George Birkbeck (1776 – 1841)

Educator, Physician, Philanthropist and Innovator of education for workers and artisans

Even though Birmingham may claim to have had the first Mechanics’ Institute in Britain the initial idea emanated from Scotland and Birkbeck was the instigator and driving force behind their creation [see history of technical education]. Born to a Quaker family in Settle, Yorkshire in 1776 he was educated at Sedbergh school and Edinburgh University. He qualified as a doctor of Medicine in 1799 and was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Anderson’s Institute in Glasgow at the age of 23. The Anderson’s Institute had been founded following a bequest by John Anderson Professor of Physics at Glasgow University. John Anderson left most of his money to provide education for the “working and unacademic classes” and this led to the creation of the Anderson’s College (see biography of the Anderson’s College and to John Anderson on this website). Birkbeck required equipment for his lectures and research e.g. a centrifugal pump, and commissioned work from a Glasgow workshop. He found to his surprise and delight that the workers wanted to know the principles of the apparatus.

To capture the commitment and foresight possessed by George Birkbeck it is worth quoting him: “I beheld, through every disadvantage of circumstance and appearance, such strong indications of the existence of unquenchable spirit, – – – -. Why are these minds left without the means of obtaining that knowledge which they so ardently desire, and why are the avenues of science barred against them because they are poor? It was impossible not to determine that obstacle should be removed”. As a result he invited them to attend his classes and subsequently opened a mechanics’ class especially for them on Saturday evenings. They readily accepted his invitation and the attendances steadily grew – 75 at the first, rising to 500 for the fourth. The course lasted three months. The course was repeated each year until Birkbeck left Glasgow in 1804 and continued to lecture on science in Birmingham, Liverpool and Hull, finally settling in London. Whilst in London he involved himself in a wide range of scientific and philanthropic causes and societies ranging from the abolition of the employment of child chimney sweeps to meteorology. He also continued his interest in the education of the working classes and in 1809 he was instrumental with others in creating the London Institute located in King’s Arm Yard and later at Finsbury Circus. The Institute encouraged the pursuit of scientific and literary topics to the more educated populous.

However in 1823 he wrote an essay on the need for scientific education of the working classes similar to the model he had developed in Glasgow. Also in London a number of individuals namely J. Robertson and T. Hodgskin were interested in establishing educational establishments that would promulgate economic, political and social emancipation. George Birkbeck with the help of his friend Francis Place offered assistance to these individuals and got involved in fund raising and developing wider interest in the initiative. During this development period the emanatory mission was significantly reduced. A meeting was held at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand on the 11th November 1823 with an attendance of 2,000 and this led to the establishment of the London Mechanics’ Institution. Following a number of relocations and reorganisations the Institution was renamed the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution in 1866 and in 1907 became known as Birkbeck College. This pioneering institution ultimately became part of the University of London and has remained true to his values and is a fitting tribute to this great man. George Birkbeck passionately believed that the Mechanics’ Institutions were a vehicle for self improvement of the workers and as a result a means of liberating their minds. Very few of the Mechanics’ Institutions realised his worthy and high minded beliefs but they did lay the foundations of technical education [See the history of technical education]. A man of great vision, he realised the danger of excluding the vast majority of society from any form of education and its negative impact on the motivation and productivity of the workforce.

Reference:

  1. Kelly, T. ‘George Birkbeck, Pioneer of Adult Education.’ Liverpool University Press. 1957.

Godard. J. G. ‘George Birkbeck the Pioneer of Popular Education’. Bemrose and Sons London/Derby. 1884.

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