Australian historian admires Uni’s Mechanics’ Institute heritage

Publisher Jim Lowden from Victoria was hosted on his visit by the University’s Dr Martyn Walker, who is an expert on the 19th century Mechanics’ Institutes

THE Mechanics’ Institutes that burgeoned in 19th century Britain left a legacy that includes modern educational institutions such as the University of Huddersfield. They also had equivalents around the English-speaking world, including Australia, where institutes were often vital to life and learning in remote communities.

Jim Lowden and his daughter Bronwen and the Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria

Now, a man who has played an important role in preserving and promoting the heritage of Australia’s institutes has paid a fact-finding visit to the University of Huddersfield, where he was fascinated by its archives and impressed by the way they are preserved and made accessible to the public.

“Huddersfield has demonstrably shown a commitment to explore the history, heritage and ongoing development of the Mechanics’ Institute movement,” said publisher Jim Lowden, following his tour of the town, the University and its Heritage Quay archive.

His home town is Kilmore in the state of Victoria, and its Mechanics’ Institute was established in 1854 by English and Scottish settlers who had had experience of the UK movement.

The Kilmore institute was demolished in the 1970s, but in the 1990s a legal dispute over ownership of its land was the catalyst for the creation of a state organisation named the Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria. Mr Lowden is a life member and serves on the committee. His daughter Bronwen edits its magazine and manages its website.

Huddersfield’s Dr Martyn Walker and the Huddersfield Mechanics’ Institution minutes book

At the University of Huddersfield, Principal Lecturer in Education and Research Dr Martyn Walker is an expert on the 19th century Mechanics’ Institutes and his publications include a book on the subject. He has also lectured internationally and when he presented the keynote address at a conference in Melbourne, he met Jim Lowden.

“I discovered that it was a group of English and Scottish tradesmen who came over with their families and copied what was going on Britain, setting up institutes in the colonies.”

Later, when he heard that Mr Lowden was planning a visit to the UK, Dr Walker invited him to come to Huddersfield, to see the town, the University – including its Ramsden Building, an ornate Mechanics’ Institution of the 1880s – and the archive collection.

“I was privileged to see the first extant Huddersfield Mechanics’ Institution Minute Book and ‘scrapbook’,” said Mr Lowden.

“A quick scan indicated the 1850s Huddersfield MI was a model for technical and further education and cultural development. Clearly, it was needs driven, but there were wider goals, which included teacher training, language and creative skills, industrial research and community wellbeing.”

Most of Australia’s 3,500 institutes were formed on the British model, by British émigrés, but in vastly different circumstances, said Mr Lowden.

“In many cases, an institute was the first needs-based public building in a community, financed largely by community fundraising with an occasional government grant tied to the establishment of a library.

Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria Australia

“These buildings became temporary churches, schools, court houses, council chambers, lodge rooms, professional consulting rooms, bank branches, music centres or whatever until purpose-built premises were erected. Unlike in the UK, Mechanics’ Institutes continued to provide community library services even into the 1980s,” said Mr Lowden.

Today, the surviving institutes – mostly serving as community halls – face a range of challenges – and their sites are often earmarked for redevelopment.

“To survive, each institute has to find its own niche within its own community and the wider region,” said Mr Lowden.

Just as several Mechanics’ Institutes in Britain – such as Huddersfield’s – evolved into universities, several of their equivalents in Australia took the same route. Jim Lowden said there are plans for a 2021 conference for representatives of such “Mechanics’ Universities” around the world, to celebrate the bicentenary of Heriot-Watt University, established in 1821 as the Edinburgh School of Arts.

At the University of Huddersfield, Dr Walker agrees that there is plentiful scope for research collaboration between institutes around the world who went on to become universities.

Originally published on the University of Huddersfield News page:

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