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
1833-2022: 189 Years of History
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.
Governed by the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts Incorporation Act 1886, the SMSA is a self-funded not-for-profit organisation, wholly owned by its members. We are proud to have Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of New South Wales and Mr Dennis Wilson as our Joint Patrons.
In 2013 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.
The Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts was founded on 22 March 1833 at a public meeting attended by around 200 people. Among those present was Henry Carmichael who had first seen the need for a School of Arts in Sydney and spearheaded the movement, along with some of the artisans and tradesmen who had studied with him aboard the Stirling Castle during their voyage to Sydney. Major Thomas Mitchell, the surveyor general, was unanimously acclaimed as our first President and Governor Bourke, an enthusiastic supporter, agreed to be our first patron.
Schools of Arts and Mechanics’ Institutes came out of a progressive, forward-thinking movement that emerged in Scotland with the aim of providing open access to education for the working classes who were excluded from more formal and traditional education. It was quite revolutionary for the time. Whereas Schools of Arts concentrated on literature, history and the arts, Mechanics’ Institutes provided vocational training for ‘mechanics’ who worked with their hands: skilled tradesmen like carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons and blacksmiths.
Filling a vital niche
As the years progressed, the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts offered an immense range of courses — everything from pneumatics, the art of ancient oratory and ship-building to phrenology, how to choose a horse and the poetry of Lord Byron. There were even classes in ‘Simple Surgery’.
The School quickly became the centre of colonial Sydney’s intellectual, cultural, social and political life. The members’ lending library provided valuable access to books, journals and newspapers; the talks and lectures were well attended; and various clubs and social activities kept members entertained.
Moreover, the School’s vocational education made a critical contribution to Sydney’s economic development, by fulfilling a desperate need for skilled labourers in the rapidly expanding colony. In 1878, the SMSA founded the Working Man’s College in a new building behind the main School of Arts. It was so successful that the Government pushed to take over and in 1883, the School accepted. It became Ultimo College and is a direct forebear of TAFE and both the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology, Sydney.
Women in the SMSA
The first women were admitted as members in August 1833, just 5 months after our founding and women’s names appear in class rolls from the 1860s, providing an alternative for women who were disenfranchised from traditional education. The 1860s also saw the creation of a separate Ladies Reading Room so that “the Fairer Sex can read the newspapers and magazines without being disturbed by rougher elements.” It was the only room heated in Winter.
In 1891, journalist and suffragist Louisa Lawson smashed a significant glass ceiling when she overcame opposition to become the first woman in the SMSA’s Debating Club. More women quickly followed. In 1893, Louisa became the first woman to be elected to the Management Committee, a feat that was not repeated until 1976, some 83 years later.
Over the years, many prominent citizens of Sydney have been active members of the SMSA, many of whom were involved in the School’s Debating Club. A forum where political figures discussed issues like Federation, suffrage and conscription, the debates were reported in all the major newspapers of the day. Prominent members included NSW Premier William Holman, and Prime Ministers Edmund Barton, George Reid and Billy Hughes; the Father of Federation, Sir Henry Parkes and many other political and cultural leaders.
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.
A sample of some of our other famous members are explorer Ludwig Leichhardt; Edmund Hargraves, discoverer of gold in NSW; poets Henry Lawson and Henry Kendell; and many more political and cultural leaders. Writer Miles Franklin was also a regular attendee at SMSA’s talks, and quite possibly a member although we don’t have complete membership records.
The SMSA Today
Today, the SMSA continues to operate the longest-running lending library in Australia and a robust public program of talks, readings, seminars and screenings which are free and open to both members and the general public. The School 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. The SMSA’s venue hire floor boasts a large theatre as well as flexible and affordable meeting rooms that can be configured according to the needs of the hirer.
The School contributes to the local community through grants and donations to educational and cultural bodies in accordance with our values and our Charter, in addition to prizes awarded through 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.
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
Louisa Lawson, aged 50 c1898 , By J. Hubert Newman, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales – PX 158 / 24
“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