cement history, Local history, social life

A School of Arts for Kandos? Why Not?

Remember the first Cementa Contemporary Arts Festival in 2013? That’s when Kandos established its place in an arts movement that was filtering through regional NSW and other unexpected parts of the globe. Locals will be aware that Cementa’s home base is now WayOut ArtSpace housed in the Angus Memorial Hall in Angus Avenue Kandos. 

That hall was built in 1917 to memorialise James Angus, founding chairman of the cement company that built Kandos. His death had been particularly shocking the year before – killed by an express train at Rooty Hill as he tried to evade a goods train. Angus was a  philanthropist, as were his sons, so it’s not surprising that they and the company wanted to endow the fledgling town which serviced their cement industry. 

In June the Mudgee Guardian announced there was a “strong possibility that a School of Arts, Hall and Library will shortly be established”.  In September it announced the hall would also have a picture theatre. 

The concept of a School of Arts (also known as Mechanics’ Institutes) began at the turn of the nineteenth century in Scotland and spread around the English speaking colonised world including Australia. Tasmania in 1827, Sydney in 1833. One researcher estimates that there were around 750 in NSW over the next century. 

So what was their purpose? They sprang from the idea that if you educated workers it would benefit industry and improve morality. The early Schools of Arts provided lectures and libraries for the self-improvement of the working class. Gradually these institutions morphed into entertainment and meeting areas for the professional and business class. The Angus Memorial Hall was obviously designed for both improvement and enjoyment. 

Throughout 1918 there was great enthusiasm and support for the new School of Arts, at least from the top end of town. After registration under the Theatres and Public Halls Act, an anteroom beside the stage was furnished with glass cases, filled with “much needed” books and decorated with pictures. Financial donations came from the cement company and Country Concrete Constructions with “the usual subsidy” from the Education Department. The Free Public Library loaned a box of books monthly, fiction and non-fiction. Noyes Bros and other firms donated technical books, as did directors of the company. At the first meeting in August the office bearers included the school principal Arthur Meany as president and Hjlmar Langavad and J P McGrath as vice-presidents. The ten members of the committee* were local businessmen and company officials. The librarian and secretary was Eva Jeffrey wife of the company architect. The first tasks of the committee were to elect trustees (E H Freeman, Matt Carruthers and Charles Hansen) and draft a set of rules.

Quiet, peaceful and restful was the description of opening night on Tuesday 29 October 1918 between 7 and 9pm, when the replacement librarian Mrs Donald Gillespie welcomed subscribers. For this was a subscription lending library – half a crown per quarter. No doubt that same atmosphere embraced those who chose to come on Saturday afternoons from 3 to 5. 

Reading between the Mudgee Guardian lines, the Kandos School of Arts lending library did not capture the interest of the workers or indeed of many townspeople. The populace was much more energised by the beauteous male competition that spontaneously began in Matt Carruthers’ machine shop at crib time and concluded with the rip-roaring announcement of the winner at the picture show on Saturday night.

It probably didn’t help that there was a high turnover of librarians. The third librarian Miss R Langavad took on the role for three months (from February to May 1919) followed by Miss Ethel Murphy (length of service unknown). In August 1920 we learn of a committee meeting to appoint new trustees for the School of Arts, but that was unresolved. The following March some enthusiastic souls pushed to revive the library and make it “one of the leading institutions of Kandos”. That was a pipe-dream. 

The library shuffled along for a year or so with intermittent bleating appeals to the community. In August 1922 the Progress Association were certain they could get the locals interested. Led by Mr Slingsby, secretary of the cement company, they formed a committee of twelve, allotted sections of the town to each member and did a door knock to canvas locals for donations and interest. That was the last we heard – except for a half-hearted attempt in 1926. I got excited when I discovered the Kandos Debating Club in June 1931. There in the ante-room among the glass bookcases was passionate, forceful debate on topics that have resonance today: Inequality of Income, The Environment, Kandos as a Tourist Resort, Co-operative Banking, State Control of Industries, etc. Unfortunately it didn’t last the year.

Kandos School of Arts was on the tail-end of a movement, which would partly account for its demise. The Munn-Pitt report of 1935 wrote of “wretched little institutes which have long since become cemeteries of old and forgotten books”. But we should be mindful that the School of Arts was the harbinger of the global public library system which we value today. The NSW Library Act of 1939 came into effect at the end of the war, leading to a network of free public libraries throughout Australia, managed by councils and partly funded by state governments. 

I am a library groupie. Within weeks of the opening of Mudgee Public Library in the old Mechanic’s Institute in Gladstone Street on 3rd June 1952 I was taken there by my mother to join. From then on I rode my bike and discovered Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes, Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books and a life-long love of libraries. My contemporaries in Kandos would have had to wait till 1969 before they could consume the treasures of Kandos public library, housed, not in the Angus Memorial Hall, but in the Kandos Community Centre, and part of the Lithgow Regional Public Library Service.

So what am I left with after perusing this piece of history? Trickle-down self-improvement, like trickle-down economics, doesn’t work. Free public libraries, open to all, with their focus on information, recreation, education and community are an invaluable part of our modern democracy. And the arts help us understand and admire our common humanity. Are we supporting and protecting them enough?

WayOut ArtSpace in Angus Memorial Hall
Interior WayOut ArtSpace
Matt Carruthers Machine shop (management I assume)
E H Freeman Manager Kandos Picture Show
Donald Gillespie Appeared to be a local entrepreneur
Charles P Hansen Proprietor Kandos Hotel
Stanley Jeffrey Architect cement company
E Chetwynd Jones Manager cement company
Vilhelm Langavad Civil Engineer cement company
J P McGrathLocal storekeeper
Floyd Richards Superintendent cement company
Harold Schroeder Manager of CSA Company
Roydon Service Proprietor motor garage
*Members of the first committee of Kandos School of Arts

4 thoughts on “A School of Arts for Kandos? Why Not?”

  1. This is something to check on in a couple of weeks when my wife and I have two nights in Kandos! Thanks for selecting this particular topic and making it so enthralling – as with all your focuses. [I boarded for a year with the widow of Esmond Higgins – (a nephew of Chief Justice Henry Bournes Higgins) – who was influential within the W.E.A. movement – a brother to Nettie Palmer…]

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