Ginninderra School of Arts [1899-1914]
The Mechanics Institutes movement
'Schools of Arts' were a social innovation that originated in Scotland, the first being established in Edinburgh in 1821. As the principal target was mechanics – industrial workers – the movement that subsequently diffused throughout the Empire became known as the Mechanics Institute movement. Although titles proliferated – Literary Institute, School of Arts, Mechanics Institute – the core purpose was 'betterment' of working men through education - 'the universal diffusion of useful knowledge among the lower orders'. Such a School 'offered everything a working man might need to attain upward mobility'. The full name of the Edinburgh School was 'The School of Arts of Edinburgh for the Instruction of Mechanics in such branches of physical science as are of practical application in their several trades'.
Diffusion was rapid and world-wide. There were 700 in Britain by 1850. The Hobart Mechanics' Institute was founded in 1827 and Sydney Mechanics School of Arts followed in 1833. There were ultimately several thousand throughout Australia. Over the course of nearly a century around 750 institutes were established in NSW alone, some 140 in Sydney and suburbs. Amongst the NSW examples were many in the local region – Goulburn (1854), Yass (1857), Braidwood (1858), Gunning (1876), Queanbeyan (1887), Bungendore (1888), and Gundaroo (1894). Ginninderra then, was a relative latecomer, with the opportunity to learn from past experience.
Ginninderra School of Arts - the beginning
On 20 May 1899, a meeting in the old Ginninderra store attended by about forty people, including most of the district's prominent residents, agreed to form a Ginninderra School of Arts and Debating Club. The motion was moved by Charles Thompson and seconded by William Rochford 'That a School of Arts be established in this village.' Subscriptions were set at 2/- per quarter for gentlemen, 1/6 for ladies, those under 16 years, half price. The appointment of officers took place with James McCarthy Esq JP of 'Glenwood' being appointed President. Others elected were:
Vice-president, Mr B. Southwell
Secretary, Mr Charles W. Thomson
Treasurer, Mr Harry Curran
Messrs James Reardon, William Alexander, William Rochford, O. Southwell and George Ruwald.
The only building available at the time, the old store was to be used until such time as a more suitable building might be acquired. The store which had finally closed in 1897 after struggling through a decade of drought and recession was at that time being rented by George J Ruwald, the Ginninderra postmaster 1892-1905. A community meeting the previous year had voted to establish a gymnasium, for which the store was already in use.
As soon as July 1899 there were reports of a 'most successful meeting' of the School of Arts. The Reading Room was being furnished, books purchased for the Library and the intention stated to add chess, draughts, and other amusements, as well as to form a Dramatic Club.
A concert and social in aid of the Library fund was held on 21 July. Several leading vocalists of Queanbeyan and Gundaroo willingly offered their services, making the evening a great success, despite it being bitterly cold. The concert was followed by dancing to music provided by Messrs Lake and Williams, with Henry Oldfield as Master of Ceremonies. The evening was stated to be 'without doubt the most successful affair which has been held for the last twenty years' with between 250 and 300 people attending, and proceeds of ₤13 pounds. [Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 27 July 1899, p 4]. A similar concert and ball in November the following year was also a 'splendid success' – 'guests travelled long distances for the occasion coming from Queanbeyan, Gundaroo and even further' (!)
In September 1901 however the Annual Meeting had a 'meagre attendance'. The following committee was elected, again including three local school teachers:
President: James McCarthy JP ['Glenwood']
Vice President: Everard Gregory Crace [Gungahleen Estate]
Treasurer: Henry Roland 'Harry' Curran [Ginninderra blacksmith]
Secretary: Charles William Thompson [teacher,Ginninderra]
George Kendall Kinlyside [ Kinlyside Works, Hall]
James Cavanagh [farmer, Round Hill]
William Alexander [teacher, Jeir]
James Michael Reardon [teacher, Bedellick]
Thomas Gribble junior [farmer, 'The Glebe']
Librarian: George Ward Harcourt [farmer, 'Deasland']
Just a year later, despite such strong leadership, in October 1902, there were signs of collapse. 'Ginninderra Whispers' reported that a meeting had recently been held to consider the position: "After a little discussion it was resolved to disorganise the School of Arts on the grounds that it was not afforded sufficient support..... it is impossible to keep it going in a community so sparsely populated as in Ginninderra."
It is interesting to note that a Sydney visitor a few months earlier characterised Ginninderra in these terms:
'Ginninderra is a postal township, with telegraphic and Savings Bank facilities........ In the small township is a police station, and within a radius of three miles there are several general stores and churches of four denominations, besides a public school and a School of Arts........... The district is a mining, agricultural. and pastoral one. The population, which is very scattered, runs up to about 300, and is composed chiefly of selectors. Some parts of the district are very wild and rugged, and seldom traversed by human beings (!). [Australian Star, Sydney, 26 July 1902, p 8].
