Mechanics Institute / Community Hall Lawson. Heritage report

Page 1 (report shown on two pages, link at bottom of the page for page two)


The Lawson School of Arts has considerable local cultural heritage significance for its historical role in the education, entertainment and social life of Lawson village, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, for its social role in the continuing community life of Lawson and as a representative example of a Mechanic's Institute building that demonstrates a way of life prevalent throughout NSW in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The early section of the building including the later porch, also has some local significance for its prominent contribution to the streetscape of the Lawson Village Core.

The building has Cultural Heritage Significance for: Historic Evolution, Historic Associations, Aesthetic and Social values at a Representative level locally.)

Excerpts From The Lawson Mechanics Institute Assessment 2004

Noel Bell Smith & Partners Architects Pty. Ltd.

(note: paragraph numberings and section headings are from the original full reoport)



A considerable amount of historic documentation on the history and development of the Lawson Village Core Area has been prepared by professional and community groups in the planning processes leading up to the adoption of options for the upgrading of the Great Western Highway through Lawson. This material has little information on the Mechanic's Institute Buildings which lie outside the Village Core area to the east.

This heritage assessment is specifically related to heritage values of the Mechanic's Institute complex as an item of the historic development of the Village as part of the ongoing considerations of development options for the site associated with the road widening.

The summary of the historic information contained in this report is taken from available secondary sources and is not exhaustive. little pictorial material to illustrate the evolution of the building has been uncovered.

 mechanics institute location map

 (right) location of Lawson Mechanics Institute, Lawson Village N.S.W.

Lawson Township Historic Development

The area occupied by the township of Lawson was first traversed by Europeans in 1813 when Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson sought a way through the mountains to the Western Plains. For millennial prior to this, the area had been occupied by aboriginal people and evidence of their use of the land is well documented.

In 1815 a permanent roadway was constructed through the area by William Cox and his road gangs, providing access to the town of Bathurst and the Western Plains.

Sustained settlement in the Blue Mountains began in about 1830 and the village of Lawson commenced its early life as a small staging camp adjacent to the road because it provided a relatively level area with grass and fresh water. This was used to rest and water the horses that were used to transport people and goods between Sydney and the Western Plains. Thomas Pembroke is said to have built the first hut there in the late 1820's.

Initially the area was known as 'Christmas Swamp' and subsequently as '24 Mile Hollow' indicating its distance along the Bathurst Road from the Nepean River ford.

In the mid 1840s a two storey inn, known as the "Blue Mountain Inn" was established there by Henry and Sarah Wilson to meet the increasing needs of travellers over the Mountains.

A Railway Station, located at an elevation of 732 metres above sea level was opened there in 1867 adopting the name 'Blue Mountain' after the nearby Inn. In order to dispel confusion the name of the station and subsequently the village itself was eventually changed by the Government in 1879 to commemorate the early explorer, William Lawson.

Crown Land sales were held there in the 1860s and 1870s and a proposed plan for the Village of Lawson was submitted to the Surveyor General in 1880 with an amended plan being finally adopted in 1881.

In the Lawson Village Core Area, the adopted Town Plan involved the creation of a wide roadway to the south of the main road that divided the area into two sections. The road was known as Broad Street (Honour Avenue) and subdivisions to either side defined by Railway Crescent to the north and east, Waratah Street to the south west and Orient Street to the south.

The frontage along the Great Western Road (Railway Crescent) west of the new town was noted on the 1886 survey plan of the town as being a stock yard belonging to Henry Wilson. Further to the west, the frontage along Railway Crescent is noted as the site of the original Blue Mountain Inn and its adjoining orchard.

Development of the Village was slow but steady, with houses, shops and institutions arising to meet the growing community. In 1903 the Mechanics Institute Hall was erected as part of this process.

Development of the Village Core Area reached a peak in the Inter War period when the Blue Mountains became a major tourist destination and Lawson was identified as one of the most desirable places to visit on the Mountains. During this period the Mechanics Institute Hall was a focus for community activities of all types.

Development in the Village core area in the later 20th century has been slow with a concentration on new residential buildings. Following transference of the land fronting the highway to the RT A for road widening and the construction of a new community facility elsewhere in the town, the use of the Mechanics Institute deteriorated in the last three decades of the 20th century and is now largely limited to a youth club facility and infrequent hireings for other private activities.

The major factor in the development of the village in the latter part of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century will be identified as being the upgraded highway which will result in substantial demolition and redevelopment of the physical fabric of the village core.

