The London Mechanics’ Institution is notable not only for its influence on similar bodies elsewhere, but for the contention which surrounded its formation in 1823. The story of the eclipse of its initiators Thomas Hodgskin and Joseph Clinton Robertson by the liberal modernisers Brougham, Place and others is reasonably well known. Well before George Birkbeck’s own death in 1841 the battle for ‘popular control’ had largely been lost (although it continued to surface in different forms for the next century). ‘Useful knowledge’, pioneered in Birkbeck’s own early lectures in Glasgow, promoted widely in the Mechanics’ Magazine, and elevated to a social movement in Brougham’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, had become almost hegemonic and was manifest in its most systematic form in William Ellis’ Birkbeck Schools, launched in the summer of 1848 (not without opposition) in the lecture theatre of the Institution.
In 1851 a ‘third Birkbeck’ appeared (in addition to the Institution and the Schools) whose history to date has received little attention. By the 1850s, ‘penny savings banks’ had been set up in a number of Mechanics’ Institutes, however the ‘Birkbeck Bank’ was very different. Effectively an ultra vires umbrella for the Birkbeck Building Society and the Birkbeck Freehold Land Society, it became a significant constitutent of the English property based financial system. Until at least 1885, it had a close relationship with the London Mechanics’ Institution, sharing more than the name of George Birkbeck. It occupied joint premises, had overlapping governance and the Bank’s monies sustained the College at critical times of financial crisis. It also reflected an ideology of progressive philanthropic liberalism that was at times hotly contested by the radical champions of the social classes that both Institution and Bank had been initially formed to assist. Just as the Mechanics’ Institution was attacked from its foundation for having betrayed the ideals of its radical originators, the Birkbeck Building Society was attacked by Frederick Engels’ in The Housing Question (1872) for being irrelevant to the improvement of living conditions for the urban poor.
The educational endeavours of Birkbeck’s Mechanics’ Institution and the financial enterprise of the Birkbeck Bank reflected parallel motivations and concealed comparable tensions. The Mechanics’ Institution embodied two distinct and contending visions of the role of working-class education within alternative political programmes of social change and political emancipation, versus individual betterment and self-realisation. The Birkbeck Bank’s initial vision of property ownership as a means of extending the franchise in order to change society gave way to one of financial prudence and owner-occupation as a route to social stability through personal fulfilment. In these conflicts between radicalism and liberal reform, the latter was, perhaps inevitably, ascendant.
The physical apotheosis of the Birkbeck Bank was its extraordinary edifice erected between 1885 and 1902 on the site of the old Mechanics’ Institution. This architectural ‘phantasmagoria’ of the Birkbeck buildings (described as ‘a sort of pictorial Samuel Smiles’) became a major commercial centre; its dome was bigger than that of the Bank of England and adorned, like the Bank’s façade with symbolic bees ‘B’s and busts (including one of Birkbeck himself) signifying industry, foresight and knowledge — an iconographic paean to nineteenth century self-help. The building was replaced in 1962 with the modernist headquarters of the Westminster Bank (which had taken over the assets of the Birkbeck on its collapse in 1911) and what remains of ‘The Birkbeck’ (including its archives) now belongs to the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The complex and problematic ideology of self-help lives on however (not least in the changing educational provision of Birkbeck College) and its nineteenth-century physical residue can be seen in the Birkbeck roads, mews, ways, places and gardens — and schools — which still feature in the landscape of London. Header of the Birkbeck Freehold Land Society First Annual Report for 1853 (by kind permission of Royal Bank of Scotland).