BRADFORD Mechanics Institute has survived two world wars, Spanish flu, the Depression, inflation, recession, austerity and now the coronavirus pandemic.

It has been a meeting place since 1832 and now the Institute Library has re-opened, with safety measures in place.

It started as people meeting in rooms in a church building and went on to play a lead role in adult education in the city. As the centre of the world’s worsted textile industry, Bradford had a need for education in commercial subjects, chemistry, construction, industrial design and modern languages (it was said that at the Bradford Wool Exchange you could hear every European language on any morning).

In 1871 Bradford MP WE Forster, opened the new Mechanics Institute building on Bridge Street. It had shops, a newsroom, library, teaching rooms, a 1,500-seat lecture theatre - where the Lord Mayor called for a Pals’ Battalion to be raised in 1914, and where Bradford Festival Choral Society rehearsed for decades - and an upper-floor restaurant. It became a Bradford landmark for 100 years.

In 1904 classes were transferred to council control through the newly-established Bradford Technical College, and the Mechanics’ Institute lost its education role. But it continued to attract a cross section of Bradford folk, from clerks and engineers to wool barons, who enjoyed chess and rambling clubs, a reading circle, entertainment, music and public lectures on topics as diverse as a ‘Himalayan Jungle Trek’ and ‘A Parson’s Life’. When the First World War started a recruiting station was established - a practice repeated in 1939.

Membership began to fall in the 1930s and by 1968 it stood at 268, compared with over 1,700 in 1899. Despite protests, in 1976 the Bridge Street building disappeared and the Mechanics’ Institute was moved to Kirkgate, where it is today, with exhibition and meeting space and a library stocked with over 14,000 books spanning fiction, biography, and specialist sections supporting interest groups using the building, including book, poetry and local history groups and Bradford WW1 Group. The library includes JB Priestley’s volumes of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and a six-volume 1860s English Dialect Dictionary, the work of Joseph Wright of Idle. Library president Tricia Restorick says: “Not until the 1930s did the library have ‘open shelves’ to browse. Before then librarians would bring titles chosen from the catalogue.

“The Mechanics takes pride in providing a friendly welcome and calm environment in the heart of the city. Recently a member wrote: ‘I’m missing the Mechanics and the friends I’ve made there. Not until lockdown did I realise how much the place means to me’. All door handles, surfaces, seating, lift controls, handrails and toilets have been thoroughly cleaned. Hand sanitiser is at the entrance and other points. After weeks of being stuck at home, people are looking to meet for business or socially in our spacious environment. Everything is being done to provide a welcoming, safe environment.”

* Call (01274) 722857 or visit the new website, bradfordmechanicsinstitute.org/room-hire-clubs