Today the PMI turns 165.
On the first of May 1854 a meeting was held in Prahran, the rules for the new Prahran Mechanics’ Institute were gazetted and the PMI declared itself into existence. William Moss (local congregational minister) moved that the institute should be established at once.
The original objectives of the institute 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
The PMI is the second oldest library in Victoria and was founded when Prahran was effectively a swamp, before the Prahran Council even existed.
The founders of the PMI were very passionate about their endeavours and George Rusden (see above, he was one of the first trustees) sent the introductory address from the meeting on the 1st of May to be printed in the Argus. It outlines the motivations behind the foundation of the PMI perfectly, if a little verbosely. The following was published in the Argus on the 30th of May 1854. We wanted to print it here in full because it so well encapsulates the beginnings of the PMI and the very different world it began in.
In commencing the lecture Mr. Orlebar said:— ” I have much pleasure in attempting to fulfill the desire of the committee that I should explain and urge the claims of this institution for the support and co-operation of the inhabitants of Prahran. The Institution has for its primary objects, first, the rational recreation, and, secondly, the intellectual improvement of artisans. Continual peace and the onward progress of civilisation have made the artisans to be a class increasing in numbers and rising in importance throughout the world, especially in our native land. And the very peculiar circumstances of this colony have made the artisan so wealthy and thriving, and give him so reasonable an expectation of continued prosperity, that he feels an independence and an elevation in his social condition which he has never enjoyed in any former period of history. In this position, he feels his dignity as a man ; he demands some higher enjoyment than those pleasures which are common to the brute animal ; he desires to elevate and polish his mind ; he is willing to open his purse to obtain the means of gratifying his instinct for the acquisition of knowledge which is common to the whole human race. A year ago it was generally said in England, that the best workmen had emigrated to these lands. We see the correctness of that opinion in some degree corroborated tonight. For no mean spirit could have originated a Mechanics’ Institution in a village in such a condition as ours. The mechanics of Prahran, though labouring under the disadvantages of recent colonisation, have commenced by a strong internal impulse — a Mechanics’ Institution.
They have done more. They have become the missionaries of civilisation. They say to their fellow citizens of every class, ‘ Why have you no reading-rooms, no museum, no lecture, no class-rooms. Join with us. We can help one another.’ Many of us have already responded to the invitation. We have been astonished at the energy set to us as an example. We have been anxious not to be outstripped, or to allow it to be said that the mechanic is the only advocate which the intellect can find in the streets of our populous village. As one of this number, I desire now to impart to you some of my own feelings on the subject.
It is possible that there may be some individual here present who has never been sensible of a purely intellectual enjoyment, who has never felt any charm in poetry, who has never perceived the beauty of a well-told tale, never been influenced by an eloquent lip, never been carried into the realities of the past by historic description ; never entered into the inmost sanctuary of his spirit in the contemplation of the works of his adorable Creator. We know that such men do exist. We know that whole classes, and whole nations have existed in so lamentable condition. Want and distress have disbarred some from the knowledge of such happiness. The tyrant, the slave master, the oppressor of his brother man in his thousand forms has forbidden the free exercise of man’s natural powers. Nevertheless the history of our race proves that the love of knowledge in various intensity naturally exists in every nation, and every individual man, and requires only to be called forth and cherished to be (perhaps too) dominant.
The institution proposes to meet this innate love of knowledge, now called forth in Prahran, by a reading-room well supplied with the best magazines and reviews, and by a circulating library, and lectures. The circulating library may be supplied at small expense with every English poet and prose writer, by means of the numerous cheap republications which have recently been made of almost every popular work. The circulating library will be supplied, also at a small expense, with the best of those numerous works which have been written of late years to make science as amusing as it always has been instructive.
The acquirement of knowledge is indeed of itself a recreation to many. To strong minds it always affords pleasure. To most minds the acquisition of its elements is a dull and painful task, which is willingly endured only for the sake of the results. All, however, find delight in it when the rudiments are passed. How many have reason to regret the want of early opportunities of education,— many have reason to regret opportunities lost. The institution proposes to grown up men the means of supplying defects in early education. As soon as the building is erected on the ground so liberally given, there will be class-rooms ; and if there be no other teachers, the scholars can do much in instructing one another.
But for those who do not require to go through a schoolboy’s tasks, other and abundant means of instruction will be found. Does an individual require information on any special subject? There is a library of standard works—some the property of the institution— some lent to it. In this he finds the book which contains the required facts. Or is he ignorant where those facts should be sought? At the institution he finds someone better informed on the subject than himself, and by him he is guided to the proper authority. A public library thus becomes a help in study, which no private collection can ever be. Then there are the reviews to give him, in a concise form, all new light in literature and science. There will be class rooms, in which members may unite for study, and perhaps for experiment. There will be lectures, which will supply the outlines of study. Lectures are of two kinds: they are adapted either to initiate the student or to perfect him,—the former are of a popular kind, giving a general idea of the subject, and furnishing inducements for study. The latter suppose previous study, a knowledge of technical terms, and intention to prosecute that branch of learning. The lectures of a Mechanics’ Institute must generally be of the former class, and they will be equally instructive and recreative to all. Already several gentlemen have offered their gratuitous labours. There is no reason, however, why lectures of the latter kind should be excluded. Mechanics often do pursue other difficult and abstruse branches of knowledge besides industriously following their proper occupation. Lord Carlisle mentions a blacksmith who had become able to understand fifty languages, although he worked from eight to twelve hours daily at his forge. That blacksmith was Elihu Burritt. None will labour better or more successfully than those who feel both the sweat of the brow and the tension of the brain.
