The Victorian author Charles Dickens
Ladies and gentlemen,—It was rather hard of you to take away my breath before I spoke a word; but I would not thank you, even if I could, for the favour which has set me in this place, or for the generous kindness which has greeted me so warmly,—because my first strong impulse still would be, although I had that power, to lose sight of all personal considerations in the high intent and meaning of this numerous assemblage, in the contemplation of the noble objects to which this building is devoted, of its brilliant and inspiring history, of that rough, upward track, so bravely trodden, which it leaves behind, and that bright path of steadily-increasing usefulness which lies stretched out before it. My first strong impulse still would be to exchange congratulations with you, as the members of one united family, on the thriving vigour of this strongest child of a strong race. My first strong impulse still would be, though everybody here had twice as many hundreds of hands as there are hundreds of persons present, to shake them in the spirit, everyone, always, allow me to say, excepting those hands (and there are a few such here), which, with the constitutional infirmity of human nature, I would rather salute in some more tender fashion.
When I first had the honour of communicating with your Committee with reference to this celebration, I had some selfish hopes that the visit proposed to me might turn out to be one of congratulation, or, at least, of solicitous inquiry; for they who receive a visitor in any season of distress are easily touched and moved by what he says, and I entertained some confident expectation of making a mighty strong impression on you. But, when I came to look over the printed documents which were forwarded to me at the same time, and with which you are all tolerably familiar, these anticipations very speedily vanished, and left me bereft of all consolation, but the triumphant feeling to which I have referred. For what do I find, on looking over those brief chronicles of this swift conquest over ignorance and prejudice, in which no blood has been poured out, and no treaty signed but that one sacred compact which recognises the just right of every man, whatever his belief, or however humble his degree, to aspire, and to have some means of aspiring, to be a better and a wiser man? I find that, in 1825, certain misguided and turbulent persons proposed to erect in Liverpool an unpopular, dangerous, irreligious, and revolutionary establishment, called a Mechanics’ Institution; that, in 1835, Liverpool having, somehow or other, got on pretty comfortably in the meantime, in spite of it, the first stone of a new and spacious edifice was laid; that, in 1837, it was opened; that, it was afterwards, at different periods, considerably enlarged; that, in 1844, conspicuous amongst the public beauties of a beautiful town, here it stands triumphant, its enemies lived down, its former students attesting, in their various useful callings and pursuits, the sound, practical information it afforded them; its members numbering considerably more than 3,000, and setting in rapidly for 6,000 at least; its library comprehending 11,000 volumes, and daily sending forth its hundreds of books into private homes; its staff of masters and officers, amounting to half-a-hundred in themselves; its schools, conveying every sort of instruction, high and low, adapted to the labour, means, exigencies, and convenience of nearly every class and grade of persons. I was here this morning, and in its spacious halls I found stores of the wonders worked by nature in the air, in the forest, in the cavern, and in the sea—stores of the surpassing engines devised by science for the better knowledge of other worlds, and the greater happiness of this—stores of those gentler works of art, which, though achieved in perishable stone, by yet more perishable hands of dust, are in their influence immortal. With such means at their command, so well-directed, so cheaply shared, and so extensively diffused, well may your Committee say, as they have done in one of their Reports, that the success of this establishment has far exceeded their most sanguine expectations.
But, ladies and gentlemen, as that same philosopher whose words they quote, as Bacon tells us, instancing the wonderful effects of little things and small beginnings, that the influence of the loadstone was first discovered in particles of iron, and not in iron bars, so they may lay it to their hearts, that when they combined together to form the institution which has risen to this majestic height, they issued on a field of enterprise, the glorious end of which they cannot even now discern. Every man who has felt the advantages of, or has received improvement in this place, carries its benefits into the society in which he moves, and puts them out at compound interest; and what the blessed sum may be at last, no man can tell. Ladies and gentlemen, with that Christian prelate whose name appears on your list of honorary Members; that good and liberal man who once addressed you within these walls, in a spirit worthy of his calling, and of his High Master—I look forward from this place, as from a tower, to the time when high and low, and rich and poor, shall mutually assist, improve, and educate each other.
