Culture and Wealth Creation: Mechanics' Institutes and the Emergence of Political Economy in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain


  • Ann Firth Latrobe University


History, HIC, 2005, Ann Firth


In late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain, a decisive shift occurred in assumptions about the nature and viability of commercial society and how it needed to be organised in order to ensure social order and national prosperity. This transformation was part of a wider intellectual and cultural shift that attempted to make sense of changes in political and economic institutions or to shape these changes. The intellectual endeavour to explain or control new processes of wealth creation and urbanisation produced key concepts for thinking about the social, economic, spatial, and political organisation of industrial societies, and gave rise to both social statistics and political economy. These emerging bodies of knowledge challenged the older householding framework for thinking about labour and wealth creation. In the 1820s, the two approaches came into conflict in debates about the desirability of establishing Mechanics' Institutes to provide a scientific education for working men.

Author Biography

Ann Firth, Latrobe University

Ann Firth teaches at Latrobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests
are in intellectual history. She has previously published articles on social and political thought in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain and political thought in post-WWII Australia. She is currently co-editing a collection of essays on Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.