Mutual Improvement Society

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Speech given on the Inauguration of the Normanby, "Mutual Improvement Society",

January 10th 1854.

“Christ, of all my hopes the ground,

Christ, the spring of all my joy;

Still in Thee may I be found,

Still for Thee my powers employ."


“The present day may with propriety be specially designated day of religious, moral and social institutions.  While the large towns of our country abound with their Mechanics' Institutes, circulating libraries, and societies for the discussion of various subjects for the mental cultivation of their inhabitants, and while they abound with societies for the cultivation of vocal and instrumental music for gratifying the ear, and have numerous pictures, paintings and exhibitions of the wonders of nature and art for the eye, and also abound in social meetings for the purpose of fostering friendship and knitting closer the bonds of union, why should we in our villages and hamlets live on, year after year, deprived of these advantages?  We, in these solitary and secluded spots, have our social, civil and intellectual relations, we have our mental and moral capabilities as well as our more favoured countrymen in the towns.


Socially, we have it in our power to contribute to each other's happiness; this power or ability consists in intercourse, in an exchange of friendly senti­ments and feelings.  We never entertain those same feelings of attachment to those with whom we are not acquainted, that we do I for, our own friends and neighbours.  And what places us in this relationship?  The fact that we reside near to each other is no guarantee in itself of friendly and neighbourly feelings. He who lives nearest me might be my greatest enemy, as he has it in his power to do me the most harm; whereas on the other hand, such a one has it in his power to do me most good. where then there is most sympathy and interest in each other's welfare there is most friendship, and our social relations are most fully sustained, and the value of such relationship most fully developed.


"In the formation of this, our little society, we recognise the value of our social intercourse and the principles of our social relationship.  It is a generous and benevolent principle that has led to the formation of this society. Selfishness says, 'I can read and think for myself, I will enjoy myself as I think best, and others may do the same.'  The benevolent and large-hearted man says, 'I will make great sacrifices of feeling and interest too if I may benefit others'; and it will only be by fostering such a principle as this, that this little institution will prosper and its members become better members of society.  Civilly, we have our relationship to each other, and to the state of which we are subjects; as contributing to the support of the state by taxes, direct and indirect, in return we ought to share in the advantages the state affords, and certainly in the matter of public and private meetings we have privileges, or more properly rights, that many states do not grant.


In some countries, spies are present, they are watched by government officers, and if a sentiment in opposition to that government is uttered the author of it is hauled to a tribunal of state; but it is not so with Englishmen, we breathe the air of freedom.  Let us then· value our civil relationship, and estimate more highly its advantages and strive to profit by them.  This little society contemplates this object. "Intellectually we sustain a relationship to each other. Ignorance is not only injurious to the ignorant themselves, but to the' whole community.  In proportion as the people are ignorant, in proportion does superstition, wretchedness, and crime abound. Intelligence has secured to us innumerable comforts of life; without which we should be but removed a little above the brute creation.  No matter what are the means by which a man procures for himself and family a livelihood, he will derive much advantage from being perfectly acquainted with his business.  The community, too, will profit equally as much.  For instance, the doctor has more practice in proportion to his skill; the community less affliction and fewer doctor's bills.  The lawyer more practice, the more learned in his profession, the community has greater security to property.  The farmer, by the application of science, not only serves his own interest, but that of the people in general, as he must do if he produces an increased amount of food for the people.  The agricultural labourer also occupies a very prominent position in our country's welfare, for without this class, the people must perish for lack of food; and the more skill you bring to bear in the production of the staff of life, the better member you are of the community.  The most skilful and industrious workman is always sought after in preference to the indolent and incapable; hence his own great advantage by the use of his reason and its cultivation.


