Mather & Platt apprentices, 2 Apr 1936.


As mechanical engineering began to develop as a profession in the late eighteenth century, the question of how best to educate and train engineers became increasingly important.

In Britain, the preference was strongly in favour of ‘on the job’ training.  Initially, an apprenticeship would be purchased in a given firm or with a consulting engineer and you’d be indentured to learn the trade for a set number of years; this training was typically hands-on and practical. However, some engineering companies’ in-house training for apprentices and pupils was increasingly formalised. At Mather and Platt, a Day Continuation School operated from 1873 and attendance was compulsory. Another business with well developed in-house programmes was the Ashington Coal Company, who also operated a Continuation School from 1920 (nicknamed The Miners’ University). Each selected pit boy attended the School for two days a week and was paid as if he had been working in the pit (which he did the rest of the time). Having received a thorough course in scientific and practical running of a coal mine, and when they reached a certain stage, they were eligible for the Mine Manager’s Course. By 1936, the School consisted of about 80 boys in the charge of 2 full-time teachers. By the 1930s, it was jointly run with the Education authorities and Ashington were able to fill most of their Mine Official vacancies.

Mather & Platt apprentices, 2 Apr 1936.
Mather & Platt apprentices, 2 Apr 1936.

The shipbuilders, Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson made attendance at an approved arts and science course a condition of employment.  At Swan this attendance was expected to be in the evening but many employers did allow apprentices to be released to attend daytime courses.  Other engineering companies offered a so-called sandwich system, apprentices would attend courses in the winter and be in the yards during the summer.  Thanks to research by Sir Michael Sadler undertaken in 1907, we know that a third of railway companies allowed daytime attendance and all but two paid towards external training.  At one railway company (unnamed in the research), apprentice wages would be increased upon recommendation from the Technical College and the Superintendent of the Railway Workshops.  Payment of fees/apparatus/books and so forth was common amongst all engineering firms.

The first professorship of engineering was established in 1840, at Glasgow.  In 1875 a similar position came into being at Cambridge but ‘engineering science’ was not taught at Oxford until 1908.  In the field of University-led engineering education, Europe was far in advance.  The École Polytechnique, established in 1794, set the standard with a two year course in mathematics, mechanics, physics and chemistry, continuing with courses by practising engineers about the design, construction and operation of machines and structures.  By the 1830s, Polytechnics had been founded in Berlin, Karlsruhe, Munich, Dresden, Stuttgart, Prague and Vienna; preparing students for industry by concentrating on the study of machine design.

Miners' University, 1936.
Miners’ University, 1936.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the situation in Britain was beginning to shift.  Universities (or university colleges) with engineering courses had been established in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Birmingham.  Although the numbers of students undertaking mechanical engineering study at university increased, the general perception had not changed.  There was still a general suspicion for this type of learning amongst many practical engineers.  However, by 1907 Vickers, Sons and Maxim’s apprenticeship scheme was operated in co-operation with the Technical Department at Sheffield University.

At the same time as the universities were being established, mechanics institutes were formed around the country.  They originally began as places where workmen could attend evening classes to ‘improve themselves’, and over time many developed into excellent technical colleges.  In 1876 the City and Guilds of London Institute was established, it conducted examinations in technical subjects for workers studying in institutes around the country.  Gradually these courses began to supplement the apprenticeship system, and eventually, along with an increasing number of university courses, replaced apprenticeships as the usual route into mechanical engineering.  Of course now, it has been generally recognised that apprenticeships are extremely valuable and perhaps we shall witness a shift back to that form of learning- or at least a combination of the two.

Images from our historic photo collections.

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s