Tallarook Mechanics Institute History
In May 1890 the Kilmore Free Press announced that “Efforts are being made by the Tallarook residents to found a Mechanics Institute and Free Library in the town. A block of ground…is given by Mr W Fox and about £70 have been promised already by a number of residents.” By 3 March the following year the Seymour Express reported the roof was on and completion of the building expected soon. The reporter was sure the new Hall “ought to induce a number of theatrical companies to patronise Tallarook” [while he was referring to the near future he could have been foreseeing the Hall’s use right into the 21st century]. Just one month later the same newspaper was able to report that the opening celebrations for the new Tallarook Mechanics Institute Hall would be held that night with a ball.
In 18th and 19th century parlance a mechanic was an artisan, a craftsman or a working man. Dr George Birkbeck, a Professor of Natural Philosophy [science] at Anderson University, Glasgow in 1799, was impressed by the curiosity of mechanics who were making the equipment he needed to perform his experiments. He lobbied successfully for a “mechanics” series of lectures to be held at the University and was overwhelmed by an attendance of 500 men by his fourth lecture. He took his new found passion for the education of the working man to London where the London Mechanics Institution was opened in 1823 and over the next quarter century another 700 or so were established across Britain. The mechanics institute movement spread to the colonies with a flourish so that by the 1890s, when Tallarook’s was built, the Northern Territory had three, Tasmania 50, Western Australia 71, South Australia 210, Queensland 350 and New South Wales 433. But nowhere were people as excited about these community endeavours as in Victoria, which had 1,030. While the provision of a free library and educative lectures were still part of mechanics institute life, conservative and hierarchical British culture began to let down some of its constraints as it adapted to suit new conditions of life and an evolving social culture in Australia. The lines became blurred between the working and middle classes and mechanics institutes provided a forum for people to come together and forge new communities across all urban, regional and rural districts.
The mechanics institutes were open to any member of a community, women included, who wanted to read the newspapers from “back home” or from the metropolis, or borrow books, or listen to invited speakers. But the colonial mechanics institutes appeased more than just a hunger for literacy and learning. While a building can't be said to actually have an “elder’s” authority, experience, decision making capabilities or seniority [although it can have age] the mechanics institute building in Tallarook, like all mechanics institutes, bestowed these characteristics onto its community. For residents who did have seniority or experience, or who wished to have a stake in their democratic, civic minded, progressing communities, these halls were the place to get involved.
In the week or two before the Tallarook Mechanics Institute was opened Fox’s Hotel was used for the annual general meeting of the Tallarook Racing Club, and a public meeting was held to make plans for a savings bank to be established in Tallarook. Similarly, since the 1850s social occasions, sporting events, plans to lobby the Road Board, the Shire Council, or other higher authorities for the greater good – all took place in one or other of the hotels, or in the church hall, or in private homes, or by the well outside the Church of England in the days when that was the only water supply. Finally, in April 1891, Tallarook had a comfortable, spacious, central, communal hall, that was owned by and welcoming to the whole community.
Andrew McKay, local architect and builder and famous for his claim to build “A house in a day, a street in a week” was responsible for the design of the new building and the Bray Bros for the actual construction of it. This Hall was quite standard as far as small town institutes reliant on voluntary community funds go, but it was nonetheless described in the Broadford Courier later that year as a “capital and commodious public hall”. It was 62 feet deep by 25 feet wide and inside had a stage that was 25 feet by 10 feet, two rooms at the front one of which would have been the reading room with 130 books “representing the standard works of the best fiction writers”, and the hall itself. Two years later the Trustees provided £15 towards more books and tasked a sub-committee of Messrs Gilmore, Lambden and Hickey to choose them. The building cost a little over £237 but that did not include the land, which had been donated by William Fox. The office bearers at the time included several names familiar from local history and news reports and who, like Fox, had already invested time, money and energy into the Tallarook community. Hadley, Leagh, Dockery, Fox, Howe, McCormack… these and others are names that crop up in the records, newspapers, committee of management minute books, school, church and other local records for well over a hundred years. It is people such as these, then and still today, who are the “elders”, while the Hall is the facilitator of their work.
But it is not all work. Dances or balls in Tallarook were always popular and extremely well planned. At one hosted by “the young ladies of Tallarook” in 1894 the hall was decorated with ferns and garlands, the tables with a sumptuous supper. So sumptuous in fact that the following day invitations were quickly sent out to all the children of the town “and by three o’clock a fair gathering was the result…all the children’s games that were thought of were gone through and thoroughly enjoyed. They were then regaled with tea and cake.” A Red Cross Social was held on 27 November 1918 to raise funds for that body and the Hall that night was “tastefully and appropriately decorated with gums and bunting”. There was always a program planned for residents to show off their singing, acting or comedic talents. Tallarookians certainly liked their parties. The Ball in April 1891 to celebrate the opening of the Hall didn't finish until 4am! Local news reports of special nights often said the event ended well after midnight.
