'The Braidwood Literary Institute: Some Historical Notes and Analysis of Its Subscribers and Their Borrowing Records, 1858-1862.'
Sergeant, Andrew, M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia
This paper will firstly give a brief overview of the history of the Braidwood Literary Institute, concentrating on the issues it faced in its early years. It will also examine some of the records of the Institute, which have rather fortuitously survived and are now housed in the Braidwood and District Museum. The records include committee minute books, annual reports, account ledgers, visitors' books, and borrowing records. The Borrowers' Register for an eighteen-month period in the early 1860s has been analysed and has revealed the reading habits of its subscribers. A profile of the membership in the early years is being developed using existing biographical information from a variety of sources, which, together with the members' reading habits, will allow some conclusions to be drawn about the success or otherwise of the Institute's stated aims.
In 1866 the editor of Bailliere's New South Wales Gazetteer devoted more than a page to a description of Braidwood and the surrounding districts. It was 'a flourishing town, doing a good amount of business, it being the principal town in the southern gold field district, and supplying the whole of the surrounding country with stores'. It could boast 'a post and money order office, a telegraph office, and a court house and gaol ... a good hospital for the relief of the destitute sick ... a literary society, and a dramatic club; also a Bible society, a Masonic lodge ... an Oddfellows lodge ... and two well-conducted newspapers'. The Gazetteer goes on to list two major bank branches, seven insurance companies, and nine hotels. (2) Braidwood was a prosperous town, thanks largely to the nearby gold fields, and one that had aspirations to greater things, but aspirations that were never quite realised.
Today Braidwood is a quiet town of around eleven hundred people, the same figure as recorded for the village and district in the pre-gold-rush census of 1841 and a far cry from the peak of around ten thousand in the town and surrounding district in the 1870s. (3) It is most famous now as the first complete town to be placed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register, in March 2006, and has retained much of its Georgian and Victorian streetscape. (4)
Anyone who travels through Braidwood on the way to or from the coast knows the view looking down Wallace Street well. One of the buildings that contributes significantly to that streetscape is the Braidwood Literary Institute. It stands prominently, a symbol of the Institute's former role in the town's life yet mostly ignored by locals and tourists alike. The Institute closed in 1958, long past its prime, and now houses a bank branch and Council offices but in its heyday in the latter part of the nineteenth century, this building and the people who were its members played influential roles in the literary, educational, and social life of the town.
The Institute and its place in Braidwood
The Institute arose from a letter dated October 1857, signed by seventeen prominent gentlemen of Braidwood, requesting the local Police Magistrate, Essington King Esquire, to set up a public meeting to establish a subscription library (King was the third son of Phillip Parker King and thus a grandson of Governor Philip Gidley King). A transcript of this letter is the opening record of the Institute's Minute Book. (5) A provisional committee was quickly set up, which efficiently drew up a set of by-laws that were to be put to a general public meeting in January of the new year. (6) In a rather inauspicious start, indeed a sign of things to come, that meeting was postponed owing to a lack of numbers--three times!--before eight subscribers finally inaugurated the Institute on 4 February 1858, in the Doncaster Hotel. The Secretary reported that the subscriber list totaled 22.1.0 [pounds sterling] comprising twenty-one members, each subscribing one guinea for a year's membership. …