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Mordialloc Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library

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Mechanics’ Hall in Albert Street Mordialloc c1940. Courtesy City of Kingston, Leader Collection.

In the 1870s and later many small towns in Victoria established Mechanics’ Institutes where members of their communities could borrow books, read newspapers, listen to lectures, hear politicians advocating the adoption of their views. The Institutes also were sometimes venues for local police courts. At various times towns such as Cheltenham, Moorabbin, Carrum and Mordialloc, now forming part of the City of Kingston, had institutes.

In September 1878 a public meeting was held in Thomas Rennison’s Hotel in Mordialloc and the participants elected five men as trustees for a government grant of land on which they planned to erect a Mechanics’ Institute. The men concerned were James Ferguson, Richard Bloxsidge, Joseph Hill, Hugh Brown and Thomas Winter. This information was forwarded to the Secretary for Lands, who noting that the trustees had requested the reservation of Allotment 3 of Section 4 as a site for a Mechanics’ Institute, granted the request on the understanding that the fencing surrounding two Aboriginal graves, if still on the site, should be preserved and the ground planted. [2] It was there in what became Albert Street that the Mechanics’ Institute built a hall identical in design to that used in the construction of the Shire Hall at Moorabbin. It was this building, in Mordialloc, that subsequently became the centre of community activities for over eighty five years.

According to the Rules of the Institute the library, the delivery of lectures, discussions and the formation of classes were the means of achieving the objectives of the organisation, namely the mental and moral improvement and rational recreation of its members. But no political or religious controversy was permitted. Membership was open to individuals prepared to pay three shillings half yearly, payable in advance. Those failing to renew their subscription within one month ceased to be members. Life membership was available to persons who contributed five pounds in one payment and in return were exempt from further subscriptions [3]

The Institute was governed by an elected committee of twelve, plus five trustees. Half the committee was obliged to retire after serving two years but were eligible for re-election. From the seventeen members a president, two vice presidents, treasurer and secretary were elected. [4] The complete committee of management was to meet at least once every month with five members constituting a quorum. Any member failing to attend three ordinary meetings without reasonable cause was deemed to have vacated his place. [5]

Into the Institutes’ reading room no member was permitted to bring a dog nor was a person permitted to smoke. For a first offence the penalty was not to exceed five shillings, but subsequent offences were subject to expulsion, indicating the serious nature of the offence. The library was organised in two sections. One was a reference collection from which books could only be consulted in the reading room. The second section concerned books that could be borrowed, being a circulation library. Borrowed book could be kept for up to twenty one days and late returns attracted a fine of three pence per week. The librarian was to maintain a register of all books borrowed and returned and to present this information to the Management Committee at its monthly meetings. [6]

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Floor Plan of the Mordialloc Mechanics’ Institute. Courtesy City of Kingston, Kingston Collection.

Beside the provision of a library and a reading room the Institute was the venue of a variety of important community meetings. In December 1889 the election of six commissioners for the Carrum Irrigation Trust took place at the Institute. [7] A few years later, in 1892, local people assembled to protest against any further extension of time being granted to the Beaumaris Tramway Company for the construction of the third section of the Sandringham – Mordialloc tram line from Cheltenham to Mordialloc. The company had already received a two year extension from the Moorabbin Council and was asking for a further extension of two or three years. If this concession was granted, the community feared, the line would not be built and the predicted increase in Mordialloc population that the line was expected to bring would not be achieved. [8] The following year, in December 1893, a public meeting, was called by the President of the Shire, Cr David Abbott, to plan and approve an approach to the Railway Commissioners asking for better facilities for people travelling between Mordialloc and Melbourne, that excursion rates be provided, that the excessive rates currently charged for carrying racehorses be reconsidered and return tickets be valid for three or four days from the date of issue . [9] Seven years later a public meeting called for a larger goods’ shed be built at Mordialloc because of the large tonnage of goods being received and sent from that location. If it was not done it was claimed excessive spoilage would be a problem. In addition, they wanted unfairness of fares charged on the Mordialloc line compared to other lines to be addressed. They also insisted there was an urgent need for an engine shed to be erected at Mordialloc. [10]

