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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Springwood School of Arts - a short history

In the early years of the 20th century Mechanic’s Institutes or a School of Arts building was a common feature in most villages in the Blue Mountains.   However, as a “movement” their history is much older.  The first was established in Scotland in 1821, with the aim of improving the intellect of its members through the “diffusion of useful knowledge,” and to nurture “literature, science and art.”[i]  It was not too long before these “civilising institutes” appeared in the new Colony and with a land grant - courtesy of Governor Richard Bourke - the Sydney Mechanic’s School of Arts opened its doors in 1833.  It still exists to this day, and their a web site indicates the institute has moved along with new technology being available on Facebook and Twitter. 
Springwood was not so fortunate because even though a committee formed in 1901, fund raising activities and the promise of a block of land by James Hunter Lawson (owner of Braemar & the Oriental Hotel) came to nought.[ii]  In fact one of the members of that early committee is thought to have absconded with the funds.
The Springwood School of Arts finally opened its doors in 1913, with Mr. Brinsley Hall MP officiating. A commemorative booklet published for the event stated the committee overcame “great difficulties” and “discouragement” to bring about the end result.[iii]  The graceful Federation style building was well-ventilated and lit with Benzoli Air Gas lights.  As well as a well stocked library, the building contained reading and committee rooms, and a “fine billiard room” - lined in Australian timber -  containing two excellent billiard tables.[iv] 

School of Arts & Coo-ee March
When barely twelve months old the building provided overnight accommodation and comfort for men who took part in the Co-ee March.  Later, the institute became the scene of World War One commemorations when captured enemy machine guns and the Honor Roll were placed in their keeping.  A newspaper article in 1919 suggested the Springwood Schools of Arts was “indispensable” and a fine institution “for our young men” because no signs of gambling or objectionable behaviour were tolerated within the “cosy comfort” of its walls.  Indeed, mothers and wives were being asked to encourage their sons and husbands to join. 
Research indicates however that despite these overtures to the general community the institution did not realise its primary objectives until the 1940s.  Until then it functioned more like an elite men’s club catering to the upper-class demographics of the area at that time. But, by the 1940s all that had changed.  In 1943 the Australian Labour Party held meetings there and Red Cross ladies conducted fund raising activities from the veranda of the building.  During the 1940’s Horace Lindrum, Australia’s first professional snooker and billiards player was a regular visitor.   Lindrum (who would go on to win the World Snooker Title in 1952) was featured in a competition to aid the Australian Comforts Fund in 1944.  They raised £56.
 In 1946 an essay competition held by the institution was judged by one-time resident, Supreme Court Judge and patron of the Arts, Rae Else Mitchell.  Else Mitchell Park Springwood is named in his honour.
Over the ensuing years the building was used by a range of organisations like the local historical society, Boy Scouts & Guides, dance and musical groups, The Old Age Pensioners Association, Citizens Recruitment League, Red Cross and Children’s Library Group conducted by caricaturist, cartoonist and artist George Finey.  During its lifetime it provided a venue for community celebrations and entertainments, as well as charitable and wartime efforts. 
In the years following World War Two the institution, which had never been strongly supported, faced competition from new technology like the advent of television.  Nevertheless, the building was used right up until its demolition in 1969.  The Foundation Stone now graces the School of Arts Town Square.
* The photograph below suggests the use of a commercial premises in Springwood for the School of Arts prior to 1913. The location is thought to have been in one of the shops on the Western side of the Frazer Memorial Church.

Pamela Smith

[i] The Dictionary of Sydney,
[ii] Nepean Times, 31.8.1901.
[iii] Booklet in the ownership of the late Ern Lesslie.
[iv] Nepean Times, 10.5.1913.
Springwood images courtesy of Springwood Library and local studies collection

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