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(above) Photos of the facade fronting Great Western Highway

Historic Development of The Mechanic's Institute

In June 1896, a meeting was held at the residence of Mr. W. Newton that resulted in the formation of a Literary and Debating Society for the Village of Lawson with a membership of eight interested residents and no funds. The first meetings of the new society were held in the old Blue Mountain Inn which had been made available by Mr AW. Wilson. A small library was established and the society began to grow. When Mr. Wilson died a move was made to the 'Coffee Palace' in San Jose Avenue and a 3/4 size billiard table was purchased with assistance from Mr. J.H. Humbly, to attract young men to the society. It proved an instantaneous success and a permanent site was procured for the town through the efforts of the local Progress Committee.

A Mechanics Institution was first established in the Colony of NSW in 1823 under the patronage of the Governor, Sir Richard Bourke and under the direction of a Scottish Minister, Rev. Henry Carmichael. The objects of the institution were similar to those that had been established at the beginning of the 19th century in Scotland and England to provide for the diffusion of useful knowledge, and the awakening of a love of study by means of a library, news and reading rooms, lectures and classes for instruction accessible for the working classes.

From the 1850s, Mechanic's Institutes spread quickly throughout the towns and cities of Australia through Government support in the provision of sites and some financial support. Sir Henry Parkes had had his early education in such an institution in Birmingham and supported the movement in NSW during his time as Premier of the State. By 1880 there were 76 Schools of Arts, Mechanics or Literary Institutes throughout the state offering a wide range of adult education. The Board of Technical education was established in 1883 to oversee adult and technical education and by 1914 was overseen by the Department of Education. Formalisation of technical education in NSW left local Mechanics Institutes free to pursue a wide variety of cultural and social activities within their communities.

In February 1899, Lot 17 of Section 1 of the Village of Lawson was set aside and dedicated as the site for a Mechanics Institute and a small timber building was erected on the site by the fledgling Lawson Literary Society. The move to this building provided additional impetus for the institution, which was a focus for social activity in the village and within a short period a public meeting was held to support the formation of a Mechanic's Institute and the erection of a more imposing structure to house its functions. Fund raising activities proceeded with community functions and entertainments being held in the 'Coffee Palace Hall' in San Jose Avenue.

In 1901 the Lawson Progress Association requested that the roadway in front of the temporary Mechanics Institute be properly drained as it was in a dangerous state. In February of that year a public holiday was called to allow for an Industrial and Horticultural exhibition to be held in a large marquee under the auspices of the Mechanics Institute to raise funds for a new building. This show became an annual event in the early years of the 20th century.

Records of the institution indicate that Mr. F. Mitchell donated ten guineas worth of books and Miss Memes and other friends of the institution assisted with the growing library in these early years. The membership of the society also grew and it soon became obvious that larger premises would be required. The annual report of 1901 stated that the Institute had an average attendance at its regular meetings of 47 members. The Institution was seen as "the centre of social intercourse' and as 'a potent factor in the moral and intellectual elevation of the community'.

Plans for the new building were prepared and adopted by the membership in 1902 and the committee purchased the old 'Blue Mountain' railway station building and platform amounting to some 40,000 bricks, removed them to their land and after selling the surplus material, decided to borrow Three Hundred Pounds and build. Tenders for the new building were called, but exceeded the estimated amount.

It was decided to have new plans prepared and Mr A Stephens was engaged on a 10% percentage fee to prepare plans, and supervise the erection of the new building. Construction began on 1st August 1903 and was finished in November of the same year. The building contractor was W.J. Knight. The total cost of the building was Four Hundred and Seven Pounds. The Minister for Public Instruction approved a draft mortgage for the Three Hundred Pounds and the remainder had been raised by the committee.

The official opening of the building by Mr. T.R. Smith, M.P. took place on 19th December 1903 and two days of festivities ensued including a large Bazaar to raise funds to reduce the loan.

In 1903 the membership of the Lawson Mechanic's Institute was 54 with 4 life members. The number of books in the Library totaled 575. The trustees were Messrs, J.Geggie, W.Hart, J.Humbly, E.Palmer, J. Carson, W. Wilson and J. Wheeler.

In 1905 the Mechanics Institute was described in a Directory for the Village of Lawson as follows:

"Mechanics Institute, with reading room, where daily and weekly papers of every variety are to be seen and a circulating library containing about 1000 volumes. The hall has a seating capacity of about 300. "

By 1905 the Mechanic's Institute had a permanent caretaker and the library and billiards room were open all day in the holiday season. Large parties of young men and women used the building for Christian conferences with the men camping out and the women accommodated in local boarding houses.

Up to 200 visitors were in attendance. In 1906, 150 University students from Victoria and NSW attended lectures at the Institute in the mornings while enjoying the attractions of the Mountains in the afternoons.

