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The Struggle to Establish a Mechanics’ Institute at Moorabbin

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Moorabbin Shire Hall, 1907.

The struggle to establish a Mechanics’ Institute at Moorabbin started with Thomas Bent. In 1905 the shire was considering the need to expand its facilities at the Shire Hall to accommodate a growing number of workers. However, a major problem was finding the money for the enterprise. Tommy Bent had not been a regular attendee at Council meetings because of the demands of parliamentary duties but he did attend at South Brighton in December 1905. It was while speaking about road expenditure he digressed to suggest that a Mechanics’ Institute could be connected to the desired municipal building at a total cost of £600; four hundred pounds being contributed by the council, one hundred by residents and one hundred being provided by the government.

At the time Councillor Scudds from Mentone asked Bent to clarify whether the £400 was to be spent on the Shire Hall or on a Mechanics’ Institute. Bent responded that only part of the council contribution should be spent on the Mechanics’ Institute but it was necessary as every place had an Institute. [1]

Some members of the South Brighton community reacted immediately to Bent’s suggestion and called a public meeting to discuss how the money could be raised. Thirty ratepayers attended the meeting chaired by Dr Joyce with Frank Saunders acting as secretary. By the close of the meeting £40 was promised and at a subsequent meeting an additional £20 was raised. [2] At the first meeting of Council in February 1906, councillors were informed by letter that the residents had raised the required £100 and it would be passed across to the council on the condition that the Mechanics’ Institute was connected to the Shire hall. [3]

Twelve months later the councillors had resolved the earlier squabbles and agreed that the shire hall was to remain at South Brighton. [4] Given this situation and encouraged by the promise of Premier Bent that the government would contribute another £100, the residents of the area resolved to increase their donation to the building program by a further £100. [5]

With the completion of the new building the council saw the need to elect a committee to manage the room to be set aside for the use of the Institute as a library. The composition of this committee they suggested should be made up of nominated councillors and elected representatives from the district. This clearly was not the wish of the majority of the Institutes existing committee. They saw themselves as the officially elected committee of the Moorabbin Mechanics’ Institute and resented any interference by the council

Before the end of February 1908 some members of the Institute requested that a deputation lead by Mr McKittrick, the chairman of the Institute’s committee, accompanied by five other members, be received by the council to clarify some issues. [6] McKittrick believed things had become a little mixed and he wanted to clear the air a little.

McKittrick pointed out that residents had subscribed £200 to the Shire Hall building fund with the expectation that a library would be included for their use. Moreover, the subscribers had elected a committee which had subsequently been recognized by the government as the committee of the Moorabbin Mechanics’ Institute since they had already received a government grant. The proposal of council, therefore, to call a public meeting to elect members for a committee to control that portion of the building used as a library was unnecessary. Moreover, they believed the idea that a committee of members drawn from the shire as a whole and the council was inappropriate, given their financial contribution and work done to get the institute up and running.

Frank Saunders strongly pressed the cause of the Institute arguing that it was only fair that the council release to the institute the room “half the size of my bedroom” for a library, at a nominal rent. Given the money the Institute committee had raised he did not think they were asking too much. [7]

Not all councillors were convinced by Saunders’s argument. Councillor Ferdinando from Sandringham recognized the financial contribution of the Institute to the building of the Shire Hall but pointed out that the rate payers of the shire also contributed substantially. In his view the property was a public building which the council would have to maintain in the future. Therefore he believed the district as a whole should select their representatives to sit on a committee of management made up of three councillors and twelve district elected members. His proposal failed to get sufficient support from his colleagues and finally in March 1908 the Institute was given one room measuring 15 ft by 16 ft, in the Shire Hall where a library could be conducted. [8]

The next month Frank Saunders as secretary of the Institute wrote four separate letters to the council. The first noted the Institute’s acceptance of the council’s offer of a room in the Shire Hall with an annual rental of 1/-. The second asked that a memorandum of agreement be drawn up setting out the conditions and terms upon which the lease was based, while the third asked approval to place a piano in the public hall for hire, with the revenue going to the Institute’s committee. The last requested a refund of the 10/- that had been paid for hall hire when a concert took place to raise part of resident’s contributions to the cost of the hall. [9]

The letter of acceptance from the Institute of the council’s offer was noted as received by the councillors, the matter of the piano was deferred to allow further enquires to be made and all charges for use of facilities prior to January 1, 1908 were cancelled. It was the letter requesting that a memorandum of agreement be drawn up that stimulated extended discussion. Why was it necessary? Wasn’t the Institute prepared to take the word of the council? The council took the word of the Institute so they should take the word of the council. Finally it was resolved to inform Mr Saunders that no statement of agreement was required. If the arrangements proved satisfactory they could be renewed.

