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I have been fascinated during my researches into colonial covers, particularly of Victoria, when the term Mechanics’ Institute crops up, but this is a first where it actually appeared on a postal item. The item is a newspaper wrapper which has a pink ‘Half Penny Stamp Duty’ printed stamp of Victoria postmarked by an unframed duplex ORBOST/ ( )/ 94/ VICTORIA with the barred numeral ‘1203'. It is simply addressed to the Mechanics’ Institute, Ballarat (Figure 1)

The Mechanics’ Institute, evolved in Britain during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and the movement was established to provide education to illiterate working class men, or ‘mechanics’, as those who worked in the newly established factories were called. They were self-funded, locally initiated and independent, often being established and financially supported by philanthropists, or newly rich factory owners and manufacturers. The primary activities of the Institutes were to present lectures; to establish both lending and reference libraries; to offer classes; and to provide a morally uplifting experience for the lower orders.

Whatever the principal reasons behind the movement, these Institutes did provide the working class with the opportunity to gain at least an elementary education that was not elsewhere available to them. Growing rapidly within Britain during the 1820s, the movement spread overseas and was soon established throughout the British Empire. Whilst the first Mechanics’ Institutes in Australia were begun in the 1820s in Tasmania, Ballarat’s Institute was not established until more than thirty years later.

Until the discovery of gold, the Ballarat district was populated primarily by the indigenous people, together with a scattered population of squatters and their workers, with a small township at Buninyong. It was eight years after the discovery of gold and the influx of thousands of prospectors before the Mechanics’ Institute was established in Ballarat. There were a number of reasons for this delay. The first instance was the miners were focused on their search for gold, to the exclusion of alternative preoccupations, as well as it was a population that fluctuated with each new gold discovery, and the district lacked any real form of attachment or institutional order.

Many of those who built their wealth from gold, or by success in establishing businesses to service the diggings, settled permanently in the Ballarat district. As the district became more settled, and particularly once females joined their husbands and fathers on the diggings, the situation gradually changed. During the mid 1850s there were at least two informal Institutes, or lending libraries, on the goldfields. One of these appears to have operated from within a local newspaper office.

From 1856 onwards there were a number of failed attempts to establish a formal Institute, for it was not until 1859 that the Ballaarat (as originally spelt) Mechanics’ Institute was finally established. The new Institute initially operated out of rented premises, in Main Street Ballarat East, which at that time was the bustling commercial centre of Ballarat. The Ballarat Fire Brigade loaned a room to the Institute committee, for use as a library and meeting room. Because there were no existing buildings in Ballarat suitable for use as a Mechanics’ Institute, one of the initial preoccupations concerned the selection of a site for the erection of a permanent Institute building. A decision was made to build on a block of land that the colonial government had set aside for an Institute, in Sturt Street. This is the site on which the Institute stands today.

The newly established Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute was able to obtain a Victorian government grant-in-aid funding. J.B. Humffray, the institute’s first president was an influential local member of Parliament, as was Peter Lalor, of Eureka fame. It is probable that these two members influenced their fellow parliamentarians to vote for both the grant of the land and the allocation of the funding. It gave the promoters of the Institute the necessary official encouragement to enable them to garner further financial backing from the local community. The lecture hall occupied the entire upper level and it was estimated that when completed it would accommodate 1,250 persons sitting. The completed building, built at a cost of £3,400, was opened with a Grand Bazaar in late December 1860.

As a measure of ensuring that expenditure was kept to a minimum, speakers for the lecture series were predominantly drawn from the local community, as these men usually did not charge a fee.
Admittance to the regular lecture series was free to members of the Institute, with the general community charged a small fee. The numbers attending these lectures fluctuated with the reputation of the speaker, but often reached 700. One speaker was Mark Twain who was on a lecture tour of Australia. Less well known lecturers would attract smaller audiences of only 350.
A modern-day photograph of the building’s front with Minerva perched on the roof is shown in Figure 2.

I acknowledge that this paper was extensively abridged from a remarkable website produced by Jennifer Hazelwood, a PhD student at the University of Ballarat. This paper does not do adequate justice to her highly researched paper.

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