Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Soiree of 1849

From the earliest there were men who came to work in Wolverton who were interested in self improvement and I have already discussed the autobiography of Hugh Stowell Brown who describes his efforts, and those of his mates, towards learning. Despite working for 58½ hours a week, almost one-third as long as we typically do these days, these ambitious young men still found time to work for new knowledge.

On Sundays, Hayes generally went out into the fields to meditate; Harvey went to the Methodist Chapel at Stratford; Mickle wandered from one place of worship to another; and I went to church somewhere in the neighbourhood, generally to Stratford, because there was an organ there, which, however, was very execrably played. Our studies were various. Hayes went in for philosophy; Harvey for theology; Mickle for mechanics; I for mathematics. I don’t think we read a novel all the time we were together, and our whole stock of books was not worth £5.

As I described in an earlier post, one of Hugh Stowell Brown’s friends, Edward Hayes, set up his own engineering works in Stony Stratford and maintained a company that became renowned for its apprenticeship training.  By 1840 a Reading Room had been built beside the canal, which offered library facilities and a lecture room. It has been said that the Mechanic’s Institute was initiated after a suggestion by Edward Bury, and that may be so, but the active leadership came from the first incumbent of the living of St George’s, George Weight. It was his energy that organized a huge banquet in the Engine Shed in 1849 to promote the idea and raise funds. The scale of this particular function, attracting no fewer than 1000 people, featured in the London Illustrated News for that year, accompanied by a drawing. The drawing gives some insight into the effort that went into the occasion. Machinery has been moved, tracks covered, and the supporting columns decorated with foliage.

I think the view of the artist is to the east with the south facing windows on the right. The light coming through the windows at 6 pm is impossible in late December. I can only conclude that the artist drew the picture or made sketches earlier in the day and added the figures later. The fact that this was reported in the ILN December 29th 1849 gives us some sense of the importance that Wolverton held nationally at that time.

Like many such occasions, everybody had a very good time but lost sight of the original purpose of the event. It was always, in the end, going to take the resources of the L & NWR to fully fund such an enterprise and they had other priorities. It took a further 15 years before the dream was fully realized and unfortunately George Weight did not live to see that day. There are plans held in the National Archives for a more modest single-storey building, probably dating from the mid 1850s, but for one reason or another the plan was never implemented. It did eventually come to pass and in 1864, the new building proudly stood on the corner of Church Street and Creed Street.

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