a damaged inscription on another gable: ‘The Banbury In titute’. A mechanics’ institute, then, shining its torch of instruction on the working people of north Oxfordshire.

Mechanics’ Institutes began in the early-19th century to provide adult education for the working classes. A typical institute offered courses of lectures (usually on a range of subjects, both vocational and academic), discussion groups, and a library, and these offerings were free in an age when the alternatives (for example, subscription libraries) were only available to those who could afford to pay. Pioneered by George Birkbeck, they spread across the country, clearly filling a gaping hole in the education system in the years before compulsory schooling for all children. Birkbeck worked in Glasgow before moving to London and founding the London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823. The next couple of decades saw the foundation of hundreds of institutes across the country.

Not all institutes lasted. As the public library movement gathered pace, for example, some became local libraries. And there’s a historical debate about how useful they were to the working classes, with some historians claiming that the free lectures were soon taken over by the middle classes. As institutes were locally founded and run, clearly, an institute’s success depended on specific organizers and conditions – and the fates of mechanics’ institutes vary from early closure to evolution into universities offering the best in higher education (that first institute evolved into London’s Birkbeck, for example).

Banbury’s institute, founded in 1835, seems to have been well used and by the early 1880s had outgrown its original building. Hence this one, built in 1884 and designed by local architect W E Mills in a kind of Tudor semi-Gothic. Mills was clearly the man for the job – he also taught at the Institute as ‘visiting master for architecture and building construction’. At night his rows of windows must have shone like true beacons of learning.

Art and Architecture, Mainly has some interesting posts about mechanics' institutes in Australia, the first of which is here.


Peter Ashley said...

How odd. I've just put down Philip Larkin's 'High Windows'.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Excellent. 'The sun-comprehending glass'.

Hels said...

I was quite taken with Mechanics' Institutes last year and wrote at least 3 posts on them. But I tended to pass straight from George Birkbeck and Scottish origins of the movement... to the first institute in the Australian colonies (Hobart in 1827).

I will add a link to your post and suggest that readers find hundreds of institutes across England that were founded in the 20 years after 1823.

It is a topic that requires more examination from all of us, I think. Many thanks.