If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven past dozens of solid-looking buildings in the suburbs or in remote country towns, proudly declaring themselves ‘Mechanics Institutes’, without having a clue what they were about. I was intrigued to discover they were an innovation that exploded out of Scotland in the early 19th century and spread like wildfire across the English-speaking world.
When John Birkbeck advertised a free lecture on technical subjects in Edinburgh on October 16th 1821, an astonishing crowd of 450 men turned up. It’s certain he had no idea what he’d launched and that by the end of the century, all across the globe, eager workmen would flock to one of 9000 Mechanics Institutes to improve their skills as artisans.
The roots for the phenomenon lay in a quiet Christian group known as the Quakers. They were driven by the idea that it was important to nurture God’s gifts in everyone and that learning should be available to all – rich and poor, girls as well as boys.
John Birkbeck had been raised in his Quaker family to believe that education, like faith, should be relevant to daily life and put to good use. All this was radical, because in the Britain of his day, education was available only to a privileged few.
The genius of the Mechanics Institutes was that they were locally driven and funded. They bore the Quaker stamp, becoming proudly known as the ‘the poor man’s university.’ They were revolutionary because they challenged the established education system. For a small subscription, they opened the door for working men to self-educate through access to books, newspapers and journals as well as talks by citizens with some expertise.
I was amazed to find a Mechanics Institute had even popped up in 1872 at the top end of the Darling River, a 1000 kms from most centres of learning. The establishment in Bourke boasted a library of 2000 books for a mostly itinerant population of a few hundred. Not bad for an outback town which had begun ten years previously with two pubs and not much else!
In frontier Australia’s resource-poor areas, these self-education halls provided a meeting place between the pub and the church. The clergy often played a key role because they were immigrants, with education in science, literature and philosophy, who were eager to teach. Some said these learning hubs provided the glue that brought the communities together.
It’s a little-known fact that in 1830, the feisty Presbyterian clergyman John Dunmore Lang actually created a sea-borne college on the good ship Stirling Castle, which was the forerunner of Mechanics Institutes in NSW.
On the long outward voyage from Scotland via the Cape of Good Hope, fifty-four ‘Scotch mechanicks’ and their families were schooled by two ministers and three ‘professors’ headed for the Australian College. These shipboard classes were directly linked to the world's first mechanics' institute in Edinburgh and have been described as being among the earliest and most unusual efforts in Australian adult education.
The idea was that they should carry on this voluntary education in the colony. Historians have noted that this collection of stonemasons, bricklayers, carpenters, joiners and plasterers all made significant changes, both in the quality of colonial workmanship and the moral tone of communities largely shaped by convict culture.
Lang was so passionate about his strategy of recruiting artisans of good character to improve the skills base and quality of life in the colony of NSW, he made the 45,000 km round trip to England eight times and wrote tens of thousands of words to promote immigration.
Almost single-handedly, he recruited twenty shiploads of Scots people of faith over the next decade, who challenged determined efforts to recreate the elite ‘squire and parson society’ of England. In the process, they helped shift the penal settlement to a more egalitarian society.
The Rev John Bonar reported the Scot had proved the most industrious settler in the colony and ‘also the most willing to contribute of his substance for supporting the cause of Christ.’ (He was probably a Scot himself!)
Although the Mechanics Institutes were initially designed for men, women soon played a role in fundraising to sustain the library and improve the facilities. Some did more. In the 1890’s in the space of a decade, Bourke’s librarian Catherine Euphemia Croker had energetically expanded the library to 10,000 books.
On top of that, her prodigious kindness for those in need had so deeply affected the whole community that Catholic, Protestant and secular citizens all turned out to honour her with one of the town’s largest funerals. Laid to rest in 1898 at 46 years old, some said she had worn herself out with her selfless service.
Public subscription raised a significant memorial to a woman who embodied the spirit of ‘the poor man’s university’, begun decades before, half a world away in Edinburgh. She worked to make learning relevant to daily life and put to good use.
By this time there were 750 Institutes in NSW alone. Philip Candy noted, the 'institute movement in Australia was more widespread and arguably more influential at a population level, than in any other part of the British Empire.'
I like to think the Bible on Catherine’s monument bore testament to the long and honourable history of men and women of faith who have given themselves to making education widely available, even in the remotest parts of the world.
As the 20th century progressed, many Mechanics Institutes closed their doors or took the broader title ‘School of Arts’. With their effort to provide accessible, practical, grass roots education, these humble buildings were forerunners of the local public library, the modern community centre and formal systems of adult and technical education.
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