The fascinating history of the Otley Mechanics’ Institution

THE WONDERFUL Otley Useful Instruction Society was founded in 1835 – inspired by a movement that started in Scotland to give workers the chance to acquire basic skills and scientific knowledge.

Evening meetings and classes were held in a courtyard off Kirkgate and then moved to classrooms on Bridge Street. In 1849, this society merged with the Mutual Instruction Society and became the Otley Mechanics’ Institution.

The history of the institution can be traced in these photographs from the Otley Museum.

Jill Allman, of the museum, said: “The idea was so successful that there were not enough classrooms, so in 1868 plans were made to build a new hall at Cross Green. architecture was won by Charles John Fowler with his “Modern Italian” design. Charles was the son of a well-known architect based in Leeds. The Institute was built with stone sourced from Pool Bank quarries and artisans premises used for plastering, carpentry, plumbing and painting. The first stone was laid in June 1869, but the official opening was delayed when a severe storm caused lightning and the old market cross struck the Maypole and the old market cross and stones were thrown in the windows and the front wall.The building finally opened in 1871 with 800 people in attendance.

“In 1890 the building was again not large enough to meet public demand. A new school of arts and sciences was built behind the now recognizable monument. Alfred Marshall, a prominent city architect designed The new construction The funds were raised by Henry Dacre who owned the recreation room and the Japanese garden. He organized a “Model Village” exhibit at the Institute which, with donations, paid for the cost of the construction. The first stone was laid in June 1895 by Mrs. Fawkes of Farnley Hall.

“The Institute has provided a central hub for the community with education as a priority. There were evening classes for men in science, digital, reading and writing. There were also courses for women with a school of art, tailoring, tailoring and embroidery. the courses were not free but covered the costs and were well attended.

“Entertainment was also a big draw. Plays, readings and animated films were offered as well as pantomimes, children’s parties and wedding receptions. Royal proclamations were issued from the balcony when announcements of monarch deaths and coronations. The institute was used to provide a hospital ward for the injured and first aid courses. In the 1940s there was training for civil defense personnel. The evacuees from London were temporarily accommodated there before being relocated to the region.

“After World War II, entertainment was the biggest draw. Improvements in education invalidated the original idea for working men. Otley Little Theater began in 1939. The Caledonian Society was established after the war for the Scottish soldiers who were based here and had settled there. There were temperance balls, beer festivals, dances, a billiard room and children’s entertainment. ”

By the 1950s the harsh reality of cost was starting to kick in, and in 1956 the committee gave Otley Urban District Council a gift of the entire building. There was a big exhibition in 1957 called ‘Otley Can Make It’ which highlighted all the trades in the city. In 1971 the name was changed to Otley Civic Center and in 1974 it became the property of Leeds City Council. Finally, the cost of operating and renovating the building was considered too heavy a financial burden. It was closed in 2010.

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