Among the earliest non-religious organisations founded in the Flamborough area, the Waterdown Mechanics’ Institute established in 1843 was one of the most famous. Prior to 1843, the Legislature of Upper Canada encouraged the formation of Literary Societies and Mechanics’ Institutes, and the establishment of such an organisation in Waterdown on 4 November 1843 was a direct result.
At the first recorded meeting, on Friday, 24 November 1843, the first paragraph of the Minutes state:
After the adoption of the Constitution (which was not effected without a great deal of deliberation on each article), the members proceeded to discussion ……”1
This Constitution was signed by sixty members, to which fourteen additional signatures were added during the next two years.
The objectives of the Institute were to be the:
improvement of the minds and the diffusion of knowledge; by means, first of a library containing only Philosophical, Historical, Biographical and Mechanical works, to the complete exclusion of novel reading of every description. Secondly, lectures on any useful and important branch of knowledge. Thirdly by the discussion of questions in relation to appropriate subjects, excepting such as relate to the political or religious creed of any member of the Institute.2
High standards were expected, even demanded as noted in the third By-Law, the most sacred in the Institution.
It was to be understood “that in the transaction of business, whether in the discussion of questions or otherwise, no irreverent or unappropriate language shall be allowed, or any conduct that would in the least deviate from the strictest moral purity.”3
Officers, consisting of a President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Secretary and Librarian were elected by ballot. Duties for each officer were outlined in the Constitution. Those of the Librarian were to “take charge of such books as may be committed to his care, keeping a list of the same, and disposing of them to members alone, according to the By-Laws of the Library.”4 Membership (men only) was open to anyone, provided that he had been proposed to the Society by a member, and elected by ballot and was able to pay the annual fee of five shillings H. C.5 Life membership was also obtainable for the sum of one pound, ten shillings H. C. Violation of the By-Laws could result in a member being expelled if a majority of the Society felt it was appropriate.
The first President of the Institute was the Hon. Adam Fergusson, who lived at Woodhill, on the Second Concession of East Flamborough. He served as President for thirteen years, being elected for the final term of office on 4 October 1856. Among the notable residents who held the position of Secretary, and responsible for the Minutes of the Society were:
D.E. Markle, Secretary 1843 – 1845George Douglas Griffin, Secretary 1845 – 1848William Clarkson, Secretary 1848 – 1850William Stuart, Secretary 1850 – 1854J. B. Thompson, Secretary 1858 – 1884
During the early years of the organization, meetings and debates were held regularly on alternative Friday evenings, but after 1856, there appeared to be a gradual decline in interest. A new Constitution was adopted at the Annual Meeting on 16 October 1857, and after this, interest began to centre upon the Library which had always been stressed as an important feature of the organization. By the end of the 1850s, the Library had a listing of “seven hundred and twenty-four volumes in the Library, chiefly historical, philosophical and scientific works, valued at $800.00.”
Sadly by this time, the membership was reported as only twenty-eight, a decrease of thirty-two in two years. After 1859, only occasional meetings were held, one to four per annum. The last meeting reported was on 9 May 1884, with an adjournment until a week later, but this meeting was never held. However, additions to the Library were entered as late as August 1894.
At a meeting of the Wentworth Historical Society on Monday, 9 January 1922, the Society’s Historian read an account of the Waterdown Mechanics’ Institute. This paper, and the original Minute Book of the Institute which had been collected by Wentworth County Public School Inspector, Joseph H. Smith for his History of Wentworth County, eventually passed into the care of Special Collections, Hamilton Public Library.
The decline in the popularity of the Waterdown Mechanics’ Institute was probably due to the gradual improvement and the availability of education. However the value of such Societies cannot be estimated “in the advancement of the villages, the towns and the whole country.”6
Originally published in Heritage Happenings, November 1988.
© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1988, 2021.