In 19th century coal mining towns, reading materials were an unaffordable luxury for many. For this reason many townships established a Mechanics’ Institute, where for a small annual subscription members could borrow books, newspapers and periodicals.
In New Lambton at a public meeting in September 1891, a committee was elected to establish a Mechanics Institute. Initially they used a small room in the council chambers, but were eager to obtain their own building. In 1899, after considering five possible sites, the committee applied to the government for land in Regent St opposite the public school. Their request was granted and construction commenced in April 1901. The building opened in September and Ralph Snowball’s photo justly recognises the substantial fund-raising efforts of the women in the committee.
With a spacious reading room in a new building, membership increased rapidly. When the Hand of Friendship Hotel on Regent St closed in 1906, the Institute purchased the large hall behind the hotel, dismantled it, then re-erected it behind their existing building. The hall was officially opened in April 1909, and for decades following was a well-used venue for social, political, religious, community and family events.
The provision of reading material by the Institute continued, but that role was to change after the formation of Greater Newcastle Council. In 1949 council began negotiations with mechanics’ institutes in Newcastle “with a view to taking them over for the establishment of free libraries.” In New Lambton this offer was tersely rebuffed by the Institute secretary who wrote, “We are in a sound financial position, and giving the residents of this suburb a satisfactory and efficient service.” But the in the long run a paid subscription model could never compete with a free library service. In 1972 council purchased the Institute’s land and constructed New Lambton branch library, opening it in September 1973. The Mechanics’ Institute may be gone from the site, but its function of providing reading material remains in place.
The article above was first published in the September 2021 edition of The Local.
What’s in a name?
Mechanics’ Institutes were part of a broad movement of adult education whose origins can be traced back to the School of Arts in Edinburgh in 1821. Similar institutions then burgeoned throughout Britain and the British Empire, and went by many names – School of Arts, Mechanics’ Institute, Literary Institute, Miners’ Institute, and many other variations.
In New Lambton, the name “Mechanics’ Institute” and “School of Arts” was used interchangeably – they were different names for the same organisation. This can be seen in the newspaper reports of the building opening in September 1901, where some newspapers refer to the “School of Arts”, while others refer to it as the “Mechanics’ Institute”.
From about 1927, mentions in the newspapers of the New Lambton Mechanics Institute as an organisation (yearly meetings, activities, reading material) seem to transition to “Literary Institute”, whereas mentions of the “Mechanics Institute”mainly refer to the venue being used by other groups.
Within a year of the establishment of the Mechanics’ Institute as an organisation, there was an eagerness to press on to obtain land and a building for their use. At a public meeting on 29 August 1892, Thomas Croudace spoke, saying that …
“Respecting Mechanics’ Institutes, he remembered the time when such institutions took the place of public schools; but although the schools were now plentiful, yet the necessity for Mechanics’ Institutes still existed, as education did not cease with youth, but went on and on until the day of death. He urged the addition of debating classes and other adjuncts to fit and prepare members for their position, as citizens, politically and socially. He would also like to see the ladies become members. Mr. Alexander Brown had kindly offered them £100 to purchase a lot of land as a site for their projected building, and efforts were being made to obtain endowment from the Government on this amount towards erecting a building. He urged upon all present, who were able, to become members and swell the numbers, which would substantially assist the committee. By educating themselves and their young people they were building up a great nation, and very often their greatest men rose from the ranks of the working classes; and he earnestly requested all to unite in promulgating the great agency of education.
Mr. T. WALKER, MP, next addressed the meeting in regard to the necessity for Mechanics’ Institutes, saying that …
“These opened up avenues for future greatness which were incalculable, and he hoped all would embrace the opportunity, as there was no better companion than a good book. He referred to the possibility of having enjoyable intercourse with the ancient writers who were models to the 19th century in the way of art. Books of travel, history, adventure, and science in all its phases were all open to them, and should be faithfully perused by them. They should encourage debating, which tended to brighten the mind and sharpen the intellect. The ladies should also join, and they would find the benefits inestimable. Education divided the civilised from the barbarian, and they should always be widening the gulf.”
