Fires at Mechanics’ Institutes

Mechanics’ institutes and their libraries faced a high risk of being destroyed by fire in the nineteenth century. The Sandhurst Mechanics’ Institute caught alight on 25 December 1865 and while it is not clear whether they lost any of their library collection, parts of the building were damaged and unfortunately the building was not insured. Given that the building of the Institute was only completed in 1864, the devastation felt by the committee was great.

A couple of years later on Sunday 8 September 1867, the Kyneton Mechanics’ Institute was destroyed by a serious fire. The Bendigo Advertiser reported:

the total destruction, by fire, on Sunday morning about one o’clock, of the valuable library, and also the whole of the records, of the Kyneton Mechanics’ Institute, besides the Reading; Room and all the periodicals it contained. About twelve o’clock on Saturday night, loud cries were heard of “Fire! Fire!” and, on inquiry, we learnt it was at the Mechanics’ Institute. On proceeding there, we found the whole of the wooden portion in one immense blaze, and without the slightest hopes of that portion being saved … The whole of the library, consisting of some 1,000 volumes, was completely destroyed, the books having taken years to select, and having been carefully looked after, were most valuable, as they abounded in literature of every class. 

(Bendigo Advertiser, 11 September 1867)

Fortunately, unlike the Sandhurst Institute, the Kyneton Institute was insured and received £590 in compensation. Other institutes also came to Kyneton’s aid, with the committees of both the Sandhurst and the Ballaarat mechanics’ institutes agreeing to donate books to the institute to support the restocking of the library. An 1866 catalogue of the Kyneton library survived and you can view a copy of the catalogue and a gloss of its contents before the fire here.

Depicts 9 photomechanical images in halftone of view of Kyneton, including: the Mechanics' Institute, the Fair, the Botanic Gardens, the Timber Yard, Rawson's Drapery Emporium, the Post Office, McMarthey's Training Stables, the Printing Office, and Mollison Street.
‘Views of Kyneton’ by L. U. K. (1893). Courtesy of State Library of Victoria

Ten years later, in January 1877, the Kyneton Institute is again reported as being ‘completely gutted’ by a fire, and with ‘no fire brigade in the town, and no water for putting out fires’ (Herald, 2 January 1877). A poem published in the local newspaper in September 1877 lamented the destruction caused by the fire and pleaded with the public for their ongoing support:

The cry of “Fire!” through silent streets arose,

While lurid flames lit up the night like day.

Alas that on the morrow should be seen.

Our township’s home of culture and of mirth,

No longer smiling in the summer sheen,

Now nought but roofless walls and ruined


Ranged on these shelves were many a tome

With rich instruction to the student’s ken,

Here could he through the fields of learning


Hold sweet communion with the wisest men.

(Kyneton Guardian, 12 September 1877).

The Stanley Athenaeum’s surviving library collection shows evidence of the fire they faced in 1901, with books inscribed: ‘saved from the flames 1901’:

Photograph of the title page of 'Works of Henry, Lord Brougham: Sketches of Statesmen'. Above title handwritten inscription reads: 'Saved from the flames, 1901'.

These fires show the risk of destruction faced by mechanics’ institutes and libraries on the goldfields and the financial and emotional cost to committee members and subscribers of the institutes. They also highlight the significance of the collections that did survive to the analysis of nineteenth-century reading culture.

Works Cited

Bendigo Advertiser, 11 September 1867.

Herald, 2 January 1877.

Kyneton Guardian, 12 September 1877.

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