A little history of Mechanics’ Institutes – Susanne Gannon

Good Professor Birkbeck
had no idea
in Glasgow in 1799
that his little quaker plan to
“agreeably occupy the mental vacancy
of the working man in the evenings”
would flourish in this other hemisphere.
He did not expect that
his sober little lecturettes on
natural philosophy
would fill a room, let alone a thousand rooms:
in 50 years there were 600 sites
600,000 members by 1851
in the antipodes alone.
He could not anticipate that
seventeen speeches would be made
at the 1912 opening of the Leongatha
Mechanics Institute, Free Library & Billiard Hall, a building
still noted for its unique use of “precast river reed
plaster blocks” and the variety of its users:
the United Grand Lodge of Freemasons,
Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalos,
Independent Orders of Rechabites and Odd Fellows;
for its meetings, auctions, weddings, itinerant
music classes, concerts, tea parties, magic lantern shows,
and temperance gatherings, conveniently located
across from Bair’s Hotel (and the 6 o’clock swill).
Professor Birkbeck could never have
imagined the anticipation of that
young man packing his gold brocade
apron for the very first time, to enter
that company of noble men and secrets;
or the thrill of the pretty usherette and the
projectionist who flirted all through
both seasons of South Pacific; or the excitement
of the little girl, their daughter, who carried
The Red Balloon and The Green Bus
all the way home by herself
walking beside the pram and knowing
she had almost forever until next Friday morning
just for reading and reading and reading.