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Glebe School of Arts and Literary Institute

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Glebe School of Arts and Literary Institute

[media]The Glebe School of Arts and Literary Institute served the Glebe community for close to 100 years. Although often beset by financial problems and membership issues, the school provided a social and recreational hub for the suburb and its surrounds. The first school lasted an ambitious but troubled three years and was part of an early wave of Schools of Arts inspired by the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts. On and off again, the school had three more incarnations, with a permanent and measured approach from the 1920s.

First School of Arts 1859–61

In September 1859 a meeting of Glebe residents was held at the University Hotel, on the corner of Glebe Point Road and the Parramatta Road, for the purpose of taking active steps to establish a School of Arts at Glebe. A number of speakers rose to address the assembled audience, regaling them with the benefits that Schools of Arts could bring to communities when properly conducted, and it was agreed that Glebe should proceed to establish such an institution. In a show of enthusiasm, a list of 50 names was submitted from which the first committee could be selected. [1]

Just five days later, a second meeting, open to the public, was held, again at the University Hotel. With local member for Glebe John Campbell in the chair, a resolution was passed to formally establish a literary and scientific institute to be known as Glebe School of Arts. The committee was made up of local parliamentarians, academics from nearby Sydney University, local developers and builders such as Thomas Tipple Smith, William Elphinstone jnr and William Jarrett (also a publican and local councillor), another publican and local councillor James Simpson, businessmen, such as James Pemell who owned the Brisbane Steam Flour Mill and was appointed treasurer, and other local men Messrs Jabez Bunting, WT Clark, J Shakespear, J Dole, John Riley, J Fletcher, TA Dibbs and W Burne. The first president was the meeting's chair John Campbell and the vice-president was Dr John Woolley, who was also closely involved with the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts.

The meeting was faced with one of the school's first, if more peculiar challenges. The assembled group was informed that the Bishop of Sydney had offered the newly formed committee a piece of land on which to erect their building. This generous offer came with one small condition, that a local clerical trustee be appointed to the School of Arts board. Such a generous offer was a tempting prospect, but was rejected as 'it was highly desirable that the institute should in no way be of a sectarian character', commented Mr Geoffrey Eagar, MLC, who was also a vice-president on the new committee. [2]

The establishment of the School of Arts may have been a tad ambitious in 1859, as the municipality itself had only been gazetted in March the same year. With a population of just over 3,100, it was not guaranteed that enough people would support the school, especially when there was a successful and much larger School of Arts not far away in the city. [3]

However, with a committee established, the new School of Arts began to meet at rented rooms within the University Hotel. Initially the rooms and library were open on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, with occasional lectures. One such, on phrenology in December 1859, allowed members to attend free and introduce two ladies. [4]

Despite a promising start, by July 1860 the School of Arts was beginning to languish, with debts accumulating, membership stagnated at 75 and a general feeling among some of the committee that the institution was going backwards. A public meeting was used as a call-to-arms by Dr Woolley, who remarked that the School of Arts was an essential component for the unity of the social classes in Glebe, as it was only at places such as the school that they could easily meet and mingle. He called for the inclusion of women as members as their maternal institution in Pitt Street had done, the introduction of music classes, and even the development of a community garden where young people could be taught the basics of horticulture. Comparing the recent creation of the municipality and the fiscal outlay now felt by each resident in the form of rates and payments, he said:

surely they (Glebe residents) could not grudge to lay out something for their spiritual and moral wants, which were equally great, though perhaps not so obtrusively felt. [5]

Despite rousing cheers from the 60 or so attendees, the first School of Arts did not have much time left.

By October 1860, when the first annual report was put forward, the school was in disarray. The first secretary, Mr Burne, had resigned in July soon after the public meeting. He claimed no confidence in the committee and promptly left with the books, documents and keys to the School of Arts library, making it necessary for the members to break the door down. They had increasing debts, but could not keep proper track of them due to the loss of the books, and the new committee was urged to be more punctual in their attendance and present a united front to stop the apparent decline of the institution.

Sadly, it was all in vain. In April 1861 a meeting was called

of all committeemen, members, and gentlemen who feel interested in whether the School of Arts shall fail due to lack of support or be established upon a respectable basis. [6]

It turned out the former was the case, and the first Glebe School of Arts was dissolved on 24 April 1861.

Second Glebe School of Arts 1883–87

Some two decades later, in April 1883, a public meeting was convened at the Glebe Town Hall to propose the re-establishment of a School of Arts, resulting in the Glebe School of Arts being reformed in August after a 22-year hiatus. [7] The first public meeting was scheduled for Monday 27 August at the library room of the Glebe Town Hall, with the lecture to be delivered by Dr Charles Badham, Professor of Classics at the University of Sydney. Unfortunately for the newly reconvened institution, the lecture had to be rescheduled as Dr Badham was under his doctor's instructions not to deliver the lecture, due to his increasingly poor health, with the event postponed to the following Monday, 3 September.

