Getting technical

Technical education is all important today, and it’s hard to imagine a time when it needed advocates and activists.

With the generous help of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts who sponsored their research for the Dictionary during 2009 and 2010, Catherine Freyne and Mark Dunn have produced a number of articles that set out the various histories of Sydney’s institutions of technical learning, and indeed the very idea of technical education itself, as it developed in the growing city. There are more of these articles to come, later this year, but here are few to be going on with.

The Mechanics’ School itself, founded in 1833, grew out of a belief that working men needed more than on-the-job training and that classes for adults would enable workers to hone their skills and expertise and provide useful knowledge for the colony.

Out of the Mechanics’ School grew the Technical and Working Men’s College, the Erskineville Bootmaking School, the Sydney Technical College, the National Art School, and ultimately both the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology, Sydney. Along the way the SMSA occupied various city premises, and the technical college mushroomed at Ultimo, eventually swallowing Ultimo House.

From the 1830s, leading men  such as Henry CarmichaelJoseph Fowles, Norman Selfe and many others fostered the idea of technical training as an addition to the classical education offered after 1853 at the University of Sydney, lobbying the colonial government and education department. Their influence on education more generally in the colony is examined by Geoffrey Sherington and Craig Campbell in their article on Education.

The new reading room at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, June 1879, Australian Town and Country Journal, 14 June 1879, p 1128

At the same time, the School of Arts movement grew across the city, with people joining together to organise their own local schools, raise money to build rooms, and as always, to squabble over their organisation’s proper role and function. In many suburban communities, Schools of Arts were the first local libraries, social clubs, entertainment venues and sites of learning.

The Sydney Mechanics School of Arts is at 280 Pitt Street today. The SMSA offers a regular public program of talks on issues of current affairs, literature, science, the arts and history (several Dictionary of Sydney contributors have spoken at their Tuesday Talkabouts) for its members and the public. Membership is only $15 a year (full rate) and also gives you access to the SMSA library, the oldest lending library in Australia. It has one of the largest fiction collections in central Sydney and is well worth a visit – tell them we sent you!

Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, 280 Pitt Street, Sydney

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About Emma Grahame

Emma Grahame has been Editorial Coordinator of the Dictionary of Sydney since May 2007.
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