The Mechanics Institute, one of Darlington’s most imposing buildings, is undergoing a £1m refit. Chris Lloyd tells its story
The first meeting of the Darlington Mechanics Institute was held in the town hall. Its aim was to help members of the working class – “rude mechanicals” – educate themselves.
It rented rooms in the Commercial Street area, and the Bishop of Durham, William van Mildert, donated some books. It closed on June 21, 1827, £16 in debt.
In 1840, John Fothergill – a doctor who has a drinking fountain dedicated to him in Darlington’s South Park – revived the Institute.
Annual subscriptions were five shillings, which gave men access to a newspapers and books in a room in Betty Hobson’s Yard (now known as Mechanics Yard, between High Row and Skinnergate, which was said to be haunted by Betty herself – has anyone seen her recently?).
The Peases and the Backhouses threw themselves behind the Institute. Among the “operative mechanics” who became members were apprentice woolsorters, coachmakers, curriers, shoemakers, weavers, whitesmiths, tallow chandlers, hatters and a coach trimmer.
August 15, 1844
With membership growing, the Institute rented three rooms in Central Hall plus large cellars in which it held lectures.
May 12, 1853
Elizabeth Pease, of Feethams, laid the foundation for the new Mechanics Institute in Skinnergate.
Miss Pease was a firebrand – she campaigned against slavery and vivisection, and for the rights of women and striking factory workers.
She gave £400 towards the £2,300 cost of the construction of the institute – the largest single donation – and laid the stone with a “silver trowel which was judiciously contrived to serve as a fish slice and was presented to the lady”.
Ten days later, Miss Pease, 46, married Professor Dr John Pringle Nichol, the greatest astronomer of his day.
The Mechanics Institute shrouded in scaffolding today
Unfortunately, he was a Presbyterian, so they married in a little chapel off Northgate causing her to be “disowned”
by the rest of her Quaker family and she went to live in Glasgow.
September 1, 1854
Prof Nichol and his wife returned to perform the official opening of the Institute at an elaborate tea for 500 people.
“Mr Woodhams’ efficient band were stationed in the gallery and added much to the enjoyment of the evening by the strains of sweet melody with which they delighted the audience,” said the Darlington and Stockton Times.
Henry Pease chaired the occasion and Dr Nichol gave a long but warmly-received lecture entitled The Immensity and Endurance of Creation.
In his closing remarks, the Reverend HN Ball said: “The Institute is no idlers’ lounge nor gossip shop.” He warned against “desultory reading” – flicking through books, which can damage the brain – and “light reading”.
He said: “If this is to be a people’s college, we must have men who would labour to improve their minds, and trifling shilling volumes will never do this.”
And he warned against too much newspaper reading which, although pleasant, had a “dissipating effect” on anyone who indulged in it too much.
The building had been designed by Joshua Sparkes, a Quaker architect who also created the nearby Friends Meeting House and the Hopetown Carriage Works before he died in 1855, aged 35.
November 23, 1877
Two huge plaster casts of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were unveiled on either side of the Institute stage.
They had been made by the well known sculptor Thomas Earle who had died the previous year.
Considered to be among Darlington’s greatest art treasures, they were broken up at the time of the First World War. The institute was now at its peak with more than 400 members and a library of more than 3,000 books.
However, times were changing.
Public libraries were coming and technical colleges were opening – by the end of the 19th Century, the working man who wanted self-improvement had better places to go.
The institute became more of a social venue: films were shown there, public meetings were held there along with auctions and, briefly, theatrical productions.
January 23, 1959
WITH the institute struggling to make ends meet, Newcastle Savings Bank opened on the ground floor.
The institute – now a highminded working men’s club – moved onto the revamped upper floor which was reopened with a match between the North-East billiards and snooker champion, Alfred Nolan, and his North Yorkshire and South Durham counterpart, Donald Cruickshank.
December 12, 1991 The bank moved out in the 1980s and the building, owned by Darlington council, became increasingly derelict until it was controversially rescued by a £750,000 conversion into an Anglo-American diner/ bar.
The institute itself had only 30 members who met in a couple of rooms in the attic.
The grand, but desperately tired, face of the institute is shrouded by scaffolding.
Elizabeth Pease Nichol
The last of its snooker-playing members have moved out and, now privately-owned, the 160-year-old building is being reborn as a nightclub and bar.