The Mechanics’ Institute

What is a Mechanics’ Institute?

Mechanics’ Institutes of the 19th century were community-based organisations established to provide adult education. These community halls which were eligible for government grants, became centres for lectures, readings, meetings, concerts and dances.

VNEP P539 Mechanics Institute c1896

The Mechanics’ Institute c. 1896 from NHS collection

There was a great thirst for knowledge in the community and the Institutes flourished until formal educational bodies filled the need. Compulsory primary level schooling was introduced in 1872, the first technical college was established in 1887, and the first Government secondary school only started in 1905.


In 1876 on 15th of July, a meeting was held at the Continental Hotel and land was granted by The Ocean Amphitheatre Co. to George Coppin, Joseph Hiskens and John Cain. Stone was donated by Sir Charles Gavan Duffy.

The meeting was reported in The Argus of July 20th 1876.

Article image from the National Library of Australia's Newspaper Digitisation Program

The Argus 20th July 1876 from Trove HERE

The trustees commissioned local builder George Morce to construct the first hall using local limestone.

The Sorrento Mechanics’ Institute opened on 3rd February, 1877, with a concert. Reported here in The Age of 6th Feb 1877.

institute opening the age 6 feb 1877

The Age 6 Feb 1877 from Trove HERE

The hall was used for magic lantern lectures, concerts, readings, dancing lessons, dressmaking and sewing classes. There were church socials, bazaars, kitchen teas, a wedding breakfast and a silver wedding anniversary. At one period it averaged four balls a year and was hired for dances, family parties and celebrations, and even roller skating.

1870s to 1890s the Mechanics’ Institute was also used as a Court of Petty Sessions.

1885 – On January 24th a special concert was held featuring Madame Melba (then Mrs. Armstrong) who sang two solos (‘The Angel at the Window’ and ‘Sing Sweet Bird’) and a duet (Oh Maritana’) with Mr.Cadden.


from Trove HERE


from Trove HERE

1891 – 1895  Extensions were made to the building with George Morce, local limestone builder, involved in adding the Committee meeting room and Supper room.

It was the drill hall for the Militia and was used by the Masonic Lodge.

During World War I and World War II it was used by the Red Cross for making comforts and packaging parcels for the troops and saw many joyous welcome home parties when the Wars ended.

1946 – 1947  Bruce Matear of Matear Brothers ran an underwear and pyjama factory, employing machinists at a time when work was hard to find locally.

Frankston Standard 22nd Aug 1946

Frankston Standard 22nd Aug 1946 from Trove HERE

1947 – 1954  Leo Hibbert used the building to make brassieres for the Dowd Brothers who manufactured Hickory underwear.

1961 – 1966  Flinders Shire took possession of the land, buildings and surrounding blocks.

1965 – Flinders Shire Council made the Mechanics’ Institute building available to the Nepean Historical Society for the formation of a museum.

1967 – The Sorrento Museum opened.

1970 – Classified of ‘Local’ Significance by the National Trust.

The original building was classified by the National Trust on 15th October 1970 and its technical description at the time read:

“The corrugated iron, hipped roofed main building is constructed of random-coursed limestone bricks with stucco details including unusual Tuscan corner pilasters with timber brackets.

The combination of a limestone building with an entirely stuccoed porch is also unusual, as are the details such as raised panels and massive keystones of the porch. Limestone additions in 1895 include the projecting south-east room.

This substantially intact building is designed in a Classical Revival style.”

30 Aug 1973 – Revised to ‘Regional’ Significance by the National Trust.

1994 – New extension to the building including Heritage Gallery and shop.

The Nepean Historical Society continues in the spirit of the original Mechanics’ Institute.