YOU might walk past Bradford Mechanics Institute and not even know it was there.

It stands on Kirkgate in the city centre, with a modest facade - but behind the door and up a flight of stairs lies a wealth of resources. It has a library with more than 14,000 books comprising fiction, biographies and specialist sections, and spacious, comfortable rooms for meetings and exhibitions.

The Mechanics Institute led the way in adult education in Bradford and has played a significant role in the city’s history.

Charles Dickens gave a reading there. Bradford MP WE Forster spoke out against the slave trade there. Young men turned out in Sunday suits to enlist in the Bradford Pals. And when the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Bradford in 1882 the Mechanics Institute hired out its windows with the “best view in town” of the platform in front of the Town Hall.

The Mechanics, as it is still fondly known, has survived the best part of two centuries. It is currently closed, due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the dedicated team that runs it, led by Library president Tricia Restorick, is keeping users connected online - a video link AGM is planned for December 2 - and is already looking ahead to celebrating the 190th anniversary in 2022.

The Mechanics started out in 1825 in church rooms and formal classes were started in 1832, with the support of prominent citizens including Titus Salt.

The aim was to meet the growing city’s need for education in commercial subjects, chemistry, construction, industrial design and modern languages. Bradford was the centre of the world’s worsted textile industry and it was said that at the Wool Exchange you could hear every European language on any morning.

The list of objectives began with “the instruction of the working classes at a cheap rate in the principles of the arts they practise as well as in all other branches of useful knowledge”...”to improve extensively their habits and conditions, to advance the arts and sciences and to add power resources and property of the country.”

With a membership of over 500, the Mechanics commissioned its first building in 1840, at the bottom of Leeds Road.

By 1869, membership had risen to over 1,500 and classes had expanded, so larger premises were required. A grand new building in a style described as ‘Bradford Italianate’ was erected on Bridge Street at a cost of £36,000 and was opened in 1871 by WE Forster.

It was to be a city landmark for 100 years, with a newsroom, library, teaching rooms, exhibition and meeting rooms, 1,500-seat lecture theatre and upper-floor restaurant. The basement housed two classrooms and cellars, later converted into a laboratory. Architects’ drawings from the time show decorative detail and specially designed items of furniture “which equal those of any country house”.

Shortly after building was opened, it held an exhibition of paintings and curiosities which attracted more than 140,000 visitors.

Kelly’s Directory of the West Riding of Yorkshire (1881) describes the building as “in the Italian style, covering an area of 1,000sq yards in one of the most prominent positions in the town”, with “large suites of classrooms”... “spacious and well-lighted rooms for the exhibition of drawings, models, casts and other works of art, forming at the same time drawing rooms for the School of Art”...and “a library and reading-room, a lofty apartment and of ample dimensions, and a lecture hall seating 1,500 persons”.

By the early 20th century, the accommodation included a smoking room, a ladies’ lounge and a rooftop restaurant.

In 1904 the Mechanics lost its education role when classes were transferred to council control through the newly-established Bradford Technical College, but it continued to attract a range of members, from clerks and engineers to wool barons.

Activities included chess, a rambling club, a reading circle, music and public lectures.

It was used as a Pals recruiting station throughout the First World War. A Union Jack flag that flew from the building when the city’s young men were being recruited was, a century later, draped across a Bradford Pals memorial in northern France. The memorial, funded by the Telegraph & Argus Honour the Pals appeal, with match funding by Bradford Council, stands in the ground of a chapel near the Somme battlefield sites where so many of the Pals lost their lives.

The Institute building was used as a recruiting base again in 1939, and for Army medicals to the end of National Service in the 1950s.

Prominent users of the Institute included CA Federer, born in Switzerland, who taught classical and modern languages there and was a founder of the Antiquarian and Historical Association which met at the premises, and John Sowden who attended evening classes at the Mechanics and in 1859 was appointed Head of the Art Section, a position he held for over 40 years. He is best remembered for over 300 portraits of Bradford street characters.

In 1899 there were over 1,700 users of the Mechanics Institute. But membership fell in the 1930s and by 1968 it stood at 268.

Despite being listed Grade II, the grand building was compulsorily purchased by Bradford Council in 1972 and, despite protests, was demolished to make way for building society offices.

The Mechanics moved to Kirkgate, where it is used today by a variety of interest groups, including book, poetry and local history groups and it is the home of Bradford World War 1 Group.

The library includes JB Priestley’s volumes of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and a six-volume 1860s English Dialect Dictionary by Joseph Wright of Idle.

The Institute has always placed importance on public access to newspapers and there is still a newsroom dedicated to this, with one of the original newspaper display stands.

In July the building re-opened, following the first lockdown, and members are eagerly awaiting a time when they can return.

“We take pride in providing a friendly welcome and calm environment in the heart of the city,” says Tricia.

“One 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’.

“The Mechanics will be 190 years old in 2022. We’re planning an exhibition and would love to hear from anyone who has material or images. We lost a huge amount of archive material when we moved from Bridge Street to Kirkgate and I often wonder if furniture was auctioned off, although some items of 1870 furniture, such as the table and chairs (pictured) are retained in the present-day library. And what happened to the ceremonial trowel used at the laying of the foundation stone?”

l Anyone with images or other memorabilia of Bradford Mechanics Institute is asked to call (01274) 722857, email or visit bradford