The Ebbw Vale Literary and Scientific Institute originated in 1849 when a group of local workmen and farmers met in the vestry of Old Penuel Chapel with the aim of forming a society for ‘mutual improvement’.
The group organised a small library in which members could read newspapers and periodicals. The group decided that they would like to establish a ‘Mechanic’s Institute’. Mechanic’s Institutes were originally set up with the aim of instructing mechanics in the principles of their work and in other areas of practical knowledge. They were particulary well established in Scotland, the Midlands and Northern England. By 1860 about 20 were in existence in Wales.
1852 – Building Work Begins
The group who met at Old Penuel did not have enough funds on their own to build the Institute they wanted. However, the project was adopted by the Ebbw Vale Company and the manager of the steelworks, Mr Thomas Brown, agreed to build an Institute. It cost the company £3,000 to erect and equip the building. The work was begun in 1852 and the completed Ebbw Vale Literary and Scientific Institute as it was from then on known opened in 1853. It comprised of a large lecture hall, a library and reading room and three classrooms. Members paid a small subscription towards the upkeep of the Institute and the Company subsidised the funds. Throughout the next 30 years the Institute served as the public hall for town meetings and was the main social centre in the town being used as a venue for concerts, lectures and other entertainments. It was the first public building to be built in Ebbw Vale.
“Ebbw Vale Institute is the oldest Institute in Wales”
The first evening classes were held at the Institute in 1854. They consisted of Arithmetic, Welsh and English Grammar. The same subjects were offered in 1870 with the addition of Mechanical Drawing. The implication is that the classes were designed to provide basic instruction in the 3Rs to people who had had little or no previous education. Attempts to offer evening classes in science and art subjects after 1860 were largely unsuccessful although this situation changed after the 1870 Education Act which led to the extension of elementary education and therefore meant that potential students at the Institute arived with a basic education and were better prepared for new subjects. The classes offered in the last quarter of the 19th century included ones in coal mining, iron and steel technology, book-keeping and engineering. After 1899 some of these classes were supported by Frederick Mills, the first technically trained manager of the Company. As well as providing educational classes, the Institute also provided facilities for recreational activities. The building also housed the main Ebbw Vale Post Office up until 1900 and the local constabulary for a time. The Ebbw Vale Technical School was also based in the building from 1931-1963.
The EVI – Ebbw Vale Institute is a building full of story and culture. Founded in 1849 to promote cultural exchange in the neighbourhood, it was vacant for a number of years before undergoing extensive refurbishment. It is now a vibrant community and cultural centre for Blaenau Gwent and surrounding areas.