The first few years of the new school proceeded at a steady pace. Concerts for voice and instruments were held to raise money, cooking classes of the Technical Education Board were conducted at the School of Arts from 1885, while lectures, recitals and lantern entertainments were put on for members and the public. Upcoming lectures at the School of Arts were advertised on a board erected outside the Town Hall in 1886, with a fortnightly program in the large, main hall from October. [8] However by 1887, the same lethargy that had disrupted the first incarnation appeared to be resurfacing. The Annual Report for 1887 noted that membership had fallen from 96 to 76 and that greater impetus should be given to the running of the institution, as it noted that the 14 meetings through the year had been poorly attended and had had difficulty reaching a quorum. Indeed five committee members had forfeited their positions due to a lack of attendance.

The problem with falling attendance was that government subsidies available to all schools of arts, depending on their educational output, were also tied to membership numbers and dollars. The subsidy was £1 for every £2 raised, paid through the Department of Public Instruction, so any fall in paying members translated directly to a fall in the available government help.

In October 1887 the school's secretary again requested the use of the Glebe Town Hall's large hall for a series of lectures, which was granted. After this though, the School of Arts slips from the records, with no advertising in local papers and no further requests to council to use the hall or to the government for subsidy money. Like the first attempt, the school appears to have faltered through a lack of will, and closed.

Glebe Working Men's Institute

In August 1901 a new organisation was launched in Glebe, aimed at educating and entertaining the population. Called the Glebe Working Men's Institute, its stated aim was to promote the social, intellectual and moral improvement of the working men they hoped would become members. Local member of the Legislative Assembly James Hogue anticipated great results from the institution and assured those present at the opening that they need not be discouraged by its small beginnings, as many great institutions had started small, including the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts. [9]

Although similar in its stated aims to the earlier School of Arts, one significant difference was the introduction of billiard tables, as well as the library and reading rooms familiar in the original organisation. The billiard tables proved to be both a financial and social success. Hogue, now the chairman, agreed with the introduction of billiard tables (suggesting that some members didn't), commenting that:

Working men did not want mental exercise after a day's work was done. They wanted good healthy exercise. [10]

As well as billiards, also prominent were cards, draughts and chess as recreational pursuits for members, with regular competitions among themselves and with rival societies. The institute also arranged outings for members, with harbour cruises and concerts. One such combined cruise and concert attracted 300 members and guests. [11] Although good for members, the focus on recreation rather than education precluded the institute from any government subsidy, meaning all monies to operate it had to be raised from members.

Despite no government subsidy in the first six years of its operation, the Working Men's Institute prospered, taking on many of the roles that a School of Arts would traditionally have fulfilled, including running lectures and the library. By 1904 the library only held 56 volumes, although it was actively seeking the incorporation of the council library into the collection to boost its educational role. However it was the billiards that most members came for, with exhibition matches between well-known players proving particularly popular. Billiards was also the institute's main revenue stream, bringing in over £405 in the first 16 months of operation at new premises in St Johns Road (which they moved to in 1905). [12] Although closer to a recreational club than the traditional model of the school of arts, the Working Men's Institute attracted prominent members of the community. The mayor of Glebe, Alderman Stanley L Cole was president for a number of years during the early 1910s, and other aldermen and state parliamentarians were also associated with the institute.

In 1909 the institute reported to the government that it had a library of over 2,000 volumes, 211 members on the rolls and had held a number of lectures for members and the public, including one by the Federal member for Western Sydney, Hon William (Billy) Morris Hughes, who gave a lecture titled 'Ideals' in August 1908. Sporting demonstrations were also popular: Frederick Lindrum played exhibition billiard matches in 1908, and Spencer Crackenthorp, New South Wales chess champion, gave a lecture on 'Chess Endings' which he followed by a series of simultaneous games with members, all of which he won. [13]

By 1912 the institute had 320 members on the roll, 280 of whom were financial. They included male and female members, although there was a divide in what was available to each. Male members, who paid two shillings and sixpence a quarter, were entitled to use the free library and reading room, and the billiard room with its six tables as well as to play draughts, chess, cards and dominoes. Female members, who paid two shillings, were only allowed in the reading room and the free library. The institute was open from 2 pm till 6 pm and 7 pm till 11 pm daily, with the earlier opening time of 10 am to 1 pm on holidays, except Christmas and Good Friday when it was closed. [14]

Although the membership of the institute remained high and the government inspectors agreed it was well-run and maintained, and therefore paid the subsidy each year from 1909, there was one problem: the institute rented the building it occupied in St Johns Road. Throughout the decade 1910–1920, the institute was saving part of the government subsidy each year for the future purchase of a block of land to build its own hall. By 1920 the situation was desperate as the landlord was £1,600 in arrears on the mortgage, and the property was to be resumed and sold. Pleas to the government to resume the land for the institute were rejected, being beyond the scope of financial assistance offered. By 1922 the institute had vacated the premises in St Johns Road and had temporary use of the Glebe Public School Hall.

