New life for oldest institute



It began in the 18th century as a learning institute which later became a post office, police station, technical school, library and meeting hall, and in recent years, an adult learning centre. But since then, the doors of this magnificent Victorian building remained shut and it was starting to feel unloved.

But last week, we welcomed the public back to the Ebbw (pronounced Air-ber) Vale Institute for an open evening, following months of major renovation works to restore the building back to its original glory. We managed to convince the local authority to invest money in turning the institute into an arts and cultural centre, providing band rehearsal rooms, recording, photography and dance studios, video-editing suites, a performance hall and office space for rent for budding enterprises.

I love it that we saved the original cast-iron signage for the building and used it as decoration in the cheerful orange cafe, and re-used some of the old drawing tables from the art room upstairs as dining tables. We are also getting an environmentally friendly state-of-the-art heating system for the building.

Hopefully, with our plans for regeneration, the institute will start to draw people back and even become a catalyst to transform the sleepy town into one bursting with activities.

So glad the BBC picked up on our efforts and did a short piece on it!


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. Later 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.

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 began 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.

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 classes offered in the last quarter of the 19th century included ones in coal mining, iron and steel technology, book-keeping and engineering. 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.

About Ebbw Vale

At the end of the 18th century, the Welsh valleys were transformed by the Industrial Revolution. In 1778, steelwork plants opened in a little town in rural Monmouthshire called Ebbw Vale, followed by a number of coal mines. At its height (1930s — 40s) the steel works in Ebbw Vale was the largest in Europe, attracting attention from German bombers during World War II.

In recent decades, Ebbw Vale has suffered from the decline of the steel and coal industries. In 2003 the long-standing steelworks were demolished, and currently around one to two miles of the valley stands empty waiting to be re-developed as housing, retail shops, offices, wetlands, a campus etc.

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