If These Walls Could Speak
Wingello Mechanics Institute Hall Centenary

If These Walls Could Speak

An abridged version of the show devised by David Johnson for the 100th anniversary of the Wingello Mechanics Institute Hall in 2017


100 years ago this Mechanics Institute Hall was opened. This presentation aims to reflect on that time and the importance of the hall to the community. The ephemeral events that make up the social history of any community require a focal point. For Wingello that has been this hall. But before this particular building was erected there was the "Coronation Hall" here on the same site.

Here is its story. In 1901 the Wingello Progress Association set about raising funds to build a village hall. It was named for the coronation of Edward VII and opened on 26th June 1902, with a plain and fancy dress ball. It soon became the hub of local social activity.

For instance, the Scrutineer reported in 1905

A very successful Plain & Fancy Dress Ball was held on St Patrick’s night in the Coronation Hall, which was nicely decorated for the occasion with ferns from the picturesque gullies. Dancing commenced at 8 o’clock and was kept going till daybreak. It was well attended by local people, and a large number from the surrounding district. Mr M Dignam acted as M.C. and carried out his duties in his usual good old style, excellent music being supplied by the Messrs. Jack, George and John Jeffery, Mrs D Pauley had charge of the catering, and much credit is due to that lady for the praiseworthy manner in which she carried it out. The costumes worn by the young ladies were charming. Miss E Lynam was declared “belle.” Refreshments were handed round about daybreak for a second time, after which all started for their respective homes after having spent a most enjoyable time.

In 1909, the hall became a Mechanics Institute – Mechanics Institutes were set up all round Australia modelled on a British system introduced in the early 1800s. Such an institute provided education for the working class through lectures from visiting speakers and through a lending library of books. They were initially set up in Sydney and Melbourne and soon started appearing in country areas. The object of the Mechanics Institute was the encouragement of social, intellectual and physical recreation. No religious subjects were to be introduced at its meetings. A library was established, with strict rules for borrowing. Sporting goods were purchased, including a bobs set, crib boards, draughts boards, chess men, rope quoits, ludo, dominoes, cards, dumbells, punching bags, Indian clubs, table cloths and lamps, skittles, German billiards and a billiard table. Mr Bruce Jeffery was appointed for the job of caretaker and librarian. Mr Penfold was appointed door-keeper during entertainments etc.

A piano was purchased. Perhaps the piano here was one that played this popular dance tune from the period – the Veleta Waltz. Today it is to be played by Rhonda Langford. And incidentally Rhonda, after a recent screening of the new Ben Hall film, revealed a family connection with The Ben Hall gang. [Veleta Waltz]

The railway line was extended to Marulan by 1868 (just 3 years after the Ben Hall Holdup at Jeffery's Inn.) and soon after, all the way to Goulburn. In the early 1900s Wingello had a substantial camp of fettlers based here to work on doubling the line and for maintenance.

These workers no doubt took advantage of the Mechanics' Institute for recreation and education. A rowdy element may have been responsible for the management committee including rules about barring persons for unsavoury behaviour. 

The Coronation Hall saw many events, incuding:-

• card parties;
• regular dances and balls held on Friday or Saturday nights closest to the full moon so patrons could make the trip home a little easier;
• boxing – a boxing ring was roped off on the stage with serious competition taking place, complete with referee and rules. Boxing classes were held.
• Sports days included bicycle races, wood chops, potato race, tug-o-war, three legged race, running long jump, ladies stepping race, a slow bike race, throwing the wicket and an Old Buffers race.

Early in 1915 the insurance for the Hall was increased to £225.

In 1915 Times were tougher – World War 1 saw quite a number of locals enlist for the "great adventure". Some enlisted as the Kangaroo March came through from Wagga which you may recall was re-enacted in 2015.

Meanwhile back on the local scene, The Scrutineer and Berrima District Press of early October 1915 reported:

The public hall at Wingello was destroyed by fire on Thursday 30th September. The estimated loss is 500 pounds. The building was insured with the London and Lancashire Fire Insurance Company for £225. The district coroner held an inquiry into the cause of the fire which gave an open verdict.

What do you make of the sequence of events? Firstly, from the minutes of the committee, they perceived a need for rules to bar attendance for misconduct. Then the committee decided to significantly increase the insured value of the building. Then the hall was destroyed by fire.

Soon after the fire, a Public Meeting was called which recommended the erection of a brick building on the old site. The cheque from the insurance company provided a start for the funding. {Architect Cyril Blacket} The plan of the hall for a brick building 50ft x 28 ft was drawn up by Cyril Blacket (son of Edmund Blacket and brother of the Wingello store keeper) and tenders were called.

