A 'Tardis' in Ipswich town centre

It's been part of the scene since 1824 - nine years after the Battle of Waterloo! - and was designed to educate the masses. But it's still something of a mystery to many locals.

Steven Russell

It's been part of the scene since 1824 - nine years after the Battle of Waterloo! - and was designed to educate the masses. But it's still something of a mystery to many locals. Steven Russell steps through the door of The Ipswich Institute to discover what it's all about

IT'S like the Tardis in Dr Who: vastly bigger on the inside than it appears from the outside. Its door, ornate but easily overlooked despite being on the main shopping street, is sandwiched between The Body Shop and Dorothy Perkins. It can't do time travel, though in many ways it does evoke the past. It is the Ipswich Institute. Ostensibly a reading room and members' library with a burgeoning leisure and learning scene - fancy a spot of T'ai Chi or a talk by Jim Bacon on how weather forecasting has changed over the past 40 years? - to many devotees it's primarily a haven of civilised calm a step away from the bustle of the town centre.

At its heart, behind that door in Tavern Street, is a library of about 9,000 books - ranging from Jane Austen to Harry Potter and Stephen King, with thrillers the most heavily-borrowed genre - as well as newspapers, magazines and music CDs. There's a caf�, a smallish room downstairs where meetings can be held, and a bigger one upstairs - The Birkbeck Room - that hosts activities such as yoga and Alexander Technique sessions.

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In 2001 the institute spread to a second site just around the corner - The Admiral's House in Tower Street - which used to be the Church of England's diocesan centre. This allowed it to expand the leisure classes, offer a coffee lounge and operate a 40-seat restaurant.

About two-thirds of Admiral's House is let to tenants - a boutique, solicitors, an estate agency and an HR company - raising income that helps keep membership rates low: currently �39 for a single member or �66 per household.

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There's no interconnecting passage linking the sites, although staff can nip between the two by crossing an alley - one of the entrances to Tower Ramparts shopping centre - and slipping through back-doors.

Other organisations rent rooms for their activities: Ipswich Chess Club, for instance, and a weekly stop-smoking group run by the NHS.

Institute membership has boomed in the past 15 years, standing at about 1,800 signed-up addresses. Hugh Pierce - who's been there nearly four years, after almost three decades with BT, and is the institute's first full-time manager - has an idea why things are looking so healthy.

“It's less geared now towards 'educating artisans'” - its founding raison d'�tre - “and more geared towards leisure learning. I guess, with the baby-boom generation getting towards the age they are now, there is a bulge of active population with time on their hands and curiosity. I think it's catering for those interested in keeping their brains active.

“We don't just cater for retired people, though if you look at our membership profile it probably averages somewhere around 65 in age. There is a surprising number who break the mould and either work in town and come in during lunchtimes or are semi-retired.”

While membership has recently remained broadly stable, library borrowing figures and course attendances have been rising - which supports his theory. In the past four years the number of course places offered has increased by 60% and they've had to seek more space - including taking back a room previously let to a tenant in Tower Street.

A glance at the spring programme illustrates how interesting a time one can have. New courses (which work out at about �3 or less per session) include philosophy (“Is the free market fair?” and other moral questions), Brush up Your Shakespeare, Singing for Fun, Centuries of Soundbites, portraiture, genealogy, and mind games on Saturdays!

There are one-off lectures - on the story of the Aldeburgh Festival, for instance - while educational trips to Tate Britain, Anglesey Abbey and the Marriage of Figaro are on the agenda.

With all that going on, it's surprising the institute is still something of a well-kept secret - though last year's launch of the New Angle Prize, a biennial award for recent books “of literary merit associated with or inspired by East Anglia”, raised its profile.

Hugh Pierce says “it is extraordinary how in any given week two or three people, sometimes more, will come through that door and look around and say 'I've walked past this all my life and never knew this was here.'”

Eric Burgess, 70, essentially falls into that boat. Ipswich born and bred, “I must have walked past that rather imposing entrance hundreds of times and vaguely wondered about what goes on there”.

Then the Ip-Art festival used the Institute as a venue for a talk by Geoffrey Munn, author of Southwold - An Earthly Paradise.

Eric, keen to attend, went to the Institute to buy a ticket, had a look around and thought it looked rather good. A couple of years on and he's a committed member of the Institute's book group, has heard several interesting talks, had his eye caught by some of the courses, and enjoyed trips to places such as the Imperial War Museum.

“I am so very glad I joined,” he says.

A notice in the lobby aims to strike a balance: between pointing out that it is a members' subscription organisation and inviting curious visitors to learn a bit more.

More members would create a pleasant dilemma, wouldn't they?

“About a year ago I was actually getting quite twitchy, because our membership was going up quite significantly for quite a few months,” says Hugh. “One month we had 48 new members. I thought 'If it carries on at this rate, we're going to be struggling to contain everybody!' At times this place is packed. Most of the courses are pretty near full to capacity. But it kind of self-adjusts and we do find ways of dealing with it, and we do always welcome new members.”

If needs be, they could look for ways of expanding beyond the current buildings, or even run classes off-site.

