The Gundaroo Literary Institute and Library

Gundaroo Literary Institute and Library

What is a Literary Institute?

The short answer is it’s an organisation established to support learning. Beginning in Scotland in the nineteenth century separate bodies with purpose-built premises, called Mechanics’ Institutes or Schools of Arts, were founded with the goal of providing scientific and technological education for skilled manual workers. It was a time when there was a thirst for knowledge and desire for improvement and it was recognised that education [for all people as well as workers] provided an opportunity to improve one’s situation in the world.[1]It was from this background that the Gundaroo Literary Institute and Library came about late in the nineteenth century.

William Affleck – Benefactor of Gundaroo

In May 1865, ten years after he arrived in Gundaroo as a 19 year old, William Affleck acquired a half acre block of land in Cork Street, the main street of Gundaroo.[2]This was Allotment 16, Section 27, Village and Parish of Gundaroo, in the County of Murray. Around this time, the Mutual Improvement Society was established. It operated out of various premises including the medical hall, the vestry of the Presbyterian church and the public school. However, the Mutual Improvement Society “began to topple in early eighties when the concert craze initiated by [postmaster William] Clemenger proved that fun was preferable to mutual improvement”.[3]

Meanwhile, as the village grew, William Affleck took a leading role in village matters. He married, had children and was widowed. And he “spearheaded conversion of Sally Paskin’s old slab store to a reading room where the Mutual Improvement Society made its first permanent home”. In the 1890s, establishment of a public library “swallowed up the membership of its parent, the Mutual Improvement Society”.[4]

In 1897, when he was a member of the New South Wales parliament, William Affleck donated Allotment 16, across the road from his Caledonia Store, to the community for use as the Library. He’d built a weatherboard cottage on this land in 1888 and rented it firstly to Betsy Holdsworth and later to Will Booth.[5] Despite intentions for many years to erect a purpose-specific building, the weatherboard cottage remains.

Managing and using the Gundaroo Literary Institute

Management of the Gundaroo Literary Institute and Library was established under a private trust in 1907, under the Trustees of School of Arts Enabling Act 1902.The trust deed appoints the first trustees as John Wishart Cameron Affleck (William Affleck’s son), Gerald Murray Clarke Massy, and postmaster William Ralph Clemengeras joint tenants of the land so the site could be used as a public library and school of arts. An updated trust deed, issued in 1910, outlines the conditions under which the land and buildings can be sold and mortgaged. 

As well as being a lending library for the Gundaroo community, the Literary Institute has been used for many things including:

• meetings of public community groups (e.g. the Gundaroo Common Trust and Gundaroo & District Historical Society still meet there), 

• public entertainment (e.g. showing lantern slides of Antarctica and Japan in 1914), • • send-offs for soldiers to the first world war, 

• as a polling place for council elections and 

• displays of local historical material. 

• as a branch of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney Ltd as a ”Receiving Office” for two hours each Wednesday, and 

• a part-time hair salon in the 1980s. 

In the 1990s the building underwent a significant restoration by local volunteers.

So what now?

The Gundaroo Literary Institute remains an important heritage site in the village. It is listed on the Yass Valley Shire Council Heritage Register. Support from a Heritage Grant through the Yass Valley Council, allowed for work to be undertaken in 2019 to repair the building including some re-stumping, replacing the front verandah and installing new guttering.  Further restoration work is planned for the future.

Since the 1980s the Gundaroo Rural Bush Fire Brigade has  been headquartered on the land behind the building. A number of books from the lending library, including Votes and Proceedings of the NSW Legislative Assemblyfrom the 1890s that were donated by William Affleck, are still held in the building.

With the repeal of the Trustees of School of Arts Enabling Act new arrangements are currently being made to transition from the private trust to operating as an Incorporated Association. The aim is to ensure the building continues to be available for the benefit of the community.

[1]Morris, Dr Roger, ’When did Schools of Arts arrive in Australia’, AMISA Newsletter, Vol. 3, Issue 1, January 2015

[2]Granted to William Affleck: registered volume XVIII Folio 124 dated 27 May 1865.

[3]Lea-Scarlett, Errol (1972), Gundaroo, Roebuck Society Publication, p115


[5]ibid pp 115-6