Mechanics Institute Hall, Newstead Vic

Mechanics Institute Hall, Newstead Vic
Mechanics Institute Hall, Newstead Vic

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Into the Colonies

Research Process:

I have spent the last few weeks reading about and researching the spread of the Mechanics Institute Movement into the Colonies. In my last post I expressed the difficulty I had with finding information about George Birkbeck. That was not the case this week. There is a wealth of information to trawl through.

Geoffrey Blainey's A History of Victoria provided a good overview of the social climate that enabled Mechanics Institutes to thrive. Once again the Prahran Mechanics' Institute Library proved to be been a great source of material. The bi-annual conference proceedings have been especially useful, as they contain papers by historians and academics on all aspects of Mechanics Institutes, and their libraries. The State Library of Victoria Databases have been a good source of material as well. Trawling through the photo archives and the Issues of the Victorian Government Gazettes was fascinating!

The biggest problem I have faced is "information overload". Wading through all the available material and condensing it has been somewhat difficult. Who would have thought there would be so much to learn about Mechanics Institute Libraries?

My Findings:

The first Mechanics Institute in Australia opened its doors in Hobart in 1827, a mere 6 years after the first Mechanics Institute in Edinburgh was founded. It was followed in quick succession by Institutes in Sydney in 1833, Newcastle and Adelaide in 1835, Melbourne in 1839, Brisbane in 1849 and Perth in 1851.

The ideal mirrored that of their UK counterparts. They aimed to educate the working class through adult education classes and a library.

The Mechanics Institute Ideal flourished in the Colonies and nowhere more so than in Victoria. A census of the number of Mechanics Institutes in Australia by the 1890's revealed the following results:

Northern Territory: 3

Tasmania: 50

Western Australia: 71

South Australia: 210

Queensland: 350

New South Wales: 433

Victoria: 1030

The city of Melbourne was established in 1835. In 1839, there were less than 2000 residents. Victoria was known as "The Port Phillip District of NSW." It was three years before a town council was elected but Melbourne's first Mechanics Institute was established in this year. It initially operated from Bourke Street, and moved to its current premises in Collins street in 1842- It still operates from this site as the Melbourne Athenaeum.

Melbourne in 1838
 As the Colony of Victoria expanded, and the population grew so too did the number of Mechanics Institutes. There were three major influences on the spread-

- Exploration: as Major Mitchell discovered the Western District and the squatters established pastureland, Institutes opened in Geelong and Portalnd.

-Gold: As gold fever gripped the Colony, Institutes sprang up as quickly as settlements were established. Institutes in Bendigo, Castlemanine, Clunes and Ballarat followed.

- Railways: As the Railways were introduced to accommodate the burgeoning Gold Rush population and to connect far flung gold mining settlements to Melbourne, Mechanics Institutes were establish in Railway towns.

As Melbourne expanded, so too did the number of Mechanics Institutes. Small settlements developed into suburbs and through the 1850's Institutes were opened in Cheltenham, Footscray, Brighton, Collingwood, South Yarra, Richmond and Prahran.

Across Victoria, this trend continued well into the late 1800's. In many newly settled communities, the first building established was often the Mechanics Institute hall. From the mid 1850's the government commonly assisted this community endeavour with a gift of crown land for the purpose.

Victorian Government Gazette 1859.


The key learning for me this week was that Victoria embraced the Mechanics Institue like no other Colony. John Pascoe Fawkner one of Melboure's founders was a huge supporter of the Institutes and was especially keen on establishing free libraries for the residents of Melboune. His influence aside there was something about the mechanics Institutes that resonated with Victorians. I hope to explore this further as I delve further into my research.


Petrow, S 2006, The compainion to Tasmanian history, viewed 30 August 2010

Blainey, G 2006, A history of Victoria, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne.

Baragwanath, P 1998, 'The origin and growth of Mechanics Institutes in Victoria', Mechanics Institutes the way forward 18-19 April 1998, Kilmore, Department of Infrastructure, Melbourne, Australia, pp. 7-12.

Dawson, S 1998, 'Mechanics Institutes and Colonial equality' Mechanics Institutes the way forward 18-19 April 1998, Kilmore, Department of Infrastructure, Melbourne, Australia, pp.13-16.

Baragwanath, P 2000, If the walls could speak: a social history of the Mechanics Institute of Victoria, Mechanics Institute Inc., Windsor.

Victorian Government Gazette Online Archive 1836-1997, viewed 3 September 2010,

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