What are Mechanics Institutes?
Mechanics Institutes are the forerunners of public libraries and adult education in Australia. The Mechanics Institute movement began in 1799 when Dr George Birkbeck conducted a series of free lectures for the working men of Glasgow. The term mechanic at that time meant artisan, tradesman or working man. The definition may have become more specific during the Industrial Revolution when workers became increasingly associated with machinery.
The movement spread throughout Britain and its colonies including Canada, South Africa,India and Australia, as well as the United States of America. The movement began in Victoria with the formation of the Melbourne Athenaeum in 1839. The Institutes served as focal points for their communities, offering libraries and reading rooms, opportunities for self education, and other attractions such as lectures, meeting rooms, museums, concerts and various games. Institute libraries were regularly patronised up until the 1950s even though conducted on a subscription basis. The book stock varied with the finances of the Institute committee but where towns were serviced by railways, cases of books could be obtained quarterly on loan from the Melbourne Public Library.
Nearly every town in Victoria had a Mechanics Institute. Institute committee members were dedicated to the improvement of the cultural, educational and social life of the inhabitants of their local communities. With the passage of time and the creation of enlarged educational, welfare, recreational and library facilities, Mechanics Institutes gradually lost their pre-eminence, particularly after World War II. Today there are over 500 still operating in Victoria as halls and homes for local organisations. A growing number of these are members of the Mechanics Institutes of Victoria Inc. (est. 1998). Six Mechanics Institutes in Victoria continue to principally offer a lending library service.
- Directory of Public Library Services in Victoria 2001. Dept. of Infrastructure, Victoria, Local Government Division.
- If the Walls Could Speak: a Social History of the Mechanics Institutes of Victoria by Pam Baragwanath. Windsor, Vic: Mechanics Institutes of Victoria, 2000.
A Chronological history of the Prahran Mechanics Institute
- 1854 Prahran Mechanics Institute is established after meetings convened by Rev William Moss, for the the Mental and Moral Improvement and Rational Recreation of its Members, by means of Lectures, Discussions, Library, Reading Rooms, Classes, Museum, Philosophical Apparatus, &c.. George William Rusden, Frederick James Sargood and Dr James Stokes are appointed as Trustees, and Governor Hotham and his wife accept patronage of the PMI. The PMI library is first established at the schoolroom of Prahrans first church, then at a large room in Chapel Street made available by shopkeeper John Stabb. Local publican James Mason donates a portion of land adjacent to his hotel (the Royal George, on the north corner of Greville and Chapel Streets) provided there would be a respectable building put on it. The PMI also purchased from a Mr Dunnit an additional strip of land adjoining the PMI to the north to extend the property. The Council of the new municipality of Prahran would hold its meetings at the PMI until 1861.
- 1856 Governor Barkly opens the PMIs new building on the abovementioned land (at what is now 259-261 Chapel Street). Schools Inspector Arthur Orlebar gives the inaugural lecture.
- 1861 Prahran Town Hall, containing a new free library, opens on the south-west corner of Greville and Chapel Streets. Prahran Council meetings shift to the Town Hall and the PMI library finds it difficult to compete with the free library.
- 1868 PMI Secretary William John Allen wrote an anonymous letter to the South Melbourne Standard critical of a PMI Committee member, Rev Potter, who had been attempting to have himself appointed Secretary of the Emerald Hill Mechanics Institute. Unfortunately for Allen, Potter knew the publisher of the Standard, Mr Osment, who revealed the name of the anonymous letter writer. Allen was dismissed from the PMI, but Allen refused to leave the Secretarys residence on the top floor of the Chapel Street building. PMI operations were brought to a standstill throughout the year as the saga was played out in the Prahran Court. Ultimately, part of the roof was removed under the cover of darkness so as to make the building unliveable for Allen. The court awarded Allen fourteen pounds instead of the ninety-nine pounds damages he claimed.
- 1870s A School of Art and Design is held for a time but not sustainable as the PMI needed to lease out more space to cover its debts.
- 1899 After a period of decline which saw the PMI in the custodianship of an elderly and unmotivated secretary, a library and building run down and in disrepair and around 10 members the state of the PMI became a local scandal. Prahran council and the remaining original trustees intervened and with the help of Frederick Thomas Sargood created the PMI Act No 1617 which would incorporate the PMI and provide conditions for its proper administration. From this time and for the next 96 years the Mayor of Prahran would be President of the PMI with the rest of the committee to be made up of four Prahran Councillors and four elected citizens.
