Burnley Mechanics – what lies beneath?

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A long-lost foundation stone and a forgotten cobbled street are just two of the mysteries buried beneath the Burnley Mechanics Theatre.

The landmark building, completed in 1855, opened its stage doors to a very different type of viewing this week as part of the popular Heritage Open Days, revealing a part of the theatre not normally seen.

Mechanics�" Institute, Burnley, by James Green

Mechanics�" Institute, Burnley, by James Green

The Burnley Express was also given a guided tour into the bowels of the Victorian edifice and a long lost street.

Mechanics publicity officer Krista Humphries said: “The cobbled street can still be seen in the cellars, something the public obviously never see.

“It would have been built over the 1850s when the construction work began. The street would have led down towards the car park is now.”

Burnley has been home to several fine theatres over the decades, but the Mechanics was not originally built for this purpose.

It has a fascinating story that is woven deep into the fabric of the town

Helen Jones, head of Cultural Services at Burnley Leisure

In fact, this autumn marks just the 30th anniversary of the building as a theatre when it was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as the town’s premier new entertainments venue, following extensive refurbishment.

The building was originally designed as a place for the people of Burnley, whatever class or creed, to come and be educated.

A place “which has the mental and moral improvement of the working classes at heart”, as prominent Burnley gentleman Colonel Charles Towneley said as he laid the foundation stone, the location of which incidentally is now unknown.

Indeed, there were several distinguished guests at the laying of the foundation stone including the Earl of Carlisle, the Earl of Sefton and Sir J.P. Kay-Shuttleworth on November 25th, 1851.

Burnley Mechanics staff Angus Allan and Krista Humphries

Burnley Mechanics staff Angus Allan and Krista Humphries

It was a grand occasion too. Colonel Towneley set off from his ancestral family home at Towneley Hall and travelled in procession through Burnley Wood to the Mechanics building site on Yorke Street.

The procession was watched by thousands of Burnley residents who lined the streets while the Mechanics’ Institution Brass Band and the Drum and Fife Band of the Catholic School provided a musical backdrop.

Charles was then presented with an engraved silver trowel and a glass bottle which contained coins of the realm from a florin to a penny.

This was put in a cavity in the foundation stone, which is probably located somewhere in the bowels of the building today.

Built at a cost of around £3,000 it opened with a library, class rooms, a hall and an exchange room – for business meetings.

Within 30 years of opening several extensions were added to the building, the main one being the Jubilee memorial wing, which was added onto what is known as the back of the building today.

In its heyday, there were more than 130 courses run in the building and 1,660 students attending. In the main, people paid for their education but some scholarships were awarded.

Annually, cash prizes were given to those who achieved the top results in their subjects. Students could study anything from construction to typing, needlework to physiology, chemistry to watercolours, steam to singing.

A series of lectures from intrepid explorers were held in the Mechanics as well as chess, photographic, instrumental and billiards clubs.

In 1870, the first telegraph line in Burnley opened in the Mechanics and was much used by businessmen to keep up to speed with the price of cotton.

Helen Jones, head of Cultural Services at Burnley Leisure, said: “We’re really looking forward to being able to show the people of Burnley some of the great history that the building has to offer.

“It has a fascinating story that is woven deep into the fabric of the town and we’re very proud of that.

“The Heritage Open Day is a great opportunity for us to re-visit our roots in the Mechanics movement and show visitors the journey we have undertaken to become what we are today.”

Burnley Mechanics Theatre will be open for tours this Thursday, 11am to 3pm, free of charge, no booking necessary.