Burnley Civic Trust Heritage Image Collection

Burnley's Mechanics' Institiute (Part 3)

The Institution continued to be the centre of culture in Burnley offering high profile speakers such as explorers Robert Falcon Scott CVO and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton CVO OBE. There were astronomers, ornithologists, world famous photographers, actors such as Oscar Wilde and even General Booth of the Salvation Army were among the experts from many fields who visited Burnley to speak.


In its day, the Mechanics' hall played host to concerts by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Sargent, the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells companies, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

There were exhibitions both cultural and trade where exhibitors gave away free samples of various products. The cocoa and chocolate firms gave away small tins of their products and the Shredded Wheat makers handed out three full size biscuits. One soap firm created a huge fountain, made, not of water, but of white soapsuds, reaching almost to the ceiling.

There were political affairs, Arthur Henderson, Foreign Secretary and a candidate Commander Campbell (Conservative), who failed to be elected but gained admiration for his real-life adventure stories. From Burnley, he went to the BBC and Children's Hour. He featured on the radio for many years.

There were social events. At the top of the snobbery scale was the Hospital Ball, held for the obvious purpose. Behind this came Student at Homes organised by what was then called The Tech.

Of these the Ball was a white tie function, while the Tech event was a dinner jacket level. There were children events accompanied by their nannies.

One Express reader who was a member of the Mechanics' as a teenager in the 1940s recalls playing snooker, billiards, chess and table tennis and well stocked with newspapers, books and all the glossy magazines. "Those of us who attended evening classes at the college used to congregate afterwards at the Mechanics' for a game of snooker.

Russian Famine talk 1922

Sometimes an air-raid alert would be in progress, with the Heinkels passing over Burnley on their way to bomb Manchester and Liverpool. However, we always felt secure in the basement."

The decline of the Mechanics' Institute can be traced back to 1939 when 1,500 pounds was spent by the directors in remedying dry rot which had been discovered. During the war further repairs were not possible, but after the war ended certain accrued dilapidations were made good, the outside was painted and other work was completed to a total cost of 2,400 pounds.

Financial Worries

The Institute began to get into financial difficulties six or seven years after the war, and by 1958 membership had fallen to 350 as people's choices for their entertainment had changed and television brought more entertainment into the home.

Losses continued to increase, and trustees finally decided to sell. Correspondence with the Corporation began in March, 1958, regarding the Corporation's acquisition of the building which was then valued by the Institute at 25,000 pounds.

In October the trustees held an extra-ordinary general meeting to discuss the future of the institution. The trustees could dispose of the premises on their own decision, but they were keeping members fully informed, and would seem most anxious to proceed in a manner carrying the approval of at least a majority of members.

Reason given at the meeting was, said the directors, to advise members of the negotiations which have taken place since a previous meeting and afterwards to consider, and if thought fit, pass one of the resolutions put to them.

The meeting agreed that the building should pass to the people of the town, vested in the Corporation. The question of a price would seem to be only to pay off liabilities and retain a comparatively small surplus to permit the continuation of the club facilities to members, that is open to all ratepayers, either in part of the Mechanics building or in smaller premises elsewhere.


At a Town Council meeting opinions were divided, but the majority view would appear to be that, if the Mechanics closes, the building should go to the town, because it was intended for the people of the town.

The view of some councillors that the building was provided by public subscription was strongly contested by Mechanics directors. However, negotiations continued, and in August the Town Clerk offered 8,500 pounds for the freehold with vacant possession, but the offer was not accepted.

Acceptance of the 8,500 offered would almost certainly mean the end of any club facilities and the end of the Mechanics' Institution as such, for it would scarcely give the directors scope for further action. And the Town Council had made no public indication of any interest in preserving facilities at the Mechanics beyond those associated with the main ballroom. In effect, by accepting the reduced offer from the Corporation it seemed to the trustees that it would put the Mechanics out of business.

Some members were so critical of the Council's attitude, which those members allege was due to political consideration, that they would prefer to see the premises go elsewhere than to the Corporation. Others, and there were members of over 60 years' standing, deplored the possibility of such a fine central building being lost to a town such as Burnley which has little enough to offer in social amenities. They still hoped for a solution which would relieve the directors of a responsibility which, while too heavy for a voluntary body, would be negligible for a local authority, when compared with costs of other public services.

Other offers were received, including one for 20,000 from a company of warehousemen, but the Corporation turned down the planning application for the building to be used for this purpose. The Trustees, therefore, served a Purchase Notice on the Corporation under the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, requiring the Council to buy the building. The Council's case against the Purchase Notice was based on the argument that to grant it would be putting a millstone around the ratepayer's neck, and further argued that this ploy was a clever, but legal way to dispose of the property.

The Ministry of Housing confirmed the Purchase Order and on 15 August 1959 the Burnley Express headline read:


'Corporation must buy the Mechanics'


A week later the Express reported on the auction of the building's contents with a headline


'Contents of the Mechanics come under the Hammer'


Such items as billiard tables sold at 4 pounds each; a local musician paid 45 pounds for the grand piano; even the firewood from the boiler room was sold off. Burnley Central Library were able to buy many books on local history including two portfolios of articles on art, edited by a local man, Philip Gilbert Hammerton. They bought Coucher Book of Whalley and the Shuttleworth Accounts. There were books on Calderdale and Mary Elizabeth Towneley, and the works of the famous Lancashire poet Tim Bobbin - all to add to the library's collection.