One of Hugh's dreams involves building a raised gallery around the sides of the high-ceilinged library, so there could be a second tier of bookshelves, with a lift and a staircase. Above the caf� there's a space between the top half of the library area and a first-floor room. That gap could be filled, perhaps.

“If we could link the whole area, it would open up a lot more space there. But I think we could only do that if we could install a lift. I'm sort of setting it for our bicentennial, which would be in about 15 years' time!”

THE Ipswich Institute owes its existence to the vision and zeal of Dr George Birkbeck, a Yorkshire physician with connections to Glasgow University. He saw how difficult it was for bright craftsmen to satisfy their thirst for scientific knowledge and so in 1800 staged lectures for working men.

In 1823 the mechanics' class at the university became the Glasgow Mechanics' Institution. Birkbeck founded a similar society in the capital the following year. (His Mechanics' Institution morphed in 1907 to Birkbeck College and is now Birkbeck, University of London.)

The fires of his fervour warmed Ipswich, whose own society is almost certainly the only other survivor of those started under the auspices of the movement's founder.

Did he ever visit Suffolk? “I'd be very surprised if he didn't,” says Hugh Pierce, manager of the Ipswich Institute. “There were a lot of influential Quaker businessmen in Ipswich at that time who would have had links with Birkbeck, who himself was a Quaker.”

In November, 1824, a well-attended public meeting was held in the Ipswich council chamber. It decided to open a mechanics' institution that would instruct members “in the principles of the arts they practise . . . and in the various branches of science and useful knowledge”. There would be a library and reading room, a museum and lectures.

A schoolroom in St Matthew's Church Lane was rented for 15 guineas a year and kitted out - including repairing 35 broken panes! - and by the end of the first year it had 222 members. Former secretary Herbert Walker's history of the first century says it also boasted a pair of globes, three cases of mathematical instruments, a large parallel ruler, a prism, models of crystals, mechanical models, some ancient sculpture, and more than 140 books.

The institution moved to the Buttermarket for eight years. It took its first newspaper (second-hand, a day late!) in 1831 and each reader was allowed only 10 minutes - measured by the attendant's egg-timer-like sand-glass!

The library stock grew thanks to donations (one volume was deemed unsuitable and was kept locked away!) and purchases (The Pickwick Papers, for instance).

There was a bit of a hoo-hah in 1833 with a proposal to invest in the entire works of Sir Walter Scott. Three years later it went ahead, on the casting vote of the chairman of the committee. A fan of Scott gave the library a bookcase to hold the novels, along with a bust of the author that can be seen to this day.

The museum, meanwhile, was started when the institution was gifted the corpse of a cat found starved to death in a roof-space, five years after going missing. Later it received the skeleton of a whale stranded off Harwich.

In 1834 the institute moved to Tavern Street when a former chemist's shop was bought for �1,000.

Things developed, though in one sense the initial concept flopped. Herbert Walker wrote: “The artisans of the town did not appear to take much advantage of it . . . Notwithstanding, the old title was retained, and it was not until the year 1893 that the word 'Mechanics' was formally dropped.”

It did become, says Hugh Pierce, “something of a middle-class club”. Still, it was a successful one. More space was again needed, and in about 1849 premises in Tower Street, at the back of the institute, were bought for �800 and a lecture hall built for �1,300.

Fifty-odd years later the hall was offloaded, let to Poole's Picture Palace. A couple of years after the Second World War it became Ipswich Arts Theatre, and is now a pub.

“It would be great to have that back,” laughs Hugh. “We've gone full circle and we're actually desperate for more space.”

By the way, is the label “institute” a little off-putting and olde worlde in the 21st Century?

He smiles. “We run trips to places like stately homes or art galleries. Our coach will turn up and people will look at it and blink, and think 'How can this be the Ipswich Women's Institute?!'

“We've gone round the loop several times in the past about whether we should change the name or adapt it in some way; but nobody can really think of anything they would prefer or that everyone would agree on; and although we see the downside of 'The Ipswich Institute', we do see it has a resonance with its history.

“It's better than it was. It was founded as the Mechanics' Institution. If you called it 'The Institution' now . . . ”

THOSE who stumble upon The Ipswich Institute are invariably pleasantly surprised by what they find. Husband and wife Nigel and Chris Wall have been members for seven or eight years. They first walked through the door during a Heritage Open Day, which offers free access to notable properties usually closed to the public. Once they learned what it was all about, “I think we joined there and then!” remembers Chris.

The caf� and restaurant are handily placed for shopping in the town centre, the library “impressed me from the start, with a huge range of very interesting books”, and the educational opportunities are a boon.

“I have done quite a lot of courses and made some excellent friends,” says Chris, who hails from Yorkshire. These have included learning Italian from scratch ? “I missed the chance of doing it at school” ? and art appreciation. There's been English literature, French classes, and some immensely-enjoyable Burns' Night celebrations! “It offers so many opportunities I didn't know existed.”

Ipswich Institute

15 Tavern Street and 13 Tower Street

Phone 01473 253992

Email library@ipswichinstitute.org.uk

Web www.ipswichinstitute.org.uk

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