On 18 May 1904 the Premier, Thomas Bent, drew a crowd of about one hundred electors to the Mechanics’ Institute where he spoke about several issues including religious education in public schools, the development of dairy farming in the Western district and the pension scheme for public servants. He suggested the government would settle the argument about religious education through holding a referendum and promised whatever its conclusions they would be implemented. Teachers who rejected the outcome on conscientious grounds could withdraw from giving lessons, leading prayers or conducting hymns, he said. As a politician he drew attention to the success of the program in Western Victoria where large estates were voluntarily cut up to facilitate the introduction of dairy farming. The meeting closed with three cheers for the chairman of the meeting and the call for ‘one for good old Tommy Bent’ from the back of the hall. [11]

Prior to 1920, residents of Mordialloc and Mentone were living in the Shire of Moorabbin but many were unhappy with the administrative arrangements. After a period of agitation, deputations, and protests, in the following year, land was excised from the Shire of Moorabbin to form the new Borough of Mentone and Mordialloc. Rooms at the Institute provided the temporary accommodation for the officers of the new municipality. [12]

It was in February 1924 that the Mordialloc and Carrum District High School commenced in the Mordialloc Mechanics’ Institute with about 120 students and five teachers. [13] Early in the following year a meeting was called by the principal and chairman of the School Council asking parents and friends to form an association to support the work of the school. Mr McCully, the principal, pointed out that the government only provided the bread and butter, the jam must be provided by parents. The school needed a piano, pictures, football ground, tennis courts, and showers amongst many other things. Cr Beardsworth of Chelsea and Cr Dave White of Mordialloc moved and seconded the motion to form a Parents and Friends Association.

The Mechanics was also the venue for a variety of entertainments over the years. The Hawthorn Sunflower Minstrels entertained an almost capacity audience in October 1891. [14] At the beginning of the following year a subcommittee of the institute held a succession of fortnightly evening entertainment programs with the aim of raising funds but also inducing the general public to become subscribers. [15] In 1895 a female attendant for the ladies dressing room was engaged to assist at all entertainments held at the institute. [16] The Moorabbin Choral Society was invited to present one of their attractive cantatas in aid of the institute’s funds. Unfortunately the event did not draw the large audience expected. However it was reported that those present thoroughly enjoyed the programme which was full of fun and good music. The total attendance at entertainments for 1896 was 700 and a substantial amount of money was added to institute funds. [17] In the following year eight members of the committee and five subscribers took part in a complimentary minstrel entertainment for members and particularly their children. [18] Generally, in spite of a few adverse comments, it was felt that the whole entertainment program had been enjoyed by the majority of people.

Several published reports provide insights into the financial state of the institute. At the beginning of 1892 the institute was carrying a debt £145.12.8d which the committee wished to reduce. A donation of £10 was received from the Shire Council and £138.18s.10d from the Victorian Government. During that year £38 was spent on purchasing books for the library bringing the collection to 700 volumes. Money was also spent on crockery, tables and a copper boiler. The conclusion for that year was that the institute was in a ‘prosperous condition’. [19] Five years later the balance sheet showed receipts of £41.15s.7d and an expenditure of £38.13s.7d. The excess was used to reduce the institute’s debt to £41.9s.4d The number of books on the library shelves had increased to 1584 with 24 being added that year. Subscribers to the institute had reached 54. [20]

Money was not the only concern of the officials. There were occasions where the committee had great difficulty in finding members willing to join them and assist in providing leadership. It was reported that committee members felt disheartened due to the lack of support provided by the subscribers even though the president, Cr Benjamin, in his annual report for 1897, expressed some optimism. He believed that the following months would witness a doubling of subscriptions from community members wishing to gain access to what he described as a fine library. [21]