A handsome silver shield, bearing the names of chess champions of the Institute of more than 30 years ago (1920s) was not for sale. The Mechanics' Institution Chess Challenge Shield accompanied the Chess Club to its new home at the Church Institute. It bears such well known names as Mr. HB Creeke, former solicitor; Mr EJ Sumner, former senior chemistry master of the Grammar School, and Sir James Mackenzie, the famous heart specialist.

The chess table given to the club in October 1933, in honour of Sir James by Lady Mackenzie, and a set of chessmen, also went to the club's new home.


After the first hearing Mecca Ltd, dispossessed of their own premises, by fire in Burnley, sought and obtained a lease for the Institute. The fire occurred in early November 1960, five days later they had acquired the lease and spent 15,000 pounds on a renovation programme and opened a month later on December 17th.

Empress Ballroom Fire Nov 1960
The morning after

In February 1961 a total of 23,795 pounds, plus certain legal fees, was allowed against Burnley County Borough Council by the Lands Tribunal, sitting in London in respect of the Mechanics' Institute. The lease, obtained by Mecca, Ltd. was described by a member of the Tribunal as "A plum which no owner of the building could confidently have expected to fall into his lap."

The Trustees and Directors of the Institute had over 15,000 to expend on new premises after meeting all expenses.


For a short period, the building was known as the New Empress Ballroom and on 8 June 1963 disaster struck again.

Mechanics roof June 1963
Roof from the inside

This was the third time in four years that the Council has been called upon to decide the fate of the building since the mechanics' Institution was wound up in 1959.

On the first occasion was the fire at the Empress Ballroom mentioned above. The future of the building was again a subject of discussion when Mecca moved to their newly built premises - The Locarno Ballroom on land previously the home of Pickup Croft. This time the Town Council considered using the building as an Education Centre; a Central Library Annexe or an Exhibition Centre. It was eventually reopened for dancing at Christmas and later leased to a private company.

While the cave-in of a third of the roof came as a big blow to Empress Entertainments (the leaseholder), directors of the company thanked their lucky stars it did not happen during a dance function. The collapsing timber and slate fell 25 feet to the ballroom floor which must have occurred only a few hours after an old-time dance evening had finished.

No one heard the crash during the night, and the first indication came when a cleaner in a building opposite noticed part of the roof was missing and informed the police.

The staff arrived to find the ballroom open to the skies and sunlight shining through a mass of tangled timbers, masonry and wires on the ballroom floor. It transpired that one of the roof trusses had collapsed completely, bringing down the ceiling and slates. The approximate cost of repairs was put at 20,000 pounds.


Burnley Express - 29 June, 1963 - Committee has plan for car park and garden there.


Burnley Express - 5 July, 1963 - A 25,000 pound repair scheme to be pushed ahead.


Burnley Express - 2 November, 1963 - Plan for top-line variety, dancing and gaming.

The Building was leased to the owners of the Casino Club (Bolton) Ltd and opened in December 1963. Later the lease passed to Continental Casinos in 1966.


The theatre club would be open every night of the week. The Church Institute, Empress Travel Agency, and gymnasium continued to operate on the premises. Plans for the new club included the staging of cabaret shows - Striptease shows were NOT allowed - with provision for gaming, bingo sessions and bookings by local organisations for private functions. The emphasis was on family entertainment, dancing for young (and old) people and variety shows.

For the next 16 years, the building had a variety of uses finally closing for extensive refurbishment in 1979.



The building had deteriorated considerably and needed a lot of money spending upon it.
In June 1979 the former Burnley Civic Trust secretary Mr Ken Spencer asked the Town Council "why has a listed building (grade 2) been allowed to fall into such a state of repair?"

It transpired that a legal loophole in the Gaming Act of 1970 prevented the council from financing the upkeep of a building used for gaming however the council is still responsible for the maintenance of a grade 2 listed building.

Councillors attempted to get help from different organisations and government to fund small inexpensive schemes to save the building, but nothing substantial came of their efforts. One project allotted to Rentokil had to halt their work, after months of replacing rotten panelling and impregnating the walls with chemicals, because their work was being virtually destroyed by the leaking roof. Fortunately, they managed to raise 32,000 to start re-roofing in November 1980.

The full restoration of the building took another 6 years, in 1981 the estimate was that 100,000 would be needed, but as always other problems were found, and inflation took its toll.
In 1983 under the leadership of the town's council leader, Coun. Peter Pike who at the first meeting of the sub-committee emphasised that the 1,760,000 is the target price and that is all we can afford. It was decided the building would revert to its former name of the Mechanics' Institute.


The refurbishment had eventually cost two and a quarter million pounds and opened in 1986 as the town's premier entertainments venue and in the years that have followed the Mechanics have hosted some of the world's finest talent from all realms of the performing arts including the highly acclaimed Burnley International Blues Festival which helps to ensure its international status as a unique and bustling venue.

HM The Queen November 1987
Plaque in Mechanics' Institute

After unveiling the plaque Her Majesty walked into the theatre auditorium, and visibly jumped as over 100 children immediately went into a brief routine which involved a loud starting shout!

Lock Stock and Barrel Theatre Company had brought the youngsters from Wellfield, St Mary's, St Stephen's and Barden Junior Schools along to show some of the workshop activities regularly done in the schools.

Smiling broadly, the Queen chatted to some of the children, before moving on to meet more councillors and officials, and Burnley's last surviving Freeman of the Borough, Tommy Gallagher.