"Even in our villages we have our mental capabilities as well as they in the towns.  Is it not a fact that some of the greatest men the world ever produced were natives of some secluded and solitary spot?  It is a fact that men who have contributed most to the advancement of science and our country's greatness were born in circumstances possessing not even the advantages such as a little society like this can give. Amongst the many we name James Watt, the discoverer of steam and its mechanical application; Stephenson, the inventor of the locomotive engine; Peto, M. P., the great railway contractor; and Paxton, the designer of the Crystal Palace.  Elihu Burritt, the American blacksmith, is an illustration of what man can do even in the midst of toil.  He made such use of the leisure from the anvil as to become a profound mathematician, and one of the finest linguists in the world.  I am one of those who expect that by the cultivation of the human mind, and hence the discoveries of science, man will some day be relieved from that incessant toil to which he is immured, and that machinery will do the drudgery of labour, and man will be its director or controller; not that man shall ever be exempt from work, as his curse is that 'by the sweat of his brow he shall earn his bread.'  But let all work together in furtherance of education, and the result would be more grand than the poet could conceive or enthusiast depict, or the mind of man' imagine.


"In the formation of this society we recognise the natural capacity, mental ability, &c., and its capability of improvement, and though there is not one mould into which all minds are cast, though there are diversity of gifts, yet the dullest and most stupid of us may improve by study and investigation.  Who knows but that great things may result from small beginnings here?  Moral power and mental cultivation are closely allied.  Experience has already taught that the more a people are educated, the less are they given to every description of extravagance; where there is an unimproved mind, there is not only an unknown amount of lost usefulness and dormant energy, but there is much wretchedness and crime.  That education is sadly defective that does not improve the morals of the people.


If we take the lowest view of education, as a question of £ s. d there is economy in its favour.  It is said that in the report of the Preston prison in Lancashire, one family alone had been connected with fifteen burglaries, all of whom were convicted, and that the entire cost of this criminal party to the country was £26,000.  This family had not the advantage of a moral training.  Then it is the duty of all to encourage education, even if solely for diminishing crime, that all might obtain that moral respect which should animate every person who wished well to this country.


Addison has well remarked that a human soul is like marble in a quarry, which shows none of its inherent beauties until "the skill of the polisher fetches out the colours, makes the surface shine, and discovers every ornamental cloud, spot and vein that runs through the body of it. Education, after the same manner, when it works upon a noble mind, draws out to view every latent virtue and perfection, which without such helps are never able to make their appearance.  What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to a human soul?  The philosopher, the saint, or the hero, the wise, the good, or the great man very often lies hid and concealed in a plebeian, which a proper education might have disinterred and brought to light.


"We are endeavouring by the formation of this society to meet the wants, the natural tendencies of the people.  Man is a social being, will have society somewhere, as the ball, the dance, the ale bench, the horse race, the gambling table, &c., all testify.  The fact that man does not long enjoy retirement or isolation, the fact that he seeks a companion, and feels happiest in his own family circle, proves him to be a social being.  If the family circle has not attractions for him he goes elsewhere in search of happiness, but, alas, he seeks in vain.  If he is not happy at home, there is some serious defect somewhere, and it would be well for each member to try if he or she cannot remove the cause.  But there are causes which lead men to seek happiness from pleasure.  We all have our animal proclivities, and if they are not curbed and controlled by the cultivation of the mind they will gain the ascendancy, and the result is mental imbecility and moral and physical wretchedness. Innocent recreation is perfectly right. 'All work and no play,' &c. Nay, it is indispensable for the health and vigour of the mind as well as the body. Excessive mental exertions depress the body and overburden the mind, the result is often lunacy.  It is a great fault to dwell too much on one subject; nay, it is injurious to do so.


"The mind likes diversity of subject as well as the body diversity of exercise.  You labouring men know that to be in­cessantly working at the same thing, keeping the body in the same position, is excessively wearying and painful in the extreme.  For the mind to be absorbed with one subject is equally weary­ing. Now this society is formed on this principle.  Diversity of subjects and entertainments characterise it.  While you are to have read or delivered interesting subjects, our ears are to be regaled with vocal and instrumental music, and I trust our eyes will be pleased by the sight of numerous and attentive hearers and our hearts cheered by increased and increasing friendship."


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