Thursday, 20 March 2008

Berwick Mechanics' Institute and Free Library

The 145th Annual General Meeting of the Berwick Mechanics' Institute and Free Library (B.M.I.F.L) was held on Wednesday, March 19th, 2008. It is a remarkable achievement for an Institution to serve the community, continuously, for that length of time. We have looked at the history of Mechanics' Institutes in a previous blog post and this post will concentrate on the history of the B.M.I.F.L., which was established in 1864. 

Early meetings were held at the Border Hotel (Berwick Inn) owned by Robert Bain (1831-1887) A block of land had been reserved for a Mechanics' Institute on the corner of Peel Street and Rutland Road (previously known as Irby Street, see map below) and a building was constructed on the site in 1866. This building was moved to its present site in High Street, in 1877 or 1878. The site was donated by Robert Bain on a 500 year lease on the condition that the land continued to be used for a Mechanics' Institute. The rental was one shilling per annum, if demanded. A framed copy of the original lease can be seen at the B.M.I.F.L.

Early sub-division plan of Berwick, showing site earmarked for a Mechanics' Institute.
Click on map to enlarge it.

In the nineteenth century the B.M.I.F.L. offered a full range of educational books and journals and newspapers. Instructive and improving lectures were held and the Berwick Mutual Improvement and Debating Society presented stimulating debates on topics as diverse as Is the moderate use of tobacco on all its forms injurious? Is reason confined to man? Will the British nation decay as the great nations of antiquity have done?. Alongside these lectures and debates was also a lending service and the B.M.I.F.L still continues to provide a lending service to the public. This service is run entirely by volunteers and in the last year over 44,000 items were lent to adults and children.

Among the gems of the Berwick Mechanics' Institute and Free Library is the Casey Collection. This collection is from the private Library of Lord and Lady Casey from their home at Edrington in Berwick. The collection provides an insight into the lives and interests of Lord and Lady Casey.

 A portrait of Lady Casey by Cecil Beaton

There is other Casey memorabilia as well including a portrait of Lady Casey by Cecil Beaton and a portrait of Lord Casey by Sir William Dargie. Lord Casey (1890-1976) was the Governor General of Australian from 1965-1969. He married Maie Ryan (nee Ethel Marion Sumner Ryan, 1891-1983) in 1926 and they had two children. Lady Casey donated the Casey Collection to the Institute and donated $50,000 in 1979 for a new Library building. Their daughter, Mrs Jane Macgowan, has also been a generous benefactor to the Institute.

A portrait of Lord Casey by Sir William Dargie.

The information and illustrations for this post were taken from Berwick Mechanics' Institute and Free Library by Richard Myers.  You can also purchase copies at the Berwick Mechanics' Institute and Free Library, 15 High Street, Berwick. Visit their website at

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