Local newspapers of the 19th and well into the 20th century always found room for reporting on community social occasions. Occasionally these were staged for someone in the community, rather than an event or a fund raising effort. Just as work places will often acknowledge the fortunes or retirements of their staff, Tallarook did the same with its residents and the Hall was the favourite place for such affairs. On 5 November 1915 the Seymour Express reported on an entertainment and public valedictory provided for Mr George Howe, long time resident and owner of one of the hotels in Tallarook but soon leaving to manage a hotel in Wonthaggi. The year before William Johnston, who had worked as a ganger [a foreman for a gang of railway labourers] “on the length south of the Tallarook railway station” for many years, was moving to work at Riversdale Station near Melbourne. A social was held in the Hall to farewell him and his family with singing, dancing, supper and speeches for he “was a very old resident and deservedly esteemed for his many good qualities”. Similarly, marriages were celebrated, deaths were mourned, and the Hall became the place, more so than the church, to pay heed to all the defining moments in a person’s and a community’s life.
Yet the Hall was more again than a library and a place to mark life's moments. It was also a place of business so that when it came time for the annual general meeting of the Tallarook Cricket Club, or for the annual conference of the Hume Highway Group of the Country Women's Association [August 1950], or the monthly meetings of the Tallarook Infant Welfare Centre [at least from the 1940s to the 1970s], the Hall came into its own as a meeting venue.
Travelling entertainments were always welcome and brought large numbers of spectators. From the travelling movie man showing a Charlie Chaplin silent movie in 1916, to “Caravan Burlesque – the worlds most provocative variety show” in 2015, the TMI has become “one of the best nights on any tour. It’s famous…” according to the performing arts manager at Regional Arts Victoria. So much so that in 2014 that organisation’s third tongue-in-cheek Victoria’s Most Kick-Ass Presenter Award went to TMI’s Secretary Libby Webster for her efforts at hosting events with such panache that “everyone absolutely loves performing at Tallarook”.
The Tallarook Mechanics Institute has also been an important adjunct to Tallarook Primary School 1488, who relocated to it for a couple of months in 1921 when their school was being renovated and remodeled, and again for a month in 1954 during painting and more renovations. Throughout however, the School has always made use of the Hall for concerts, prize giving and other events, and when extra class space has been needed. Today, since the School has built their own multi-purpose building within their grounds, the Hall is busy with other classes; on Mondays there is strength training and jazz, tap and acrobatics. Wednesdays have the Rural Quilters, tiny tots acrobatics, ballet and the Sporting Shooters Association. On Thursdays playgroup is there in the morning and the Rural Quilters return in the evening, while on Fridays both the strength trainers and the cloggers are weekly users. The Tallarook Farmers Market has been a regular user of the Hall on the first Sunday of every month except January with fruit, vegetable, produce and art stalls, music and entertainment, and ready made food and coffee.
From the very beginning the Hall was constantly in debt and an ongoing task of its Committee of Management has been to devise new and wonderful ways to raise money for its upkeep and maintenance. Fund-raising balls, variety entertainment nights, and appeals were the usual money-raising ventures in the first several decades. In May 1918 a meeting was held there to discuss the dire situation of a bank overdraft of £136, with a limit of £150, and net receipts for 1917 being a little over £11 – it was clearly not sustainable. In its reporting the Seymour Express warned its readers that “Collectors have been appointed to canvass the town and district, and it is expected that a liberal response will be met with.” [Unfortunately a follow up report was not found to see how successful this canvassing was]. On 14 May 1938 The Age reported “£200 has been raised for the mechanics’ hall through an ugly-man competition. There was great rivalry between the two candidates – Mr J Kealy and Mr J Perrins. The latter secured the verdict.” [A photograph of the competitors would have been fun to find.]
In more recent years the Hall has been signing up to community and heritage grants or programs for ongoing assistance with maintenance, upkeep or promotion. In 2003 a Hands on Heritage project managed by Conservation Volunteers Association, the Heritage Council of Victoria and the Mitchell Shire brought ten international student volunteers to the Hall to completely repaint the entire building in its original colours. Other restoration work since then, and always reliant on voluntary labour and Council or Project grants, has included re-sanding and re-polishing the floor, painting the interior, moving the toilets inside the building to restore the original footprint, and a new septic treatment plant.
The restoration process has given rise to yet another Tallarook story: decades of confusion over the year the Hall was established. The story goes that during the Great Depression a “bagman” came through town looking for work and was given the task of completely painting the Hall. He did such a good job of it he painted over the date on the front of the building. No one could agree on what the date was supposed to be so they chose what they thought was a most likely year and painted 1887. There it remained until a later Hall restoration restored the date to its original and correct one of 1891, but still not everyone was convinced. It took some primary historical research using newspaper reports to determine that 1891 was correct!
The Hall’s Mission Statement [pictured] is more than just an exercise in appropriate wording. It recognises the history of the Hall and the deep layers and varied experiences of small communities everywhere. As an “elder” building, the Tallarook Mechanics Institute Hall has facilitated 124 years of enterprise and business, life and cheer, solemnity and ceremony, love and romance, learning and playing in this small town. In 2016 it will be 125 years old and there is scope for a great deal more historical research and story telling in The Great Tallarook History Project.
 mechanics institute.blogspot.com; Pam Baragwanath, If the Walls Could Speak. A social history of the mechanics’ institutes of Victoria, Mechanics Institute Inc, Windsor, 2000. See also Pam Baragwanath and Ken James, These Walls Speak Volumes, Melbourne, 2015
 Lorraine Huddle Pty Ltd, Mitchell Shire Stage Two Heritage Study, Volume 5, p.311