Up to the 1930s the Institute was the only public hall in the village and was popular for all types of entertainments. Newspaper articles in the local press regularly describe activities that were centered on the Institute. Regular literary meetings, musical concerts, dances, annual Bazaars, lectures, school prize givings, conferences, entertainments and billiards competitions were held. The Hall was used in 1909 and for many years after as a picture show venue. A projection box is located above the old entrance. The place was also the meeting place for many local organisations and church groups.

In 1906 a new caretakers room and a dressing room were constructed together with a platform at the rear of the stage and additional shelving was installed to accommodate the growing library.

In 1907a move to have the seat of the newly formed Blue Mountains Shire centred on Lawson was proposed and for a short time the Shire Clerk and Council Office were housed in the Lawson Mechanics Institute partly in a large room at the rear of the Hall and partly in the hall itself. The building was painted and ornamental trees were planted across the front and at the side of the building. The Council use was a short lived expediency, a decision to move the administration to Katoomba was- made later in the same year:

In early 1909 the stage area of the hall was altered, extending to its current form and wings were added including the existing toilets. In the same year moving Pictures were first exhibited at the hall by a travelling Picture Show.

In 1911 the name of the building was changed to the Lawson Literary Institute indicating a subtle change in the activities of the institute.

In 1912 skating was first mentioned at the venue and was obviously popular becoming an annual event.

In 1914 Acetylene gas lighting was installed in the hall to replace the earlier oil lamps. Evidence of these early technologies survives in the form of the ceiling vents in the old hall. Electricity was first installed in 1931 to coincide with the completion of the new Railway Commissioner's Power Station at Lithgow.

In 1932 a suggestion that the hall be transferred to the Blue Mountains Shire was entertained but not taken up and an additional loan of One Thousand Pounds was granted to the Literary Institute to continue the running and maintenance of the complex.

In 1939 an office was added to the building to accommodate the Chief Warden, Hon J.B. Sutton and new furniture was purchased to furnish the office.This work may have also included the eastern lean to verandah addition that is now used as a chair store.

In November 1958, the site was granted by the Crown into the trusteeship of the Council of the City of Blue Mountains with a provision for the right of resumption for roadways and for reverting to Crown ownership in the event of cessation of the original use under Trust as a Mechanic's Institute. The building was still used regularly by various community groups and organizations. This intense use tapered off as the mobility of the community increased with car ownership and also with the advent of television.

In September 1989 a ten metre portion of the northern frontage of the site was subdivided off and resumed by the Commissioner of Main Roads for the purpose of widening the Great Western Highway at Lawson. Opposition to the demolition of the building resulted in a temporary reprieve for the hall until it was required. Compensation in the vicinity of $200,000 was paid to the Council and was put towards the construction of a new community hall in the centre of the Village Core which was opened in 1991.

By 1990 the old Mechanic's Institute Hall was superficially renovated and was known as the Lawson Mid Mountain Community Centre and operated for a variety of smaller community groups and organisations including the Mid Mountains Youth Center.

In 1992 a proposal to demolish the front of the building and to reconstruct a modified facade behind the resumed land was proposed to Council and gained some support but was postponed pending discussions with the RT A on the program for the road widening. The building continued to be used by a variety of community groups and mainly as a youth centre.

By 1994 further community concerns were raised when the timetable for the road widening was announced indicating a ten year program. Again attempts to have the facade removed to allow the retention of the building were raised but not funded by Council.

A detailed heritage study of the Blue Mountains was carried out for Council in 2002 and the Lawson Mechanics institute was identified as having local heritage significance for historic, aesthetic and social values. Listing on the Local Environmental Plan was recommended.

In response to the pending demolition of the front of the building, the Council commissioned a Building Assessment report in 2003 to investigate the feasibility of various options +including reconstruction of the facade on the truncated building. The results of that assessment indicated that the building was generally sound for its age but would require substantial upgrading to meet present day standards of health & safety for continued use as a public facility. It also indicated that a purpose built facility was more feasible than retention of the existing fabric.

In 2004 the final reports for the proposed road widening were undertaken and again there was renewed interest in the options for potential adaptation of the place and opposition to its demolition. A decision on the future of the place is essential before November 2004 to allow for the construction program of the RTA and any design and documentation required for retention of the truncated hall.


Compendium of references from local newspapers by Mrs Heather Mollenhauer

Chistmas Swamp - A History of Lawson by S.J. Bently

Blue Mountains Heritage Inventory

Blue Mountains Council Files

NSW Land Titles Office Records

Page Two Heritage Report