Dictionary of Sydney

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Technical and Working Men's College

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The Technical or Working Men's College

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Sydney was undergoing a transformation. From the 1840s the city's population had been expanding rapidly with increasing numbers of free emigrants overhauling the convict and emancipist population. Between 1851 and 1881 the population of Sydney grew from 44,000 to 225,000. [1] With this population boom also came a rapid industrialisation, with a growing number of larger manufacturing companies and factory sites. The mechanisation of the industrial workplace, brought with it not only the ability for greater diversity and speedier production, but also the need for increasing levels of technical skill and knowledge.

In 1833 the opening of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts had started adult technical education in Sydney. Established in part to provide technical schooling for the increasing number of immigrant mechanics arriving in Sydney from the 1830s, one of its stated aims was 'the diffusion of scientific and other useful knowledge as extensively as possible throughout the colony'. With a subsidy from the colonial government, the Mechanics' School sought to educate the city's workers through a library of scientific and useful books for use by members, lectures in science and art, classes for mutual instruction and the display of models and apparatus for illustrating the principals of physical and mechanical philosophy. [2]

Despite these admirable intentions, and the popularity of the Mechanics' School lectures in the first decade, the main audiences for the school were the respectable middle and upper classes rather than the working-class mechanics they had set out to teach. This was partly because attending lectures was difficult for many working-class men and women, and partly because the subject matter was too technical and theoretical for the less well-educated mechanics. By the 1850s, although the lectures were still held on a regular basis, an average of 20 per year, they had largely strayed from the practical towards more social topics. [3] In 1873 there were no lectures delivered by the Mechanics' School of Arts at all. [4]

A proposal for a college

At the Annual General Meeting of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1872 a motion was passed for a committee to investigate the establishment of a Working Men's College in connection to the School of Arts, a plan which had been suggested by the late Dr Reverend John Woolley, former vice president (1855) and president (1866) of the Mechanics', some years before. At the Annual General meeting in 1873 the committee, headed by Mr Edward Dowling, who became one of the driving forces behind the College, reported back that the proposed establishment of the Working Men's College was an opportunity to satisfy, to a good extent, the mission of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts as a Mechanics Institute, but that a lack of space, teachers and funds at the present time prevented much progress on the idea.

The committee held two meetings in 1873. At the first in May, rather than discussing the proposed Working Men's College specifically, the committee discussed how the present system of teaching and courses offered could be made more practical for the artisans and mechanics in Sydney. This was partly in response to the announcement, in a new mining bill before the Legislative Assembly, of the creation of a School of Mines to be run by the University of Sydney. The committee saw an opportunity for increased government funding and argued that the Sydney Mechanics' School was well placed to provide primary courses for mining students. It was recommended that a deputation approach the premier, Henry Parkes, to discuss the advantages of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, including its central location, its teaching resources and its country and regional affiliates that could be used to tailor courses for districts outside Sydney. To strengthen their position further, courses in more technical and practical subjects, such as mechanical drawing, architectural drawing, practical geometry, arithmetic and mensuration, should be started. [5]

In 1874 the deputation managed to meet with the Minister for Justice and Public Instruction and the Minister for Mines about a possible affiliation between the proposed School of Mines and the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, a proposal that saw them secure £2500 of the £5000 needed to extend their Pitt Street premises to accommodate their hoped-for Working Men's College. However lack of space remained a major issue and the establishment of a Working Men's College in 1875 and 1876 was delayed for this reason.

Not all the members of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts were convinced of the need for a new Working Men's College. Some instead held the opinion that the Mechanics' School was already offering the type of education being touted as part of the new College and perhaps felt threatened by the creation of a college of similar purpose. A hint of this attitude could be seen in the Annual Report in 1875 which noted that the Working Men's College committee would be greatly assisted if

the class of people who, it is considered, would be benefitted by such a scheme, [were] to avail themselves more largely of the existing resources of the institution by joining classes already established.

