REBIRTH OF HISTORY
Established as community hubs and places of learning more than 100 years ago, mechanics’ institutes are undergoing a revival, writes Gideon Haigh
On a cool weekday in the outlying Melbourne suburb of Berwick, a queue of patrons begins filing into a homely building clad in pale boards as the doors open at 9.30am. Friendly greetings are exchanged, a noticeboard perused for community announcements. There is the sound of a date stamp as books are checked out, of the photocopier being used. It’s a library by any other name, but that other name, borne on its facade for 154 years, is the Berwick Mechanics’ Institute.
At their peak about a century ago, Australia had more than 3000 mechanics’ institutes, schools of arts and athenaeums, forerunning community halls, public libraries and universities. To the likes of political and cultural luminaries Edmund Barton, Billy Hughes, Robert Menzies, Ben Chifley, Henry Lawson, Joseph Furphy and Nellie Melba, they offered windows on the world.
Later they seemed to vanish from popular memory. Mainstream historians have neglected them almost entirely. Yet in the 21st century they have been improbably rediscovered, their heritage celebrated and their purposes recommitted to.
The Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts in Pitt Street and the Melbourne Athenaeum in Collins Street, both founded in the 1830s, have recently published comprehensive histories, marking the fact they have offered the longest continuous library services in their respective states. Building refurbishments are in vogue: the renewal of Rockhampton School of Arts by the local council won a National Trust gold award five years ago; the Newcastle School of Arts was acquired last year by Berkelouw Books, which will anchor its redevelopment with a new outlet. Even hipsters have given them the nod: Perth’s Mechanics’ Institute Bar occupies the site set aside in 1851 to provide colonists with “an unobjectionable mode of recreation and improvement”.
Now Victoria’s institutes have been compre- hensively inventoried by amateur historians Pam Baragwanath and Ken James, whose These Walls Speak Volumes is arguably the greatest contribution to their study and certainly the heaviest, weighing in at nearly 3kg.
In Baragwanath’s case, it is half a life’s work. On retiring as a school librarian about 30 years ago, she opened tearooms and a gallery in the defunct Healesville Mechanics’ Institute. Perusing its old minute books, dating back to 1892, she was inspired by their testament to selfless community service, yet on the general subject there was virtually nothing to read.
One thing led to another, and days off found her and her dog crisscrossing country Victoria in a campervan seeking similar establishments, learning to look for the tallest galvanised iron roof in the main street. “It was like a drug after a while,” she says.
Of the 1000 institutes charted in These Walls Speak Volumes — some heavily documented, some known only by newspaper citations and public records — the collaborators report just over half enduring in some form. Forty serve as regional libraries. Others have been rebuilt and rededicated, notably as arts complexes, and absorbed into universities and TAFEs; a few have been converted to private residences; others are variously town halls, a surgery, an antique dealership, a boutique hotel, an artist studio, a police station and a discount store.
Most survivors, however, continue serving something like their original purpose: as community meeting places, venues for fetes, fairs, weddings, wakes, sporting clubs and scout troops; many were in use on July 2 as federal election polling booths.
They have faithfully reflected changed needs and priorities. Carpet bowls, trivia nights, toy libraries and toddler gyms have succeeded magic lantern lectures, smoke nights, euchre parties and ugly man competitions; tai chi and pilates have replaced quadrilles and cotillions.
In the past decade, more than 50 have been substantially improved, and more than a score have commemorated their centenaries. The slight loosening of purse strings for regional investment after the Black Saturday bushfires, when many mechanics’ institutes served as command posts and refuge centres, has helped.
Mainly, though, efforts have been community-led. Ten operating as freestanding libraries are prospering: cosy Berwick, with its 5500 borrowers and 30 volunteer staff, survived a recent brush with modernity when it adopted an electronic catalogue. “Several of our older volunteers said that they didn’t want anything to do with computers,” says head librarian Judith Dwyer. “I’m proud to say we didn’t lose one.”
And while most such locations are now owned by local government, a few survive in the traditional fashion, funded and controlled by members. These include the finest extant example of a fully integrated mechanics’ institute, in Ballarat, founded in 1859 and lovingly resurrected since falling on dark times in the 1980s.
“Sovereign Hill is great, but it’s a theme park,” says Frank Hurley, a softly spoken retired local academic who led a drive to raise $5 million in government grants and private philanthropy to restore the Ballarat institute. “This place offers an authoritative unbroken line back to the earliest days of the city.”
Reclining in a comfortable library armchair, he recalls Kevin Rudd’s “community cabinet” visiting Ballarat in February 2010, where he cajoled Peter Garrett into contributing funds to the refurbishment. “It was the thrill of the chase,” he says.
The library has a busy calendar of talks advertised on a comprehensive website, while the auditorium, redecorated in its original shades, has in recent years hosted events such as the Festival of Slow Music and the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields.
The heritage reading room, occupying what was the trading floor of Australia’s first stock exchange, holds a collection it undersells to call simply eclectic, featuring a 1585 Bible, first editions of Voltaire and Carlyle whose decayed leather bindings testify to sulfurous fumes from Ballarat’s old gasworks, and a 69-volume set of the papers of Woodrow Wilson donated by a visiting American trade official.
Tilted reading desks recall a time 125 years ago when the institute was receiving 100 newspapers a day from all over the world to cater to a population comprising 80 nationalities.
Yet not every location harks back to bygone days and customs. When the 162-year-old Prahran Mechanics’ Institute realised $6 million from the sale of its premises on High Street two years ago, it reinvested in a smart modern office building nearby, where its extensive local history library is housed behind 1915 double doors brought from its previous home.
It also provides spacious and well-lit rooms for a busy Cinema and Theatrical Historical Society and the venerable Australian Railway Historical Society, whose collections had previously been in a storeroom next to a toilet and in a shipping container respectively. “I feel so good about being a part of this place,” says author and historian Judith Buckrich, who has researched several of her 14 titles at the institute. “People come in and just go: ‘Wow’.”
So how did all this begin? The mechanics’ institute movement emanated from Britain as a means of providing education and moral uplift to workers in the “mechanical arts” — the growing artisanal class who worked with ma-
The mechanics’ institute in Leongatha, Victoria, left; the heritage reading room of Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute, which was the trading floor of Australia’s first stock exchange, below