The Maitland Mechanics Institute was among the earliest "further" educational institutions inaugurated in the colony.
At a meeting held on December 3, 1856 at the Court House, East Maitland, a provisional committee was elected, with the Rev GK Rusden occupying the chair, Mr TW Robinson as secretary and Mr Whytlaw as treasurer.
The Institute was formally established a week later. At a following meeting on January 8, 1857, it was reported that membership had reached 60 persons and that a Mr Weekes had donated £5/5/-.
The first lecture, entitled "The changes that have taken place on the Earth's Surface, produced by Aqueous and by Igneous Agency", was delivered by the Rev Rusden at the Court House on January 13 at 7.30pm.
A temporary library and reading room had been set up in a cottage owned by Mr Samuel Clift in Banks Street, and he provided two rooms rent-free for six months.
Lectures continued on a fortnightly basis, ranging from poetry and literature to health and history, science and technology.
Sir William Denison, Governor General of the Australian Colonies, visited East Maitland on March 30, 1857 to open the Great Northern Railway.
Among the various welcoming committees, the Rev Rusden, representing the Maitland Mechanics' Institute (now numbering 94 members), requested that His Excellency become Patron of the Institute.
Sir William replied: "I am glad to hear so favourable an account of the progress of an institution which is calculated to confer a lasting benefit upon the people of Maitland, and I shall with pleasure accept the office as Patron of your society".
After rejecting sites in Melbourne Street and Day Strett the Trustees had, by July, 1857, settled on a parcel of land in Banks Street on which to construct the Institute's building.
The land was purchased from Henry Ingall for the sum of £200. Soon after, a building committee was formed and fund raising for construction began.
The committee accepted a tender of £1800, by Mr Cains, for the building which was designed by Mr A Dixon of East Maitland.
The foundation stone was laid on Tuesday, July 26, 1859, by Sir Charles Nicholson, Bt [Baronet], Provost of the University of Sydney.
A bottle containing copies of that day's Maitland Mercury, Newcastle Morning Herald and Sydney Morning Herald as well as a document containing the names of the persons taking part in the ceremony was deposited in a cavity beneath the foundation stone.
As the stone was lowered, the band played God Save the Queen. After the ceremony, Sir Charles and the official party retired to the Hunter River Hotel for luncheon and more speeches.
The Institute's building was formally opened to members of the public on Tuesday, June 5, 1860, in the presence of a large crowd and invited guests from the Maitland School of Arts and the newly formed Morpeth School of Arts.
Similar institutions were to be founded in later years in Woodville (1876), Largs (1878) and Lochinvar (1908).
All became important in the intellectual and cultural lives of their districts.
To a degree they were precursors of the library services later provided by councils of local government.
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