In a similar vein but slightly more directly, the President reminded members in the same report that

instruction in writing, arithmetic, grammar, mathematics, natural sciences and mechanical and architectural drawing – for which purpose, amongst others, the establishment of a Working Men's College has been frequently urged – is provided for in the present classes of the Institution. [6]

Who will run the college?

Throughout the following year, 1876, little progress was made on the proposed college. With no new building to accommodate the Technical or Working Men's College there was little to go on with, other than continuing negotiations to obtain funds and gather support for the idea. In this vein, the Mechanics' School approached the Trades and Labour Council and the Engineering Association, founded by Norman Selfe who was an active member of the School of Arts. Both organisations had independently begun investigating the establishment of technical classes and agreed with the proposal for a new college, although there was some difference of opinion in how the college should be run and what exactly it should teach. The Engineering Association for example advocated instruction of the scientific principals involved in the practice of trades and professions carried out in New South Wales, while the Trades and Labour Council favoured the teaching of practical skills first and the principals behind them later. [7]

As well as debating how the proposed college would be run, the Mechanics' School of Arts had to lobby for the right to run the college. Although the initial proposal for the institution had come from the Mechanic's School, once it began to gain some traction and public interest, the question arose as to who should actually run the college. The Engineering Association and the Trades and Labour Council suggested that it would be best for it to be operated out of government public schools, arguing that most working men lived in the suburbs and would have difficulty attending classes in the city. The University of Sydney, which had recently begun teaching in the School of Mines, thought the Technical or Workings Men's College should be affiliated with the university. The Mechanics' School urged the government to fund the college via their own organisation, arguing that their membership numbers, halls and libraries and their suburban, regional and country affiliations best suited the dissemination of technical information.

With the proposed college moving closer to reality through 1877 and 1878 work got underway actually building it. The new additions extended the existing Mechanics' School of Arts building west to George Street adding a new hall for the college, a laboratory, offices and yard on the ground floor with two additional classrooms on the first floor and a large drawing classroom on the second floor. [8] Work also continued on the creation of a syllabus and the employment of potential teachers and lecturers. The committee for the Technical or Working Men's College undertook to maintain fees at a low enough level for any apprentice to attend, while also proposing elementary education for those students who needed extra tuition. [9] It was also proposed that an industrial museum be created in conjunction with the college and that various manufacturers throughout New South Wales be invited to contribute specimens of their products or machines to demonstrate to students the processes involved. This idea provided the genesis for the later creation of the Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum, the forerunner of the current Powerhouse Museum.

The new college buildings were completed in 1878. The chemistry laboratory opened and classes started in October, some months before the official opening of the college proper. The delay in opening the full college was reported to be due to the buildings being used temporarily by the Mechanics' School. [10] Despite the delay, the Mechanics once again petitioned the government for funding, managing to get £2000 towards the building costs (approximately half the total cost) and another £1000 put on the estimates for the payment of lecturers and teachers. [11]

Although the chemistry lab was open, the final workings of the college were still being finalised through 1878 and 1879. The working committee for the Technical or Working Men's College approached the Trades and Labour Council, the Engineering Association and the Builders and Contractors Association in January 1879 to request their cooperation with the Mechanic's School and the nomination of one or two delegates to represent each of them on the working committee. In February the committee drafted a set of rules and regulations that could be legally incorporated with the college.

The first hurdle

In March 1879 the committee met with three delegates from each organisation, and after long discussions and a vote of seven against five, it was moved that the first rule of the draft regulations put forward in February be changed. Rule one as proposed read that

The technical college is an integral portion of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and its management and control belongs solely to the general Committee by virtue of the Act of Incorporation.