There is another useful object which the Institution has specially in view. A good mechanic wishes to do all his work in the best possible manner. It is a special object of the institution to supply both books and lectures which will help him in his art. Such works at the Mechanics’ Magazine and the Builder will be on its list of periodicals. It hopes also to have a museum, where specimens and medals will supply to the eye that which descriptions and drawings can but imperfectly or inadequately convey.
All classes will find assistance in its libraries. It will not, indeed, be a place where the student of history will find scarce and expensive works, records scarcely known, or original documents, where he can check the errors of transcribers, translators, and abbreviators, or the mistakes of ignorance and prejudice. It will not be a place where the student of nature will expect to find in detail one single course of experiments, and much less be able to hunt through the annals of learned societies. It will not be a place where a statesman will find statistical information to determine the expediency of a tax or a duty. There are other places where such wants will be met. But all classes who subscribe to this institution, will demand that they may be helped by us in faithfully doing the duties of heads of families, of neighbours, and of citizens ; and all books which will help us to do this should be gathered into our library as a treasure house.
After his daily work, a man returns to his house, and in a winter evening, while each takes some work which requires little thought and makes no noise, one member of the family may read a book from the circulating library. And how much amusement, how much instruction, how much profitable conversation, may arise from some systematic source of reading in this way. Be the book but a novel ; a wise father may gather from it the sweetest instruction for his children. Much more from a well chosen course of history, or biography, or from easy and elementary scientific works.
Now, on such occasions, words from the dead or foreign languages may occur and puzzle ; the Mechanics’ Institutions standard library should contain dictionaries and grammars. Technical works may occur : the best elementary works on every subject should be in the library. Questions will arise which none of the family can answer : the answer will be found at the Mechanics’ Institute from the living lips of a more learned member, or from the written words of some good author. Will this make us philosophers, learned, scientific. Will it make our wives and daughters blue stockings, orators, stateswomen? No: but it will make us all more rational.
Prahran will be indirectly benefited in many ways. The gum and the wattle are rapidly disappearing, and we shall soon be no longer in a pretty wilderness but in a waste desert. Men have some time to give to cultivation. Nay, it is a duty to the public for a proprietor to bring his land into a healthy condition. How are we to learn the proper plants suited to our wants in a climate so different from our native land, except by becoming acquainted with the general principles of horticulture, and with the special productions of climates more nearly allied to that of Victoria than that of England. When are we to know what has been done in southern Europe, in Asia Minor or Algeria?
How are we to know the various modes of economising our manures? The Mechanics’ Library must inform us. Perhaps we may find our neighbouring agriculturalists on our subscription lists. Some gold-diggers have their wives and families in Prahran. Their number will probably increase. When here, they may be glad to learn the nature of some stones they have thought worthwhile to bring down with them : the institution should have a cabinet, where he may compare his specimen : and mineralogical works, which he may consult. He may have observed some remarkable phenomena, for which he desired explanation, and there should be standard works in the library for him. Then he would probably gather fresh ideas, and with them return to his work, apply them, and thus qualify himself in his turn to contribute to science. William Smith, the father of English geology, gained his knowledge as a plough-boy, treading his father’s fields. Hugh Millar, the author of one of the best written books in the English language, and making one of the most valuable contributions to modern geology, made his researches whilst employed as a labourer in quarrying stone.
I have endeavoured to sketch some of the purposes to which Mechanics’ Institutes have been applied, and some for which the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute seems available. I am aware that I have omitted much that might be urged in its advocacy on higher and more important grounds than I have taken. I have thought, however, that a subject less interesting to some of you was more pressing on the present occasion. For although many of you are well acquainted, and better acquainted doubtless than I am, with the general claims of a Mechanics’ Institute upon public attention, yet I suppose that very many are unacquainted both with their objects and their working. It can hardly be otherwise; for the Mechanics’ Institute is one which had its birth with the present generation. The attempt indeed to extend the education of grown-up men below the professional classes was conceived in the last century. Instruction for mechanics was provided for in the first year of our own century in a class at Glasgow. But this class did not bring to its birth a Mechanics’ Institute until July, 1823. And after that the extension was so very rapid, and there were some years ago very important manufacturing towns where the promoters of them were much disappointed in their hopes. I cannot help thinking, therefore, that many who have not had leisure or opportunities to study the onward progress of education, may yet be ill-acquainted with the usefulness, and the present success, and universally acknowledged importance of those institutions. The men of England and Scotland, at least, are fully alive to their importance, and their adaptation to modern necessities. They have indeed arrived but slowly, to their present extent. But which of the forest’s trees is rapid to its growth ; and of the forest’s trees which is the most valuable? Is it not that which is longest in coming to perfection. And of all animals, who is so helpless for so long a time of infancy, as the lord of all creation? Mechanics’ Institutions had a long infancy. They now walk, and make themselves known in the power and dignity of a noble maturity. And I doubt not, but that our Institution will preserve the place which she has taken next to her elder sister, at Melbourne, among many younger sisters, who must soon arise, for the civilisation and blessing of the cities, towns, and villages of Victoria.
While the above speech is very much of its time (especially notice the focus entirely on ‘men’) many of the principles it espouses are still to be strived for. The PMI certainly holds true to many of these principles today, but we have evolved over the last 165 years and you can see that evolution in our buildings, as the PMI has adapted to thrive in each new era and hopefully well into the future.
There will be a small celebration for the 165th anniversary at the PMI AGM and we are researching options to restore our original silk invitation (it was handed out at the opening of our original building in 1857), you can see it in the photo below.
If you’d like to know more about the history of the PMI, our Collections Librarian will be giving a talk on the subject as part of the heritage festival on the 16th of May at 2pm
You can book here: http://www.pmi.net.au/event/the-hardy-survivor-history-of-the-pmi/