The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes
The mutual improvement societies often took the form of a more advanced level of Sunday school. Most nineteenth-century Sunday schools were indigenous working-class self-help institutions: even the Chartist Northern Star extolled them for creating a literate proletariat. According to radical weaver Samuel Bamford, the surge of political agitation after 1815 owed much to 'the Sunday Schools of the preceding thirty years, [which] had produced many working men of sufficient talent to become readers, writers, and speakers in the village meetings for parliamentary reform.' As early as 1834, one in every five Sunday schools offered a library. The organizers and teachers were largely drawn from the working class, where the Sunday school experience was nearly universal: 91.8 percent of workers in twelve Manchester cotton mills in 1852 had attended at least for a time. By 1881 no less than 19 percent of the entire population of Great Britain—and more than 70 percent of young people aged five to twenty in Keighley—were currently enrolled.
Mutual improvement was not necessarily political; the early Scottish working class libraries generally avoided political books. But as Francis Place described it, the London Corresponding Society—the first laboring class political organization—was organized on the mutual improvement model. It purchased books and loaned them to members, and devoted its weekly meetings to reading and general discussion. One week the chairman (a rotating position) would read a chapter from a book: the following week it would be reread and thrown open to discussion. No one could speak a second time until all who wished had spoken once. Place also organized a French class with four other LCS workmen, reading a French grammar propped up before him at work and reading three hours or more each night from Helvetius, Rousseau, and Voltaire. The 'moral effects' of this regimen of study, he concluded,
were considerable. It induced men to read books, instead of wasting their time in public houses, it taught them to respect themselves, and to desire to educate their children. It elevated them in their own opinions. It taught them the great moral lesson 'to bear and forbear.' The discussions in the divisions, in the Sunday evening readings, and in the small debating meetings, opened to them views which they had never before taken. They were compelled by these discussions to find reasons for their opinions, and to tolerate others. It gave a new stimulus to an immense number of men who had been but in too many instances incapable of any but the grossest pursuits, and in seeking nothing beyond mere sensual enjoyments. It elevated them in society.As proof of that last point, Place recalled an 1922 dinner to commemorate the anniversary of the acquittal of Thomas Hardy, who had been arrested for high treason in 1794. There Place met twenty-four LCS veterans from the 1790s, when most of them were journeymen or shopmen: now they were all prosperous businessmen. Place was a fervent apostle of working-class respectability, and he was prone to exaggerate the role of the LCS as 'a great moral cause of the improvement which has since taken place among the People.' But contemporary social observers agreed that there had been a dramatic 'reformation of manners' among the lower classes between the Gordon Riots of 1780 and the Great Exhibition of 1851. And this was not simply or even primarily a matter of aping the middle classes: it was a product of a grass-roots working-class struggle for mutual improvement, of which the LCS was certainly a part.
In the early nineteenth century, the middle classes often associated mutual improvement with political radicalism, not without reason. An Uxbridge carpenter recalled that, as the campaign for the First Reform Bill approached its climax,
An agitation was raised by a few of the leading artisans for a mechanics' institute. A room was taken over the market-place and opened three evenings a week. Books of all kinds were presented, most of them of a religious and disputative kind. The Penny Magazine, the Penny Cyclopaedia, the Mirror, also Dispatch, and Examiner were taken in. Most of the mechanics in the town joined, beside a few shopkeepers and innkeepers. Scientific and literary lectures were occasionally given by itinerant lecturers. The genteel people would not attend lectures at a mechanics' institute, and they started a literary and scientific institution. It was a bad time for educational work. Bread was dear, trade was bad, and the country was passing through the throes of a political convulsion which was fast ripening into a revolution. The mechanics' institute gradually degenerated into a violent revolutionary club. The door was locked, the passages watched, the most inflammatory and seditious things were read and discussed, and most of the men took an oath and swore if there was a general rising they were to march at once on the local bank. Collections were frequent to meet the expenses of trials which were taking place all over the country. One of these meetings had been held far into the night. The following morning found all the shops closed and the militia on the pavement.