By Portia Tremlett, public programme engagement officer
THE CHICHESTER Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1825 by the Unitarian pastor, the Rev John Fullagar, in what is now 45 South Street.
It was part of a national movement to provide adult education for the skilled working classes. The first Mechanics’ Institute was founded in London in 1823, as well as the Mechanics’ Magazine.
Subsequent to its establishment, in 1825 there was a flurry of Mechanics’ Institutions that were founded across the country, with Chichester’s branch being one of 80 new institutions. The Institute lasted nearly 100 years until it finally closed in 1923.
Traditionally associated with northern and industrial areas, Mechanics’ Institutes aimed to provide formal education for mechanics in the science and arts of their trades, and had a significant impact on communities’ culture and civic pride.
Mechanics’ Institutes were founded all along the south coast, in Brighton, Lewes, Arundel, Portsmouth and Southampton to name a few. These institutes enjoyed good communication with the leading London Institute as well as close relationships with each other due to the efficient transport links, which were strengthened after the introduction of the railways in the 1830s.
The Mechanics’ Magazine was an important tool for institutes across the country to share news and good practice.
The Chichester Institute was well received in 1837, after the magazine noted that it had 300 members from a population of 8,000, and that it showed distinction in its practice of sending book boxes and organising lectures for up to 50 people to its branch societies at Bognor and Selsey.
One of the key activities the Mechanics’ Institutes engaged in was the provision of lectures, with different institutions recommending different lecturers. The Rev J Fullagar, of Chichester’s Mechanics’ Institute, was a frequent lecturer at neighbouring institutions.
The success for Mechanic’s Institutes across the country also depended on favourable local press who would cover meetings and advertise upcoming lectures.
The Hampshire Telegraph would report on the Chichester Institute’s meetings using statements such as ‘a numerous and attentive audience’ who were ‘highly gratified’ and expressed this through ‘repeated plaudits’. This positive spin in the local press only served to increase interest in the institute.
The president of the Chichester Mechanics Institute was the Duke of Richmond, having been invited to fulfil the position after the institute received letters before its foundation meeting in April, 1825, from the Duke of Richmond and Lord G. Lennox offering their services.
The support of the local aristocracy and their attendance at certain events increased the support and attendance of the membership. It was reported for a ball held in 1838 that was attended by the Duchess of Richmond that ‘an immense number of tickets have already been disposed of’.
Many institutes wanted to ensure that their society was a feature of civic pride for the community. A museum was a common way of attempting to foster this, and one which Chichester’s Institute undertook. The Chichester Literary and Philosophical Society, which was merged with the Mechanics Institute in 1849, was described by a Professor Tennant as ‘one of the best arranged provincial museums in the kingdom’, attracting over 1,350 visitors in 1854.
This museum was the original institution that has developed and evolved into what the Novium Museum is today, after closing during the First World War and re-opening in the 1960s as the Chichester City Museum.
The presence of museums in Mechanics Institutes across the country shows the shift from their original function of bringing scientific training to the working classes, to having much more of a central role in the community and of culture.
The number of institutes in Sussex declined over the years, with only four surviving to the 1870s, and the two oldest surviving the longest; Lewes’ Mechanics Institute survived until 1892, but Chichester’s survived until 1923 after it was merged with the Literary and Philosophical Society.
A blue plaque can still be seen today on the building in which the Mechanics Institute used to reside.
This article was written using information gathered from the PhD Thesis of Jana Hilda Sims of the University of London in 2010.