21 February 2009

Mechanics' Institutes I - the Victorian history


The Mechanics’ Institute movement began in 1800. Dr George Birk­beck (d1841) of the And­ersonian Institute in Glasgow gave a series of lec­t­ures to local mechanics (ordinary skilled workers) about new tech­nology. The lectures were extremely popular because Birkbeck offered them without fees, at the time when formal education was mostly unavail­able to workers.

The movement’s first organisations were the Edinburgh School of Arts (1821) and then spread south to the London Mechanics’ Institute (1823) and the rest of England. English Buildings, for example, showed the beautiful Banbury Institute building, which provided instruction on the working people of north Oxfordshire. Finally the movement spread quickly throughout the British Empire, Australia’s first Mechanics’ Institute being established in Hobart as early as 1827.


Birbeck wanted to give the workers access to an education for its own sake, not for vocational purposes. But historians seem in disag­ree­m­ent about other peoples’ motives. Clearly many industrial­ists thought that more know­ledgeable workers would result in increas­ed industrial and economic efficiency. And many Victorians, of a more religious bent, hoped that these institutes would become centres for moral and social reform in the working classes. At its height in popularity, between 1850-1914, the Mechanics’ Institute spread right across Britain and the British Empire.

The sites were dedicated to providing education and self improvement opportunities to workers, especially in the technical sub­j­ects. They provided librar­ies, reading rooms, day or evening lectures, museums, halls, games room and meeting places.

Games room, Ballarat

It was a voluntary self-help association, set up for the workers of a town, assisted by a few leading re­sidents who had money and education. The workers had to raise, by means of small weekly fees, a fund to be expended in the instruction of the members. And the Inst­it­utes could also be funded by local indus­t­rial­ists who would benefit from hav­ing skilled workers. Trustees and commit-tee members were dedicated to the improvement of their local communities. Education in science and lit­er­­ature was perfectly acceptable; subjects like religion and politics were not.

The Australian movement really got going in Victoria, as Mechanics Institutes of Victoria Inc blog has shown. The format­ion of the Melbourne Mechanics Institute in Collins St in 1839, renamed The Mel­bourne Athenaeum in 1873, was a landmark event. The Athenaeum, a large impressive building, still operates a library, theatres and shops in its original building today.


From the 1850s, Mechanics' Institutes quickly spread across Victoria. While there were substantial and very attractive Institutes built in Melbourne and the large regional cities, the small rural towns’ Institutes were probably more important. Clearly the Institute served as a centre for adult education for those communities that had no other outlets for technical education or decent libraries. And it's reasonable to think that they served as a cultural centres for rural populations.

I was originally very interested in the architecture of the rural Institutes: classical Greek, renaissance revival, Australian-rural etc. Each Institute seemed to be small, free standing and perfectly formed for its purpose.

above: Geelong, first built in 1856 and later enlargedbelow: Leongatha, built in 1912

Ararat was declared a municipality in 1858 when its first newspaper was published. Work on a hospital, water supply, cem­etery, botanical gar­dens, mechanics institute, church and courthouse began the next year. Even before the post office was established, the Mech­anics’ Ins­titute was one of the first facilities built in the new town in 1859. Through taxes and subscription, wealthy Kyneton was able to build many impor­tant public buildings, incuding its Mech­anics Ins­tit­ute and library 1857-8. This blue stone Inst­it­ute was not flashy, but it was solid and respectable. Beaufort's old library was ass­oc­iat­ed with their Mech­an­ics' Instit­ute, built quite attractively in 1863. Eagle­hawk’s Mechan­ics' Instit­ute opened in 1883. A red brick Institute was built in Creswick in 1892. The Rushworth Museum located in the Mechanics Institute building in High St, built as late as 1913.


But how radical was the idea of workers’ education? The concept of providing lectures and reading, primarily for the purpose of self-improvement in workers who had been moved out of the formal education system at the minimum leaving age, was itself radical. And free education and public libraries were particularly valued in Central Victoria. This part of Australia had enjoyed a more radical history; people valued democ­racy on the ex-goldfields: education for all, Mechanics’ Institutes and public lib­raries, trade unionism and, soon, the vote. But did the Mechanics’ Institutes invite guest speakers to address the locals on workers’ rights and universal suffrage, for example? Was there any opposition from educated people about standards and suitability? Could women join the classes? Did the workers receive recognition from their bosses for having completed classes in their own time? My feeling is that the more educated part of the population may have funded, designed and organised the Institutes for their own purposes.

These Institutes, the forerunners of adult education and the public library system in Victoria, gradually lost their significance. By WW2 the buildings started to be used as libraries, historical societies, small theatres or tourist bureaux. Amazingly 562 still remain today in Victoria.


For a useful history of the movement, see Mechanics' institutes and school of arts in Australia.

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