Port Macquarie has a long and rich history; however, much of our early built environment no longer survives. Poorly constructed buildings were left to decay at the close of the Penal Settlement, fire razed many to the ground, and an indifference to our cultural heritage was, at times, responsible for the demise of others.
Port Macquarie’s Glasshouse site in Clarence Street has an enduring association with community cultural and educational activities. One of them was the School of Arts.
In 1882, a local newspaper editorial announced a public meeting to consider establishing a School of Arts in Port Macquarie: “… A garden left untilled will soon bring forth weeds, and a mind left uncultivated not only brings forth unprofitable fruit, but it also only permits its possessor to half enjoy life. Education gives a man an enlarged view of the things that have transpired, or are now transpiring in the world … We take it that the School of Arts is started for the moral and intellectual good of the community …”
It was the third attempt since 1840 to establish such an institution, and the meeting enthusiastically endorsed the proposal. A committee was formed to secure funds to erect a suitable building and in January 1884, one rood of Crown Land was dedicated for that purpose at the corner of Clarence and Hay Streets. By early 1886, plans for the building were being drawn up and the government had promised financial support.
The Port Macquarie School of Arts building was wooden and capable of seating upwards of 300 people. As the only building in town able to hold such large numbers, it was the venue for all major events and many small ones, including concerts, dances, magic lantern presentations, political addresses, lectures, flower shows, meetings and dinners.
Subscribers had access to a substantial library and the reading room provided a collection of newspapers and magazines for members to read or borrow. To everyone’s astonishment, even local poultry enjoyed the reading room, making nests and laying their eggs amongst the old papers.
On the morning of 26 February 1917, the School of Arts was destroyed by fire, the building, contents, library and piano all totally lost. The loss of the only sizeable public hall in the town was keenly felt but although the committee agreed to build a new hall, their efforts were hampered by numerous obstacles. The new School of Arts, opened in June 1920, was a brick building comprising a Reading Room and Library on the ground floor and one large room upstairs. In 1951 the building was donated to the municipal council and renovated to become Port Macquarie’s first free public library.
Many leading and lesser known citizens of the town contributed to the School of Arts over its seventy years. Discover more about Port Macquarie’s history in a new book For the Moral and Intellectual Good: Port Macquarie School of Arts 1840-1951, to be launched at the Port Macquarie Museum on Monday 11 April.