History of the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute

History of the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute

With a lot of new members joining the library, I thought it was time for an introduction to the history of the PMI (or a reintroduction for some of our longer term members) and the history of the PMI is always fun to write about. I hope you enjoy.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. The Prahran Mechanics’ Institute declared itself into existence on the 1st of May 1854. You can read more about that meeting and the speeches made in this post about our 165th anniversary https://institutingthepast.wordpress.com/2019/05/01/the-pmi-at-165/

Although we didn’t have a building until 1857 this foundation date makes us the second oldest library in Victoria. The oldest is the Athenaeum Library in Collins Street, which was founded in 1839. You can see it in the photo below.

Both the PMI and the Melbourne Athenaeum are mechanics’ institutes, so I thought it was worth pausing the PMI’s story here, to briefly explain what a mechanics’ institute is. Firstly, they have nothing to do with cars, mechanics is essentially a 19th century term for blue collar worker. The concept of the institutes originated with Dr George Birkbeck in c.1800 when he gave a series of lectures to a group of skilled labourers about the science behind the tools they used. Dr Birkbeck offered the lectures at a time after normal working hours so workers could attend. This was a period when there really weren’t many educational opportunities, unless you had money. You can see Dr Birkbeck in the image below

These lectures proved to be so popular, that they became the foundation for mechanics’ institutes, the first opened in Edinburgh in 1821 and the second in London in 1823. They were founded by communities to provide educational opportunities for members through facilities such as lectures, concerts, museums, pianos, recreational activities and, most importantly for the PMI, libraries. The concept spread with colonisation in Victoria and by 1900 there were over 1000 mechanics’ institutes across the state. They are also known as school of arts and athenaeums, among other names. You’ll see mechanics’ halls all over Victoria even now. Today a couple of hundred remain in Victoria that are still running as mechanics’ institutes, mainly using the halls for community connection, but only 8 have active lending libraries, the PMI is one of them.

So, to return to the PMI. On the first of May 1854 we declared ourselves into existence at a public meeting. The original aims of the PMI were the Mental and Moral Improvement and Rational Recreation of its Members, by means of Lectures, Discussions, Library, Reading Rooms, Classes, Museum, Philosophical Apparatus &c. At the time Prahran was a village in a swamp, we predate the Town Council.

You can see Chapel Street in 1864 below, so you can only imagine how remote it would have been ten years earlier.

It is essentially important to acknowledge that the PMI was not founded on unoccupied land, the PMI stands on the lands of the Boon wurrung and Wurundjeri people. Indigenous Australians were here thousands of years before colonization and had been protecting and recording their own histories and knowledge long before the arrival of western colonial institutions such as libraries.

The driver behind the foundation of the PMI, and one of the original trustees, was Rev William Moss, a local congregational minister. He also played a key founding role in the Institute for the Blind, the Victorian College for the Deaf and Prahran Mission. Additionally he was the possessor of a very excellent beard, you can see him in the photo below.

The other original trustees were local educationist George William Rusden, local politician Frederick James Sargood (the father of the Sargood who built Rippon Lea) and Dr James Stokes. You can see Rusden and Sargood below, unfortunately we don’t have a picture of Stokes.

So, it’s 1854, the PMI has declared itself into existence, now we needed a patron. We are lucky enough to hold the original letter which states that Governer and Lady Hotham would be pleased to be patrons of the PMI, you can see it below.

So the PMI had an organisation, and patrons now we needed some land for a building. The physical foundation of a mechanics’ institutes was not a simple process, there was a lot of back and forthing with the Colonial Secretary to obtain land, and discussions about who was going to pay for it. Then James Mason enters the picture. Mason was a local publican and one of the first life members of the PMI. He donated land he owned next to his pub for the first PMI building in Chapel Street, and the committee bought some adjoining land. You can see Mason in the photo below.

Now, at the time, there was a lot of discussion as to why he’d donated the land? Some people said it was because it would bring more people and thus money into his pub. Whatever his reasoning, the PMI had the land, and now we needed a building. It took a couple of years to get it out of the ground and you can see some of the receipts and letters for its construction below.

But built it got, and by 1857 the PMI were the proud owners of 259-261 Chapel Street (a site which we still own though the current buildings are more modern).