Mr Saunders, writing to the Council in May, provided information about the charges they proposed for use of the piano in the hall and the council approved them. Five shillings would be charged for a function ending prior to 10.30 p.m., with a surcharge of 2/6 if it went on till midnight. A ball would cost 10/6.

In the correspondence listing proposed charges for use of the piano in the hall Mr Saunders took the opportunity to raise once again the nature of the agreement regarding the lease of the library room. While acknowledging the council as the trustees of the building he wrote that the Institute could not admit that the council had any power or control over the room during the Mechanics’ Institute tenancy. This strong stance sparked a discussion between the councillors as to whether the institute should be given the key to the room. Several councillors were in favour of passing the key across, as Cr Scudds pointed out the Institute had paid the rent and he believed they were being given “mightily little for the money they had subscribed.” Councillor Penny agreed as he believed the Institute should be encouraged in their goal of creating a library. Councillor Burgess demurred, saying that it was never the intention of the council for the Institute to have sole use of the room. After all, the Institute had not bought the room, they were only renting it, he claimed. Councillor Ferdinando thought that as the library was only to be opened twice a week it was a dog in the manger principle to close it for the rest of the week to the public. [10]

Earlier, the shire secretary, Alexander Smith, had alerted the council to a problem if the Institute was given sole occupancy of the room. What would happen to other regular tenants if they were denied access? Where were lodge and committee meetings to be held? One solution suggested was for the council chamber itself to be made available for these organizations, but this did not gain universal favour. Councillor Burgess was strongly against this solution because his experience of lodge meetings was that men smoked and did not care where they spat. Other councillors also indicated their opposition to the council chamber being let for meetings. However, it was agree that the stage potion of the large hall could be used when not engaged for other purposes. [11]

Finally the Institute was given the key to the room and the library was officially opened in July 1908 by the president of the shire, Councillor Small. He informed the modest crowd in attendance that the Institute had 50 members, there were 800 volumes on the shelves and the library would be open to members on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. [12]

Barely a week had passed before a letter was received by the council from the Chief Secretary’s Department asking about a government grant of £200 given to the Institute as a contribution toward the cost of library accommodation. The Institute had passed this money across to the council and it was used towards the erection of the municipal buildings. Because of the grant the Chief Secretary asked that the council sign an agreement undertaking to set apart a portion of the Shire Hall premises solely as a free library and reading room, together with offices and conveniences, for a period of ninety-nine years. Once again the council declined to sign an agreement. They could give the institute the free use of the room but they could not bind themselves for ninety-nine years, was the viewpoint of Councillor Scudds. [13]

The Chief Secretary wrote to the Council asking for the reasons why they were refusing to sign the agreement in the terms he detailed. The councillors saw the agreement as one sided and unfair as it required the council to relinquish control of two or three of their rooms for 99 years. Their immediate reaction was to inform the Chief Secretary that they could not sign the agreement in any shape or form but were cautioned by Councillor Barnett to consider the issue in greater depth. Perhaps they did not understand what was being asked? The outcome was to form a committee of three to explore the issues and report at the next meeting of council. [14]

The committee recommended that council inform the Chief Secretary that they were prepared to lease the library to the Mechanics’ Committee at a rental of 1/- per annum, at the pleasure of the council, and if at any time the council required the room, the institute’s committee would be provided with equivalent accommodation. [15] This statement was sent to the Chief Secretary

A few weeks later Frank Saunders when forwarding a cheque to the council for the hire of the hall protested about the unjust charges being levied against the Institute. He believed the hall should be made available free of charge on all occasions when it was required for functions in connection with the library. The justification for this attitude was “the £400 placed in the hands of the council for the building of the Mechanics’ Institute and free library.” Cr Mills pleaded, “Can’t we have something new?” [16] Tired of the constant bickering, the council proposed to provide half the cost necessary to building an additional room to accommodate the needs of the Institute, but a new player in the struggle entered the debate.

