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The view of education that predominated in Anglican-dominated, early 19th century England looked with disfavour on educating the working classes. Anglican leaders believed national prosperity depended on the workingman’s hard work, deference, sobriety, and religious virtue.
The more liberal Scots began to think that having workers knowledgeable in science and technology would lead to greater prosperity for everyone. Thus it was in Scotland that the mechanics’ institute movement began. Later, in 1823, under George Birkbeck, MD, a Mechanics’ Institution was established in London, and its concepts spread worldwide.
The purpose of a mechanics’ institute was to give evening instruction in technical subjects and in the arts to working adults, in a setting free of religious and political affiliations. Leaders in the community would provide initial direction and funding, but the institutes would be run from among the members who were master craftsmen and employers of labour. The by-laws were set up to achieve this purpose.
The initiator of the Montreal Mechanics’ Institution in 1828 was Rev. Henry Esson, one of Montreal’s intellectual leaders. The MMI constitution mirrored that of the London institution, and the first executive was a cross-section of leading Montreal residents:
President was Louis Gugy, sheriff of Montreal, aged 58. Swiss-born of military origins, his family were Anglicans in Trois-Rivières, but he was a member of Rev. Esson’s church.
Louis-Joseph Papineau, Canadian-born lawyer and politician, aged 42. He was a founder in 1822 of the British & Canadian School, a free or low-fee and non-sectarian school for poor working-class children, both French and English-speaking.
Horatio Gates, American-born Presbyterian merchant in foodstuffs and potash, aged 41. A founder of Bank of Montreal in 1817, he also was on the board of the British & Canadian School, and was a member of Rev. Esson’s church.
Rev. Henry Esson, Scottish-born pastor of St. Gabriel’s Presbyterian church, teacher and owner of a school, aged 35. In 1844, he moved on to teach philosophy, literature at history at what became Knox College of the University of Toronto.
John Molson, English-born industrialist, aged 65. Though a Unitarian by instinct, he was a member of Rev Esson’s church. (The Anglican church did not appeal to him, even though he had been married in it.)
Secretary was P. H. Ogilvy, a teacher in Rev. Esson’s school. Treasurer was William Shand, a cabinetmaker and builder.
Adapted from an article that originally appeared in the Westmount Independent.
Susan McGuire is the official historian of the Atwater Library of the Mechanics' Institute of Montreal. You can contact her by email at: s.f.mcguire AT sympatico DOT ca.