The delegates from the trade and technical societies outside the Mechanics preferred the wording

That a technical or working men's college be a distinct corporation to be governed by a Board of Management to consist of representatives of the various technical and trade societies of Sydney. [12]

The amendment, moved by Mr William Roylance of the Trades and Labour Council, was rejected by the General Committee of the Mechanics' School of Arts who insisted that any management of the proposed college remain with the School of Arts. The Mechanics argued that as they had been incorporated in 1874 by an Act of Parliament they were the trustees of their building and as the college was proposed to be run from their building, they couldn't allow outside organisations a hand in the management of it. While this was technically the case, there did appear to be a territorial issue emerging. The Trades and Labour Council, having been slighted, responded that if the amendments were not made they would regretfully have to withdraw their support for the college and would approach the Minister requesting the £1000 put on the estimates be withdrawn.

Going further, Roylance led a deputation to the Minister and published its views in the Sydney Morning Herald, claiming that the Mechanics' School had hoodwinked the working classes of Sydney by convincing the technical and trade societies to back its plan for the college. They accused the Mechanics of being fundamentally a literary society and of using the money secured from the government in their own building program rather than for the benefit of the College. Roylance asserted that the Trades and Labour Council would not cooperate if they were to have only a voice and no vote. [13]

In early May 1879 a deputation consisting of Roylance, Mr Laing and Norman Selfe of the Engineers Association, Dr Bowker MLA and Dr Belgrave representing the Mechanics' School, meet with the Minister for Justice and Public Instruction, Sir Francis Bathurst Suttor, to discuss their positions. Roylance, Selfe and Laing all lobbied for the operation of the College through the public schools, arguing this would give better access to working men and that the Incorporation Act of the Mechanics' School of Arts should be changed to allow representatives from various bodies to be part of the management.

Suttor acknowledged that all the parties were striving for the same outcome with a difference in opinions over management being the main concern. However, while he was prepared to pursue the idea of the use of public schools being used as technical colleges with the Department of Education, any change to the Incorporation Act of the School of Mechanics was a much more difficult process. He maintained that as the School of Arts had made the approach for the money for the college and were committed to the establishment of the college, then there was no particular reason the money should not be granted to them. He further suggested that if the societies still had a problem with representation on the board of the college, they might consider joining the School of Arts and electing to the committee those who represented their views. [14] One can only imagine how this was taken by Roylance and the others.

The college opens

Despite the internal turmoil over the management of the college, the opening of the new building and commencement of classes went ahead on Monday 19 May 1879. Special guests were given guided tours while the public was allowed through after 8 pm. The renovations of the existing Mechanics' School buildings and the additions of the new college buildings were all on show, with much interest shown in the college extension. As well as a main hall for the college, the new wing included the chemistry laboratory and lecture room, six classrooms and offices. [15]

The appeal of the new college was displayed in the enrolments for the remainder of the year. By the end of 1879, 478 students had enrolled at the new college in 15 different courses. Tellingly, 102 of these enrolled in arithmetic and writing, giving credence to the committee's call in 1873 that elementary tuition should be provided to students as well as practical and technical courses. Other courses on offer included chemistry, mathematics, mechanics, architectural, mechanical or freehand drawing, geodesy, languages, phonography, English literature and photography. New classes proposed for 1880 included wool classing, navigation, mining, botany, geography, cooking and domestic economics among others.

At the 1879 Annual General Meeting for the Mechanics' School of Arts the President, Justice Windeyer, urged members that when it came to the Technical or Working Men's College

it behoves the members of the School of Arts to do their utmost to promote and carry on so excellent a pioneer undertaking whatever form of management may hereafter be found best adapted for its success. [16]

The President's message hints that the Mechanics' School did not necessarily expect to manage the college long-term or perhaps that the tension surrounding the committee for the college had not quite dissipated through the year.