Despite the initial enthusiasm for a building and the establishment of a building fund, the institutes plans languished for a few years, until a public meeting in August 1899 debated five possible sites, and voted to make application to the government for an allotment in Regent Street, opposite the public school. The request was granted in February 1900.
Construction of the building in Regent St was in progress by April 1901. The construction can be seen in the background of a May 1901 photograph of a flag raising ceremony at New Lambton Public School.
The official opening ceremony of the building took place on Saturday 7 September 1901, and was opened by the Hon John Perry, minister for Education. In the speeches at the opening, Mr. George Watson, the institute secretary gave a brief history of the movement to erect their own building …
“Having commenced a move in 1892, the committee stuck together through trying times, and aided by the ladies, who arranged concerts and socials, together with a bazaar, the substantial sum of £205 was got together for the purpose of erecting the building on the site granted by the Minister for Lands. The tender accepted was one by Mr. William Knight, whose price was £324, but the extras brought the total cost up to £445 12s 6d. The committee wished to publicly thank all who had contributed towards the building fund. Mr. E. G. Yeomans was the architect for the building, which is of wood. The main room is a commodious one, measuring 40ft x 25ft. The side rooms at the entrance, one to be used as a games room, and the other as a library, each measure 18ft x 12ft, the lighting throughout being provided by kerosene lamps of great brilliancy.”
The photos of the Mechanics Institute by Ralph Snowball in September 1901 are listed on the cover of Box 263 of his glass plate negatives. It is from here that we know that the people posed in the photo are the committee of the School of Arts/Mechanics Institute.
After the Hand of Friendship Hotel closed in 1906, the owners Tooth and Co advertised the sale of the land and buildings in February 1907. One of the buildings for sale was a hall behind the hotel, described as …
“The CENTENARY HALL, 35 x 60, built of iron, and lined throughout, with Stage, Dressing Rooms, and Seating complete.”Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate , 7 November 1907
There were no offers to purchase the hall initially, but November 1907, the Mechanics’ Institute voted to acquire the building, with the purchase …
“… subject to removal … to its new site”Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 5 December 1907
Specifications for the removal of the hall were approved in January 1909, and the hall was rebuilt at the rear of the existing institute building in March 1909. A ball was held in the new hall on 23 April 1909 to celebrate the official opening in its new location.
In December 1922, the block of land where the Mechanics’ Institute was located was officially dedicated to the trustees of the Institute and a land title granted in Vol-Fol 3444-116. How is this different from the gazetted “reservation” of land in 1900? I’m no legal expert in land conveyancing, but it seems that the “reservation” of land in 1900 was more of a temporary allocation of land by the Crown for a particular purpose, with the Crown retaining ownership, whereas the 1922 “dedication” was a permanent allocation, with ownership of the land being granted to the institutes’ trustees.
The Mechanics’ Institute facilities were used over the years for a huge variety of community and social functions, such as …
- Australian Labour Party meetings
- Pensioners group
- Happiness Club
- New Lambton Public School Parents & Citizens
- Cricket club
- Protestant Federation
- IOOF Lodge
- Loyal Orange Lodge
- Gymnasium club
- Soccer club
- Public School performances
- Chess club
One of the more memorable uses of the institute came in July 1953, when severe cracking of the boys classrooms at the public school due to mine subsidence, meant that the students had to be moved, with two of the classes were relocated to the Mechanic’s institute. The damaged school building was demolished in March 1954 and new classrooms erected in its place.
