The Institute. Somehow, the words have (except perhaps for the WI) a rather old-fashioned ring. Institutes must be, we tend to think, a hang-over from the 19th century when serious-minded, top-hatted gentlemen (nearly always gentlemen) set up their Institutes to progress their own scientific or philanthropic ideas.

They were in many ways central to Victorian life – you bettered yourself by attending the Institute; Sir Joseph Porter in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘HMS Pinafore’, on his way from office-boy to First Lord of the Admiralty, ‘wore clean collars and a brand-new suit / for the pass-examination at the Institute’.

This column has already considered one manifestation of the Institute in Ripon – the Mechanics’ Institute, founded in 1831 largely by the Williamson brothers, paint and varnish manufacturers. After some years in hired premises, it had premises in Water Skellgate before moving in 1893 to its premises in Finkle Street. It remained there until its disbandment in 1927; we now know it as the Post Office.

Mechanics’ Institutes were looked on with much suspicion by church people. The Roman Catholic Augustus Pugin wasn’t alone in thinking that ‘Mechanics Institutes are a mere device of the day to poison the minds of operatives with infidel and radical doctrines’. The publication ‘Meliora: A Quarterly Review of Social Science, in its Ethical, Economical, Political, and Ameliorative Aspects’ said in 1861 that at discussions in Mechanics’ Institutes, ‘offensive principles have been asserted without rebuke; and . . . books, newspapers and periodicals of an objectionable character have been admitted in the reading room.’

What was to be done to counter this radical threat? Dr Hook, Vicar of Leeds, had the answer. He wrote to a friend that ‘I am engaged in a scheme of establishing reading rooms, with Saturday and Penny Magazines, and various good works . . . to counteract the Socialists. In these rooms we shall give lectures once a week; each room shall be under the superintendence of a clergyman. I think too of selling tea there.’

So came about the Church Institute Reading Rooms. The first were set up in the late 1830s and flourished; by 1873 the Ripon diocese has seventeen, including, of course, one in Ripon. With the help of the Marquess of Ripon it established its reading room in the Town Hall, and was certainly flourishing in the 1870s. At a meeting held in the Town Hall in January 1874 the Marquess (who sensationally converted to Roman Catholicism later that year) said that ‘one of the great advantages [of the Institute] is the bringing together of its members in order to discuss matters interesting to the church.’

The Church Institute continued at the Town Hall for another quarter of a century, thanks to the generosity of the Marquess, who owned the building. Membership was usually around 200. As well as the reading room there was a lending library; in 1889 it was reported that it contained 971 volumes and that in the last year there had been 2,513 issues.

There were also, as Dr Hook had envisaged, the lectures. In 1880 the Rev’d J Vaile, Rector of Winksley, spoke on Pompeii; his talk was ‘vividly illustrated by diagrams’ but there was ‘a pretty moderate attendance.’ Two years later, Mr F W Fison of Ilkley gave a talk called ‘A summer’s ramble in Norway’; this ‘was illustrated by views shown by the oxy-hydrogen lime-light.’

As the new century neared, and Victoria’s reign drew to a close, there were moves to find new premises. It was reported in April 1900 that its committee had ‘decided to start a scheme for acquiring new premises as a Church Institute for the City of Ripon. A site has been selected adjoining the Market-place, and negotiations are in progress for its purchase from the Marquis of Ripon. Miss Darnborough has, it is stated, undertaken to provide the purchase money.’

Agreement was reached and on 21 June that year Adelaide Darnborough (who gave Thorp Prebend House to the city) and the Reverend Samuel Reed (chaplain of St John, Bondgate and Secretary of the Institute), took over 23 High Skellgate. This was also the address of the Marquess’s Studley Royal Estate Office in the city, so when a new building for the Institute was designed, the job fell to the Marquess’s tame architect and surveyor, Tom Wall.

Wall designed a modest building, with a triangular pediment with a circular window above a doorway with circular top and widows either side. An extension to the south was also added. The plans show that the extension held the ‘Library or Ladies Room’ and a lavatory, while the main bulk of the building was the ‘News Room, lit by a skylight.

The opening of the new Institute in 1901 was delayed a fortnight by the Queen’s death. And this shiny new venture for the Institute didn’t last very long; by the end of the First World War it had closed and the premises were in commercial use. At some point the front windows were enlarged to make them more suitable for display, and the curve over the door removed.

In the Second World War the building was used to deal with rationing and the all-important coupons, while later it was the office for the local authority’s truant officer.

Since 1992 the Church Institute has been Saks Hairdressing Salon. The Ladies’ Room has (appropriately) been incorporated into the main body of the building (though the lavatory remains where it was, with more modern fittings), and a new mezzanine floor has been inserted.

Tom Wall’s skylight is still there, though; above it graffiti on the beams has the names of the workmen who over the years have worked on the building, and the original ventilation tube remains in place.

Did the Church Institute fulfil its promise to, as the Dean of Ripon said in 1896, ‘aid in the diffusion of a Christian spirit and in the spread of good literature’? For some time, yes, but needs change. Now Saks provides another sort of encouragement for the ladies of Ripon.

With thanks to Lee Kettlewell of Saks for his help.

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