The Moorabbin Shire Council decided to join with the Institute’s committee in a deputation to the Premier to ask for financial assistance to improve the Institute. They had a plan to enlarge the Institute at about the cost of £400. [22] At the 1912 annual meeting it was reported that the hall had been completely renovated and refurbished with new chairs. [23]

The annual meeting of 1917 drew the attendance of only four individuals, all committee members. Lack of interest at the time may, in part, be explained by the impact of the First World War on the local community but it was insufficient in itself. The institute lacked the vitality of the past. The annual statement was not audited. The committee failed to meet on three of the scheduled four meetings in 1917 because of the lack of a quorum. The president in his speech warned that there was a strong possibility that the fine building and equipment would go to ruin because of lack of interest by subscribers. [24]

In the following years the institute continued to struggle. In 1925 the Mentone-Mordialloc Council was approached by institute officers with the proposal that the Council take over responsibility for the institute. Not all councillors were in favour of this suggestion. Cr Sibthorpe said he could not see that the municipality was going to gain any benefit from the transfer. Councillors Denyer, White, Blanche and Imes disagreed. White pointed out that the building had a very low valuation and the grounds were worth £3000 while the overdraft was only £140. Blanche said he could not understand any councillor opposing the municipality receiving a gift of a building worth £3000. In his view all public halls should be owned by the municipality. Finally the majority of councillors agreed to the scheme and directed their solicitor to arrange the transfer of title. [25]

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A poor quality image of the Mordialloc Court Room 1961. Courtesy City of Kingston, Leader Collection.

In 1960 attention was given to what was the former Mechanics’ Institute building. For some time ‘dingy rooms at the rear of the building’ had been used for the weekly sittings of the Mordialloc Court but some councillors were saying the situation was unsatisfactory and urging that a new court house and hall be constructed on the old site. By September 1960 the Public Works and Crown Law Department had completed plans and specifications of the proposed new Mordialloc Court House and Hall [26] and in 1963 the old Mechanics’ Institute building was demolished to be replaced by a new court house and the Allan McLean Hall. [27]

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New Mordialloc Court House and Community Hall nearing completion in Albert Street, 1965. Courtesy City of Kingston, Leader Collection.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. Pam Baragwanath & Ken Jones, These Walls Speak Volumes, 2015. There were a few institutes established before 1870.
  2. Correspondence, Office of Lands and Survey, 19 October 1878.
  3. Rules of the Mordialloc Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, Rules and Bye-laws, 1889. page 3.
  4. op cit. page 4.
  5. op.cit. page 6.
  6. op.cit. page 9.
  7. The Argus, 9 December 1889.
  8. The Argus, 28 May 1892.
  9. Mornington Standard, 14 December 1893.
  10. The Argus, 29 July 1901 p9.
  11. The Argus, 19 May 1904.
  12. See, Graham J Whitehead, Borough of Mentone and Mordialloc: Battle of the Wards, Kingston Historical Website.
  13. The Argus, 20 February 1924.
  14. Mornington Standard, 29 October 1891.
  15. Brighton Southern Cross, 6 February 1892.
  16. Oakleigh Leader, 19 October 1895.
  17. Caulfield and Elsternwick Leader, 8 February 1896.
  18. Caulfield and Elsternwick Leader, 26 August 1899.
  19. Brighton Southern Cross, 6 February 1892.
  20. Oakleigh Leader, 6 February 1897.
  21. Oakleigh Leader, op.cit.
  22. The Argus, 5 July 1910.
  23. Moorabbin News, 3 February 1912.
  24. Moorabbin News, 3 February 1917.
  25. Carrum Borough Gazette, 16 May 1925.
  26. Mordialloc City News, Thursday, 15 September 1960.
  27. Mordialloc City News, 28 November 1962.

Category: Historical Features
Reference Number: 630
Date Created: 16/02/2016
Date Revised:

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