Our History

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SMSA façade c1920s.

Who we are

The SMSA is the oldest operating Mechanics’ School of Arts and operates the longest-running lending library in Australia. Since 1833, the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts has made a major contribution to Sydney’s culture, industry, society and politics.

Governed by the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts Incorporation Act 1886, the SMSA is a self-funded not-for-profit organisation, wholly owned by its members. We are proud to have Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of New South Wales and Mr Dennis Wilson as our Joint Patrons.

Interior of Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Library 3

Interior of Sydney Mechanics School of Arts Library.

Our Beginnings

The Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts was founded on 22 March 1833 at a public meeting attended by around 200 people. Among those present was Henry Carmichael who had first seen the need for a School of Arts in Sydney and spearheaded the movement, along with some of the artisans and tradesmen who had studied with him aboard the Stirling Castle during their voyage to Sydney. Major Thomas Mitchell, the surveyor general, was unanimously acclaimed as our first President and Governor Bourke, an enthusiastic supporter, agreed to be our first patron.

Schools of Arts and Mechanics’ Institutes came out of a progressive, forward-thinking movement that emerged in Scotland with the aim of providing open access to education for the working classes who were excluded from more formal and traditional education. Whereas Schools of Arts concentrated on literature, history and the arts, Mechanics’ Institutes provided vocational training for mechanics who worked with their hands: skilled tradespeople like carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons and blacksmiths.

Interior of Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Library

Northern side of building, first floor, looking from Pitt Street end, 1936 / photo by J. R. Taylor, 554A George Street, Sydney, Source SLNSW.

Women were admitted as members in August 1833, just 5 months after our founding. Women’s names appear in class rolls from the 1860s, providing an alternative for women who were disenfranchised with traditional education.

Over the years, many prominent citizens of Sydney have been active members of the SMSA, many of whom were involved in the School’s Debating Club. In 1891, journalist and suffragist Louisa Lawson smashed a significant glass ceiling when she overcame opposition to become the first woman in the SMSA’s Debating Club. More women quickly followed.

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Filling a vital niche

As the years progressed, the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts offered a diverse range of courses — everything from pneumatics, the art of ancient oratory and ship-building to phrenology, how to choose a horse and the poetry of Lord Byron. There were even classes in ‘Simple Surgery’.

The School quickly became the centre of Sydney’s intellectual, cultural, social and political life. The members’ lending library provided valuable access to books, journals and newspapers; the talks and lectures were well attended; and various clubs and social activities kept members entertained.

Moreover, the School’s vocational education made a critical contribution to Sydney’s economic development, by fulfilling a desperate need for skilled labourers in the rapidly expanding colony. In 1878, the SMSA founded the Working Man’s College in a new building behind the main School of Arts. It was so successful that the Government pushed to take over and in 1883, the School accepted. It became Ultimo College and is a direct forebear of TAFE and both the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology, Sydney.

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Photographer Graham Jepson

The SMSA Today

Today, the SMSA continues to operate the longest-running lending library in Australia. We also host a robust program of talks and film screenings and have a range affordable venue hire options including a theatre and flexible meeting rooms. Members enjoy access to the SMSA Library and benefits such as the ability to attend member only activities and events.

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Photo of Tom Keneally (2012), Photographer Helen White

Tom Keneally Centre

SMSA is also home to the Tom Keneally Centre which opened in 2011. The centre is open to all. It hosts Keneally’s research collection as well as other memorabilia. Everyone is welcome to visit and SMSA Members may borrow from the collection. It can also be hired as a venue through our Venue Hire team for literary activities such as writing classes, readings and author talks.

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