The Manchester Mechanics' Institution was established in 1824, and became the largest mechanics' institution in England, outside London. It provided a range of educational instruction to local people until the 1880s.
The mechanics' institute movement had developed in the early nineteenth century out of a concern that large numbers of industrial and urban workers had been excluded from all but the most basic education, and that this was likely to have damaging social, economic and moral effects on wider society. The objective of the mechanics' institutions was to provide education for mostly younger workingmen, with an emphasis on practically-oriented technical and scientific instruction. The institutions had their origins in Scotland, where popular education was traditionally strong. In the 1790s, Anderson's Institution, Glasgow, had been set up to provide instruction in technical and scientific subjects, and one of the teachers, George Birkbeck (1776-1841), had devised special classes for mechanics and artisans. Birkbeck later became an evangelist for working class education in England, and assisted in the establishment of the London Mechanics' Institution in 1823 (today known as Birkbeck College). Another Scottish institution, Edinburgh School of Arts, was also influential; established in 1821, it provided scientific and technical education specifically for a working class audience.
The Mechanics' Institution established in London in 1823 had been supported by numerous public figures, including some leading political radicals. The Institution established at Manchester a few months later was a more low-key affair. A meeting at the Bridgewater Arms Hotel in central Manchester on 7 April 1824 agreed that an institution should be set up "for the purpose of enabling mechanics and artisans, of whatever trade they may be, to become acquainted with such branches as of practical application in the exercise of their trade". The Institution's supporters emphasised the role of scientific education (apparently influenced by the Edinburgh School of Arts); as the original rules of the MMI stated:
"It is not intended to teach the trade of the Machine-Maker, the Dyer, the Carpenter, the Mason, or any other particular business, but there is no Art which does not depend, more or less, on scientific principles, and to teach what these are, and to point out their practical application, will form the chief objects of this institution."
The Manchester Mechanics' Institution (MMI) was the creation of a small group of Manchester's business leaders, interested in popular education and familiar with contemporary scientific and intellectual culture. The three individuals who devised the original plan were typical of this group: William Fairbairn was the owner of a large engineering firm, Richard Roberts, the inventor of the self-acting spinning mule and Thomas Hopkins was active in local politics. Also involved were the millowners George Lee, Peter Ewart, Joseph Brotherton, James McConnel and John Kennedy, together with a local banker, Benjamin Heywood, who became the chairman of the Board of Directors. Some of these men knew the country's great entrepreneurs and inventors: Ewart had worked for Boulton & Watt, and Fairbairn was a friend of George Stephenson. Several directors had close connections with Scotland (McConnel, Ewart, Kennedy, Fairbairn), and a number were members of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, a key organization for disseminating Enlightened ideas. In terms of religious and political affiliations, many of the Institution's backers were Whigs, and a significant number were Unitarians (although some Tories and Anglicans also became Directors).
Governance of the Institution was vested in a Board of Directors, chaired by Benjamin Heywood. The Board was originally elected by the life and honorary members, essentially passive supporters of the Institution who helped finance its work, but did not attend lectures or classes. This arrangement became a source of some friction with the Institution's students, who felt excluded from decision-making, particularly in relation to curriculum matters.
One of the Institution's first actions was to establish a library, with a full-time librarian, at premises in King St., Manchester. This was followed in 1825 by lecture series delivered by Andrew Wilson (formerly of the Edinburgh School of Arts) on mechanics and Richard Phillips on chemistry. However, these initiatives were hampered by the lack of suitable facilities, and as a result an appeal fund for a new building was launched, which led to land being acquired in Cooper St., Manchester. This project was funded by a small group of sympathisers who purchased shares, to be repaid at a later date. The Mechanics' Institution building opened in 1827, and included a lecture theatre which could seat a thousand, a number of classrooms and a library. Despite this, the MMI was suffering falling rolls by the end of the decade, partly due to an economic downturn, but also due to concerns over the curriculum and the lack of involvement of student members in the running of the Institution. This caused a small number of students to transfer their allegiance to a rival body, popularly known as the New Mechanics' Institution, run by the popular educator, Rowland Detroisier, which had a broader curriculum and encouraged popular participation (it survived until 1835).