The building was officially opened on the 26th of January 1857. There was in fact, a Grand Concert to celebrate the opening. We are lucky enough to hold one of the invitations to this event. Its survival is somewhat miraculous, it’s printed on silk so is very fragile. We had no idea of its existence until roughly 2014 when we received a call from a New Zealand engineering firm saying they had found it in a drawer and would we like it. We were absolutely delighted to receive it! As I said it’s very fragile, so it was in pieces when it arrived. Then in 2019 we managed to crowdfund to have it repaired and restored and housed in a custom made box, as the one of the most fascinating pieces of the PMI’s history. You can see the invitation both pre and post restoration below and it illustrates the wide variety of entertainment at the Grand Concert.

So the PMI was open with its new building. The first few years were fairly quiet (we’re also missing our original minute book so we don’t have all the detail- it reappeared in a locked cupboard in the 1980s and then vanished again), the title deeds were lost for a couple of months but they eventually turned up in the possession of a Mr Paige. The first real crisis came in 1868.

The Secretary Librarian at the time was a man called William John Allen. He wrote an anonymous letter to the South Melbourne Standard in which he was most impolite about Reverend Potter who was one of the PMI’s committee members. Now the letter was supposed to be anonymous, but unfortunately for Allen, the editor was a friend of Reverend Potter’s and told him who had written the letter. Allen was dismissed from his position as Secretary, but refused to accept that it was a legal dismissal. This is interesting because the position at time was live in and he refused to vacate the accommodation at the library.

So the committee took the roof off.

Allen, tried to sue the person who took the roof off and the whole matter ended up in court, I’ve included a link to the one of the newspaper articles in the references. Eventually, Allen was awarded damages for lost wages of fourteen pounds, but he didn’t get his job or residence back. This was the first of some ongoing damage to the building. The PMI weathered the crisis and things chugged along reasonably well, but by the 1890s things had fallen into disreapir again. The Secretary Librarian was George Cross, you can see his employment contract below

Unfortunately by the 1890s Cross was getting on in years and wasn’t maintaining either the library or the building. We have several letters in the archives detailing members attempts to contact him, so it’s clear joining was becoming difficult. By 1899 the PMI had 10 members and an almost useless collection. Once Cross was dismissed, with some difficulty but without removing the roof, most of the remaining collection was wet and or moldy and had to be destroyed, the building was also knocked down and rebuilt on the site in the early 1900s. What you see today, is this ‘new’ building, which we still own.

But, by the turn of the century the PMI was on the road to recovery, and the key to that recovery was a person and an Act of Parliament. The person was new Secretary Librarian John Henry Furneaux and the Act of Parliament was the 1899 Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Act no.1617.

The PMI was incorporated under its own Act of Parliament, which at the time protected it because any changes to the rules or governance had to be passed through parliament. This Act propped up the PMI, and it also mandated that a Town Council member must be on the committee, which helped to keep the Council invested and involved in the PMI. The PMI is still incorporated under this Act, and while it has served us well through time, it has become a hindrance rather than a help as we try to adapt and keep up with the ever changing world. You can see the current Act in the references. But to return to John Henry Furneaux. He spearheaded rebuilding the library, both the physical building and the collection and the membership base. He was a dapper gentleman, as you can see below.

He was also very successful. Classes had resumed by 1908 and soon the PMI outgrew its Chapel Street premises, as the PMI established the Prahran Technical School. The Chapel Street building was mortgaged to buy land on High Street (it took them 32 years to pay it off) and a new building was built at 140 High Street, which we occupied from 1915 to 2015, when we moved to our current building.

The foundation stone of 140 High Street was laid in 1915 by Sir Andrew Peacock, when the PMI relocated to their new premises. For his trouble Sir Andrew was presented with a silver trowel. The trowel has quite an interesting story. In 1995 there was a discussion about it’s ownership. At that point Deakin was occupying the High Street Campus of what had been Prahran Technical School, they held all the records of the Tech including the trowel, which they wanted to keep, but we saw it as an important part of our history, so in the end we had a replica made for Deakin and kept the original.

The original was placed in the safe at the Prahran Town Hall until a safe display case could be decided on.

Now this is where the trowel’s story gets really interesting. We didn’t attempt to retrieve it until the 150th anniversary celebrations in 2004. Unfortunately over this nearly ten year period there had been a large number of council amalgamations and the trowel had vanished off the face of the earth.  So sadly the celebration had to go ahead with just a photo of the trowel.

