The Mechanics’ Institute

Mechanics’ Institutes were established in Europe and America in the early nineteenth century as educational organisations for craftsmen and skilled workers. Institutes aimed to disseminate knowledge from trade to trade, and provide education for members through lectures on science and a variety of self-improvement topics. Subscription libraries for the use of Institute members and for the public usually formed part of the organisations. These libraries included works of fiction and non-fiction, a reading room for newspapers and magazines, and a venue for lectures, classes, book and play readings, and light entertainment.

In New Zealand, Mechanics’ Institutes were formed very early in the European settlement period. The Auckland Mechanics’ Institute was established in July 1841, and a Wellington Institute in April the following year. The Wellington organisation took over the collection of the Port Nicholson Exchange and Central Library, a subscription library set up in 1841 with Dr. F. J. Knox as librarian. Although the Wellington Institute was in abeyance for 4 years after 1844, it was revived again in August 1848. The Dunedin Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1851 by the Rev. Thomas Burns.


In Christchurch, a Mechanics’ Institute was first proposed in March 1852 by Charles Joseph Rae 1. Rae, who was a painter by trade, had arrived in Canterbury in 1851. He wrote to the Lyttelton Times (20 March 1852), suggesting could we not get up a Working Men’s Literary and Scientific Institution, where working men and their wives might wish to enjoy ‘The feast of reason / And the flow of soul’…. A public meeting was held in July and an Institute founded but the venture failed, largely because of hostility from the Colonists’ Society, which saw it as encroaching on its preserves. In 1859, however, Rae tried again, calling a meeting on 26 May where he proposed that a Mechanics’ Institute and a Book Club be established in the town. This time his proposal was received more enthusiastically; a committee was elected, which included the provincial superintendent as chairman, and Rae as secretary, and rules were drafted. The Institute’s objective was laid down as the mental improvement and recreation of its members by the establishment of a library and reading rooms, the delivery of lectures, and the formation of discussion and other classes. Subscription fees were set at one guinea per annum or seven shillings and sixpence per quarter, and Frederick Thompson was appointed as the first librarian 2. Temporary premises were found at the Town Hall, and the Institute was officially opened on 4 August 1859 by Sir John Hall. There were 112 members.

Within days, lectures on such diverse subjects as the poetry of Robert Burns and English constitutional history were being offered, as well as classes in arithmetic and writing. A successful Conversatione, attended by 230 persons (including a number of ladies) was also held 3. From the beginning, however, the most important element of the Institute’s work was considered to be the library. The Lyttelton Times noted when a Mechanics’ Institute was proposed in May that the most important desiderata to be first attended to would be the Library and the Reading Room, supported by the undivided attention of a clerk to order books, catalogue and care for them, check them in and out, and to file newspapers and supervise the reading room4. The newspaper reiterated this view in June, recommending that those pushing for the establishment of an Institute devote most of their attention the library and reading room; only in this way could the largest possible number of subscribers be attracted 5.

Although the average nightly attendance in the reading room during its first year was only nine, the Institute stated in its first annual report in July 1860 that it had taken “a wholesome and firm root” in Christchurch society, despite opening during a period of economic depression. The money raised from subscriptions, however, was already proving insufficient to meet the goals of the organisation. About 30 local and British newspapers were available for readers, but the report noted the “want of books is seriously felt”. Only 79 volumes had been purchased during the year, though a further 20 had been donated and 69 lent6.

A new building

The inadequacies of the Town Hall site were also discussed, and over the next 3 years, the Institute focused its efforts on acquiring its own building. With the assistance of a grant from the Provincial Council in January 1862, half an acre (sections 405 and 406) was purchased on the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street, at a cost of 262 pounds. At the end of the year, the Institute announced a competition for the best building design 7, and the following year, they accepted the design offered by Samuel Farr of Christchurch as the least costly and affording the greatest amount of convenience, besides possessing a pleasing architectural appearance 8. The building was completed in October 1863 and the new library and reading room opened for business on 2 November 9. The total cost of the venture was 1485 pounds, which, despite the generosity of local residents and subscribers, left the Institute with a debt of over 700 pounds. This was somewhat reduced the following year when the Provincial Council gave the Institute a further grant of 250 pounds, but a request for more money was declined in 1865 (annual report, 28 June 1865), and the remaining years of the Institute’s independent existence were shadowed by severe financial burdens.

