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Keighley Mechanics' Institute

The Oxford Companion to the Brontës

Christine Alexander,

Margaret Smith

Keighley Mechanics' Institute, 

founded in 1825 as ‘a society for mutual instruction, and to establish a library for that purpose’ by four Keighley tradesmen: John Bradley (house and sign painter and sometime artist), John Farish (reed‐maker), William Dixon (tailor), and John Haigh (joiner) (Yorkshire Ridings Magazine (June 1968), 27). Bradley was the Institute's first secretary and was elected vice‐president in 1831 and the architect of its new building, opened on 29 December 1834 (later the Yorkshire Bank, demolished in 1968). Revd Theodore Dury, Rector of St Andrew's, Keighley, from 1814 to 1840, is also said to have been a guiding spirit (Lock & Dixon, p. 274). Revd Patrick Brontë joined in 1833, his membership number being 213 and admission fee 5s., plus a contribution of twopence per week. This entitled him to use the reading‐room, the library and apparatus, and to attend lectures and classes. In 1833, the Mechanics' Institute had 93 members and 625 volumes in its library, chiefly on science, travel, and philosophy, although its catalogue includes many other books the Brontës are known to have read (Clifford Whone, ‘Where the Brontës Borrowed Books’, BST (1950), 11. 60. 344–58). Ian Dewhirst has pointed out that Mr Brontë's role in the Mechanics' Institute was not as great as has been assumed (‘The Rev. Patrick Brontë and the Keighley Mechanics' Institute,’ BST (1965), 14. 75.35–7). His name is mentioned only occasionally in the Institute minutes and he is known to have taken part in the regular lecture programme sponsored by the Institute. The lectures were chiefly on scientific topics in the early days but later included other subjects, such as the popular course on ‘Ancient British Poetry’ in 1832, given by William Dearden, former schoolmaster of Keighley and a friend of the Brontës. By 1835, free lectures were given fortnightly on such subjects as Napoleon, geography, and Poland. In April 1840, Charlotte Brontë noted that both her father and Revd William Weightman had given several lectures (Smith Letters, 1. 214, 216 n.). The Brontë sisters and Ellen Nussey attended Weightman's first lecture on ‘The Advantages of Classical Studies’ and were escorted to Keighley and back on foot by the very lively speaker. In early 1841, Mr Brontë gave a lecture on ‘the Influence of Circumstances’, but by 1846 his name was gone from the list of members (Dewhirst, p. 36). The Mechanics' Institute also sponsored concerts, the most memorable being in December 1834, to celebrate the opening of their new building for which they brought professional singers from Leeds (Barker, p. 212). A Mechanics' Institute of which Charlotte Brontë was ‘the most distinguished member and patroness’ was established in nearby Haworth (report in the Leeds Mercury, 14 Apr. 1855). See mechanics' institutes.