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    Self-Help and the London Mechanics' Institution - Birkbeck after (George) Birkbeck

    Clarke, Richard (2009) Self-Help and the London Mechanics' Institution - Birkbeck after (George) Birkbeck. In: UNSPECIFIED (ed.) Self Help: Mechanics' Worldwide Conference 2009. Melbourne, Australia: Lowden Publishing, pp. 48-65. ISBN 9781920753184.

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    The London Mechanics’ Institute is notable not only for its place in the history of the Mechanics’ Institute movement, but also for the conflicts which surrounded its formation in 1823. The story of the eclipse of its initiators Thomas Hodgskin and J C Robertson by the liberal modernisers Brougham, Place and others is reasonably well known. Well before George Birkbeck’s own death in 1841 the battle for ‘popular control’ had largely been lost (although it continued to surface in different forms for the next century). ‘Useful knowledge’, pioneered in Birkbeck’s own early lectures in Glasgow, promoted widely in the Mechanics’ Magazine, and elevated to a social movement in Brougham’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, had by mid-century become almost hegemonic and was manifest in its most systematic form in William Ellis’ Birkbeck Schools, launched (not without opposition) in the summer of 1848 in the Institute’s lecture theatre. The Birkbeck Schools contributed significantly to the 1870 Education Act which through its Board Schools extended ‘workers’ education’, pioneered by the Mechanics’ Institutes, to their children. In 1851 a ‘third Birkbeck’ appeared (in addition to the Institute and the Schools) whose history to date has received little attention. By the 1850s, ‘penny savings banks’ had been set up in a number of mechanics’ institutes, however the ‘Birkbeck Bank’ was very different. An ultra vires umbrella for the Birkbeck Building Society and the Birkbeck Freehold Land Society, it became a significant constituent of the English property based financial system. Until at least 1885, the Bank had a close relationship with the London Mechanics’ Institution, sharing more than the name of George Birkbeck. The Institute and the Bank occupied joint premises, had overlapping governance and the Bank’s monies sustained the College at critical times of financial crisis. They also reflected an ideology of progressive philanthropic liberalism that was at times hotly contested by the radical champions of the social classes that both Institute and Bank had been initially formed to assist. Just as the Mechanics’ Institution was attacked from its foundation for having betrayed the ideals of its radical originators, the Birkbeck Building Society was condemned by Frederick Engels in The Housing Question (1872) for being irrelevant to the improvement of living conditions for the urban poor. The educational endeavours of Birkbeck’s Mechanics’ Institution and the financial enterprise of the Birkbeck Bank reflected parallel motivations and concealed comparable tensions. The Mechanics’ Institution embodied two distinct and contending visions of the role of working-class education within alternative political programmes of social change and political emancipation, versus individual betterment and self-realisation. The Birkbeck Bank’s initial vision of property ownership as a means of extending the franchise in order to change society gave way to one of financial prudence and owner-occupation as a route to social stability through personal fulfilment. In these conflicts between radicalism and liberal reform, the latter was, perhaps inevitably, ascendant.


    Item Type: Book Section
    Additional Information: Proceedings of the Second International Conference convened by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution at BRLSI, 16-18 Queen Square, Bath, England, 24-29 September, 2009
    Keyword(s) / Subject(s): Birkbeck, London Mechanics' Institution, Self-Help
    School: Birkbeck Faculties and Schools > Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of Social Sciences
    Depositing User: Richard Clarke
    Date Deposited: 15 Apr 2014 07:55
    Last Modified: 02 Aug 2023 17:10


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