10th April: Dr. Sarah Comyn (UCD) ‘Every Station Open to All’? Mechanics’ Institutes on the Victorian Goldfields

Published: Posted on

When: Wednesday 10th April, 5-7pm

During his speech at the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute’s soirée in 1862, Richard Heales (M.L.A) captured the sense of the mechanics’ institute as a symbol of home when he argued that ‘nothing bound us to the old country like its institutions, and what would bind us to the new country [but] institutions such as the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute?’1 Created as adult educational institutions committed to the moral improvement of working men, the mechanics’ institutes emerged in Great Britain in 1821 before proliferating in the colonies to become thriving social and cultural hubs. The creation of these institutions follows a similar trajectory throughout the Colony of Victoria from the 1850s, where the establishment of a mechanics’ institute shortly followed the discovery of gold. Colonial newspapers frequently commented on the ‘settling’ role they envisaged these institutes playing in their goldfields towns. Encouraging social activities and a sense of community, the mechanics’ institutes came to play a crucial role in ameliorating the itinerancy inspired by the gold diggings. Studying these institutes as symbols of settlement in gold-rush communities, this paper will demonstrate how the institutes became a way for the nascent colony to imagine itself in the image of the metropole while shaping their political future and cultivating their own colonial culture. While mechanics’ institutes were celebrated for their communal spirit, this paper also acknowledges the systems of racial inclusion and exclusion created by the communities formed around these colonial institutes.


1 The Star, Tuesday 6 May, 1862, 2