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DW As you can see from the image, the building today has lost some of its fine architectural details such as the finials and balustrading along the top. Nevertheless, its history is important to Morning- ton’s development.
Local historian Michael Collins explains why.
MC Before the Institute was built in 1885, meeting space in the town was limited. Rooms in the local hotels were generally used. For example, in the 1860s, the Mt. Eliza Roads Board, which was the forerunner to the Mornington Shire, held their meetings in the Tanti Hotel on the highway. The meet- ing called to frame a petition to the Colonial Government on the need to build a jetty at Mornington was also held at the Tanti Hotel.
The Mechanics Institute movement was started in Scotland and spread quickly throughout Britain and the Colonies to provide education for working men, who were generally known as mechanics in those days. The sculptured head of a Greek philosopher on the keystone above where the entrance used to be indicates that this was a place for learning.
The Mornington Mechanics Institute was funded by the citizens through subscription. Building was started in September 1885 when Judge Webb laid the foundation stone on land donated by Henry Gomm. A tin canister containing a scroll with details of all connected with the building was buried under the foundation stone along with copies of The Argus, The Age, the Dandenong Advertiser and the South Bourke and Mornington Journal.
The completion date was to be three months later in December. In spite of a severe storm which damaged the partly-constructed building it was opened on New Years Eve 1885 with a gala concert attended by 300 people.
The town now had a large hall for meetings, concerts and dances as well as a reading room and li- brary, thanks to a Government grant for books. By 1892 there were 1100 items in the collection. Some of the magazines included the Illustrated London News, Harpers Monthly, the Scientific American and the Scientific Australian and the Ladies Journal as well as the Melbourne daily papers.
DW It was also a community centre, wasn’t it?
MC It was indeed. A gala dinner was held when the first train arrived in 1889 with flags and bunting decorating the street. During the First World War many fundraising functions were held here to raise money to support the troops. The Mornington Ladies Guild would bring their sewing machines to make clothing for the men. And the declaration of the end of the Great War saw the citizens assemble outside the Institute to hear the news. Many political meetings were held here. It was also the home of the Masonic Lodge for 30 years until they moved to the old Methodist church site in Barkly Street in 1921.
DW And it was also Mornington’s first cinema?
MC It was. Professor Rankini, the travelling picture show man, put on very popular silent movie shows every week starting during the First World War. But because he packed so many people into the hall he often had disagreements with the Fire Brigade who argued there was insufficient space for patrons to escape in case of fire. Nevertheless, films were shown in the hall up until the Plaza Theatre opened in the late 1920s.
The Mechanics Institute was the cultural and entertainment centre for the Mornington community for over 70 years. The building is now incorporated into the Shire’s offices as is the building next door, the RSL Club rooms.
DW The Memorial Club Rooms, on the right hand side, were built after the First World War and opened in 1923. This was the home of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia. It was one of many formed around the country for the purposes of supporting returned soldiers. You can see where there would have been steps up to the front door. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the R.S.L. Club, as it had become was closed on some nights because the club could not afford the cost of lighting.
The RSL is now located in the industrial estate off Tyabb Road. Our next stop is 13 Main Street.