History of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Discover what led to our inception in Birmingham and how we have developed since then.

Founded in 1847 in Birmingham, our original statement of our purpose was "To give an impulse to invention likely to be useful to the world", which is not so different from our present mission statement to "Improving the world through engineering".

We moved to our current London home in 1899, at 1 Birdcage Walk. The architect Basil Slade was responsible for both the interior and exterior decoration of the main building (except for a wing added in 1911).

A selection of the architectural plans are available on our Virtual Archive. You will also find historical photographs, drawings and our Council Minutes (1847-1985)

As well as caring for rare books and archives relating to the history and development of mechanical engineering at 1 Birdcage Walk, we have been running the Engineering Heritage Awards since 1984.

Browse our our timeline below to discover how we have developed.

Our history

1847-1877

Inaugural meeting minutes, selecting George Stephenson as the first President, 1847

The present headquarters of the IMechE, 1 Birdcage Walk in London, was completed in 1899.  Prior to this the Institution was based in Birmingham.

The first meetings were held at the Queen’s Hotel in Birmingham, with larger Ordinary Meetings held at the Philosophical Institution’s lecture theatre, which was on Cannon Street.  A year-long lease was arranged for holding Council meetings in the Temple Buildings, but the Institution soon needed more room, and the Secretary, William Prime Marshall, was instructed to look for new premises, ‘as will afford full accommodation as a residence for himself, with a Room for the meetings, a Library, and if possible a third room for the use of the Institution.’  54 Newhall Street was selected, and a three-year lease was arranged.

1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, saw the Institution hold its first meeting in London, in the Society of Arts’ Adelphi Rooms.  The Institution retained its permanent base in Newhall Street for 14 years, with Ordinary Meetings being held at the Midland Institute.  Eventually, in 1871 Council formed a committee to investigate building an entirely new house, where all meetings could be held.  It considered three potential sites in Birmingham, but finally recommended staying in Newhall Street, where the existing building should be either revamped, or a new building constructed on the corner with New Edmund Street, where sufficient land was available.  Events dragged on for some time, and although William Marshall had been instructed to negotiate and prepare a preliminary plan for the building, eventually, in 1877, the decision was made to move the Institution entirely to London.

1877-1899

Inaugural meeting minutes, selecting George Stephenson as the first President, 1847

Upon its move to London, the Institution rented premises at No 10 Victoria Chambers, where it remained for 20 years. In 1895, the Proceedings report that, ‘On the motion of Mr Mair-Rumley, seconded by Mr Head, it was resolved that the President be requested to represent to the next Council Meeting that the time had now arrived when the question of a House for the Institution should again be seriously entertained.’

The President, Alexander Kennedy, immediately drew the attention of the Committee to the availability of land on Storey’s Gate. The row of houses facing St James’s Park had been demolished, leaving prime building land. Alternatives also considered were Delahay Street, Whitehall, Artillery Row or Victoria Street, but the Finance Committee soon agreed on the Storey’s Gate site.

A House Committee was then formed to work on the new headquarters. On 14 June 1895, the Institution made an offer of £9,500, which was accepted. Hoardings were erected, and excavations commenced. In 1896, Builders’ tenders were received, and the firm of E. Lawrence and Sons were selected. The foundations were completed by 1896, despite difficulties thrown up by the discovery of running water 22 feet underneath the site. Disputes with neighbours meant that work on the building itself could not begin until 1897, when London County Council approved the plans. Construction took two years, funded by the sale of stock debentures. On 22 June 1898, the House Committee was able to hold an informal meeting in the building.

The original land owners, The Storey’s Gate Syndicate, had believed that the best use of the site would be for flats. Basil Alfred Slade was the vendor’s architect, and he had already developed a plan for the residential building. He was also employed by the HM Office of Works building, which shared the Storey’s Gate site. The original plan, a symmetrical block with a single entrance, in the Queen Ann-revival style, was adapted for the headquarters building. Slade’s final design incorporated details and inspiration from Renaissance, Jacobean, Elizabethan, Venetian and Georgian styles. Inside, there were many state-of-the art features, such as a telephone; a 54-inch fan in the lecture theatre, for driving St James’s Park air into the building; an electric lift from the Otis Company, and a Synchronome master-clock, which controlled all house timepieces.

The building was officially opened on 16-17 May 1899, celebrated by a two-day conversazione for members and 750 guests, drawn from government, industry and academia. A carriage awning was erected in St James’s Park, and there were entertainments inside from the Meister Glee singers, London Concert Orchestra, and cinematographs.