The rise of free public libraries
The transition from Schools of Arts and Mechanics Institutes providing reading materials, to free public libraries is eloquently dealt with in a 4 January 1949 article in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate. In an article entitled “Newcastle rises from the book cemetery”, Eric Sparke writes in part …
An American expert who inspected Australia’s library facilities in 1934 said, justly, that our libraries were “cemeteries of old and forgotten books.” Since the decline of the once vigorous Schools of Arts and Mechanics’ Institutes at the turn of the century, Australia’s progress to “free” libraries has been slow – painfully slow.
The Australian must be made to realise that the free public library is not just a collection of books for avid fiction readers and erudite scholars. The scheme aims to provide books for all – the apprentice fitter and turner, the business man, the housewife.
An English migrant told me he was appalled at two things in Newcastle when he came here to live – 6 o’clock -closing and the absence of public libraries. It was no sublime-ridiculous touch when he linked beer with books. On the contrary, he proved that libraries had become so much part of his everyday life that he expected to have them on tap, like his beer, when he wanted them.
Newcastle Pubic Library, with a staff of 13, has branches at Waratah and Wallsend. Others will follow as soon as practicable. Waratah branch has 1260 adult members and 1700 children. It was opened in September. Wallsend, open only three weeks, has 700 adults and 1000 children. As yet, the main library, which will be built into a lending and reference centre of which the city will be proud, is cramped in a small room in the City Hall.
With the building of the library wing as the first objective of the Cultural Centre Appeal, the day when Newcastle’s reference library will be open to John Citizen is at least in sight.Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 4 January 1949.
|Article Date Event Date
|4 Feb 1891
3 Feb 1891
|Joseph Oldham, standing for municipal election states that "fe was also working for a Mechanics' Institute, and provision was made for a start in a room in the new council chambers."
|28 Aug 1891
26 Aug 1891
|New Lambton Council meeting: "Alderman ERRINGTON referred to the necessity for the establishment of a mechanics' institute in the borough. Alderman WILLIAMS moved, That the Acting-Mayor convene a public meeting of the ratepayers to discuss the question."
|4 Sep 1891
3 Sep 1891
|Public meeting in New Lambton Council Chambers, to form a Mechanics' Institute. The first committee is elected. "Such interest was manifested in the movement that there remains not the slightest doubt but that a strong institute will shortly be established in the borough."
|11 Sep 1891
9 Sep 1891
|New Lambton council meeting, correspondence received "From Mr. J. W. Oldham, hon. secretary of the Mechanics' Institute, asking for the use of the small room as a reading-room and library, and the council chamber for committee meetings." Request granted.
|12 Oct 1891
|New Lambton Mechanics' Institute opened. Trustees appointed: T. Croudace, J. Thomas, T. Hitchcock, and G. Errington.
|16 Mar 1892
|Meeting of the members of the New Lambton Mechanics' Institute "to consider the offer of Mr. Alex. Brown of a sum of money to be expended in purchasing an allotment of land as a site for a suitable building."
|30 Aug 1892
29 Aug 1892
|"A TEA and social in connection with the New Lambton Mechanics and Miners' Institute … in Lathlean's Temperance Hall" followed by a public meeting in the council chambers, in support of the Institute obtaining their own building.
|13 Jul 1893
11 Jul 1893
|"Half-yearly meeting of New Lambton Mechanics' Institute … members now numbered 28 … sum of £9 14s banked to the credit of the building fund … the matter of obtaining the consent of the Government to resume an allotment as a site for an institute building was in the hands of Mr. T. Croudace and Mr. N. Melville, M.P."
|22 Nov 1899
20 Nov 1899
|Public meeting in connection with the establishing of a Mechanics' Institute. "Considerable discussion took place over the selection of a suitable site for a building. Five situations were proposed, and after an, exhaustive vote had been taken, it was finally decided to make application to the Minister for Lands for an allotment in Regent-street, next to Williams' property; this positon being considered as a very central one."
|3 Feb 1900
|Portion 1263 of Newcastle Pasturage Reserve gazetted as a site for the New Lambton Mechanics' Institute.
