On the evening of Wednesday, 1 December 1847, Charles Dickens was invited to chair the annual meeting of the Leeds Mechanics’ Institution, held at the Music Hall, Leeds. Also in attendance was the engineer George Stephenson. Dickens gave the following address to the audience of around 1200 persons:
Ladies and gentlemen,—Believe me, speaking to you with a most disastrous cold, which makes my own voice sound very strangely in my ears—that if I were not gratified and honoured beyond expression by your cordial welcome, I should have considered the invitation to occupy my present position in this brilliant assemblage in itself a distinction not easy to be surpassed. The cause in which we are assembled and the objects we are met to promote, I take, and always have taken to be, the cause and the objects involving almost all others that are essential to the welfare and happiness of mankind. And in a celebration like the present, commemorating the birth and progress of a great educational establishment, I recognise a something, not limited to the spectacle of the moment, beautiful and radiant though it be—not limited even to the success of the particular establishment in which we are more immediately interested—but extending from this place and through swarms of toiling men elsewhere, cheering and stimulating them in the onward, upward path that lies before us all. Wherever hammers beat, or wherever factory chimneys smoke, wherever hands are busy, or the clanking of machinery resounds—wherever, in a word, there are masses of industrious human beings whom their wise Creator did not see fit to constitute all body, but into each and every one of whom He breathed a mind—there, I would fain believe, some touch of sympathy and encouragement is felt from our collective pulse now beating in this Hall.
Ladies and gentlemen, glancing with such feelings at the report of your Institution for the present year sent to me by your respected President—whom I cannot help feeling it, by-the-bye, a kind of crime to depose, even thus peacefully, and for so short a time—I say, glancing over this report, I found one statement of fact in the very opening which gave me an uncommon satisfaction. It is, that a great number of the members and subscribers are among that class of persons for whose advantage Mechanics’ Institutions were originated, namely, persons receiving weekly wages. This circumstance gives me the greatest delight. I am sure that no better testimony could be borne to the merits and usefulness of this Institution, and that no better guarantee could be given for its continued prosperity and advancement.
To such Associations as this, in their darker hours, there may yet reappear now and then the spectral shadow of a certain dead and buried opposition; but before the light of a steady trust in them on the part of the general people, bearing testimony to the virtuous influences of such Institutions by their own intelligence and conduct, the ghost will melt away like early vapour from the ground. Fear of such Institutions as these! We have heard people sometimes speak with jealousy of them,—with distrust of them! Imagine here, on either hand, two great towns like Leeds, full of busy men, all of them feeling necessarily, and some of them heavily, the burdens and inequalities inseparable from civilized society. In this town there is ignorance, dense and dark; in that town, education—the best of education; that which the grown man from day to day and year to year furnishes for himself and maintains for himself, and in right of which his education goes on all his life, instead of leaving off, complacently, just when he begins to live in the social system. Now, which of these two towns has a good man, or a good cause, reason to distrust and dread? “The educated one,” does some timid politician, with a marvellously weak sight, say (as I have heard such politicians say), “because knowledge is power, and because it won’t do to have too much power abroad.” Why, ladies and gentlemen, reflect whether ignorance be not power, and a very dreadful power. Look where we will, do we not find it powerful for every kind of wrong and evil? Powerful to take its enemies to its heart, and strike its best friends down—powerful to fill the prisons, the hospitals, and the graves—powerful for blind violence, prejudice, and error, in all their gloomy and destructive shapes. Whereas the power of knowledge, if I understand it, is, to bear and forbear; to learn the path of duty and to tread it; to engender that self-respect which does not stop at self, but cherishes the best respect for the best objects—to turn an always enlarging acquaintance with the joys and sorrows, capabilities and imperfections of our race to daily account in mildness of life and gentleness of construction and humble efforts for the improvement, stone by stone, of the whole social fabric.