Even by June 30, 1911, the population of the whole of the Federal Capital Territory had reached only 1,777.
The bold initiative of 1899 had lasted a mere three and a half years. Moreover, the old Store building was damaged beyond redemption by the destructive January 1905 bushfire, limiting prospects of a revival.
A second coming
In 1906 however, just a year after the fire, the Ginninderra Farmers' Union was formed, having been first mooted in 1884. Everard Gregory Crace became President and Charles William Thompson, the schoolmaster at Ginninderra School, Secretary. The Union was conceived largely as an 'agricultural extension' agency – bringing district farmers and graziers together in an organisation that would provide lectures and workshops from agricultural experts, conduct field trials, make vetinary and farming equipment available for hire, arrange cooperative purchasing of seed, and so on. It shortly also became organiser of the annual Ginninderra Show.
Crace and Thompson had been prime movers for the establishment of a School of Arts and now had a way of reviving that project. Crace's widowed mother Kate Marion Crace made land available for the new hall; Crace hosted early meetings at his Palmerville homestead, and made plots available for field trials. His wife Blanche was a great supporter and fundraiser throughout.
One of the Farmers' Union's first activities (in June 1906) was to organise a sports meeting in Crace's Bandicoot Paddock (in the Kaleen suburb vicinity today) to raise funds to erect a building for the meetings and social activities of the Union and a new School of Arts. The sports meeting and associated ball at the Ginninderra woolshed raised ₤50. Ernest Moore (MC), W Snow (piano) and T Weir (violin), assisted by some locals, provided the music and exhibitions of step dancing. [Gillespie, GFC, p.144]
At the Farmers' Union Annual Meeting in August 1906 President Crace observed:
"Proceeds of fund-raising sports and balls are directed to the erection of the Farmers' Union Hall at Ginninderra, which is almost completed. The latter building will also be utilised by the School of Arts..... The School of Arts will prove a valuable adjunct to the Union in providing books and magazines dealing with the scientific side of farming and this will supply a long felt want."
So with fundraising already underway:
"A public meeting was held on Saturday last for the purpose of establishing a School of Arts in the neighbourhood. Mr Crace was voted to the chair and explained the object of the meeting.......It was unanimously decided to establish a School of Arts in Ginninderra". [Queanbeyan Age 4 Sept 1906]
A Committee was elected by the meeting and Everard Crace, the elected President, together with Vice-President Charles Thompson, were asked to draw up rules. Thirty people had already signified their intention to join and it was expected that would very soon reach fifty. A ball was planned for October to raise funds to completely furnish the hall and wipe off the debt on a new building which would be the focus of activities.
The two organisations were evidently closely linked by shared purposes, people, and property. They were both mutual benefit organisations – the School of Arts leaning towards the educational and recreational, the Union to the technical and vocational. The fact that leading community figures such as Everard Crace, Charles Thompson, James McCarthy, 'Harry' Curran and others were committed members of both organisations seems to have ensured cooperative relations. Thirdly, their prime asset, the hall, became a lively community hub for the activities of both organisations, and the wider community.
The hall was a substantial weatherboard structure facing the Yass road between 'Deasland' (the property of Mrs Millicent Harcourt), and the Ginninderra blacksmith's workshop – the domain of Henry 'Harry' Curran. It was erected at a cost of £73, a sum raised entirely by the local residents. The dimensions were 36 feet x 17 feet with one end partitioned off as a ladies room and library. It was proposed that later on, when some contemplated improvements were effected, it would be thoroughly up-to-date.
The Age also reported on the opening of the new building by the President's mother, Kate Marion Crace, on Saturday 8 September 1906 in the presence of a large crowd. A sports meeting held in the afternoon followed by a dance in the evening marked the occasion. The Hall was soon constantly in use as the School of Arts, with a gymnasium, library, entertainment centre and lecture room.
In February 1910 Charles William Thompson, as Secretary of the Farmer's Union, invited tenders for alterations and the addition of two skillion rooms. The tender of Mr Victor Sagacio of Queanbeyan was accepted, and additions were completed in May at a cost of £62. The Queanbeyan Age commented: 'The building is now 40 feet x 18 feet with an excellent stage 18 feet x 11 feet and two ante rooms 15 feet x 11 feet. A piano has been placed in the hall. Queanbeyan Dramatic Society has already put in a performance in the new hall'.
