A New Reading Public: The Mechanics’ Institute in the Colony of Victoria

Discussing the merits and importance of establishing a Mechanics’ Institute in Melbourne in 1839, an article in the Port Phillip Gazette argued for the “great practical benefit” of the mechanics’ institutes, in particular for “the working classes of these colonies, and especially the youth of every class” (6). Urging the public for support in this endeavour, the writer pleaded that

they who are possessed of talent let them cultivate these for the rational and useful field of display which now opens itself to their emulation; and they who, devoid of talent and influence, are enriched in worldly possessions, let them be liberal, let the powers of Mammon and literature aid together the diffusion of knowledge, and this will quickly supersede all other powers, it will, in itself, become the stay and the pride of the country.

This appeal to the public in aid of creating a Mechanics’ Institute in the growing settlement of Melbourne, points to the cultural and communal significance of these institutions. The Gazette article proceeds to make a case for the moral imperative of such an institution in the burgeoning colony:

The diffusion of useful knowledge thus sent through the minds of the people would raise the tone of morality to a high standard, and impart to the understanding of the operative classes, a zest after mental and practical improvements, which could not fail of contributing largely to the general progress of the district. The medium through which it is sought to dispense the beneficial results of scientific acquirements, is one which will be alike open to the high and the low; the knowledge to he gained, will be useful as much to the man of commerce and the agriculture, as to the mechanic and the labourer; and upon the rising generation, it must exercise an influence essentially contributive to the future favourable prospects of the Colony.

This clarion call for the “diffusion of knowledge” echoes Henry Brougham’s “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge” created in London in 1826, and it is this transnational network of (sometimes embryonic) literary and reading publics that this case study aims to examine.

This research explores the role that mechanics’ institutes played in developing gold-rush communities in Victoria and how they contributed to a broader Australian colonial literary culture. To that extent I want to establish and examine the selection of texts that formed their collections and readership; what influenced the choices of texts; how the texts were transported to Australia; and what sort of judgments and critical practices the institutions initiated through their lecture and popular readings series. Central to this case study is an expansive and inclusive understanding of literary value as an aesthetic and imaginative practice. Crucial questions to be answered are: what role does literature play in establishing a community, and what sort of ideological work, if any, did it perform in these emergent communities?

The creation of these institutions follows a similar trajectory throughout Victoria from the 1850s, where the establishment of a mechanics’ institute shortly followed the discovery of gold. The Stanley Athenaeum in the small country town of Stanley, Victoria, is just such an example: “Gold was discovered in Stanley in late 1852” (Craig 2) and by 1856 the population had grown enough to necessitate the establishment of a Public Room. A sum of approximately “three hundred pounds had been raised from donations given by residents” to erect such a room, which was officially opened on Sunday 4 January 1857. In 1863 it was decided to a form an Athenaeum and according to a letter written to the Chief Secretary in March 1863 “a committee of ten gentlemen was appointed as a Committee of Management and a suitable building…valued at two hundred and fifty pounds” reserved for these purposes (Craig 10). Having recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, the Athenaeum’s collection of nineteenth-century literature offers a unique picture of a developing colonial readership during the height of the Victorian gold rush.

Rather than a wide-ranging survey of all the institutes, my research aims to excavate the transnational literary history of Victoria through select examples. This will involve the close analysis of letters, journals and scrap-books, unpublished papers, gold-rush era newspapers and the community histories, minute books and catalogues of a select group of literary institutions in the crucial decades of the gold rush:

  • The Sandhurst Mechanics’ Institute (1854)
  • The Beechworth Athenaeum  (1856)
  • The Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute (1859)
  • The Stanley Athenaeum (1863)
  • The Chiltern Athenaeum (1866)

Early findings from colonial newspapers suggest that Australian mechanics’ institutes based in the gold fields – and the people who supported them – were preoccupied with the possibilities of moral improvement and social cohesion that the institutes could offer. While an interest in science and developing technologies is certainly reflected in the lectures and classes offered, it is unclear whether these topics were given the same priority as in British MIs. Mechanics’ institutes established in the Victorian colony during the gold rush became symbols of civic identity and pride, where gold fields no longer only represented economic success through the ‘diggings,’ but cultural success too. An article in the Bendigo Advertiser in 1856 greeted the establishment of a mechanics’ institute in Sandhurst as

mark[ing] a new era – when the fallow intellect of the Goldfield is to be brought into a state of culture, and we trust with the richest results. As individuals deeply interested in the prosperity of this community, we cannot but hail such an event with the liveliest satisfaction.

They aimed to be places of sociability through the popular readings and soirées they held; places of learning through the libraries, lectures and classes they offered; and finally, places of moral improvement and respectability as represented by their committees of management and the rules that governed the institutions.

Ultimately, this research asks, are there correlations between economic expansion during the gold rush and cultural expansion and development? Did, as a Port Phillips Gazette article urged in 1839, “the powers of Mammon and literature aid together the diffusion of knowledge”? If so, what types of cultural, political and economic values were imported and created by these literary collections and what role did reading publics play in the development of the Victorian colony?

Works Cited

Anon. “Domestic Intelligence. – MECHANICS INSTITUTION.” Port Phillip Gazette 6 Nov. 1839: 6. Web. 19 Apr 2017 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article225005345>.

Anon. “THE BENDIGO ADVERTISER.” Bendigo Advertiser (Vic.: 1855 – 1918) 8 August 1856: 2. Web. 20 Apr 2017 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article88051965>.

Craig, Geoff. F. The Stanley Athenaeum. Stanley, Victoria: G.F. Craig, 1999. Print.

 Sarah Comyn is a postdoctoral fellow with the ERC-funded project, SouthHem. Her research interests are in Romanticism; Victorian literature; and the transhistorical relationships between political economy and literature. She is currently researching the cultural and literary history of the Mechanics’ Institute during the gold rush in colonial Victoria (Australia) as part of her postdoctoral fellowship at University College Dublin.

Images provided courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

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