I never heard but one tangible position taken against educational establishments for the people, and that was, that in this or that instance, or in these or those instances, education for the people has failed. And I have never traced even this to its source but I have found that the term education, so employed, meant anything but education—implied the mere imperfect application of old, ignorant, preposterous spelling-book lessons to the meanest purposes—as if you should teach a child that there is no higher end in electricity, for example, than expressly to strike a mutton-pie out of the hand of a greedy boy—and on which it is as unreasonable to found an objection to education in a comprehensive sense, as it would be to object altogether to the combing of youthful hair, because in a certain charity school they had a practice of combing it into the pupils’ eyes.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, I turn to the report of this Institution, on whose behalf we are met; and I start with the education given there, and I find that it really is an education that is deserving of the name. I find that there are papers read and lectures delivered, on a variety of subjects of interest and importance. I find that there are evening classes formed for the acquisition of sound, useful English information, and for the study of those two important languages, daily becoming more important in the business of life,—the French and German. I find that there is a class for drawing, a chemical class, subdivided into the elementary branch and the manufacturing branch, most important here. I find that there is a day-school at twelve shillings a quarter, which small cost, besides including instruction in all that is useful to the merchant and the man of business, admits to all the advantages of the parent institution. I find that there is a School of Design established in connexion with the Government School; and that there was in January this year, a library of between six and seven thousand books. Ladies and gentlemen, if any man would tell me that anything but good could come of such knowledge as this, all I can say is, that I should consider him a new and most lamentable proof of the necessity of such institutions, and should regard him in his own person as a melancholy instance of what a man may come to by never having belonged to one or sympathized with one.
There is one other paragraph in this report which struck my eye in looking over it, and on which I cannot help offering a word of joyful notice. It is the steady increase that appears to have taken place in the number of lady members—among whom I hope I may presume are included some of the bright fair faces that are clustered around me. Gentlemen, I hold that it is not good for man to be alone—even in Mechanics’ Institutions; and I rank it as very far from among the last or least of the merits of such places, that he need not be alone there, and that he is not. I believe that the sympathy and society of those who are our best and dearest friends in infancy, in childhood, in manhood, and in old age, the most devoted and least selfish natures that we know on earth, who turn to us always constant and unchanged, when others turn away, should greet us here, if anywhere, and go on with us side by side.
I know, gentlemen, by the evidence of my own proper senses at this moment, that there are charms and graces in such greetings, such as no other greeting can possess. I know that in every beautiful work of the Almighty hand, which is illustrated in your lectures, and in every real or ideal portraiture of fortitude and goodness that you find in your books, there is something that must bring you home again to them for its brightest and best example. And therefore, gentlemen, I hope that you will never be without them, or without an increasing number of them in your studies and your commemorations; and that an immense number of new marriages, and other domestic festivals naturally consequent upon those marriages, may be traced back from time to time to the Leeds Mechanics’ Institution.
There are many gentlemen around me, distinguished by their public position and service, or endeared to you by frequent intercourse, or by their zealous efforts on behalf of the cause which brings us together; and to them I shall beg leave to refer you for further observations on this happy and interesting occasion; begging to congratulate you finally upon the occasion itself; upon the prosperity and thriving prospects of your institution; and upon our common and general good fortune in living in these times, when the means of mental culture and improvement are presented cheaply, socially, and cheerfully, and not in dismal cells or lonely garrets. And lastly, I congratulate myself, I assure you most heartily, upon the part with which I am honoured on an occasion so congenial to my warmest feelings and sympathies, and I beg to thank you for such evidences of your good-will, as I never can coldly remember and never forget.
[In acknowledging the vote of thanks, Mr. Dickens said:—]
Ladies and Gentlemen,—It is a great satisfaction to me that this question has been put by the Mayor, inasmuch as I hope I may receive it as a token that he has forgiven me those extremely large letters, which I must say, from the glimpse I caught of them when I arrived in the town, looked like a leaf from the first primer of a very promising young giant.
I will only observe, in reference to the proceeding of this evening, that after what I have seen, and the excellent speeches I have heard from gentlemen of so many different callings and persuasions, meeting here as on neutral ground, I do more strongly and sincerely believe than I ever have in my life,—and that is saying a great deal,—that institutions such as this will be the means of refining and improving that social edifice which has been so often mentioned to-night, until,—unlike that Babel tower that would have taken heaven by storm,—it shall end in sweet accord and harmony amongst all classes of its builders.
Ladies and gentlemen, most respectfully and heartily I bid you good night and good-bye, and I trust the next time we meet it will be in even greater numbers, and in a larger room, and that we often shall meet again, to recal this evening, then of the past, and remember it as one of a series of increasing triumphs of your excellent institution.