I feel, ladies and gentlemen, that this is not a place, with its 3,200 members, and at least 3,200 arguments in every one, to enter on any advocacy of the principle of Mechanics’ Institutions, or to discuss the subject with those who do or ever did object to them. I should as soon think of arguing the point with those untutored savages whose mode of life you last year had the opportunity of witnessing; indeed, I am strongly inclined to believe them by far the more rational class of the two. Moreover, if the institution itself be not a sufficient answer to all such objections, then there is no such thing in fact or reason, human or divine. Neither will I venture to enter into those details of the management of this place which struck me most on the perusal of its papers; but I cannot help saying how much impressed and gratified I was, as everybody must be who comes to their perusal for the first time, by the extraordinary munificence with which this institution has been endowed by certain gentlemen.
Amongst the peculiar features of management which made the greatest impression on me, I may observe that that regulation which empowers fathers, being annual subscribers of one guinea, to introduce their sons who are minors; and masters, on payment of the astoundingly small sum of five shillings annually, in like manner their apprentices, is not the least valuable of its privileges; and, certainly not the one least valuable to society. And, ladies and gentlemen, I cannot say to you what pleasure I derived from the perusal of an apparently excellent report in your local papers of a meeting held here some short time since, in aid of the formation of a girls’ school in connexion with this institution. This is a new and striking chapter in the history of these institutions; it does equal credit to the gallantry and policy of this, and disposes one to say of it with a slight parody on the words of Burns, that
“Its ’prentice han’ it tried on man,
And then it taught the lasses, O.”
That those who are our best teachers, and whose lessons are oftenest heeded in after life, should be well taught themselves, is a proposition few reasonable men will gainsay; and, certainly, to breed up good husbands on the one hand, and good wives on the other, does appear as reasonable and straightforward a plan as could well be devised for the improvement of the next generation.
This, and what I see before me, naturally brings me to our fairer members, in respect of whom I have no doubt you will agree with me, that they ought to be admitted to the widest possible extent, and on the lowest possible terms; and, ladies, let me venture to say to you, that you never did a wiser thing in all your lives than when you turned your favourable regard on such an establishment as this—for wherever the light of knowledge is diffused, wherever the humanizing influence of the arts and sciences extends itself, wherever there is the clearest perception of what is beautiful, and good, and most redeeming, amid all the faults and vices of mankind, there your character, your virtues, your graces, your better nature, will be the best appreciated, and there the truest homage will be proudly paid to you. You show best, trust me, in the clearest light; and every ray that falls upon you at your own firesides, from any book or thought communicated within these walls, will raise you nearer to the angels in the eyes you care for most.
I will not longer interpose myself, ladies and gentlemen, between you and the pleasure we all anticipate in hearing other gentlemen, and in enjoying those social pleasures with which it is a main part of the wisdom of this society to adorn and relieve its graver pursuits. We all feel, I am sure, being here, that we are truly interested in the cause of human improvement and rational education, and that we pledge ourselves, everyone as far as in him lies, to extend the knowledge of the benefits afforded in this place, and to bear honest witness in its favour. To those who yet remain without its walls, but have the means of purchasing its advantages, we make appeal, and in a friendly and forbearing spirit say, “Come in, and be convinced—
‘Who enters here, leaves doubt behind.’”
If you, happily, have been well taught yourself, and are superior to its advantages, so much the more should you make one in sympathy with those who are below you. Beneath this roof we breed the men who, in the time to come, must be found working for good or evil, in every quarter of society. If mutual respect and forbearance among various classes be not found here, where so many men are trained up in so many grades, to enter on so many roads of life, dating their entry from one common starting-point, as they are all approaching, by various paths, one common end, where else can that great lesson be imbibed? Differences of wealth, of rank, of intellect, we know there must be, and we respect them; but we would give to all the means of taking out one patent of nobility, and we define it, in the words of a great living poet, who is one of us, and who uses his great gifts, as he holds them in trust, for the general welfare—
“Howe’er it be, it seems to me
’Tis only noble to be good:
True hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.”