Mechanics' institutes – adult learning establishments for skilled working men – first appeared in Britain in the 1820s, and were brought to New Zealand by early settlers. Members could attend a wide range of classes and lectures and make use of libraries and reading rooms. The Port Nicholson Mechanics' Institute opened in Wellington in 1842, in a simple raupō (bulrush) hut. The institute was forced to close after the colonial government instituted an annual levy on raupō buildings, aimed at discouraging their use, because raupō was highly flammable. The institute went into recession until the new building (pictured) opened in 1850. Along with a new building came a new name: the Wellington Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute.
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