But it doesn’t stop there; in 2005 Di Foster, the local history officer for Malvern, found a key to a safe that she hadn’t been able to open. The safe had come from the Malvern Town Hall clerk’s office. When Di opened the safe, miraculously inside was trowel. You can see it in all its glory below

But to return to the chronological narrative. We left the PMI with a new building and founding a tech school. With the new building open the Chapel Street buildings were leased out raising much needed money for the PMI, as they still are today. Under Furneaux the PMI revived and went from strength to strength with classes and lectures and the lending library. When Furneaux retired in 1938 he left an institute that was as far as it could be thriving.

Even before the new building was opened though it was clear that the PMI didn’t have the funds to run the technical school as well as their library and the other resources that the PMI provided, so they leased the parts of the buildings set aside for the technical school to the Minister for Education for only 20 shillings a year, with the understanding that the Education Department would run the school and leave the PMI enough space on the ground floor to run the library. This lease expired in 1947 and a new lease for 99 years was drawn up with a peppercorn rent (one shilling a year) again with the proviso that the Department of Education would run the technical school. This lease would go on to cause the PMI problems by the late 90s and early 2000s, but I’ll return to that story in a moment.

Essentially through most of the 20th century nothing really remarkable happened. The PMI enjoyed a bit of a resurgence during World War Two, with a lot of new members helping raise money for the war effort. There were also talks over the years about possibly amalgamating with Prahran Council Library, which ultimately came to nothing. Essentially, the PMI continued to continue. The archives are a trove of the minutiae of running a small library, and the small scale history of what was involved. We continued to lease out the Chapel Street shops to raise money for the library, to a series of tenants. Long term tenants included Portmans and Wittner, with a lot of letters back and forth about balconies, awnings etc, you can see some of Wittner plans for redevelopment in the image below.

As for the technical school? The junior part operated until 1971 on the site and the senior design section of the school operated until 1990 when it amalgamated with the VCA. The archives of Prahran Tech became part of Deakin and ultimately Swinburne came to occupy the High Street campus.

The PMI itself was in decline by the 1980s, the library was competing with other forms of entertainment and other lending libraries, including the Prahran Library which was always just around the corner. Membership was well down and the relevance of the PMI was up for debate. Thankfully, the Committee acted. Under Laurie McCalman, who joined the PMI committee in 1980, assessments of future direction were taken and a decision was reached to specialize in Victorian History especially in local histories of places in Victoria. The new direction began with a small collection of local histories and grew to what would ultimately become the Victorian History Library.

In 1984 Bruce Turner became the Secretary/Librarian and it was under Bruce’s leadership that the Victorian History Library really began to take shape. He sourced books from all over the country, even going to far as to write to the Danish consulate about a book about bikes. Our archives are a treasure trove of Bruce’s letters as he chased down obscure titles and promoted the PMI. You can see Laurie and Bruce in the photos below.

Bruce was Secretary/Librarian until 1996 and the new millennium was ushered in by Secretary/Librarians Catherine Milward-Bason and then Tim McKenna.

By the early 2010s the library was desperate for more space in the High Street building.

Swinburne was now occupying the old Prahran Tech site under the original 1947 peppercorn lease to the Minster for Education. As the PMI needed the space and Swinburne were not occupying it under the original terms of the lease we launched a campaign to get our buildings back. After much wrangling, the Minister for Education agreed to vacate the lease under the proviso that the PMI sold the buildings at High Street to Swinburne. The membership of the PMI was consulted and it was ultimately agreed to sell the buildings. So, under Tim McKenna as Secretary/Librarian and Cr John Chandler as President, in 2012 we undertook our biggest change in nearly 100 years, we bought a new building just around the corner at 39 St Edmonds Rd. You can see what it looked like when we bought it below

It took three years, but we moved into the new premises in 2015, 100 years after we’d moved into 140 High Street.

The new building has given us much needed new space as our specialized Victorian history collection continues to grow and adapt. We also have three Associated Groups in the building: The Victorian Railway History Library, The Cinema and Theatre Historical Society and Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria. The library houses a 30 000 plus collection of books, ephemera, journals, electronic resources and more. We currently have three staff. If you haven’t had the chance to visit, and you should we love showing new people around, you can see the library below. We kept the original doors.

So, we’ve actually almost caught up caught up to the present. I started work at the PMI as Collections Librarian in 2016. The last five years have had a few ups and downs for the organisation. I did say this was a post about the history of the PMI, and I think you will probably all agree that we are living in historic times (though I’m sure everyone is as sick of hearing that, as they are of the word unprecedented), so I will talk a little about the last few years, and yes a bit about 2020 and COVID.

