The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 20. Mechanics’ institutes

The rapid increase in number, throughout Great Britain, of Mechanics’ institutions confirms the statement of contemporary observers that there was a widespread desire among urban populations for instruction. They owed their beginning to an associate of the first Edinburgh reviewers, George Birkbeck, a fellow-student and lifelong friend of Brougham. Birkbeck, who was professor of natural philosophy at the Andersonian institution, Glasgow, from 1799 to 1804, opened, in 1800, a free course of Saturday evening lectures to artisans, intended to familiarise them with some of the scientific principles underlying the employment of tools and machinery. The class met with immediate success and survived its originator’s removal to London. Under his successor, it experienced a variety of fortunes, till, in 1823, a number of seceding members established the Glasgow Mechanics’ institution and made Birkbeck its president. In the meantime, he was practising medicine in London, where he had become a member of the circle which included George Grote, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, Joseph Hume, David Ricardo, John Cam Hobhouse, Sir Francis Burdett, Francis Place, Brougham and others whose political principles ranged them with the philosophical radicals. A suggestion made in 1823 by The Mechanics’ Magazine, that the Glasgow example should be followed in London, was eagerly taken up by Birkbeck and his friends; the result was the creation of the London Mechanics’ institution (better known to-day as Birkbeck college), the development of which became the lifelong preoccupation of the man whose name it now bears. Thirteen hundred members registered themselves at the outset; the course of study was chiefly scientific and practical, though it found room, also, for “French, stenography, botany, mnemonics and phrenology.”