Mechanics Institute – Old Library Bingley
In this article local historian Alan Cattell identifies and explores the many uses of what must surely be one of the oldest buildings on Bingley Main Street.
Further Education and a girls’ school
In 1864 a Mechanics’ Institute was erected in Main Street, Bingley, by public subscription. Its purpose was to provide a venue for self- help classes and educational opportunities for working people.
Mechanics’ Institutes were pioneers in further education, established to further understanding of technical and scientific subjects through a lecture and night school approach.
The Leeds Mercury of 15 November 1864 reported that facilities included:
- A hall for lectures and music on the top floor which was designed to accommodate 500 people on the top floor
- A news reading room and classrooms on the ground floor
- A spacious schoolroom for elementary instruction and evening classes in the basement.
In its first year the Institute had 350 members and the reading room supplied seven daily and seven weekly newspapers. As a small library it also issued over 6000 books.
The clock to the Institute was initially the subject of some derision: its primary motive power was water which proved ineffective and for some time the clock was permanently stopped at a quarter to one until a new power supply was fitted in 1868.
From 1873 to 1879 a Girls’ School was carried on in the Mechanics’ Institute as a precursor to later integration with other schools in the area. (Dodd,1930, History of the Bingley Grammar School)
Town Hall and free library
In 1890 the Mechanics’ Institute was leased as the Town Hall for Bingley and in 1892 the old reading and news room was converted into a Council Chamber.
At a meeting of local ratepayers in 1890, the concept of the Free Libraries Act was adopted and accordingly a library was also opened in the building in 1892. This was supported by local benefactor Alfred Sharp of Myrtle Grove who contributed £1000 towards the purchase of new books.
Around this time, sanitation and cleanliness were a major topic of debate at both national and local level. As a result, Bingley adopted the idea of public baths (not yet swimming baths, which were not built in Bingley until 1927).
The Leeds Mercury of 12 March 1892 reported:
“The erection of public baths at Bingley Town Hall is almost completed. There is a Turkish Bath and two first class and five second class slipper baths, each fitted with arrangements for rapid filling and fed by a large cistern for hot water.”
The arrangements for the different aspects of the Institute to coexist together were:
- The basement was converted to public baths
- The ground floor became public offices
- The first floor became the free library.
Workers’ Education Association (WEA)
Bingley District Council obtained the freehold to the building in 1907. Whilst the original function of the Mechanics’ Institute was the provision of general educational opportunities for workers, this was superseded by provision by the Workers’ Education Council, a branch of which was launched in Bingley in 1913. In the years immediately after World War I, the WEA flourished and the Bingley Branch based at the Mechanics Institute, was thought to be one of the most successful in the county in proportion to head of population.
After the adoption of ‘open access’ in November 1923 and the awarding of a grant by the Carnegie Trust, the public library in Bingley steadily increased its services, whilst the WEA influence sadly declined. The library also joined the Yorkshire Regional Library which made it possible to borrow books not included in local stock.
In 1926 the whole building of the Mechanics’ Institute was handed over to the library and Myrtle Grove now became the Town Hall. The year 1928 saw the lending library and reading room being enlarged. The next major refurbishment was in 1946 when large-scale alterations were carried out.
In 1950 an exhibition room was provided to house the model steam engine collection donated by Mr W H Smith and a junior library was opened in the former exhibition room. During 1960 a mobile library service was inaugurated to replace centres at Harden, Wilsden and Cullingworth. This service also covered Cottingley.
In March 1973 the former Mechanics’ Institute closed after 109 years; 81 of these as a library. The reason for the closure was that the building was no longer fit for purpose as an expanding library.
1973 to 2011
The rest as they say… is history.
On 17 April 1973 the new central library opened in the Myrtle Walk shopping centre where it remained until its relocation within the 5Rise shopping precinct opened in 2010.
When the Mechanics’ Institute was opened on Main Street in 1864 the dignitary who opened it prophesied:
“It is a most beautiful building which will be an adornment to the town: it will enable the inhabitants to hold public meetings and to listen to lectures: for many, many years to come it will be destined that there will be much to instruct and please within these walls.”
Now, 147 years later the building still stands in a prominent position on Main Street having more than fulfilled its promise to instruct by serving the town at different times as a Mechanics’ Institute, girls’ school, town hall/ council chamber and library. Nowadays it fulfils its promise to please by housing a wine bar and dance school.
Alan Cattell, Bingley, January 2011
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