Dictionary of Sydney

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Industrial and Art Exhibition 1861

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Industrial and Art Exhibition 1861

In February 1861, the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts held an Industrial and Art Exhibition as part of the celebrations surrounding the opening of their new headquarters in Pitt Street. The exhibition was designed to illustrate the developments in colonial arts, industry and science and to publicise the role of the Mechanics' School in promoting them.

Industrial exhibitions in Sydney

From the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London's Crystal Palace, industrial exhibitions grew increasingly popular around the world as a way to show the manufacturing and agricultural advances of nations. As science was transformed in the public mind from an almost magical performance to an increasingly familiar part of everyday life, so the public's desire to learn more about its applications and to see the latest machines and devices increased. [1]

In 1851, Sydney held its first major exhibition in Hyde Park to coincide with the London exhibition. A mix of manufacturing, agricultural, horticultural and livestock exhibits, it also included exotic animals such as elephants and bears for the public's entertainment. The exhibition was small and rudimentary and rather overshadowed by both the discovery of gold in the state's west and the publicity generated by London. It did however whet a public appetite for visions of progress in the colony and convinced many of the worth of such an enterprise.

Industrial Exhibition 1861

In October 1860, as the extension of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts headquarters was nearing completion, the committee advertised in local newspapers and among its members that an industrial exhibition would be held to accompany the opening in 1861. [2] The committee viewed the proposed exhibition as an ideal way to return the Mechanic's School to the public eye after its extensive rebuild as well as to raise money to pay for the works then underway.

Through October, November and December the exhibition committee, formed by members of the general committee of the Mechanics' School, continued to canvas the members and the public for exhibits, as well as government departments and manufacturers from Sydney, New South Wales and interstate. Regular newspaper updates kept the public informed of the growing number of exhibits promised as the day of opening approached.

The exhibition opened on 25 February 1861 in the new lecture hall of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts with exhibits spread throughout the building. Opened by his Excellency the Administrator of the Government (filling in between the departure of the previous Governor, Sir William Denison, and the arrival of the new Governor, Sir John Young) the first night attracted an estimated 500 people. Crammed into the new building, the guests were entertained by the choirs of the Mechanics' School music class who were accompanied by their teacher on the harmonium. Spread between the old building and the new additions, the exhibition included a large collection of paintings, tapestries, antiquities and curiosities owned by some of Sydney's wealthier citizens, such as Thomas Mort and Sir Charles Nicholson. Alongside these were a collection of gold from the Sydney Mint, Chinese ornaments, clocks, lace, photographic engravings, a complete electric telegraph and the latest sewing machines, newly imported into Australia. [3] Other displays included Barlow's new sun light, consisting of 12 circular gas lights, each with nine jets of flame all surrounded by a reflector that lit the main lecture hall. The Sydney Mail commented that this new type of gas light diffused such a beautiful glow as to give an entirely new and renovated aspect to the dingy fixtures of the old-fashioned building and hoped that it would soon be adopted to light the Parliament building. [4]

Compared to the art, antiquities and scientific curiosities, the display of agricultural produce was scarce. Not a single example of animal produce was on display, with the only a small display of grain, mangelwurzel (a kind of beet) and carob from the Macarthur estate at Camden.

As the exhibition continued through March, more exhibits were added including an 'electrifying machine' as well as a series of working models of new railway locomotives and carriages, stationary oscillating engines, high pressure engines, lift and force pumps and new wool presses. The catalogue, produced after the opening of the exhibition, listed 557 exhibits in total. [5]

By mid-March the number of exhibits had increased to 700. More curiosities from Sydney's elite were added, as were examples of agricultural produce such as tobacco from the Clarence River. Numbers of visitors continued to increase as more items were added, with an average of 900 per day attending the event. [6] Although these numbers began to fall towards the end of March, still well over 500 people per day attended throughout the duration. A number of newspaper reviews expressed both surprise and admiration at the numbers of people, commenting on the great success of the exhibition and the great satisfaction reported by those who attended. [7]

In their report to the Sydney Mechanics' School, the exhibition committee outlined the results of the exhibition financially and philosophically. The exhibition ran from 25 February until 3 April 1861, attracting 17,545 people, with the ticket and catalogue sales raising £916 12s 7d for the Mechanics' School, which amounted to a profit of £550 after expenses. But the advantages went beyond money, although this had been a major factor in the staging, and touched on the Sydney Mechanics' School's primary function of education and learning. Although by 1861 Sydney had a number of public institutions that could be classed as educational and had grown culturally since the opening of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1833, the committee nonetheless believed that the recent exhibition had had a beneficial influence on the people of Sydney. The report noted:

In a new country, where there are so few objects of historical interest, where opportunities for the cultivation of taste and refinement are, of necessity, comparatively rare, and where intellect is liable to run waste from the want of rational stimulus and wise direction, it is exceedingly important that every effort should be made by institutions like ours, not only to afford facilities for improvement to their own members, but to take their part in educating, as far as lies in their power, the public mind generally. [8]


[1] M Cannon, Life in the Cities- Australia in the Victorian Age:3, Nelson, Melbourne, 1975, p 92

[2] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Committee Minutes, 4 October 1860, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library CY2143 A 4150, frame 488

[3] Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, 28 February 1861, p 3

[4] Sydney Mail, 2 March 1861, p 2

[5] Sydney Mail, 9 March 1861, p 1

[6] Sydney Mail, 16 March 1861, p 1

[7] Sydney Mail, 16 March 1861, p 1

[8] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Committee Minutes, Special Minutes of Members called for the purpose of reading the Report of the Exhibition Committee, 16 April 1861, State Library of NSW, Mitchell Library CY2143 A 4150, frame 511