In response, the Institution widened its curriculum, recognizing that the narrow focus on chemistry or mechanics did not appear to be meeting students' needs. Instead, new classes were offered in grammar, arithmetic, writing, architectural and technical drawing; subjects with a more obvious practical value. This marked a recognition that students might require remedial education, before they could tackle more advanced technical subjects. Subjects such as technical drawing had an obvious vocational benefit, and proved popular due to expanding job opportunities in this area. The social profile of the students seems to have been increasingly slanted towards clerks and warehousemen, who stood to benefit from such teaching, rather than those directly involved in industry, the group to whom the original sponsors of the Institution wished to appeal. Less obviously vocational subjects like geography and natural history also proved popular with students. Some students seem to have felt a growing sense of social attachment to the Institution: they began to hold coffee meetings, musical concerts and special dinners in the 1830s, including the highly popular Christmas dinner from 1834. A Mutual Improvement Society, which held weekly debates, was set up, as was a Natural History Society. This involvement was perhaps encouraged by their involvement in the governance of the Institution, with the Board of Directors eventually conceding that ordinary members were eligible for election to the Board, and in 1834 the subscribers (students) gained the right to elect the entire Board.
Financial requirements meant that the Institution tried to broaden its appeal from its core educational activities. Between 1837-1845, it ran a series of highly successful exhibitions of scientific and technical displays. It also established a boys school in 1834 (followed by a girls school a year later); these lasted until 1839.
This broadening of the curriculum and extension of activities meant a retreat from some of the original ideals of the Institution. Teaching appeared to respond to demand for improving skills in basic subjects of grammar and maths, vocationally-oriented subjects such as technical drawing, or in non-vocational subjects such as music and geography, but there was little capability to provide the sort of advanced scientific instruction envisioned by the founders of the Institution. By the mid-Victorian period, the Institution was acting to a certain degree as a surrogate secondary school for groups who had little prospect of receiving this education elsewhere. For example, the Institution provided education for young women, mostly daughters from lower middle class families. Women subscribers appear in the lists of the Institution from the mid-1830s, and in 1845 special day classes for women were made available (most male students attended evening classes). From the 1850s, the Institution also attracted students by providing facilities to take the examinations of the Departments of Arts and Science, the Lancashire and Cheshire Unions Institute, the Whitworth Scholarships and the Society of Arts. Although its financial position remained difficult, the MMI did succeed in building larger premises in David St (now Princess St).
By the late 1870s it was increasingly clear that the type of education offered by the Institution did not have much of a future. The MMI was facing competition in many subjects from cheaper municipal Board Schools, and it was recognized that its provision of technical instruction was wholly inadequate. Technical education was becoming a matter of more general concern due to fears about Britain's declining economic competitiveness. Advanced, vocational training was advocated as a response to this, based on the much more rigorous education offered by the technical schools of Germany and Switzerland. One response was the City and Guilds Institute of London, established in 1878, to offer examination and certification in subjects such as dyeing and bleaching, weaving, mechanical engineering, telegraphy, carriage building and commercial art. In 1879, the MMI appointed a new secretary, J.H. Reynolds, a former pupil of the Institution, who was sympathetic to these views of technical education. Reynolds managed to persuade the Directors of the Institution that a complete overhaul of its curriculum was needed, warning in a memorandum of 1881 that the Institution had "fallen far below the aims of its original founders", and advocating that a "Trade School or Technical College" should be created to offer genuine technical education.
In 1883, the MMI was refounded as the Manchester Technical School and Mechanics' Institution, consisting of schools of applied science, art and commerce. Reynolds was appointed director of the School, and launched an appeal to local industrialists to endow the new institution. This met with some success, and new workshops and laboratories were developed at various sites across Manchester. A new curriculum was introduced which stressed analytical teaching based on concrete examples of industrial and manufacturing processes. Several of the new courses proved popular, with some firms paying their apprentices to attend. A number of the School's pupils went on to study at Owens College, and the School became the top performing provincial institution in the City and Guilds exams.
The long-term future of the school depended on more reliable sources of income, and, in particular, on new buildings properly equipped to offer a full-range of technical subjects. Funding of a new building became a major issue in the late 1880s. Initially, it had been hoped that part of the legacy of the Manchester industrialist Joseph Whitworth could be used for this purpose. The Whitworth legatees planned an ambitious Whitworth Institute of Art and Industry, comprising a technical school, school of arts and an art gallery. The Technical School was subsumed into this Institute, which opened in September 1890. The legatees purchased land for a building at Sackville St., not far from the existing School building, but it soon became apparent that the Institute lacked the funds to achieve its ambitious objectives. However, this setback coincided with the entry of Manchester Corporation into technical education, as a result of the Technical Instruction Act 1889, which empowered councils to raise a rate for technical education, and also with councils being allowed to use special excise duties, so-called "whisky money", for educational purposes. The Corporation set up a Technical Instruction Committee which worked closely with the Whitworth Institute to develop the School, and having agreed plans for a new building, control of the School passed to Manchester Corporation on 31 March 1892. The School was renamed the Manchester Municipal Technical School; its new building was officially opened by the prime minister, A.J. Balfour, in 1902.