Mechanics Institute Hall, Newstead Vic

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

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mechanics' Institute Libraries: My Findings.

Founded in Britain as a means of educating the working classes, Mechanics' Institutes and their libraries spread into the colonies where the movement was embraced with fervour, particularly in Victoria. Their libraries bought books to the working classes and their halls became the focal point for many small communities. Although they may have strayed from their original ideals, their importance in Colonial Victoria ought not be underestimated. From a social and cultural perspective we owe them a great debt, and the role played by their libraries should not be overlooked, especially by the Public Library System which grew from its foundations.  Although very few Mechanics' Institute libraries have survived, it is imperative that those that remain are preserved for generations to come. 

George Birkbeck: The founder

The man credited with being the founder of the Mechanics' Institute movement  was George Birkbeck. Appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy (a study of nature and the physical world- a forerunner to modern science) at Anderson University in Glasgow in 1799, Birkbeck began working with the local "mechanics" who were building equipment he required to conduct experiments. (In the 1820’s the term mechanic referred to the skilled craftsmen or tradesmen who worked and maintained the machinery on which the Industrial Revolution depended).

Industrial Revolution Machinery

Birkbeck found the mechanics to be surprisingly inquisitive and was so impressed by their thirst for knowledge that he lobbied the University Trustees for the establishment of a "mechanics’ class." The end result was a series of lectures for working men with the fetching title: "Mechanical affectations of solid and fluid bodies." Birkbeck's first lecture attracted some 75 attendees. By the time he delivered his fourth lecture, some 500 men attended

George Birkbeck

In 1804, George Birkbeck relocated to London. His work in Glasgow was continued by his successor, Dr Ure. The lectures continued until 1823 when, following a disagreement with the University Trustees, they succeeded from Anderson and established the independent "Glasgow Mechanics Institution," regarded as the first in Great Britain.

Meanwhile in London, George Birkbeck was continuing his work educating working men. He received support from many influential "radicals" of the day and in 1823 the London Mechanics Institution also opened its doors. Institutes in Liverpool, Ipswich and Manchester quickly followed. By the mid 1800’s there were in excess of 700 Mechanics Institutes across Great Britain. 

Embraced by the Colonies:

The movement spread rapidly across Britain, and its Colonies. 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. Their ideals mirrored those of their UK counterparts. They aimed to educate the working class through adult education classes and access to books in their l libraries.
The Mechanics Institute Ideal flourished in the Colonies and nowhere more so than in Victoria. A census of the number of Mechanics Institutes across 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 Portland.

Gold: As gold fever gripped the Colony, Institutes sprang up as quickly as settlements were established. Institutes in Bendigo, Castlemaine, 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 grew, 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.

John Pascoe Fawkner

John Pascoe Fawkner was an important figure in promoting libraries in the colonies. He had attempted to establish a library in Launceston as early as 1825 prior to his arrival in Port Phillip. Upon his arrival, he opened district's first hotel, started the first newspaper, and founded the first lending library. He was a force behind the Mechanics Institute and a committee member when the Melbourne Institute was founded. He is also responsible for championing the mechanics' library cause and donated large numbers of books to mechanics' institute libraries across the state. The Ballarat Mechanics Institute Library for example started its collection with a donation of 89 volumes donated by Fawkner.
Sir Redmond Barry

Although he was an important figure in promoting the mechanics Institute cause and especially their libraries, another prominent figure in early Melbourne, Sir Redmond Barry is the man to whom most credit should be given. " He stands out as no one person does in any other Colony as predominantly responsible for the growth of literary culture in early Melbourne. He had been founder of The Melbourne Mechanics' Institute, and was later to play a major role in the establishment of the State Library of Victoria..." (Candy and Laurent 1993, p. 47).

What were their initial aims in the colonies and did the succeed?

 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 a member the Mechanics Institution committee at Melbourne in 1842, William Westgarth declares his 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 as a consequence, and there was real hope that with hard work and perseverance, one could improve their lot in life. Mechanics Institutes became 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 new communities. 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.)

Why did the libraries fail?

Despite the fervent enthusiasm that greeted the Mechanics Institutes and their libraries in Victoria, according to some historians, the decline was inevitable. Mechanics Institutes were under financial duress from the outset. According to Donald Barker, "In spite of the rapid spread of Mechanics' institutes in Victoria, a continuing feature of their existence was financial difficulty." Rarely did the funds available from subscriptions cover the expenses incurred in building and running the mechanics' institutes, let alone furnish them and stock the shelves with books. From the earliest days the Melbourne, Geelong and Castlemaine mechanics Institutes existed because Government funding allowed them to. Many other Institutes were in the same boat.

