AT a time when almost half the population of Great Britain was illiterate and when work life was hardly above the level of slavery, an organisation sprang up driven mostly by the middle classes, passionately committed to improve the lot of the working poor.

Skipton Mechanics' Institution started with a limp in 1823, hobbled along again from 1839 and then leapt into life more sure footed in 1847.

This fledgling organisation had been using rooms in the Hole in the Wall Yard, off Court Lane and later from 1847 based itself in a two roomed property in Chancery Lane, off High Street - now demolished.

This latter manifestation came about thanks to a gang of moneyed backers, the upper crust of the town, mill owners, members of the professions and other worthies including Skipton Building Society.

It did well. And by 1852 it was issuing over 2000 books a year and about 75 members were attending classes in writing arithmetic, grammar, geography, French, higher mathematics, history and reading, plus a host of scientific lectures.

To cater especially for the working classes it set up People's Concerts and in 1860, to cultivate more cultural amusement, established "Penny Readings".

For a penny, illiterate folk could listen to readings of great literature - the likes of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. They were so popular the Craven Herald reported that as many as 400 people would assemble in the Temperance Hall.

It was the opening of Skipton's New Town Hall in 1862 which saw the next big change. It freed up the Georgian building in Sheep Street where the town council had been meeting .

So the trustees upped-sticks from Chancery Lane and decamped in Sheep Street thanks to the benevolence of Sir Richard Tufton who charged them just a nominal rent.

This chap Tufton was to crop up again offering his generous hand in the late 1890s. He was Sir Richard Tufton, Second Baron Hothfield whose family seat was Skipton Castle.

The tale goes like this. Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee arrived in 1887. So not letting a chance to boost their institution slip through their fingers, the trustees launched a memorial subscription and keen to get in on the act local big-wigs dug deep into their frock coats to pull out wads of notes including Baron Tufton along with Skipton mill mogal J Dewhurst, the Duke of Devonshire, Walker Morrison of Malham and former Skipton MP Matthew Wilson. A total of £2,382 was raised.

But Tufton's largesse didn't stop there. Next he popped up with a gift of land in High Street on which to construct a Science and Art School, a project that took two years to complete and was opened on September 25,1894.

Ownership was held by a special body of trustees who pledged to permit the building to be occupied by the directors of Skipton Mechanics' Institution for the purpose of educating children, adults, artisans and others in technical and general instruction in a variety of trades and professions.

The final pioneering effort of the Mechanics' in conjunction with the Science and Art School and Skipton Urban District Council was to fund a library.

Predictably, they launched a subscription scheme and with the knowledge of the philanthropic work of the Scot Andrew Carnegie at the back of their minds - he had financed a number of other public libraries, including Keighley's - he was approached and he flipped up £3,000 towards the construction. In 1910, the present library was handed over to the town.

There was a period of little activity between 1914 and 1946 apart for the provision of many school prizes, books and grants to individual students, money also going to Craven Naturalists and generous financial support to Craven Museum in 1928.

Following the Second World War, the West Riding of Yorkshire took over full control of further education and the trustees authorised the a lease of the Science and Art School to the county.

And 1971 saw another significant change when the trustees agreed to sell the freehold of the High Street premises to North Yorkshire County Council for continued occupation by Craven College.

Skipton Mechanics' Institute meets three times per year -April, September and December- to conduct business and consider applications.

The objects are:

*The encouragement and assistance of local clubs, organisations and associations, schools and colleges, located within the Area of Benefit in the pursuance of studies, or the public performances of, or lectures or exhibitions relating to, science literature and the arts;

*The promotion of and assistance with the education of pupils or past pupils of any school or college in the area of benefit and who are resident within the area of benefit;

*The assistance of any local organisation or association undertaking any form of activity or recreation for young people in the area of benefit.

*To make financial grants for such of the above purposes as shall be of a charitable or educational nature.

Recent grants have included funding towards computer software for Craven Volunteer Centre, a summer youth theatre workshop run by Skipton Musical Theatre Company, assistance with individuals’ course fees, holiday club equipment for Skipton Extended Learning for All (SELFA), funding towards improving numeracy at a local primary school, and help with the cost of a residential visit to Calvert Trust in Keswick for pupils at Brooklands Community Special School.

An application form with guidance notes is available on the Skipton Mechanics’ Institute website