Sunday, 8 February 2015

Leek Mechanics Institute 1847


In my searches of  the British Newspaper Archive I came across a heated debate held in the Swan in Leek on the 16th April 1847 over the issue of whether novels should be admitted to the library of Leek Mechanics Institute. Mechanics Institutes were an early Victorian institution in which progressive members of the local establishment could meet to cogitate on  the important issues of the day . They  provided a place where men could read the latest “improving” books and meet to discuss topical matters. The emphasis in such establishments was always on moral and intellectual development with a slant towards scientific  advance. In short what could be deemed useful knowledge. It was hoped that the developments of Mechanic Institutes  would help to turn workers  away from Chartism and other revolutionary activity

Clearly the donation of novels especially romances caused perturbation among the leading men of the town. There were some supporters of fiction, but there were opponents as well. Mr Russell thought that the reading of novels was “ evil”...depraving the taste and hardening the heart and creating a distaste for all that was real and useful”.. Mr Alsop thought that novel reading was a form of moral opium eating. Mr Challioner demurred from this view believing that works of fiction could be ethical. He cited the works of Dickens, Scott and Mrs Edgeworth in defence of the genre. The last word went to the Rev Goshawk who could have been a creation from the pen of Anthony Trollope in Outslopeing Obadiah Slope in sneering   at popular entertainment. He regarded the reading of novels as time misspent. He regarded the people who attended theatre, dance and music with “pity and contempt” Noting disapprovingly that some members of the Institute had been foolish enough to suggest the introduction of “tea dances”. The vote to admit novels was narrowly carried by 62 votes to 58.

 Of course many of these names live on in the street names of the town.


It led me to consider what novels were published in 1847. Many fictional works such as “Inundation” by Catherine Gore or “Patty or Beware of Meddling” by Charlotte Tonna published by Methodists Sunday School Union – which I would imagine even the Rev Goshawk would have approved are forgotten . But one novel of 1847 would almost certainly be known to the people of 2014 – “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte.  The novel detailing the lives of Catherine, Edgar and Heathcliffe set in the Yorkshire Moors challenges religious hypocrisy, notions of class and gender and morality. It would have been the sort of novel to have Messrs Alsop, Russell and Rev Goshawk reaching for a phial of ammonia to combat the shock. They would not have been alone. Graham's Lady Magazine reviewed the novel thus "How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors” Of course we know it for the various adaptations including the films, the TV adaptation and perhaps most familiarly the  Kate Bush hit single of 1978. Kate Bush recently completed a series of concerts for the first time in quarter of a century and her albums have once again dominated the charts. She has not won everyone over though as my daughter described her dismissively as “sounding like a mouse”.