1909-1913

Storey's Gate as in originally appeared, 1820

Storey’s Gate Tavern adjoined 1 Birdcage Walk.  While the main building was under construction, various proposals had been made to the effect that the Tavern should be purchased, and used as part of an extended club facility.  James Beale, solicitor acting for the Institution in the building of headquarters, advised against it.  His main argument was on financial grounds, but he also pointed out that engineers had no business running a pub.  The premises were finally purchased in 1909, and this, along with the earlier purchase of 5 Princes Street, allowed the Institution to extend eastwards.

A New Building Committee was formed, and proposed a new wing. Four architects were invited to submit ideas.  Although the architect of the original part of the building, Basil Slade, submitted a design, Scottish architect James Miller was selected to design the extension.  Miller was also the architect for the Institution of Civil Engineers’ headquarters, across the road on Great George Street.  He had worked in the civil engineering department of the Caledonian Railway, where he gained experience of station-building.  In 1901, he designed the Glasgow Exhibition buildings.  He also worked as consultant on interior designs for the Lusitania, and later the Aquitania.

The new wing was to hold Secretary’s offices on the ground floor, general office facilities on the mezzanine, and an expanded Council Room adjacent to the Library on the second floor.  A large, formal staircase was also included as far as the second floor.  Work was completed by 15 November 1913, but there was no grand opening as there had been for the main building.

1914-1945

1 Birdcage Walk during WWII

During the First World War, IMechE headquarters were taken over by the Office of Works, and the National Relief Fund.  The IMechE moved into 11 Great George Street as tenants of Armstrong, Whitworth & Company. 

After the war, various schemes were considered for remodelling the building.  In 1933, James Miller was asked to undertake the remodelling.  In the Lecture Theatre, all natural light sources were removed in favour of electric lighting.  The three original windows were blocked up and the walls panelled with Austrian oak wainscoting.  The ceiling dome was removed and the library expanded to fill the space.  220 tip-up seats were installed.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Institution moved out of London to occupy The Meadows at Bletchworth in Surrey.  Here, 'the bulk of the Institution's work (Accounts, Records, Membership, Examinations, National Certificates, National Service and general correspondence' was being carried out...with about twenty-eight members of the Staff (fourteen sleeping on the premises).'  In July 1940, The Meadows was requisitioned by the military, and the IMechE moved back to Storey's Gate, by then a much altered building.  The entrance and roof was sandbagged, and the windows netted.  The basement had been turned into day and night air raid shelters by the local council.

During this time, IMechE headquarters acted as a meeting place not just for the Institution, but for other bodies including the Royal Netherland Institution of Engineers, the Association of Polish Engineers in Great Britain and the Society of Engineers and Technicians of the Fighting French Forces.  Government departments also made use of the building, and in January 1943, a group of senior REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) used the building to plan the mechanical engineering support for Operation Overlord and the invasion of Normandy.

1960-present

1 Birdcage Walk today

In 1960, Numbers 1 and 3 Birdcage Walk were formally joined, and the building was remodelled. The President's and Secretary's offices were moved to the ground floor of 3 Birdcage Walk. More committee rooms were created on the mezzanine floor of 1 Birdcage Walk, and these were named after some of the Institution's most illustrious members, Joseph Whitworth, Frederick Lanchester and Charles Parsons. This theme would be continued in the 1980s, when the Hinton and Whittle rooms were created.

In 1975 a new office was opened in Bury St Edmonds, several departments including finance, publications and qualifications relocated. The office closed in 2004. Also, during the 1970s a proposal to build a bridge between IMechE and the Institution of Civil Engineers over Storeys Gate was discussed as part of merger proposals.

This was the last major structural change to the building, but from 1996 to 1998 a series of measures was taken to ready the building for its centenary. The electrical systems were overhauled. A Business Centre was created for the use of members visiting London. The Lecture Theatre was also completely overhauled, incorporating modern lighting, audio-visual technology and acoustic panelling.

From 1984 the Institution has supported recognition of mechanical engineering in our nation’s history and societal development via the Engineering Heritage Hallmark Scheme: awarding important locations, artefacts, collections and landmarks. In 2007 the Scheme was reinvigorated under the new title of Engineering Heritage Awards. All awarded sites and collections are listed and illustrated in the Awards book.

In 2013 the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) moved to 1 Birdcage Walk for a period of three years while their headquarters are refurbished. The Business Centre was refurbished and a Members lounge created.

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