The Victorian government's Book Grant was a major reason why the libraries were able to continue as long as they did. From 1860 until just prior to World War I, significant monetary grants were made to mechanics' institute libraries solely for the purpose of purchasing books. Brian Hubber explains the importance of the grants thus. "In 1890 when there was no library profession, no library associations, and no organised lobbying for library subsidies, the government of the day was making a substantial investment in colonial library services." (Hubber 1994, p. 92) Once the funding ceased many libraries struggled to remain relevant. Success of the various institutes depended on how dynamic the committee was and how adept at fund raising they were. Maintaining a library was especially problematic.

Historian and mechanics' institute expert Pam Baragwanath, tells us that the task of raising funds to maintain library stocks became an onerous one. "By the time the regional library system was in place, the Institute committees were, in the main, only too pleased to hand the job over to councils." (Baragwanath 2000, p. 15)

The Munn Pitt Report into Australian libraries in 1935 was the beginning of the end for many Institute libraries. The report commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation was highly critical of our libraries on many levels. It heightened awareness and indirectly led to the passing of "The Library Acts" in the mid 1940's. This is seen as the beginning of the modern public library system in Australia, and the demise of subscription libraries.

As council run and funded libraries spread across the state post Library Act in the 1950's , the Mechanics Institute Libraries, that remained found it difficult to compete, and slowly but surely many shut their doors. Brigolong Mechanics Institute is a case in point. The doors were locked on its reading room in 1962, but thankfully the collection remains intact and has recently been catalogued. It serves as a fabulous reminder of what these reading rooms meant to their communities.

Legacy of the libraries:

Although in the long run many of the libraries were unable to continue independently, their importance to the people of Victoria has been immense. For the longest time they were the only source from which many people could obtain books. At the height of their popularity there were over 1000 Mechanics' Institute Libraries in Victoria alone. For over 100 years they served the community tirelessly.

  • They pre-dated the municipal library system in some cases by 120 years
  • They gave countless people access to books in a time when only the more wealthy members of society could entertain the possibility of purchasing books.
  • In the early days of settlement in the colonies, the mechanics institute libraries provided an invaluable service: Their reading rooms housed collections of newspapers and journals from here and abroad which often provided the primarily migrant population with their only link to news from home.

Mechanics' Institutes - Today: 

Of the approximately 1030 Mechanics' Institutes that existed across Victoria, just over 500 buildings remain. Of these, 400 still serve as local community halls. Of these buildings, around 100 of them serve as a library in some capacity. A good percentage of these are Mechanics' Institute Libraries that remain in their original buildings but are now run by local councils. Castlemaine, Bright , Kyneton and Chiltern are examples. 
Unfortunately very few Mechanics' Institute Libraries have survived to operate independently. The following libraries have showed a great deal of resilience and against the odds to continue to operate today (in most cases still at their original sites.) 
  • Melbourne Athenaeum (since 1842)
  • Prahran Mechanics' Institute (since 1854)
  • Maldon Athenaeum (since 1854)
  • Footscray Mechanics' Institute (since 1856) 
These Mechanics' Institute Libraries no longer operate as lending libraries but they still house the bulk of their original collections- now an important historical resource:
  • Brigolong
  • Chiltern
  • Stanley
The following Mechanics' Institute Libraries operate in both capacities- part lending library, part historical collection:

  • Ararat
  • Ballarat
  • Berwick
  • Port Fairy
Mechanics Institutes -The future:

There is a marked difference in how the surviving libraries serve the community, as you would expect after 150 years of social and cultural changes. In an effort to remain viable Mechanics' Institute Libraries have had to adapt or disappear. The days of educating the working classes have long gone though it is pleasing to note that the Narre Warren MI serves as an adult education centre. It is in the minority however! Most libraries have found a niche and managed to press on. 

For example Prahran Mechanics' Institute Library has been able to survive by becoming specialised. It is the only specialist local history library in Victoria, yet it still relies heavily on the Stonnington Council, and its database for assistance with cataloguing. It has also turned to publishing and produces local history and history of library publications. In recent times they have been involved in a bid to claim unpaid rent from Swinburne in order to repair their "crumbling library". <>

Ballarat Mechanics' Institute
The Ballarat Mechanics' Institute survived some dark days and is again thriving under the Presidency of Dr Frank Hurley. He was able to recognise the historical significance of the musty library and newspaper collections and the beauty of the dilapidated premises. Dr Hurley has been very proactive in fundraising for restoration works and has overseen the transformation of an institution in disrepair to an active one with a bright future. A grant of $270,000 from the Public Heritage Program has assisted. The Library has successfully promoted its historically important collection and once again holds regular lectures on a on a variety of topics.
 Berwick Mechanics' Institute Library fought a valiant battle to remain independent. It thrives today, and owes a great debt to Lady Casey who supported the Institution financially in her lifetime and bequeathed them a significant portion of her historically valuable library. The library continues to thrive with the help of a large army of volunteers.

