Mechanics Institute history in Plymouth

Celebrating education since 1800

Celebrating education since 1800

Key periods

Although the University of Plymouth's earliest direct ancestor was the School of Navigation, there is a heritage of voluntary further education in the city which stretches back further.

Mechanics' Institutes were private enterprises, often bankrolled by wealthy benefactors, and generally funded by a subscription fee. Our local examples were no different. As the name suggests, they were intended mainly for the self-education and self-improvement of the working and skilled classes, and were inspired by the beliefs of such philanthropists as Henry, Lord Brougham and George Birkbeck - these thinkers believed that through education, a sense of moral probity could be instilled in the working classes, and lectures together with classes on subjects such as the physical sciences, engineering and technical matters would build a more highly skilled workforce. As can be imagined, backers of local Institutes tended to be wealthy industrialists who naturally stood to gain from staff more proficient in their roles.

Later, moral philosophy, literature and subjects we nowadays call 'Humanities' came to be taught as well. Politics and Religion were forbidden from the outset due to their potential to cause arguments and, more worryingly, from a concern that the former might lead to a more radicalised working class.

Early 19th Century

During the early 19th century, an adult self-education movement swept the UK and led to the establishment of Mechanics' Institutes in all major towns and cities.


During the first wave of this movement both Plymouth and Devonport saw the establishment of such Institutes.


Plymouth's Institute began its life at the Guildhall, before moving to its new home on Princess Square in 1827.


A short lived Institute was formed in Stonehouse in 1845 as part of a later wave of the movement, however it did not meet with success and lasted less than a decade.


Devonport Mechanics' Institute closed.


Plymouth Mechanics' Institute closed due to falling attendances in 1899 and merged with the Plymouth Institute, now known as the Athenauem.