Mechanics Institute Hall, Newstead Vic

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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Initial goals and eventual outcomes- Did they achieve their aims?

Research Process:

I have utilised several avenues this week, but once again the Prahran's Mechanics' Institute Library has been my greatest source of quality material. (Later on in my findings I will explore the history of this library in greater detail and delve a little into how it has become one of our most successful survival stories.) Again I found a wealth of information in  published conference proceedings. Conference paper bibliographies pointed me in the direction of some useful journal articles on the subject.

I paid a visit to the State Library Web Page and accessed some illuminating early accounts of the Institutes, and early library catalogues.

I also checked the National Library of Australia website and discovered "trove." I am now up to my ears in links to journals, letters, diaries, photographs, catalogues and news paper articles. Fabulous resource!


I located quite a bit of material that will help with the latter parts of my report. This week I settled on looking at the early aims of the Institutes and their libraries, and assessing if were able to stand by their manifesto of educating the working classes with scientific and "useful knowledge".

Their initial aims are clear. Like their UK forbears, Mechanics' Institutes in the colony of Victoria were committed to the education of the working classes. While this was the initial aim of the Institutes in Britain, by the time the movement was spreading through the colonies, it was no longer in practice in Britain. It seems that while initially the Mechanics Institutes and the opportunities of self improvement offered by their lectures were well received, eventually they became to be seen by working men  "as an extension of their onerous working days." Thus by the time the movement was flourishing in the colonies, "mechanics' institutes in their original manifestation in Great Britain had failed to live up to their aims." (Barker 2003, p2).

In an address to the public by the committee of the Mechanics Institution, Melbourne in 1842, they declare their hope "that the intention of the Mechanics Institution may be spiritedly carried out, and that we may practically and vigorously shew that a ray from the sunshine of Europe has lighted up the wilderness of Australia."

Early Institutes and their libraries were staunch supporters of the education of the working classes, however they were also welcoming of other members of society.

The Hobart Town Mechanics Institute published its catalogue and bye-laws stating its purpose as "the diffusion of scientific knowledge among professional Mechanics and others..."

The Launceston Mechanics Institute and free library was established in 1842. In the first meeting to discuss the foundation of the Institute, its aims were outlined. Science was a focus but so too was literature and the door was open to all classes. As an article from The Mercury celebrating the centenary of the Institution explains:

"The objects of .the Institute be the promotion of science and the arts, and the diffusion of general literature"; and "As the Institute was formed with a special view of pro-moting the Intellectual culture of the operative classes, mechanics and work- men of all classes are Invited." The Mercury, (16 July 1938, p. 15)

As time went on the appeal of the Institutes spread to the middle class and they strayed from their scientific origins towards a literary and popular amusements focus.The main  reason why this may have occurred is that the social and political landscape of an emerging country was vastly different to the much older society of Britain. The new society that was Australia was less based along class lines as was the case in Britain. It seems "all bets were off " in Australia where members of the upper working class and middle class arrived in droves in search of a better life. Class distinctions were blurred and as a consequence, and there was real hope that with hard work and perseverance, one could improve their lot in life. Mechanics Institutes were less geared toward the working classes and more geared toward the middle classes who thrived in the political and economic climate of the colonies.

As the gold rush and the railways saw new settlements springing up almost overnight, the Institutes became less about education of the working classes and more as a symbol of civic progress.They were also vital to the infrastructure of a new community. Often they were one of the first public buildings built and served many purposes. The focus on education was replaced by a community hall where communities could gather. They served as school houses, banks, health centres, polling booths etc while communities were being built. They were also the social focus of a town- hosting dances, lectures, weddings and funerals. 

So while the education of the working classes was the initial aim of mechanics' institutes, they came to serve a wide range of classes and in small towns became a focal point for all members of the community.

Dr Stefan Petrow  from the University of Tasmania sums up evolution of Mechanics' Institutes in Australia thus...

"Most mechanics institutes failed in their educational aims and became genial places of resort for middle class patrons, including women The libraries pandered to their non-demanding tastes and lectures proved less attractive than musical performances and entertainments of various kinds, such as penny readings.." (Companion to Tasmanian History, 2006.) <="""">>>


 The more I have read read about Mechanics' Institutes, and their libraries the more interested I have become, though it is a much broader topic than I imagined. After last weeks post I identified several areas that required further exploration, and that is what I have endeavoured to do this week.

I was interested in the ideal behind the movement. In the beginning, Mechanics Institutes in Australia were keen to follow the principles of their UK counterparts- ie: provide a place of learning for the working class. Did this remain the case? Research seems to indicate that the middle classes were the beneficiaries of the Mechanics Institutes as time went on.

My research had made reference to the influence of John Pascoe Fawkner and his push to establish free libraries in the colony of Victoria. Exactly how influential was Fawkner in Victoria's embracing Mechanics Institutes and their libraries?

The role of Libraries needs to be further explored. I have learned that around 1000 Mechanics Institutes in Victoria were established in Victoria between 1839 and 1939. That means that almost every Institute had a library. Many failed and few remain, however the public library system owes a great debt to these libraries. They blazed a trail years before public libraries were established. For every failure, there have been some outstanding successes and some acknowledgement has to be made of these fabulous institutions.


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

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.

Galligan, B and Roberts W 2000, 'By the people for the people: the role of Mechanics Institutes in local civics from Colonialism to federation.' Rediscovering Mechainics' Institutes: Australian Mechanics Institutes Conference 2000, Department of Infrastructure, Melbourne, Australia, pp. 67-76.

Barker, D 2003 'Funding communal culture: opportunism and standardisation of funding for Mechanics' Institutes in Colonial Victoria', The Australian Library Journal, iss, 51.3, pp 1-13.

Westgarth, W 1842, An address by the committee of The Mechanics' Institution at Melbourne, South Australia to members and public 1842, viewed 10 September 2010, <

Hobart Town Mechanics Institute 1860, 'Catalogue of the Library of the Hobart Town Mechanics Institute. The Laws of the Institution'. The Library bye-laws, viewed 9 September 2010, <>

'Nearing Centenary: Part of Mechanics' Institutes in Launceston's History' 1938, The Mercury, 16 July, Trove Australia, viewed 22 September 2010.

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,