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Barnstaple Mechanics’ Institute



Devon Notes & Queries, vol. I, (January 1900 to January 1901), p. 200

Prepared by Michael Steer

Mechanics’ Institutes are considered the forerunners of public libraries and adult education. Their origin is attributed to Dr George Birkbeck, who in 1799 gave a series of free lectures for the working men of Glasgow. At the time, ‘mechanic’ meant artisan, tradesman or working man. The definition became more specific over time, especially during the Industrial Revolution when workers became increasingly associated with machinery. The lectures were  popular because they were offered free of charge (at a time when formal education had been available only to the wealthy and the clergy) and offered in the evenings (when workers would be able to attend them). These lectures led to facilities dedicated to workers’education. Mechanics’ institutes were established throughout Britain and its colonies including Canada, New Zealand, America and Australia. The extract, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers

Note 168. BARNSTAPLE MECHANICS' INSTITUTE (par. 74, p. 108). The Mechanics' Institute in Barnstaple was started on Oct. 3oth, 1830, with Mr. S. Westacott, Treasurer, and Mr. J. Barry, Secretary. It ceased to exist on Oct. 19th, 1837.
The Barnstaple Literary Scientific Institution was established in March, 1845, mainly through the influence of the late Mr. W. F. Rock, with the assistance of the late Earl Fortescue. Mr. Rock from first year subscribed £100 per annum providing free admission for a hundred members and students.
The first President was the late Rt. Hon. Earl Fortescue, the late Mr. J. R. Chanter was the first Secretary, and the late Mr. H. K. Thorne the first librarian.
Mr. W. F. Rock was elected President on the death of the late Earl Fortescue and continued so until March 27th, 1873, when the present Earl Fortescue was elected and who continued to occupy the position until 1888, when the institution was merged into the North Devon Athenaeum. The library, which was a good one, was removed from the house in High Street to the North Devon Athenaeum, where Mr. Rock had provided a permanent local institution, devoted to literature, science and art, for the benefit of Barnstaple and district.
When Mr. J. R. Chanter retired from the Secretaryship he was followed by Mr. J. G. King, who was succeeded by Mr. Richard Cotton, Mr. J. B. Pascoe, Mr. J. Dunstone and Mr. W. H. Toller.
In 1872 Mr. Wainwright was appointed Secretary. He discharged the duties until 1888. Mr. H. K. Thorne, Librarian, resigned in 1855, when Mr. Knill was elected Librarian and continued so until the Institu- tion was removed to the Athenaeum, where he also discharged the duties until 1890, when Mr. T. Wainwright was appointed to that position.