During his speech at the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute’s soirée in 1862, Richard Heales 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?’ (The Star, Tuesday 6 May 1862, p. 2.)
Created as adult educational institutions committed to the moral improvement of working men, the mechanics’ institutes emerged in Great Britain in the 1820s 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 alleviating the anxiety associated with goldfields itinerancy. Studying these institutes as symbols of settlement in gold-rush communities and investigating their contribution to the early closing labour movement, 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.
Dr Sarah Comyn is a Lecturer and Ad Astra Fellow in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin. Recent and forthcoming publications include Political Economy and the Novel: A Literary History of “Homo Economicus” (Palgrave, 2018), Early Public Libraries and Colonial Citizenship in the British Southern Hemisphere (Palgrave, 2019; with Lara Atkin, Porscha Fermanis and Nathan Garvey), and Worlding the South: Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture and the Southern Settler Colonies (Manchester University Press, 2021; ed. with Porscha Fermanis). She is currently working on a monograph entitled A New Reading Public: The Mechanics’ Institute on the Victorian Goldfields.