|7 Sep 1901
|Advertisement for the opening of the New Lambton Mechanics' Institute building.
|9 Sep 1901
7 Sep 1901
|Official opening of New Lambton Mechanic's Institute building in Regent Street.
|2 Feb 1907
|Advertisement for the sale of the "Centenary Hall", the hall behind the former Hand of Friendship Hotel on the corner of Regent St and Russell St. "The CENTENARY HALL, 35 x 60, built of iron, and lined throughout, with Stage, Dressing Rooms, and Seating complete."
|7 Nov 1907
6 Nov 1907
|"A special meeting of the members of the New Lambton Mechanics' Institute was held last evening, for the purpose of dealing with a recommendation from the committee regarding the purchase of a hall, the property of Tooth and Co. Mr. W. Coomer considered the purchase would be a good investment, as the hall would provide ample accommodation for the purpose of holding socials and entertainments." The motion to purchase was carried unanimously.
|11 Nov 1907
|Regarding the Centenary Hall, recently purchased … "The hall will remain in its present position for the time being, but the intention is to have it re-erected on the land at the rear of the institute fronting Alma-lane."
|5 Dec 1907
|"Some time ago the trustees of the institute paid a deposit on the purchase of the Centenary Hall, subject to removal, and the bazaar is being held to obtain funds to pay the balance of the purchase money before removing the building to its new site."
|15 Jan 1909
14 Jan 1909
|Half yearly meeting of the New Lambton Mechanics' Institute: "The chairman stated that it was the intention of the members in the near future to remove the hall to the site of the institute, which would then be a valuable addition to the property, and which he hoped would increase the membership. Specifications, as drawn up by the committee for the removal of the hall, were read by the secretary, and it was resolved to have the work proceeded with as soon as possible."
|26 Mar 1909
|"A meeting of the New Lambton Mechanics' Institute committee was held in the reading room on Tuesday evening for the purpose of taking into consideration the most suitable way of celebrating the re-opening of the hall, which has been removed from its previous site, and is now being rebuilt at the rear of the institute."
|26 Apr 1909
23 Apr 1909
|A ball to celebrate the opening of the hall recently moved to the Institute's site.
|8 Dec 1922
|Portion 1263 of Newcastle Pasturage Reserve dedicated as the site for a Literary Institute.
|29 Aug 1935
28 Aug 1935
|In a New Lambton Council meeting discussing a possible new Town Hall. Alderman McLuckie notes that "The Mechanics' Institute is an eyesore."
|4 Jan 1949
|"Newcastle Rises From The Book Cemetery", an article by ERIC SPARKE on the rise of the free public movement in Australia and in Newcastle.
|16 Mar 1949
|"Newcastle Council decided to re-open negotiations with schools of arts in Newcastle with a view to taking them over for the establishment of free libraries."
|13 Apr 1949
|Letter from G.MOORE, Secretary, New Lambton Literary Institute, in response to Newcastle Council's offer to take over schools of arts in the suburbs in order to provide free libraries … "The trustees have not agreed to meet the council on this matter. We are happy to state that we are in a sound financial position, and giving the residents of this suburb a satisfactory and efficient service."
|26 Apr 1949
|"The Lord-Mayor (Ald. Quinlan) was rebuffed today by Carrington School of Arts Committee which informed him that its members were 'quite happy as they were.' New Lambton School of Arts Committee also told the Lord Mayor that it had considered his proposal and 'was not interested'."
|25 Jul 1953
|"Following the removal of about 240 children yesterday from the 74-year-old boys' building at the school because of cracks in the walls, an officer of the Mines Department said there were old mine workings under that area. Two classes are being transferred to the girls' department. two to the Literary Institute Hall opposite the school, one to the infants' department and one, with its teacher, to New Lambton South School."
|16 Aug 1968
|Appointment of Trustees to New Lambton Literary Institute: Edward Lewis, Oscar William Hyland.