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New use needed for Bridport site of class war

THE SEARCH has begun for a new use for a relic of Dorset’s social struggles.

Ten interested parties have been shown around the empty Institute in East Street, Bridport, by members of the Bridport Area Development Trust, which has got six months to find a modern purpose for the historic property.

“We’re still in the very early stages,” said Crystal Johnson of the Trust.

“We’re lucky in Bridport in that we’ve got a lot of other facilities and arrangements, and we don’t want to duplicate those, so we’ve got to have something that doesn’t put the building in competition with other venues, but complements what’s already happening.

“A lot of ideas have to do with training and providing courses, perhaps working with higher and further education institutions, which are looking to deliver more courses locally.”

The building was last occupied in 2002, which is also when the last structural survey was done. Another survey now needs doing.

The digital arts organisation PVA was one of the Institute's last tenants. PVA is now based in the old building at the back of the East Street car park

Ms Johnson said: “It’s not deteriorated significantly since then but of course the costs of things have changed.”

Everyone involved with the Trust is working on a voluntary basis; the organisation does not have a lot of money or capacity.

Ms Johnson continued: “We’re hoping that people will come forward with specialist skills, for example legal or property management, skills which will help us get some kind of business plan together for the building to be handed over to the community, and help us raise the initial capital that will be required and also develop further uses that bring funding with them.

“We’ve got to think quite long term about it.” 

The building’s history

The sign outside proclaiming it to be a Literary & Scientific Institute is a bit misleading. It was that, but not until 1855. Before then it had a very interesting history indeed; it encapsulates a period of class warfare and ambitions for cultural change. 

In 1830, Bridport formed a Mechanics Institute, one of the first Mechanics Institutes in the country. London had the very first, in 1824. Mechanics Institutes were mutual improvement societies, self-help organisations, part of a grass-roots working class struggle for education and advancement.

“The time has gone by,” as one former rope-maker put it, “for the selfish and bigoted possessors of wealth to confine the blessings of knowledge wholly within their own narrow circle, and by every despotic artifice to block up each cranny through which intellectual light might break out upon the multitude…”

Restraint on “sensual indulgence”

The aim of setting up a Mechanics Institute in Bridport was (take a deep breath!) to foster “the mental and moral advantage of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, but especially of the young men of the working classes, by affording them the means of useful knowledge, and assisting such of the members as may be engaged in mechanical pursuits in attaining a scientific acquaintance with their respective arts – providing them with improving and interesting subjects for reflection and discussion, and thereby establishing a wholesome moral restraint on their amusements, keeping them from wasting their leisure time in vacancy of mind, or unprofitable conversation, or sensual indulgence; in fact enabling them to become more thinking, and therefore more rational beings, and more useful and respectable members of society.”

This explains the origin of the East Street building. Some of the language used here (“moral restraint”, etc) clearly shows middle-class involvement, but the Institute itself was explicitly built for the working classes, between 1830 and 1835, at a time of great political unrest, especially in Dorset. (This was the time, for example, when the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported).  

The Institute’s building was paid for by Henry Warburton, the son of a Kent timber merchant. Warburton was a Radical reformer who was MP for Bridport from 1826 until 1841. By one account it cost him £16,000; that’s more than £1.3 million in today’s money.

“Fear God and Honour the King”

Anyway,the Institute began with fine hopes, but it failed. No one really knows quite why.

It might have been because employers simply made their workers do such long hours they didn’t have enough time left for proper meetings.

It might have been because power in Dorset then largely rested with Conservatives viciously hostile to working class aspirations. In 1838, for example, the Bridport Institute sent a petition up to London supporting proposals for educational funding to be freed from churches. This gesture was denounced in the Conservative Dorset County Chronicle, which wanted clergymen still to make the lower orders “Fear God and Honour the King”. Such attitudes would have made it harder for the Mechanics Institute to survive. 

Institutes generally were also vulnerable to economic downturns, internal squabbles, problems with getting reliable teachers, and so on. Whatever the reason was, the Mechanics Institute failed and only in 1855 was it reborn as the much more middle-class Literary & Scientific Institute.

So what next?

It’s difficult to draw conclusions, and it may well be that the largely forgotten history of working class struggle in Bridport is regarded by many people as, these days, a bad omen, or irrelevant. But is it?

One of the great themes of the forthcoming General Election is going to be “mutualisation” – both Labour and the Conservatives say they want to encourage all sorts of enterprises based upon this principle.

So even though there are going to be huge cuts in public spending, Bridport could perhaps be well placed to argue for an institution that embodies the idea of mutual help.

The Bridport Area Development Trust should be bold. It should seek a use for the Institute that’s as new now as the idea of the Mechanics Institute once was.

And wouldn’t it be fantastic if the Bridport’s current MP Oliver Letwin, who wants the Conservatives to be radical and reforming, could be persuaded to contribute towards the Institute in as generous a way as his predecessor in Parliament once did?

Editor’s Note: This piece draws on The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose and the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society.

The Institute is on the English Heritage register of buildings at risk. Click on this link to read more.  

2 Responses to “New use needed for Bridport site of class war”

  1. Horst Lindenau

    This very good old building could (should) be the first to house the new “West Dorset University”.

  2. Cat Taylor

    A well-equipped training centre for engineering students, with practical, renewable energy applications, might be a fitting use for the Mechanics Insitute buildiing.

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