Interior of Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts Library ca. 1920-1936, Sam Hood, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales – PXA 626 / 1
Celebrating 180 Years in 2013
Celebrating 180 years in 2013, SMSA is the oldest operating School of Arts and operates the longest-running lending library in Australia. Since colonial times, the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts has made a major contribution to Sydney’s culture, industry, society and politics.
The Board commissioned a history of the School for the 180th anniversary, written by historian Garry Wotherspoon. The end result, The Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts: A History, is a beautiful commemorative volume, illustrated in full colour, that reveals how and why SMSA was established and tells many fascinating stories about the people and events in our past.
In 1833, Henry Carmichael founded the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts at the request of artisans and tradesmen who had studied with him aboard the Stirling Castle on their voyage to Sydney. Carmichael drew on the model of the burgeoning Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools of Arts movement – and with the enthusiastic support of Governor Bourke who became our first patron – his efforts resulted in the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts being formed on 22nd March 1833 at a public meeting attended by around 200 people.
SMSA’s Historical Significance
Right from its founding in March 1833, the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts was the leading provider of adult education in the colony, running a lending library, conducting classes and holding lectures on everything from phrenology to chemistry and the poems of Lord Byron. There were even classes on ‘Simple Surgery’! The SMSA quickly became the centre of colonial Sydney’s intellectual, cultural and political life.
Filling a vital niche in adult and vocational education, the SMSA made a major contribution to the colony’s economic development by providing the first technical education in Australia for trades in 1865 and establishing the Working Men’s College in 1878. These technical classes were so successful that the School negotiated their transfer to the colonial Government in 1883, forming the precursor to TAFE as we know it today and, ultimately, to both the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology, Sydney.
The Surveyor-General, Major Thomas Mitchell, was the SMSA’s founding President and many other prominent citizens of Sydney have been members, including explorer Ludwig Leichhardt; journalist and activist for women’s rights Louisa Lawson,; poets Henry Lawson and Henry Kendell; Federationist Sir Henry Parkes and many other political and cultural leaders.
SMSA’s Debating Club discussed the ‘hot’ issues of relevance to the time, and the debates were widely reported in Sydney’s journals including the Sydney Morning Herald. Members who participated in these debates included future NSW Premier William Holman, and Prime Ministers Edmund Barton, George Reid and Billy Hughes., as well as leading figures in the Federation and suffrage movements.
As a young man, Billy Hughes valued the educational opportunities afforded to him by the School so much that he went without meals and wore worn-out clothing to raise funds to join. He later recalled, the ‘great awakening’ that had prompted him to politics was ‘a bit highbrow and smelling of the lamp’—using the School’s library at night.
Women in the SMSA
The first women were admitted as members in August 1833, just 5 months after the School’s founding and women’s names appear in class rolls from the 1860s, providing an alternative for women who were disenfranchised from traditional education. In 1891, Louisa Lawson broke a significant glass ceiling when she overcame opposition to become the first woman in the SMSA’s Debating Club, and more women quickly followed. She later went on to become the first woman on the Management Committee in 1893.
The SMSA Today
Today, the School continues to operate longest-running lending library in Australia and a robust public program of talks, seminars and screenings which are free and open to both members and the general public. The School also opened the Tom Keneally Centre in 2011, forming Thomas Keneally’s living legacy to Australia and a venue for literary activities such as writing classes, readings and author talks. Our venue hire floor boasts a large theatre as well as flexible and affordable meeting rooms that can be configured according to hirer’s needs.
The SMSA also continues to contribute to the local community through grants, scholarships and donations to organisations including 2RPH, Julian Ashton Art School and Dictionary of Sydney, and endowments to University of Western Sydney, University of Technology, Sydney and University of Sydney. Through other activities, the School also supports a broad range of Not-For-Profit and community organisations in the local Sydney region.
The Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts (SMSA) was founded in 1833 with the objective of the intellectual improvement of its members and the cultivation of literature, science and the arts. It continues to fulfil that original mandate today.
Read more about our history
Rev. Henry Carmichael, courtesy Newcastle Region Library, Jack Sullivan Collection, 147 000044
‘Working Men’s College’ from the Working Men’s College Report from the Committee of the Technical College at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts to the Honorable the Minister of New South Wales, 1881, held at Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts
“I’ll have you!”, Claude Marquet (Cartoon of Billy Hughes and conscription) in Australian Worker, 13 December 1917, p9, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales – TN36
Louisa Lawson, aged 50 c1898 , By J. Hubert Newman, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales – PX 158 / 24