On February 18, 1910 the Premier of the State, the Hon J Murray, with colleagues visited Moorabbin and inspected the facilities made available to the Institute. In the course of the inspection some sarcastic comments were made on the allotted rooms. The councillors were stunned by what they perceived as ‘ungentlemanly’ behaviour of the Premier. Councillor Scudds thought the Premier was most unfair in that he was almost charging the council of misappropriating public money. He recalled that when Sir Thomas Bent, Premier at that time, granted them £200 towards the erection of the shire hall there was no indication that the money came from a fund set aside for the erection of libraries. However, to resolve the issue the council decided to grant temporary use of the Shire Hall as a reading room until such time as other arrangements could be made. The longer term solution suggested was to erect another room for the use of the Institute with half the cost being met by the council. [17]

In September 1910 the committee of the Institute informed council they were prepared to meet half the cost of building an additional room at the Shire Hall for their use. Once this work was completed the Institute said they would not require the use of the hall as a reading room which had proved inconvenient for their members. Councillor Ferdinando thought the Institute was somewhat cheeky to come forward with this proposal as the council had been generous in granting the use of the hall when not otherwise engaged. He did not favour further spending on the Shire Hall. Councillor White agreed with his colleague because in his view the building was large enough for council’s requirements and the building was meant to be a shire hall not a mechanics’ institute. [18]

Two and a half years later Councillor Scudds moved a motion in council that the Chief Secretary be informed that the council was prepared to hand over to the Government or the committee of the Institute £200, or to expend that amount on the erection of a library and to grant 60 feet of land for that purpose. [19] The following month the ire of the councillors was raised when they were informed the government was withholding money owed to the shire until the council erected a library acceptable to the government and the committee of the Institute, a library which included a chimney at an additional cost of £10. Cr Eggleston thought the government’s position was untenable in law, Cr Scudds called it blackmail, Cr White said it savoured of the old days of the inquisition and the thumb screws and Cr Ferdinando expressed the view the council was being got at for £200, so why hesitate about allowing it to be £210. Finally the council agreed to proceed on the casting vote of the president. [20] On July 21, 1913 council accepted the tender of T Harrison at £223.15.0 for erection of library at Moorabbin. [21]

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Aerial view showing Institute Building, c1930.

The task of formally declaring the new Institute open fell to Cr Ferdinando as president of the shire. In his address he reflected upon the trouble the council and the Institute had had and believed while not all were satisfied with the outcome it was the best possible in the circumstances. Mr McKittrick, the chairman of the Institute’s committee, remarked that there had been difficulties in securing the building but the committee had only been fighting for what they thought was right. He hoped that the hatchet would now be buried. [22]

From the time Sir Thomas Bent first proposed the establishment of a mechanics’ institute at Moorabbin until the opening of the new building on land in close proximity to the Shire Hall eight years had passed. By December 1913 the Institute subscribers finally had a building that matched their requirements; two rooms with dimensions of 14x10 and 20x16 respectively, nicely furnished, and well lighted and ventilated. The struggle was over.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. Moorabbin News, December 23, 1905.
  2. Brighton Southern Cross January 13, 1906.
  3. Moorabbin News February 10, 1906.
  4. See http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au  “Push for a New Shire Hall, 1907”, Graham J Whitehead.
  5. Moorabbin News, January 26, 1907.
  6. McKittrick, Saunders, Callen, Black, Collens, Gregg and P White.
  7. Moorabbin News, February 22, 1908.
  8. Brighton Southern Cross, March 7, 1908.
  9. Brighton Southern Cross, April 11, 1908.
  10. Moorabbin News, May 9, 1908.
  11. Moorabbin News, April 11, 1908.
  12. Moorabbin News, July 18, 1908.
  13. Brighton Southern Cross July 25, 1908.
  14. Moorabbin News, August 8, 1908.
  15. Moorabbin News, August 22, 1908.
  16. Moorabbin News, October 10, 1908.
  17. Moorabbin News, February 16, 1910.
  18. Brighton Southern Cross, September 12, 1910.
  19. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book April 17, 1913.
  20. Moorabbin News, May 10, 1913.
  21. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, July 21, 1913.
  22. Moorabbin News, December 13, 1913.

Article Cat. Historical Features
Article Ref. 256

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