- 1900 John Henry Furneaux is appointed Secretary of the PMI. He re-establishes the library and arranges for the demolition and rebuilding of the PMI on the Chapel Street site. At this time the then licensee of the Royal George Hotel gives the PMI an additional parcel of land in exchange for access to the alley at the rear of the PMI. He hires an art master named Levick to teach classes that would become the Prahran Technical Art School.
- 1908 The Prahran Technical Art School is registered with the Victorian Education Department.
- 1910 A proposal by the Prahran Council to absorb the Mechanics Institute library into the public library was overwhelmingly defeated in a vote of members.
- 1915 The foundation stone of the High Street buildings is laid by Alexander Peacock in February and the buildings are opened in October by Donald McKinnon. The buildings were designed by architect, Prahran Councillor and PMI Committee member Ernest Horatio Willis. The builder was James Simpson Green Wright. The main building faces onto High Street, Prahran and the rear building faces onto St John Street to the south. The school buildings were fitted out by the PMI, and the administration of the Prahran Technical School handed over to the Education Department from this time. The buildings were leased to the Minister for Education at a peppercorn rental for 33 years to accommodate the school. The PMI Library moved into a room at the rear of the main High Street building and the Chapel Street buildings were commercially leased to provide income for the library.
- 1947 The 33-year lease for the High Street buildings to the Minister for Education expires and the PMI grants the Minister a further lease for 99 years at a peppercorn rental of one shilling per year.
- 1958 A girls section of the Prahran Technical School is opened at Hornby Street, Windsor and junior girls classes are commenced there.
- 1966 The senior section of the Prahran Technical School affiliates with the Victorian Colleges Association and will become a higher education entity firstly known as the Prahran College of Technology then Prahran College of Advanced Education and later Prahran TAFE. Victoria College, later taken over by Deakin University also resided on the campus in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
- 1971 The last of the junior Tech School boys classes is moved to the Hornby Street site. The school would be merged with Windsor Technical School, Prahran High School and Ardoch Windsor High school and eventually closed completely in the 1980s.
- 1974 At the request of the college, the PMI library is moved to the front of High Street building, into space previously occupied by shops that had provided the PMI library with income.
- 1981 The PMI library begins to specialise in the history of Victoria, and Prahran Library agrees to help the PMI to automate its library catalogue and make it available online. At this time the PMI was able to add its holdings to the national database now known as Libraries Australia.
- 1983 A short history of the PMI, Pioneer and Hardy Survivor by Laurie McCalman is published in conjunction with the Prahran Historical & Arts Society.
- 1984 The Minister for Education grants the PMI some further space in the High Street building to accommodate the Victorian history collection.
- 1992 Deakin University moves the School of Design to the Victorian College of the Arts and Swinburne University takes over the campus.
- 1993 Swinburne University carries out a refurbishment of the High Street building facade. Previously the building had been painted mission brown from top to bottom. The paint was stripped back to expose the red brickwork and the architectural features painted heritage colours.
- 1996 With the amalgamation of the Cities of Prahran and Malvern to form the City of Stonnington, the PMI Rules are amended to reconstitute the committee. From this time there would be only on municipal council representative on the PMI committee.
PMI Secretary Librarian Catherine Milward-Bason organises a Prahran Technical School reunion which was held at Prahran Town Hall. Out of the reunion came an oral history project which would lead to a published history of the school a decade later.
- 2004 The PMI celebrates its 150th anniversary by lectures from present and former Secretary Librarians and Member for Prahran, Tony Lupton MP who launched the 150 years gallery and announced a grant for the establishment of PMI Press, a publishing arm of the library.
In the same year, the main High Street building is added to the Victorian Heritage Register as being of architectural and historical significance.
- 2004 An international conference of mechanics’ institutes is held at Prahran and the proceedings would be the first publication of PMI Press.
- 2005 The PMI Act is transferred from the portfolio of the Minister for Education to the Minister for Local Government.
The 90th anniversary of the High Street building is celebrated by the installation of an MIV heritage plaque (no. 11 in the series). Ms Chris Gallagher of Heritage Victoria unveils the plaque.
- 2007 Design for Living: a History of Prahran Tech is launched at the Prahran Town Hall by Terence Lane of the National Gallery of Victoria. The book was commissioned by the PMI, written by Dr Judith Buckrich and published by PMI Press.
The PMI minute books 1861-1984 are restored with the assistance of a City of Stonnington grant.
- 2008 The City of Stonnington provides an upgrade to the PMI online catalogue, enabling it to automate its loans systems. For the first time PMI members can check their records and renew items online.
- 2009 Having little alternative, PMI membership votes to sell the High Street buildings to Swinburne University. The PMI library will remain at 140 High Street for up to five years.