In 1831, a ship arrived in the Australian colony of New South Wales bearing a freight of about 50 Scottish “mechanics” – carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, and other skilled tradesmen. These men had come to Sydney with their families and a group of teachers to build and staff a Presbyterian academy they planned to call “The Australian College.” A little over a year later one of the teachers, a London based minister named Henry Carmichael, became the first Vice-President of the newly founded Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts. The colony’s governor, Sir Richard Bourke served as patron and its Surveyor-General, Sir Thomas Mitchell, its first president. There were some rocky years and some shifts in emphasis, but today the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts thrives in its 10 story building at 280 Pitt Street and is still faithful to its original mission as an educational and cultural resource.
Mechanics’ Institutes were a 19th century phenomenon that began in Scotland and spread to England, Australia, and much of the English-speaking world. Surviving institutes are rather like seeds from a single plant, sown in different countries and, over the years, growing in slightly different. In many ways, the SMSA is similar to San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute. The Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts occupies three floors and rents offices in the rest of a downtown building. It boasts a venerable lending library (the oldest in Australia,) located on its second floor. It hosts book groups, author events, and workshops, and offers reasonably priced short term rental venues.
And last year, it acquired an exciting new addition, The Tom Keneally Centre. Famed Australian writer Tom Keneally, author of Schindler’s Ark (which was later made into the film Schindler’s List) has donated his own, 2,500 book library to the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, along with other memorabilia. Now the SMSA has, along with its four meeting rooms and theater, an attractive and intimate space for book launches, writing classes, and other literary events.
Their building is more modern, and there are some slight differences in emphasis, but the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts and the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute have the important things in common. Each is an important historical treasure in a great city.