The end of 2016 saw a new Secretary Librarian, with Tim McKenna retiring and Steven Haby taking over the roll. There was also some shift in the committee with Steve Stefanopoulos becoming President in 2016, and then Dr Judith Buckrich in 2018, and Dr Michelle Negus Cleary in 2020. Some of the highlights of the last few years were our trip to Clunes BookTown in 2018, a wide ranging events program, regular booksales, running outreach to Gippsland, representing the PMI at conferences, the Victorian History Showcase, writing a new collection policy when we had to move the whole upstairs library to replace the carpet, and just trying to ensure that the PMI continued to go from strength to strength as we worked to preserve and promote the history of Victoria. The staff have been ably supported by the PMI Committee, our dedicated volunteers and the Friends of the PMI.

And then we reach 2020. I won’t dwell on last year for long except to say that we survived it, with the help and enthusiasm from members, volunteers and the Committee. The PMI came through COVID as we’d come through the 1919 pandemic, it hasn’t been easy but we made it work. We managed to pivot to working from home, and still provided an important service to our members, you’ll find a lot material from 2020 on this blog, so scroll back and have a look. We ran online events, provided click and collect as soon as we were able to and reopened the library in November. Despite being closed for a large portion of the year, our members stayed in touch and rejoined, which just highlights how much of a community the PMI is. You can see some photos from our 2020 activities below: my working from home set up, my car packed up to take all the too be cataloged material home, Clementine the Highland Cow (my working from home companion and injection of humour in our newsletters) and some of the volunteers back in the library.

And that brings us up to date. The PMI is dedicated to promulgating and protecting the history of Victoria. A task that becomes even more important as local council libraries under pressure from funding cuts and the desire to keep up with the ever shifting technology jettison some of their nonfiction collections. We exist as a largely print library in a very technology heavy world and stand by our principles that not all information is available on the internet. Our collection is about the small scale of history, it is about tracking down those little stories, tracking down the books that might have had fifty copies printed which reside in someone’s garage. The PMI’s collection is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Victorian and Australian History. Our members include everyone from architects, to archaeologists, from fiction writers to professional historians, from family historians to film and television producers and researchers and in some ways most important of all people who just love reading about history. We have weathered many storms in our 167 year history and with the support of our members, volunteers, Friends, staff and committee we will hopefully still be around in another 167 years. If you ever want to know more about the PMI feel free to email us at library@pmi.net.au

I hope you’ve found this history interesting,



Original PMI rules: https://viewer.slv.vic.gov.au/?entity=IE4842866&mode=browse

William John Allen dispute: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/rendition/nla.news-article108122396.3.html?followup=96029d0e7a8cef9279b6ce83e0dbadd2&

Act of Parliament: http://www8.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdb/au/legis/vic/consol_act/pmia1899284/

Pioneer and Hard Survivor: https://library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=17148

PMI Archives.

Image sources:

Reverend Wiliam Moss: https://rosetta.slv.vic.gov.au/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_func=stream&dps_pid=FL15628565

Frederick James Sargood: https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/about/people-in-parliament/re-member/details/24/834

Melbourne Athenaeum: Ellen Coates https://historicalragbag.com/2017/03/29/mechanics-institutes/

Chapel Street: https://rosetta.slv.vic.gov.au/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_func=stream&dps_pid=FL15707289

Dr George Birkbeck: (c) Birkbeck, University of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Birkbeck#/media/File:George_Birkbeck_1776%E2%80%931841_by_Samuel_Lane_1830.jpg

George Rusden: https://rosetta.slv.vic.gov.au/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_func=stream&dps_pid=FL15630153

James Mason: https://stonnington.spydus.com/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/FULL/WPAC/ARCENQ/7290841/22945292,17?FMT=IMG

JH Furneaux: https://stonnington.spydus.com/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/FULL/WPAC/ARCENQ/7293620/22946738,3?FMT=IMG

Original PMI building: https://stonnington.spydus.com/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/FULL/WPAC/ARCENQ/7309831/22932980,1?FMT=IMG

Bruce Turner outside Prahran Mechanics Institute, published 17 April 1994 -Pic by Robert Banks

All other images from the PMI’s collection

2 thoughts on “History of the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute

  1. Very interesting history. I was a student at Prahran Tech. My late mother (Lilian Scurry) was presented with a certificate for being the longest serving library member. We lived in a Thomas street. Happy memories.

    Liked by 1 person

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