In 1864, however, the future looked reasonably bright. Membership had increased to 435 subscribers, and a number of lectures were held. The library, which now held some 1500 volumes, remained the major focus of the Institute’s work, and the librarian, Charles Reader, created the first catalogue of books, newspapers and periodicals (very ill-arranged, according to the Lyttelton Times on 24 Sept 1868). By 1873, the book collection numbered nearly 3000 volumes.

Financial Problems

Nonetheless, problems remained. The number of subscribers continued to fluctuate wildly, dropping to only 140 in 1870. Many subscribers paid quarterly and often let their subscriptions lapse in one or more quarters of the year, so that income barely met the expenses of running the Institute. In a bid to attract more support, a name change took place in 1868. The Mechanics’ Institute became the Christchurch Literary Institute, with a soirée being held to mark the event. As the Lyttelton Timeshad pointed out as early as 1862, the Institute was supported not by mechanics only, but by representatives of every profession, and every class in the community… 10. According to a newspaper letter writer in March 1869, however, the organisation remained fairly drowned in the maelstrom of debt and unpopularity 11. Earlier, a newspaper editorial suggested the library was anything but a cheerful place, full of ancient tomes and too few magazines, cold and gloomy. To succeed it needed to provide intellectual amusement for the public, with up-to-date stock made readily available in rooms offering a greater degree of comfort 12. Accordingly, a series of popular entertainments, including a circus, was organised to raise funds, new books and magazines were ordered, and a new entranceway, chairs, a writing table, a smoking room and a meeting room, and gas lighting were installed. Chess and debating clubs were inaugurated, and an area was set aside for the exclusive use of lady visitors from 10am-5pm each day. The book shelves were reorganised for ease of access so that borrowers could select their own books, and Reader updated the catalogue. He made his own contribution to cost saving by accepting a 25% cut in his salary, and by moving out of the upstairs apartment in the library, where he and his family had lived since his appointment in 1863, so it could be rented out to other local organisations like the Musical Society and the Philosophical Society for their meetings. These measures had some effect, with subscriber numbers doubling, but the financial difficulties still remained.

Local Government becomes involved

As early as 1867, the Institute’s shareholders considered a proposal that the Provincial Council should buy them out, and open the library and reading room to the general public. This proposal fell through when the Council refused to vote the necessary funds but the idea remained at the forefront of the minds of the organising committee. Thus, when matters became so desperate in 1873 that the Institute, having reviewed the struggles of the last 14 years, was prepared to close (except for an hour each evening), committee members welcomed the overtures of the promoters of a free library scheme under Council auspices, and recommended the transfer of Institute property to the public library trustees.

This proposal was put into effect in September by the Canterbury Public Library Act (1873), with the deed of transfer being signed on 15 December 1873. Its most important conditions were the maintenance of the reading room and of a circulating library, for which purpose the Council voted 5000 pounds. At the same time, the Provincial Superintendent gave the control of the library to the Board of Governors of Canterbury College, through the Canterbury Museum and Library Ordinance Amendment Ordinance (1873). It was thus the College, rather than the Council, which took over the running of Canterbury Public Library in February 1874.

The first 15 years of public library service in Christchurch were difficult. With very little capital on which draw, the Mechanics’ Institute was dependent on income from subscriptions for much of its work, and this had proved quite inadequate to meet its ideals. Nevertheless, the Institute had done much to lay the foundations of public library service in the city. Perhaps most important was its acquisition of the site in Cambridge Terrace which remained home to the library until 1981. The Institute also pioneered the library as both an educational and recreational resource, and established the importance of providing current periodicals and newspapers for the reading public. Sadly, it also established the principle of paying to borrow books; a free public library service did not come to Christchurch until 1952 and a borrowing charge for popular fiction remained in place until the 1990s.


1. Charles Joseph Rae in DNZB
2Lyttelton Times, 16 June 1859, p. 4
3. Lyttelton Times, 10 August 1859, p. 5
4. Lyttelton Times, 21 May 1859, p. 4
5. Lyttelton Times18 June 1859, p. 4
6. Lyttelton Times, 7 July 1860
7. Lyttelton Times, 17 Dec 1862, p. 10d
8. Lyttelton Times, 8 Sept 1863, p. 3a-b
9. Lyttelton Times, 31 Oct 1863, p. 1a
10. Lyttelton Times, 2 August 1862
11. Lyttelton Times, 9 March 1869, p. 3a-b
12. Lyttelton Times, 24 Sept 1868, p. 2b-d


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