©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 15, 2018
Webpage updated: September 15, 2018




In the year 1820, when the higher classes were afraid of the influence of education and the people ignorant of its value, Mr Henry Brougham, afterwards Lord Brougham, was devoting his energies to the promotion of a scheme for the education of the poor in England and Wales, from which the plan for the formation of mechanics’ institutions emanated.

At about the same time, two professors at the University of Glasgow, John Anderson and George Birkbeck, were giving free lectures to the working people of Glasgow.  In 1822 George Birkbeck set up the first Mechanics’ Institute in that City.  This met with much opposition, as there were those who thought it ‘unwise to give to persons who were destined for the common walks of life the advantages of instruction suitable to those of a higher grade’.

However, the Glasgow venture met with such success that in December 1823, Dr Birkbeck, in conjunction with Lord Brougham, succeeded in establishing an institute in London.

The Plymouth Mechanics' Institute was formed on May 30th 1825 ‘for the voluntary association of mechanics and others, and the payment of a small weekly sum; donations of money, books, specimens, implements, models, and apparatus; a library of reference, a circulating library, and a reading room; a museum of machines, models, minerals, and natural history; lectures on natural and experimental philosophy, practical mechanics, astronomy, chemistry, literature, and the arts; an experimental workshop and laboratory originating with the members’.

There were several classes of membership: life, periodical, honorary and corresponding.    Eligibility for life membership was upon payment of £10 in cash or the donation of £20’s worth of books or apparatus.  Honorary members could not stand for office.

The members first met in the Guildhall, thanks to the assistance of the Mayor, Mr Edmund Lockyer, and they used one of the rooms for their library.   The inaugural address was delivered on November 7th 1825 by Dr J C Cookworthy.  Attendance grew so rapidly that after only two sessions it was realised that the Institute needed its own building.

As a result, Mr Edmund Lockyer, as President of the Institute, was invited to lay the foundation stone of the new building in Princess Square on Monday February 5th 1827.  The cost of construction was paid for entirely by the 290 or so members, assisted by a generous donation from Mr Charles Greaves.

The building just to the left of the centre is the Plymouth Mechanics Institute

The building to the left of the centre of this picture
of Princess Square is the Plymouth Mechanics'

Lectures were apparently carried on with vigour and were well attended for the first three years but after 1830 membership dwindled to an alarming extent.   This sorry situation must have continued for a while because it was not until 1848 that the managing committee decided to widen the sphere of operations and to admit ladies.  It worked and by 1850 there were 750 members and once again the accommodation was proving to be inadequate.

Ands so the existing g building was demolished and the foundation stone laid on July 11th 1850 for the new, larger building.  During the construction activities were continued in the Freemason’s Hall in Cornwall Street.  The new premises were formally opened on Wednesday September 10th 1851, when the inaugural address was given by the Reverend W J Odgers, a Unitarian Minister.  Other speeches were contributed by Sir Roundell Palmer, Bart., and Lord Ebrington, the Members of Parliament for the Borough.  There was a large lecture hall capable of seating 1200 people and a library of 8,000 volumes, as well as smaller committee and class rooms.

It is interesting to note that membership increased during the winter months by as many as 400 on top of the summer membership.

On the evening of Monday April 11th 1859 Mr P T Barnum, of New York, had the honour of addressing the Plymouth Mechanics' Institute on "The Science of Money Making" 'in the course of which he will introduce an original definition of HUMBUG, supporting his theory by pictorial illustrations and original anecdotes, examples and experiences'.   He repeated this at the Saint George's Hall, East Stonehouse, on the Tuesday evening and at the Devonport Mechanics' Institute on the Wednesday.

Reserved seats cost 2 shillings, 1/6d or one shilling but 'if after Friday April 8th seats remain unsold, the price will be raised'.

The advance announcement further stated that: 'During the entertainment, Professor Kratky Bashix, a Slovonian Hungarian Artiste, who has appeared before Her Majesty and all the Crowned Heads of Europe, will play a Grand Fantasia upon an instrument smaller than the Tebia of Picco and producing much more peculiar and startling orchestral effects.'

In 1890 Mr John Frederick Winnicott (of Messrs Winnicott Brothers) was the honorary secretary and Mr Joseph Foster was the curator.  The Institute was open from 3 to 5 and 7 to 10pm, except when there were lectures taking place.  The news room was open from 9am to 10pm.

On July 1st 1898 the members voted to wind-up the Plymouth Mechanics' Institute.