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The London Mechanics' Institution: Social and Cultural Foundations 1823-1830

Flexner, HH; (2014) The London Mechanics' Institution: Social and Cultural Foundations 1823-1830. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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This study of the founding in 1823 of the London Mechanics’ Institution examines its constituency, catchment, and mandate to teach working men science and technology. To explain the Institution’s distinctive character, it is necessary to move beyond the flourishing patent/invention journalism, which provides one explanatory context, to the cheap literature disputes, debating society connotations, and Francis Place’s network. These radical associations show why George Birkbeck was quickly designated the ‘founder’, even though he was unknown to J. C. Robertson and Thomas Hodgskin when they proposed such an institute in the Mechanics’ Magazine. Birkbeck’s social standing would allay Establishment fears. An older historiography stressing middle-class social control is tested by analysing contemporary journals, newspapers and manuscripts. The first two volumes of manuscript Members’ Registers (1824-29), recording 8,343 names with occupations and addresses, have been transcribed and appended. These allow a comparison of members’ occupations with London trades generally and highlight diverse occupations within families. They also reveal family relationships between clerks and mechanics – important because clerks have been cited as a sign of middle-class invasion. Indeed the lack of any gross change in class composition suggests that there was no working-class exodus in these pre-Reform years. By statute two-thirds of the committee had to be working class. The encouragement of invention and student autonomy through mutual instruction classes, introduced by the Pestalozzian Charles Lane, points to a more humanitarian ethos, as do the lectures which (contra the learned societies) often presented science as negotiable rather than given. Iconic radical members are highlighted: Henry Hetherington (on the committee regularly from 1825-1830), William Lovett, James Watson, G. G. Ward, and P. O. Skene. Finally, the thesis analyses the committee’s relationships with controversial outsiders who rented the theatre, including Robert Owen, Eliza Macauley, William Cobbett, the Radical Reform Association, and the London Co-operative Society.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: The London Mechanics' Institution: Social and Cultural Foundations 1823-1830
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1417470
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