Swan River Mechanics' Institute

Established on 21 January 1851, the Swan River Mechanics' Institute was the Swan River Colony's first cultural centre. In time it was to house an extensive and well-used subscription library and a natural history collection including botanical, zoological and mineral specimens. In 1909 it was renamed Perth Literary Institute.[1] The institute was located on the south-west corner of Pier and Hay Streets in Perth.


Its founding president was Surveyor-General John Septimus Roe, who held the position until his death in 1878. Other officers included Joseph Hamblin (chairman), Bernard Smith (treasurer) and Harry Hughes (secretary).[2][3] Roe's botanical collection which was kept at the institute won him membership of the Linnean Society of London. The second president was Luke Leake, who held the position until his death in 1886.[1]

Although ostensibly formed for the educational benefit of the working classes, the Mechanics' Institute was mostly dominated and sponsored by men of the middle class[4] and tended to pursue mostly literary goals as well as providing a recreational facility for that group. Hay describes the activities: "the educated gentry 'improved' the workers through the medium of occasional lectures, discussion classes which emerged from literary meetings, the establishment of a reading room and a project to build a scientific museum".[5] Institute rules prevented discussion of current political issues; in 1856 a carpenter by the name of Joseph Chester was expelled from the Institute for criticising government policies.[6]

The Swan River Mechanics' Institute was the first such organisation formed in the colony, followed closely by the Fremantle Mechanics Institute on 8 August 1851.[7] Other mechanics' institutes were formed in Albany in 1853, Busselton and York in 1861, Guildford (as a branch of the Swan River Mechanics' Institute) in 1862, Greenough in 1865, Northam and Toodyay in 1866, and Bunbury in 1867.[8] Ex-convicts were not accepted as Mechanics' Institute members and hence a number of alternative working men's associations arose in the 1860s to cater for working classes. Membership was by subscription, and required no qualification other than that the applicant be a respectable member of the community.


Early meetings took place at the Court House and at a temporary Reading Room at the Boys' School in Murray Street.[9]

A site for a Mechanics Institute building in Howick St (later Hay St) was gifted by the government and surveyed in August 1851. The land was vested in trustees, and managed by a committee appointed by its members.[5][10] The corner stone for the new building was laid by Governor Fitzgerald on 25 May 1852.[11]

Moves to establish a permanent museum in the city during the 1880s saw the Institute's specimen collections move to premises at the recently closed Perth Gaol in 1892. These collections laid the foundations of what became the Western Australian Museum.

In 1899 the original building was replaced by spacious two storey premises on the same site which included a concert hall with seating for 400 people and a lodge room with accommodation for another 200. The building's architect was William G. Wolf, who also designed His Majesty's Theatre and Hotel in Hay Street.[12] The foundation stone for the new building was laid by the Premier Sir John Forrest on 20 June 1898.[13] The premier was a former Institute president. The West Australian described the building:

[The hall] is a magnificent apartment, 70 feet x 31 feet, with platform, dressing rooms, and so forth. This and all the rooms on the same floor facing the street have French casements opening on to the balcony which surrounds the building. The edifice is in the Italian style of architecture, and the main entrance to the institute is from Hay Street. There are six shops in the building facing the same street, and a block of offices in Pier-street for letting purposes. The room in which the lending library is to be situated is 40ft. x 25ft., and faces Pier street, and the reading room measures 40ft. x 24ft.

At the time of its opening in 1899, the library contained 6,000 volumes and membership was 389.[12] The cost of the building was £10,721.

Perth Literary Institute

Its name was changed to Perth Literary Institute in December 1909[14] and at about the same time its inventory showed the library to contain 564 books related to history; biography, 359; essays, 382; travel and geography, 421; general science, 275; social science, philosophy, and theology, 238; poetry and the drama, 199; serial and miscellaneous, 333; statistical and works of reference, 398; and fiction, 6,274, and a grand total of 9,443 volumes.[15]

By 1951 it celebrated its centenary.[16][17]

City of Perth Library

In 1957 the institute was taken over by the Perth City Council and become City of Perth Library.[18] Soon after the Institute's subscription library was replaced by a free lending library.

The City of Perth library was established in the Council House in 1963 and remained there until 1995.

The Perth Literary Institute building[19] was demolished sometime in the 1970s and the site now includes the Perth Law Chambers.[20]

See also

References and notes

  1. "The Perth Literary Institute". The West Australian. Perth: National Library of Australia. 13 January 1951. p. 22. Retrieved 28 October 2011.
  2. "Domestic sayings and doings". The Independent Journal. 18 April 1851. p. 2. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  3. Malcolm Uren (2006). "Roe, John Septimus (1797–1878)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online Edition.
  4. Brian De Garis (1981). "Political Tutelage". A New History of Western Australia. p. 315. ISBN 0-85564-181-9.
  5. John Hay (1981). "Literature and Society". A New History of Western Australia. p. 606. ISBN 0-85564-181-9.
  6. Jan Partridge (2009). "Mechanics' Institutes". Historical encyclopedia of Western Australia. ISBN 978-1-921401-15-2.
  7. "Fremantle". The Inquirer. 13 August 1851. p. 2. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  8. John Hay (1981). "Literature and Society". A New History of Western Australia. p. 607. ISBN 0-85564-181-9.
  9. "Swan River Mechanics' Institute". The Inquirer. 10 September 1851. p. 3. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  10. "Domestic sayings and doings". The Independent Journal. 5 September 1851. p. 2. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  11. "Domestic sayings and doings". The Independent Journal. 21 May 1852. p. 4. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  12. "SWAN RIVER MECHANICS' INSTITUTE". Western Mail. Perth: National Library of Australia. 20 January 1899. p. 12. Retrieved 22 November 2010.
  13. "SWAN RIVER MECHANICS' INSTITUTE". The West Australian. Perth: National Library of Australia. 21 June 1898. p. 2. Retrieved 21 November 2010.
  14. "STATE NEWS". Western Mail. Perth: National Library of Australia. 18 December 1909. p. 31. Retrieved 22 November 2010.
  15. "NEWS AND NOTES". The West Australian. Perth: National Library of Australia. 24 December 1909. p. 7. Retrieved 22 November 2010.
  16. Perth Literary Institute (W.A.) (1951), A Century of cultural activity : the first hundred years of the Perth Literary Institute, The Institute, retrieved 11 October 2016
  17. Perth Literary Institute (W.A.) (1951), Catalogue : special centenary issue, 100 years service, 1851-1951, The Institute, retrieved 11 October 2016
  18. "Swan River Mechanics Institute". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 18 November 2010.
  19. 1969 photograph shows the building with the verandas removed and used as branch of the Bank of New South Wales
  20. Alison Gregg (Encyclopaedia of Western Australia p. 531) suggests that the Perth Literary Institute 'moved to new premises on the corner of Hay and Pier Streets' in 1931. This conflicts with other sources which state that the Institute had been at that site since 1851 and photographic evidence that the building was extant in 1969.

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