Believed to have been taken in 1855, the year in which the Manchester Mechanics Institute moved to smart new premises on Princes Street (then known as David Street), the photograph of this city landmark shown here is now held in the University of Manchester Library and is part of the John Rylands online images collection.
Originally established in 1824 at the Bridgewater Arms Hotel, the institute aimed to enable ‘Mechanics and Artisans, of whatever trade they may be’ to improve their skills through studying ‘such branches of science as are of practical application’ to their work. In addition to courses of lectures, exhibitions and a newspaper reading room, the wealthy philanthropists who funded and ran the organisation, many of them with shared backgrounds in Unitarianism and the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, also sought to offer opportunities for the moral improvement of working-class members, while steering them firmly away from political controversy.
The Manchester body was part of a wider mechanics institute movement that had begun in Edinburgh (1821) before spreading across the country to dozens of towns and cities, including Glasgow (1823), London (1823) and Liverpool (1823) – and overseas as far afield as Hobart, Tasmania (1827). And though much of their role in providing adult education and libraries was later taken over by public bodies, many still exist today.
The Manchester Mechanics Institute would remain in the Princes Street building until the end of the nineteenth century – during which time the inaugural meeting of the Trades Union Congress was held there, from 2 to 6 June 1868. It was also the birthplace of the Co-operative Insurance Society and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). The building would later house the Labour History Archive and Study Centre, now part of the People’s History Museum. Today it is a conference centre.