Es­tab­lished as com­mu­nity hubs and places of learn­ing more than 100 years ago, me­chan­ics’ in­sti­tutes are un­der­go­ing a re­vival, writes Gideon Haigh

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

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

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