at Prahran Mechanics Institute

[Christine Worthington]

Christine Worthington talks about the Prahran Mechanics Institute

We have all seen Mechanics' Institutes dotted throughout the Victorian countryside. Christine Worthington, who is the Promotions and Publications Librarian of the Prahran Mechanics' Institute provided some interesting history about Mechanics' Institutes in general and the Prahran M.I. in particular.

The Mechanics' Institute movement was attributed to Dr. George Birkbeck who was a professor of Natural Philosophy at the Andersonian Institute in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1800 he gave several lectures about the science behind mechanical tools he used in his research. The lectures being free and held in the evenings were very popular amongst tradesmen, who were referred to as mechanics. At that time education was only available to the wealthy and the clergy.

The lectures developed into facilities dedicated to worker's education and in 1821 the Edinburgh School of Arts (technical arts) opened and was followed by the London Mechanics' Institute in 1823. Soon hundreds of Institutes were formed throughout the British Isles with the notion that education influenced morality. Temperance Societies were very much in favour of Mechanics' Institutes. At least whilst people were at the lectures they were not drinking. Lectures were of interest to all classes of society and the Institutes were arguably the beginning of modern adult education.

Mechanics' Institutes were also called School of Arts and Athenaeums. They spread throughout the British Colonies being especially popular in North America and Canada. Today, most of the Public Libraries in Canada were originally Mechanics' Institutes. Two of the most famous institutes in the world are the San Francisco M.I. and the Boston Athenaeum which is a huge opulent building.

In Australia, the first Mechanics' Institute opened in Hobart, Van Diemen's Land in 1827, only 6 years after the first one started in Edinburgh. They were very popular in Queensland and in New South Wales where the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts which is still standing, opened in 1833. In Victoria the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute, later called the Athenaeum opened in 1839.

The Institutes opened up as the population spread, with money raised by public donation but as membership fees were not enough to cover costs, free educational lectures soon changed to 'Penny' book readings and lectures on popular topics. Examples were 'Has the introduction of gunpowder to the Art of War been more beneficial than injurious to mankind?' and 'Do writings of Byron have a moral or immoral tendency?' The halls were also hired out to community groups to earn more money.

In 1860 the government introduced grants which helped the Institute become more than just reading rooms and also enabled more Institutes to be built. The government recognised that not only did the M.I.'s provide libraries, they were important as community centres.

About 500 halls remain in Victoria today in varying states of repair, but only 6 remain active. These are the Melbourne Athenaeum, the Prahran M.I., the Ballarat M.I., the Berwick M.I., the Footscray M.I. and the Maldon Athenaeum.

The Prahran Mechanics' Institute opened in 1854 when Prahran was merely a village in the middle of a swamp. Rev. William Moss had a significant role in its beginnings and the original trustees were Frederick James Sargood, George William Rusden and Dr. James Stokes.

Like most Institutes, there have been times when closure was imminent. In 1899 P.M.I. had only 10 members. Around this time Harry Furneaux was elected as Secretary and under his care, the P.M.I. was transformed.

The original building in Chapel Street was mortgaged in 1915 to buy land and build at 140 High Street, Prahran, where the Prahran Technical School operated for 55 years. This building is now part of the complex which houses Swinburne University of Technology. The building at 259/261 Chapel Street has been rented out, providing a steady source of income.

In the 1970's the P.M.I. Committee decided to concentrate on books on Victorian History and it remains a lending library. A grant enabled it to open the P.M.I. Press and 7 books have been published on Victorian history topics. Having commemorated its 150th anniversary in 2004 the future of the P.M.I. looks bright.

Visit the Prahran Mechanics Institute website.

(The above is a report on Christine Worthington's address at the General Meeting on 14 July 2007)

Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)

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