Mechanics' Institutes and School of Arts in Australia

By Beddoe, Joan | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Mechanics' Institutes and School of Arts in Australia


Beddoe, Joan, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


An examination of the development from 1827 of mechanics' institutes and schools of arts as intriguing multidimensional educational, informational, cultural, recreational and community institutions which played an important role in the life of early Australian communities. Among their roles was the provision of libraries and reading rooms, and a number of their fine buildings still house public libraries

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What's in a name?

Visitors to New South Wales and Queensland often wonder at the name School of Arts above the entrance of a modest but still imposing hall in a quiet country town. 'Why the demand for classes in the arts?' they ask themselves. Similarly travellers in Victoria, seeing the name Mechanics' Institute, wonder why there is no service station in sight, and why mechanics would need an institute in a town where the only other buildings are a general store and hotel. Even if they asked the locals, they would rarely find out the answer. The names are synonymous, and refer to an intriguing institution which played an important role in the life of early Australian communities.

Their history

In Britain's rapidly developing industrialised society of the late 1700s, mechanics were tradesmen such as builders, stonemasons, or metalworkers. The age old system of craftsmen's guilds was no longer applicable as working conditions changed with developments in scientific knowledge and industrial skills.

Mechanics' institutes were set up, initially in Scotland in the 1820s, to educate mechanics in the scientific and mathematical principles that applied to their work. In addition to its educational value, this process was seen as a means of self improvement and even a way of creating a better society. The transfer of the concept to the Australian colonies created an intriguing scenario, for initially there was no industrialised society here. Rather, there was great demand for skilled labour for building purposes, and a very unequal society of convicts, emancipists and free immigrants. The concept of acquiring skills for the labourers was attractive enough, but the possibility that the movement could help stabilise society was irresistible.

In the early 1800s education was often regarded as a social grace enjoyed by wealthier members of society, and it was they who were concerned about the moral fibre of society and the need for cultural pursuits. So naturally it was these people who participated enthusiastically in the formation of Australia's mechanics' institutes and schools of arts. Unfortunately the interest of the mechanics was short lived, maybe because they were not included in an organisation's administration and policy making, or because other educational opportunities became available. By the dawn of the 20th century, many of the institutes and schools of arts had faded to shadows of their former selves, but others had reinvented their services as technical education, sowing the seeds of industrial arts training as we know it today.

The first institutes

The first mechanics' institute to be established in the Australian colonies was formed in Hobart in 1827. In keeping with the Scottish origins of the movement, it is significant that James Ross, a Doctor of Laws from Aberdeen University, lectured to the founding members on topics which included engineering, mechanics and steam engines. Reverend John Little, another lecturer, ventured into more esoteric realms such as 'Perception of the beautiful'.

In 1831 classes were held on board the Stirling Castle for mechanics travelling to settle in New South Wales. This ship was carrying 52 Scottish mechanics to build the Australia College, the dream of Reverend John Dunmore Lang, a Presbyterian clergyman cum entrepreneurial promoter of settlement in the colonies. Lang had convinced Reverend Carmichael, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who had turned to a teaching career, to emigrate with the group. …

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