The Melbourne Athenaeum has enjoyed 170 years of continuous service, from the same site. It has revisited the past with a busy programme of talk and lectures, though they are primarily author talks and book launches (not scientific lectures.) Today's Athenaeum also houses the Athenaeum Theatre and Comedy Club, a cafe and retail shop - all of which are leased to managers. This provides an enviable source of income to assist the continuation of the library.

Melbourne Athenaeum Library
Survival for most of these libraries still remains a year to year proposition. Overheads are high and the cost of maintaining aging buildings can be crippling. There have been Some significant steps in recent years that may lead to long term protection for this historically significant Institution.

The formation of The Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria (MIV) in 1988 was an important step. Having operated independently since their inception the value of an overseeing organisation cannot be underestimated. "It aims to foster the preservation and restoration of the social, cultural and physical heritage of mechanics' institutes through the development of information exchanges and systems of mutual support." Regular conferences are held and historians and librarians gather to celebrate their history and discuss the future. Suggested initiatives include:
  • Increase public awareness of the historical importance of Mechanics' Institutes
  • A push to have all remaining Halls heritage listed.
  • Exploration of alternative sources of funding
  • Cataloguing and evaluation of all library collections no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
Burke and Wills Mechanics' Institute Hall.
There is also a growing feeling amongst the communities of small towns that the Mechanics' Institute is an important historical landmark that needs to be preserved. Fryerstown in Central Victoria (population 120) is a case in point. Its local Antique Fair which has been running for nearly 30 years was started as a means of raisng funds to maintain its quaintly named Burke and Wills Mechanics Institute Hall which was in desperate need of repair. The fair now attracts in excess of 30,000 visitors to the tiny community and the revenue raised will ensure that the hall will now stand for years to come.

A movement that sprang from the noble minds of British Radicals was taken to the hearts of Victorian communities. Although there are only a handful of libraries operating today and more than half the buildings have been lost, there seems to be a groundswell of interest in these Institutions. There is a glimmer of hope that the remaining libraries may continue to operate, and that the legacy of the Mechanics Institute movement may not be lost. They have been a vital part of Victoria's history and protection of this important heritage ought to be a priority.

Tyrell, A 2000, 'British Origins of Mechanics Institutes', Rediscovering Mechanics' Institutes: Australian Mechanics' Institutes Conference 2000, Dept of Infrastructure, Melbourne, pp. 5-10.

Victorian History Library Prahran Mechanics Institute, viewed 26 August 2010,

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, 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, 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.

Cannon, M 1975, Life in the cities: Australia in the Victorian age: 3, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne.

Serle, Percival 1949, 'Fawkner, John Pascoe (1792-1869)', Dictionary of Australian Biography, Angus and Robertson, Project Gutenberg Australia, viewed 28 September 2010.

Candy, PC and Laurent JA 1994, Pioneering Culture: Mechanics' Institutes and Schools of Arts in Australia, Auslib Press, Adelaide.

Ryllis Clark, M 2003, Mechanical Genius, The Age, 7 June, Ebsco Host, viewed 19th September 2010.

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

Baragwanath, P 2004, 'Mechanics' Institute Libraries in Victoria, 1839-2004'. Buildings, Books and Beyond: Mechanics Institutes Worldwide Conference 2004. Prahran Mechanics Institute Press, Prahran, pp. 42-69.

Clancy, F 2000, The libraries of the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria, Department of Infrastructure, Melbourne.

Petrow, S 1998, Going to the mechanics: a history of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute 1842-1914, Historical Survey of Northern Tasmania, Launceston.

Vink, A  1998, 'The Melbourne Athenaeum Inc- Victoria's No 1 Institute.' Mechanics Institutes the way forward 18-19 April 1998, Department of Infrastructure, Melbourne, pp.73-77.

Myer, R 1998, 'Berwick Mechanics Institute. Still going strong. ' Mechanics Institutes the way forward 18-19 April 1998, Department of Infrastructure, Melbourne, pp.78-82.

Ryllis Clark, M 2003, Mechanical Genius, The Age, 7 June, Ebsco Host, viewed 19th September 2010.

McErvale, J 2005, Treat yourself to a rare old time at the Fryerstown fair, The Age, 22 January Ebsco Host, viewed 2 October 2010.

Bowden A, 2005, Brigolong Mechanics' Institute, viewed 6 October 2010,

The Berwick Institute and Free Library, viewed 7 October 2010,

The Melbourne Athenaeum, viewed 7 October 7 2010,



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