A third and final time 1923–1954

[media]In January 1923 at the Working Men's Institute 34th half-yearly meeting, the membership voted on a change of name. Harking back 40 years, the institute decided to rename itself the Glebe School of Arts and Literary Institute to 'fall in with other institutes'. [15] The name change was agreed to by the Minister for Public Instruction in March, who was also informed that the organisation had saved £820 for the purchase of a block of land in Bridge Road to build on.

In February 1924 the new Glebe School of Arts and Literary Institute was officially opened by Mr Albert Bruntnell, Minister for Public Instruction. The new building was a two-storey, rectangular hall with a chess room and library/reading room at the front and billiard hall with a raised stage behind. The billiard hall was essentially a corrugated iron shed with exposed roof attached to the brick front. Upstairs at the front was a lecture hall and amenities.

From newspaper reports at the time, it appears that for some, the Working Men's Institute and School of Arts were one and the same, as it was reported that Glebe had had a School of Arts for the last 18 years but 'its life had been akin to an Arab's tent, more or less unsettled'. [16] It was hoped that the new building would encourage new members and sustain the school for the future. Although the name change returned the organisation to its historic roots, the lessons of the institute and the changing nature of public education and entertainment meant that the billiard tables remained a central feature of the new building.

Through the 1920s, the School of Arts continued to serve its members and the wider community through the billiard tables, reading room and the rental of the hall. A number of dances were held through the decade, as well as billiard, draughts and chess championships. Annual meetings for local sporting clubs were also held at the school. By 1929 there were 235 members, of whom 43 were women.

However, as in the past, financial troubles again beset the organisation, which defaulted on its loan from AMP in 1929. The school was forced to sell part of the land at Glebe to avoid losing possession altogether. With money always an issue, the school was again in trouble in 1933, this time with the courts. In April that year, the secretary James Knight was fined £5 for allowing the use of a fruit machine, an early form of poker machine, within the school. The fruit machine was located in the billiard room, and although only available to members, was an illegal gaming machine. [17] A more conventional way to raise money was proposed in 1948 – renting of part of the building to a private company.

In 1949 Glebe Municipality was amalgamated into the City of Sydney and it was proposed that the former Glebe Town Hall be converted into a suburban branch library. The City Council, along with other municipal councils in New South Wales, was actively taking responsibility for free libraries within its council boundaries, following the proclamation of the Library Act in 1944. In July 1950, Alderman Stanley raised the possibility of acquiring the Glebe School of Arts building for the library and the city librarian was sent out to inspect the building. The librarian advised against the proposal, stating that it would be more expensive to convert the building than to build a new library.

Despite this setback, the proposal to acquire the School of Arts remained on the council agenda, and in October 1953 the Trustees of the Glebe School of Arts and Literary Institute approached the City of Sydney. The trustees proposed that they hand over their library and building to the City for the establishment of a branch library. [18] Due to the central location of the building in the suburb and the size of the collection, the City of Sydney agreed to the transfer, which was effected in October 1954, signalling the official and final end of the Glebe School of Arts.




[1] Sydney Morning Herald 16 September 1859, p 8

[2] Empire, 20 Sept 1859, p 4

[3] M Solling, Grandeur & Grit: A History of Glebe, Halstead Press, Sydney, 2007, p 153

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 1859, p 1

[5] Empire, 10 July 1860, p 5

[6] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April 1861, p 4

[7] Glebe School of Arts 1883, Letter from Secretary to Minister for Public Education , Department of Education Subject Files 1880–1887, State Records NSW, 20/13060A

[8] Glebe Municipal Council Minute Books, January 1886–November 1889, Correspondence 5 April, 1886, City of Sydney Archives, 1056/5

[9] Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 1901, p 5

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 1902, p 9

[11] Sydney Morning Herald, 14 February 1906, p 4

[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 28 October 1907, p 8

[13] Glebe Working Men's Institute, Department of Education Subject Files 1908–1909, State Records NSW, 20/13126

[14] Glebe Working Men's Institute, Department of Education Subject Files 1912–1914, State Records NSW, 20/13147

[15] Glebe School of Arts, Department of Education Subject Files 1922–1923, State Records NSW, 20/11595

[16] Sydney Morning Herald, 22 February 1924, p 10

[17] Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1933, p 10

[18] Glebe School of Arts & Literary Institute 191/195 Bridge Road, Glebe: Conversion of Premises for use as a Branch Library, City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 34: 4729/53