Muker Literary Institute – a place of Victorian self-improvement in Swaledale
On my Yorkshire Dales tours, I often drive along the many traditional Yorkshire villages along Swaledale. Small quaint stone cottages, with a village pub and the odd Methodist Church usually is the main make-up of these settlements. But one building on the roadside in the heart of Muker always stands out as being unusual and out of place.
The rather grand building looks Flemish, with two floors, steps up to a large white door on the first floor and ornate stone façade with fancy roof with pinnacle, sits on the left hand side of the B6270 road to Reeth from Thwaite and looks more like a small concert hall.
This Grade II listed building is actually Muker Literary Institute. Lead mining in the area had brought a great wealth to Swaledale and the design of the institute aimed to reflect this, although there are no records as to why this style was chosen apparently.
The Literary Institute was built in the 1860’s and completed in 1867. It was funded by public conscription at a cost of £257, 2 shillings and 7 pence – a Dales example of civic pride. Many villages across the Dales had opened venues to allow the menfolk a place to meet for self- improvement and education. (It is worth noting that Muker was ahead of its time as the constitution didn’t exclude women like many of the existing Institutes at the time).
In Victorian times many Institutes were built across Yorkshire, particularly in industrial locations such as lead mining villages in the Dales. State education was not made compulsory until 3 years after the Institute was built in 1870, children would have been sent to work from an early age and many would have received very little education. The Institute in Muker was built as a place where the villagers could top-up their education.
When it opened the front entrance led upstairs to a room containing many educational books. It had the daily papers delivered each day and functioned as a library where people could read and borrow books. This is where the Literary Institute name comes from. By 1900 it was said to hold over 600 books.
It’s downstairs room also acted as a hub and meeting place for male residents in Muker and employers were happy as it kept the workers out of the pub. Its social role continued with the installation of darts board and billiards table for the members who paid a membership subscription to make the most of the facilities.
Gradually, the number of members started to dwindle as other social and educational opportunities opened up across Swaledale. This meant that other uses for the Institute were sought.
The famous Muker Silver Band started to use the meeting room for practice and rehearsals in the 1920’s as their numbers grew. The band had formed in 1897, practising in small rooms wherever they could find space in the nearby area but the Institute became their permanent home.
The room was also used by a bank to provide services to the village up until the 1960’s, as the nearest Banks were the market towns of Hawes, Leyburn or Richmond.
The ground floor of the institute continues to act as a meeting space with both The Muker Parish Show Committee and The Muker Parish Council holding their meetings at the venue. The room has a collection of historic photos of Muker plus interpretive boards about the local scenery about field barns, dry stone walls and flower meadows. During the summer the Institute is open most days to visitors.
The Muker Silver Band are now an integral part of the Literary Institutes history as 20 years ago with the upstairs former library unused, it became transformed into the bands permanent rehearsal space where they practice twice a week and can store their instruments.
Great that the iconic building is still getting used as social hub and provides a useful space for the local and wider Dales community.