Ginninderra community centre
The new hall was immediately much used by the Ginninderra community. By December 1906, just a few months after its opening, it was reported that the Library was stocked by 'a splendid supply of well selected books', many donated by Mr Crace. Soon after:
"A debating class is being initiated....This should enable the young men of the district an excellent opportunity of which it is hoped they will take advantage to improve themselves as public speakers." [Queanbeyan Leader 29 March 1907, p. 2]
In June 1907 there was another fund-raising ball, with sixty couples present. Joseph Bolton and J Mayo were MC's, and the music was provided by D O'Brien, George Kinlyside, Tom Gribble, Annie Hatch and Mrs O'Brien. ₤16 was raised [Queanbeyan Observer, 25 June 1907].
At the AGM in July 1907 the organisation was in good shape::
"There was a fair attendance of members present, who expressed pleasure at the very satisfactory report and balance sheet which was adopted unanimously..... The enrolment of members was satisfactory and 340 volumes had been issued to members. The committee had expended £10 in books, furnished the Hall, and were installing a billiard table in the building."
The meeting also recorded grateful thanks to Mrs E G (Blanche) Crace for her interest in the institution, noting that she was tireless in her support, including organising fund raising events. Election of the new committee followed, with Everard Crace re-elected as President. In June of the following year, it was reported that the School of Arts was in a flourishing condition. The enrolment of members was large and increasing, much of the success due to the exertions of the worthy secretary, Mr George Harcourt (Jnr).
At the end of 1908, the committee of the Farmers' Union invited their members to participate in a social evening with members of the School of Arts. The hall was 'prettily decorated', there was music for dancing, with songs rendered between dances. Cards and other amusements were available for those who wished to play and all spent a most enjoyable time. It was pronounced as the forerunner of many such gatherings and both groups were urged to work together for their mutual benefit.
A social and euchre party in 1910 was MC'd by John Hollingsworth. In recognition of their services, presentations were made in the course of the evening to two worthy and admired members of the institution: Blanche Crace (Mrs EG Crace) and Mr Charles William Thompson, both of whom had done so much to encourage the establishment of the School as a place of interest and improvement, as well as for entertainment.
The hall was the centre of community life in Ginninderra. It was the setting for meetings and lectures and for political rallies and speeches. In November 1906 Mr Austin Chapman, MP for Eden-Monaro and a Minister in the Federal Government, addressed a gathering in the School of Arts for two hours [!]. Lectures on scientific measures to improve agriculture in the region realised the vision of the Farmers' Union to have a hall as a venue for such activities. It was the focus for gatherings of all kinds, including the Annual Balls for the School of Arts and the Ginninderra Show. The local sporting clubs, especially the tennis and cricket clubs, held their social functions as well as their meetings in the hall.
....the beginning of the end: 1914
The Ginninderra School of Arts, and the Farmers' Union, had the misfortune to have been established at a place soon to be incorporated into the new Federal Capital Territory. In 1914 the Secretary reported that the Committee had been asked by the Federal Authorities to place a 'valuation for resumption' on the hall. Not only the hall, but the land of the Ginninderra district was being acquired as part of the new Federal Capital Territory. A meeting in July decided to accept the Federal Government's offer of $250 for the building. Funds held by the Farmer's Union and the School of Arts were disbursed to local hospitals, Churches (of all denominations) and the Crippled Soldiers' Relief Fund. If Commonwealth resumption had not stopped them in their tracks, it is probable that the looming war would have. Crace was amongst those to enlist.
The building, now resumed as property of the FCT, was eventually moved in 1930 to Hall village to be used as a pavilion at the Showground. It was moved in half sections on a jinker towed by Gribble's traction engine. The resumption of the Farmers' Union and School of Arts Hall, and the related departure of many long-standing farming families, caused the disbandment of these organisations.
Their passing meant the loss of the strong community spirit that had prevailed for so long and with that, the village itself. Nevertheless for twelve years the School of Arts contributed much to the Ginninderra community and should be remembered as a bold and successful community enterprise.
[Edited extracts, with permission, from an article of the same title web published by the (ADFAS) researched and compiled by Helen Creagh (2014)]
[Original research and compilation by Helen Creagh, Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (ADFAS) Molonglo Plains November 2014. The original version, including maps and illustrations, may be downloaded at here.
This ADFA project aims 'enhance our understanding of the community role of the Schools of Arts movement'.]
- Lyall L Gillespie. Canberra 1992. Ginninderra, forerunner to Canberra: a history of the Ginninderra district [GFC].
- Catherine Freyne (2010) The School of Arts movement. Sydney Dictionary. Supported by the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts.
- Helen Cooke, 2010. A Short History of Gungahlin. Canberra Archaeological Society
- Trove (digitised newspapers): trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper
• Goulburn Evening Penny Post
• Queanbeyan Leader
• Queanbeyan Age
• Canberra Times