These institutes were part of a great and valuable movement that swept through Britain in the nineteenth century. At a time when formal school education was minimal for the children of most people, and when children’s earnings might be an important factor in the family budget, there were some who thirsted for more education in adulthood, seeing it as a way to a better life.
This was not easy. Some people regarded education for the working classes to be threatening for political reasons. Time in a working man’s life was also in short supply.
Despite this, there were some who spent their working days in terrible conditions yet even so taught themselves Greek at night in order to read Homer, or who propped up Carlyle against their machines to read while they worked.
The Bromsgrove Scientific & Literary Institute was founded in 1859, the year before the School of Art, and the Mechanics Institute in Bromsgrove ten years earlier in 1849. There were many such bodies founded in Victorian times in most towns and cities, whose aims were to provide classes, libraries, reading rooms, concerts and lectures to encourage literacy and education.The Scientific & Literary Institute took over the premises of the Crown Inn at 43-45 High Street, Bromsgrove when the latter closed in 1860. In 1870, the Institute amalgamated with the Mechanics Institute. Then the adjoining Corn Exchange was purchased by the Institute, and the School of Art became its tenant in 1872.
It was then that the Mechanics Institute moved from its home at the other end of the High Street and amalgamated with the Scientific & Literary Institute, the two together becoming the Literary & Mechanics Institute.
The great and good of Bromsgrove supported the Institute, and classes and recreational activities were held in its premises in the High Street. A library and reading room were built, and books, newspapers and journals were donated. Concerts, lectures, and travelling entertainments were also held there.
Further alterations to the High Street premises to make more space were made in 1877 and later. However, the Institute’s annual reports regularly complained of a lack of space and and money, and dances and bazaars were promoted to raise funds. So in 1894 the Institute moved to new purpose built premises in New Road, and the following year the School of Art likewise moved to adjoining premises built next door, as the School of Science & Art.
Both buildings in New Road were planned by John Cotton, the Bromsgrove architect who was himself a great believer in self-education. He recalled how as a young man he read Ruskin while walking round country lanes during his time as an apprentice vet.
In the Institute’s new building in New Road, Knowledge is Power was inscribed as the motif on the fireplace in the Reading Room, and it was decorated with carved heads of Shelley, Dickens, Darwin and the philosopher Herbert Spencer. At the rear was an Assembly Room, where gatherings of all kinds where held, from choral concerts to lectures on travel, architecture and politics.
Many local organisations used this new purpose built building – there was a flourishing debating society and a drama group, and there was continual contact with the students and staff using the laboratories and art rooms of the School next door.
In this period at the end of the nineteenth century, the Institute’s trustees included local solicitors Thomas Horton and James Yates Holt, John B. Wilson the grocer, and R. H. Milward of needle manufacturing fame, whilst President was the Right Honourable Lord Windsor of Hewell Grange.
By the 1930’s, the Institute’s worthy activities had become less important, however, as public schooling and further education had become available to all.
Regretfully then, the Institute’s building and land were passed over in trust to the County Council to use as a public library for the town, in which capacity it ran successfully for many years, alongside the School of Science & Art which continued to be used for further education of a practical nature.
At the end of the 1960’s a new public library was built for Bromsgrove. Subsequently, the premises in New Road carried on being used by various public organisations for a number of years, but gradually less and less so until the mid 1980’s when they were closed and stood empty for some time. After an unsuccessful bid by the Bromsgrove Arts Association to take the buildings over for an arts centre, a decision to sell them was taken in 1987.
Finally, the buildings were sold in 1988 and demolished for redevelopment, the money raised remaining with the County Council, accruing interest. At last after some further years, and prompting by the Arts Association, the Charity Commission agreed a scheme for the proceeds of the sale of the New Road property, and the present charitable trust was established in 2001.
The Bromsgrove Institute Trust thus not just owes its existence to funds released from the sale of the original Institute’s premises but carries on its spirit and principles “for the education and development of the people of Bromsgrove”.