In the following year, 1880, enrolments more than doubled, with a total of 1198 students, up 720 from 1879. Writing and arithmetic remained the most popular course with 264 students, closely followed by the newly introduced cookery class with 151 (female) students. [17] In conjunction with the classes, 32 public lectures were held through the year as well as lectures given on site at factories and businesses. Many of the classes were taught by prominent professionals in their fields, including Norman Selfe who taught mechanical drawing, city architect Thomas Sapsford who taught architectural drawing, and superintendent engineers at the Australasian Steam Navigation Company and Mort's Engineering Company's Works who taught engineering. [18]

As the college began to find its feet, views about how it should be conducted into the future were considered by the committee. In a report by William A Dixon to the President of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1881 the progress of the college so far was outlined and a number of recommendations put forward. Dixon noted that most classes were held in the evening so as to give working people the greatest opportunity to attend. He also observed that more classes were held in the winter months:

as it has been found that during the summer the warm weather produces a certain languor which is not conducive to real study, whilst the longer light induces young men to spend their time in cricket, boating and other out door sports. [19]

Dixon proposed a series of rewards for students, suggesting for example a sum of £5 be shared among students who achieved over 70 per cent in exams. He thought a shared prize would be a better incentive than first or second prizes that could discourage those who didn't receive them. However larger scholarships were not encouraged as they might distract students from their trade or employment and instead encourage them to become full-time students.

Dixon also proposed that teachers be paid partly by government funding and partly by a percentage of the tuition fees collected for their subject. Dixon reasoned that if the possibility for extra money hinged on class size, teachers would be more inclined to work harder at teaching to attract more students and thereby make more money. Coupled with this, Dixon felt that charging higher fees would attract better students as they would be more inclined to work harder for something they paid for. The increase in the fees was one of the main criticisms of the college put forward the same year by the Trades and Labour Council, who had by now begun a campaign for the government to take over technical education in New South Wales. [20] Interestingly, the same idea was also being discussed within the Mechanics' School of Arts itself.

The college moves forward

In the same year as Dixon's report, the Committee of the Technical College at the Sydney Mechanic's School of Arts prepared a report to the Minister of Public Instruction on the progress to date and future directions for the College. The report took up some of the proposals put forward at a conference on technical education held in Sydney in 1880, including the extension of the colleges to suburban and principal country towns. It suggested that the government match public donations to fund the extension of the technical college through country Schools of Arts.

The report, written by Edward Dowling, also recognised that, although the Technical or Working Men's College had been initiated by the Mechanics' School, in the long term the financial burden and the benefits of a coordinated approach to education through primary, secondary and into technical education would probably necessitate the government taking on the administration of the college system through the Department of Public Instruction.

This was one of seven recommendations put forward by the committee. The others included an annual agreed grant of £2500 from the government on top of funding for country colleges, the extension of daytime classes, free rail travel for remote students to facilitate their attendance, acquisition of new buildings to accommodate the increasing classes and that the Government should lease the Mechanics' School theatre for evening lectures and scientific demonstrations. [21]

Dowling's report responded to some of the practical difficulties that the Mechanics' School was facing as the college increased in popularity and size. Money to pay teachers was taken from the enrolment fees to their particular class with no guarantee of a fixed salary for the 30 lecturers and teachers on staff. Some classes were charged only half fees, as that was all the students could afford. Extra room was also needed, with classes already spreading beyond the Pitt Street Mechanics' building to the old Pitt Street Public School. [22] In addition, the college had sent lecturers and apparatus to a number of rural Schools of Arts throughout 1882 and extended lectures to the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Asylum, the Destitute Children's Asylum and the nautical school ship Vernon.

