History of Mechanics' Institutes


A community organisation consisting mostly of local volunteers that provides and maintains a venue and facilites to run community classes and events. They are the precursors of adult education and libraries in Victoria.


The nineteenth century term “mechanic” meant artisan or working man. The Mechanics’ Institute movement began in 1800 when Dr George Birkbeck of the Andersonian Institute in Scotland gave a series of lectures to local mechanics. The lectures were free and proved popular. They led to the formation of the Edinburgh School of Arts (1821) and the London Mechanics’ Institute (1823). The movement spread quickly throughout the British Empire.


The first Victorian Mechanics' Institute was the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute established in 1839 and renamed The Melbourne Athenaeum in 1873. The Athenaeum continues to operate a library, theatres and shops in its original building at 188 Collins Street, Melbourne.


From the 1850s, Mechanics' Institutes quickly spread thoughout Victoria wherever a hall or library, or a school was needed. Nearly a thousand were built in Victoria and 562 remain today. Their history is described in, If the Walls Could Speak: A Social History of the Mechanics' Institutes in Victoria written by Pam Baragwanath, published by The Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria with the aid of a Centenary of Federation grant in November 2000.


In April 1998 a group of Mechanics' Institute representatives met to exchange information and ideas on the future of Mechanics' Institutes in Victoria.


This conference, hosted by the Kilmore Mechanics' Institute and entitled Mechanics' Institutes: The Way Forward, highlighted opportunities and difficulties experienced by the Mechanics' today. At the close of proceedings, participants voted to form an association of the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria.


In the past each Mechanics' Institute, Athenaeum, or School of Art was known not only as the most important centre of adult education in its district, but it was also the area's hub for social and cultural activities. The amalgamation of Shires across Victoria and the support of the Department for Victorian Communities have created new opportunities for the Mechanics' Institutes to again play a central role in their various communities.


From time to time people from Mechanics' Institutes or who have an interest in Mechanics' Institutes and their ilk gather from all across the globe as part of the Mechanics' Worldwide Conference.

Read more about past and future Conferences here.



The Melbourne Athenaeum in Collins Street

Hobart's Wesley Hall, home of Australia's first Mechanics' Institute - the Van Diemen's Land Mechanics' Institute



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