HISTORY OF TRARALGON'S MECHANICS INSTITUTE
By Jean Court (25/3)
(This article was compiled by Jean Court in 1973 for inclusion in the capsule inserted into the cairn erected in the forecourt of the Latrobe Permanent Building Society built on the site of the Mechanics Institute.)
A large room attached to the western side of the Traralgon Hotel served the needs of a growing population as a public hall until 1876. It was the general rendezvous for meetings, concerts, church services, court, in fact every important happening in the township.
At night, the interior was dimly lit by a kerosene lamp and outside it was dark, and, in winter, extremely muddy under foot. In the year 1876, a meeting of the residents was held in Mr. Oswald Marriage's store to discuss the advisability of erecting a Mechanics Institute. It was decided to apply to the Government for a block of land for the site of the hall. The Minister of Lands most generously gave a quarter of an acre block at the corner of Franklin and Hotham Sts.
It was decided to proceed with the building although the funds in hand were only 5. John Peterkin and Oswald Marriage agreed to supply the materials and the contract was let to Mr. H. Fisher and Mr. George Whalley, who agreed to erect a building according to the plans supplied free of charge by Mr. Allen, the Rosedale builder, for a cost of 300.
It was a good building, and set well back on the block. The hall opened with a grand dance although it was not quite completed. Soon afterwards, however, a severe storm blew the building down, as flat as a pancake, burying both of the contractors in the debris. They fortunately escaped without injury. This was a major disaster. The committee called a public meeting at which it was agreed to take the burden of reconstruction from the hands of the contractors. Mr. Burton received the task of re-assembling the building, which he did to everyone's satisfaction. A Christie Minstrel Troupe was organised; this toured the district raising funds and soon realised 100 towards the cost. Quarterly concerts were organised to meet the bills as they became due.
Money was hard to obtain at this period as trade was poor; there was also some jealousy between the residents living on the two sides of the creek, as each thought that the hall should be in their immediate area. This feeling persisted for some time but finally, with the railway being in the vicinity, the west side accepted. It was not easy to establish a public hall in Traralgon at this time.
A library service was soon in operation and this building served the townspeople until 1884, when it became apparent that a larger and more substantial building was required to meet the needs of the people.
The Government agreed to the sale of the original site, which had by this time increased in value, and a much cheaper site was then purchased in Hotham street. The site in Hotham St. now to be the new home of the Co-Operative Housing Society Offices, was then purchased for 200, and building of a new Mechanics Institute commenced. This time a magnificent brick building was erected, at a cost of 1,589. The money was raised by means of debentures each costing 20.
A description of the new building, written when it opened with a Grand Concert, read: "This building is undoubtedly the finest Institution of its kind south of Melbourne. Its magnificent hall, stage and scenery is a pleasing surprise to every stranger. Its broad staircase, lobby, anteroom, etc., are all that could be desired and the fact is patent to all beholders that this beautiful structure has been erected at a first cost irrespective of price, a fact which reflects the greatest credit upon the Traralgon residents, as it will supply all the wants for many years to come. Traralgon is to be complimented upon such beautiful structures as the Mechanics Institute and Post Office Buildings."
The late Walter West served the Institute as Secretary from1884 to 1923 and then as President until 1934, a total of fifty years of service.
A site adjoining the Institute, on which the town hall was built, was purchased by the committee in 1908. fine site was transferred free of charge to the shire Council in 1925, to enable the council to build the Town Hall and offices. The Town Hall, built in 1925, at a cost of 9,338, was financed on a 23-year term loan.
The Mechanics Institute Committee entered into an agreement with the council, in which they agreed to take over the control of the Town Hall and the responsibility of repaying 6,223 of the loan. The Shire agreed to pay 3,l13 in respect of the portion occupied by them. The Institute managed to honor its obligation, although not without some difficulties.
Mr. Duncan Christensen brought forward a proposal on June 11, 1925, that the Institute purchase the plant and equipment and manage its own picture theatre. Mr. E. Conchie was appointed manager. The wisdom of this venture was amply reflected by the success of the undertaking. The hall became free of debt in 1947.
With the completion of the new Shire Offices in Kay St., the front portion of the building became available for rental. There were many tenants, among them the newly formed. Gippsland Telecaster office, now Channel 10 Gippsland, Billingsleys Estate Agents, the Eisteddfod Committee, and, finally, the Helping Hand Opportunity Shop, while on the upper storey the Historical Society found a place to store its archives, the Choral Group met, as well as the art group and other drama and musical organisations. The adjoining Mechanics Institute continued to provide a reading room and library service until the new City Library was organised, this taking place beneath the sane roof. The State Savings Bank found temporary shelter while new premises were built nearby in Hotham St., the Totalisator Board operated there for approximately a year. With the coming of a new industry to the town, a workshop was organised for the Robin Shoe Factory in portions of the two buildings which were joined on the upper floor. Finally, they too left and the fittings and furniture from St. James' Church of England found rest and shelter until the beautiful new church was completed in Grey St.
The buildings had seen a great deal of joy and sorrow in the years between 1888 and 1972, 84 years in the life of a growing community, the hub and centre of the town and its people.
The doors were open to all in times of peace and war. So many people have been associated with the events there, candidates awaiting election results, young people meeting for the very first time at a dance or picture show, contestants at competitions, times of celebration, a royal visit perhaps, times of sorrow.
So many memories were shattered when the walls tumbled down under the wrecker's hammer, but now we can look forward to the beginning of yet another era in the history of our city, an age of computers, data processing and automation, but the people who come will, like those of earlier generations, write a history for those who come after.
Traralgon Mechanics Institute and Town Hall, Hotham Street. Demolished 1972. Sketch by Mr. Barry Alford