In November 1882, the Committee of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts forwarded a memorandum to the Minister of Public Instruction, requesting that the technical college be incorporated and endowed with permanent support from the government in the same manner as Sydney University, the Sydney Grammar School and the Australian Museum had been. Permanent support from the government would alleviate the uncertainty over funding that had plagued the college over the previous two years and allow for the technical college to expand its program, reduce its fees and increase payment to its teachers. The memorandum pointed out the success that the college had been enjoying, including art students winning first prize at the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880. [23]

While stating its case to the government for extra funding, the committee appears to have begun to prepare for the possible government takeover of the college. In its Annual Report to members, the Committee of the Technical College for the Mechanics' School wrote that, despite the great amount of time and money expended on the college to date, members must

feel assured that the work that has been carried on during the last four years will, however its future may be guided, always remain as a monument both of enterprise and foresight on the part of the founders. [24]

All the while the college had continued to grow, with class numbers increasing from 20 to 29 between 1880 and 1882 and enrolments rising from 1198 to 2003 over the same period.

The government takes over

In September 1883 the government declared its intention to take administrative control of the technical college. This was a move that the Mechanics' School Committee had expected since the creation of the Department of Public Instruction in 1880 and they had been partially warned by the Trades and Labour Council in 1882 of the possibility.

The announcement came at a special meeting of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts held to consider the proposal of the transfer of the college to the government. The meeting was told that, as they were aware, the Mechanics' School had been offering a course of technical education with the aid of the government. The government had decided to carry on a system of technical education itself and had appointed a board to manage such a system. This new management body had approached the Mechanics and asked if they would be willing to hand to them the technical college, which the committee understood to mean that the aid previously given to them would no longer be available. The Mechanics then saw no option but to accede to the request and allow those classes currently under the supervision of the Mechanics' School to be carried on under the supervision of the Board of Technical Education which had been appointed on 1 August 1883.

With few other options the meeting unanimously agreed to hand over the college to the new board, including apparatus and equipment. As part of the deal, the government agreed to rent the college rooms from the Mechanics' School for £1500 per annum until such time as a new technical college could be built, which they did until the opening of the new Sydney Technical College at Ultimo in 1892. [25]

For his efforts in helping to establish the Technical or Working Men's College and then running it for the four years of its operation, Mr Edward Dowling was made a life member of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts.


[1] Lucy Hughes Turnbull, Sydney: Biography of a City, Random House Australia, Sydney, 1999, p 118

[2] Sydney Herald, 21 March 1833, p 1

[3] G Nadel, Australia's Colonial Culture: Ideas, men and institutions in mid nineteenth century eastern Australia, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1957, p 147

[4] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, Annual Report, 1873, p 10

[5] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, Annual Report, 1873, p 10

[6] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, Annual Report, 1875, p 9

[7] 'Engineering Association of NSW', Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 1876, p 5

[8] 'Technical or Working Men's College: Report from the Committee of the Technical College of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts to the Hon Minister of Public Instruction', 1881, Appendix C

[9] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, Annual Report, 1877, p 7

[10] 'News of the Day', Sydney Morning Herald, 19 October 1878, p 7

[11] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, Annual Report, 1878, p 7

[12] Minute Book: Technical or Working Men's College Working Committee Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, Meeting of Delegates 31 March 1879

[13] Minute Book: Technical or Working Men's College Working Committee Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, 18 April 1879

[14] 'Technical Education', Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 1879, p 3

[15] 'Mechanics' School of Arts' Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May 1879, p 6

[16] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, Annual Report, 1879, p 5

[17] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, Annual Report, 1880, p 10

[18] 'The Technical College', Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October 1881, p 7

[19] WA Dixon, 'Outlines of a practical scheme to carry out a system of Technical Education through the Schools of Arts in New South Wales, based on that now in operation in the technical college in connection with the Sydney Institution', presented to the president and Committee of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, 1881, p 5

[20] 'Trades and Labour Council', Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June 1881, p 3

[21] E Dowling, 'Technical or Working Men's College from the committee of the Technical College at Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts: report to the Honourable Minister of Public Instruction', 1881, pp 21–22

[22] 'The Technical College', Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October 1881, p 7

[23] 'Sydney Mechanics' Technical College', Sydney Morning Herald, 31 January 1883, p 6

[24] Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Annual Report, 1882, p 10

[25] 'Transfer of the Technical College to the Government', Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 1883, p 6