The Scrutineer takes up the story in May 1917:

It is now nearly two years since the local hall was destroyed by fire. The trustees have apparently in the meantime been infected with the go-slow virus of the I-wont-worry brigade. The great necessity of a hall to a village like Wingello has been commented on by all. The absence of such a building has undoubtedly been quite a drawback to the town. Quite an unusual set of circumstances has arisen to hamper the efforts of the trustees in having a new hall erected. A tender for a brick building was once accepted and the contract signed. The contractor, however, faded from view. Matters now stand that there is no unanimity amongst the trustees as to the class of building to be erected. One section believes that a wooden structure would amply supply all wants, while the tastes of another section lie in the direction of a pretentious brick building. To settle the question a meeting of the general public is called for Saturday night next, when the whole matter will be threshed out. As the question is exciting a good deal of public interest, a large meeting is expected.

After this meeting the architect was asked to prepare plans and specifications for a wooden building on brick foundation, hardwood rusticated boards for walls, tallowwood flooring, white pine lining and iron roof. Tenders were received and a bank loan of £150 was sought. In 1917 a tender was accepted for a timber building and construction began. Construction was completed (notice the unusual design with the rafters extending outside the building). The opening was set for Anniversary Day (as Australia Day was known then) in January 1918.

OPENING NIGHT! The Scrutineer and Berrima Press of Saturday 2nd February 1918 reported:

The practical opening of the Wingello hall took place on Friday night last, when a very large number attended the plain and fancy dress ball. An energetic committee had been busy for some time past in perfecting arrangements, and their efforts were rewarded by an attendance even exceeding their own optimistic estimate. The hall was tastefully decorated for the occasion with bunting, ferns, and such. The supper was calculated to please the tastes of the most fastidious epicure. The attendance which included a large number of visitors from Bundanoon, Tallong, Marulan and neighbouring towns taxed the dancing capacity of the hall to the utmost. The fancy costumes added considerably to the spectacular display.

The dances on the programme probably included waltz figures and any of the sets of quadrilles. Here is a sample of the music that may well have been played then. [Frank Collins Old Time Polkas] That was the unofficial opening and the Saturday and Sunday events included a formal opening, sports competitions, a bazaar, luncheon, displays and concert items. The honor roll was also unveiled on the day. Mr. Fuller spoke on the necessity now that conscription had been turned down to all join hands, sink all differences, and concentrate their best energies in winning the war.  

At the end of the war no doubt the walls resounded to victory celebrations, which of course included dances and balls. Special events were held to thank returned soldiers.

The Goulburn Evening Penny Post of Thursday 4 September 1919 reported On Saturday, August 28, about 200 people assembled in the Coronation Hall, Wingello, the occasion being a welcome home to Privates Murphy, Tynam and Buckman. The hall was gaily decorated with wattle and bunting by the ladies of the Welcome Home Committee. Dancing commenced at 8 p.m. During the evening tableaux were displayed "Britannia and her Allies" and "Australia a Nation." At 10 o'clock our heroes assembled on the platform. Mr. O'Reilly called upon Mr. C. Rush to present each soldier on behalf of the residents of Wingello and district with a gold medal suitably inscribed. The returned men responded, and said how pleased they were to be back in sunny Australia again. They thanked the people for their welcome home and presentation. The audience sang "They are Jolly Good Fellows." Refreshments were handed round and dancing resumed, and kept going until midnight.

The Maxina was a craze from this period written by Victorian dance instructor Madame Low Hurndall in 1917. [The Maxina]  

At all stages in the Hall's history there have been community volunteers who have taken responsibility for the hall management. I don't know when these particular folk were involved but they are here to represent the many who have enabled this hall to be a key part of the Wingello social fabric. I have served on the Penrose Hall Committee as a member and as president and believe me I understand the job. Perhaps the current committe would stand and are there any previous committee members present too? Now let's all give a huge round of applause for all volunteers past and present. The first 1919 committee minutes give some inkling of the sorts of issues that have been dealt with by all these committees:

  • Setting Hire rates - Progress Association to be charged 1/- per meeting for use of hall.
  • Improving amenities - Six boards with 4 inch nails be fixed at back of hall as hat racks
  • Maintaining assets - Cover for the piano to be purchased.
  • Special rates - Dances held for Red Cross in hall to be charged half price.

Any excuse for a dance or a ball. A pattern that continued for nearly 100 years. The foresight shown in building with hardwood flooring made this dance venue the best in a fifty mile radius. One regular excuse for a dance was sport - celebrating the start of the season or as a victory celebration . The area was renown for its cricketing prowess with two teams at least fielded in the local competition. One team was proudly made up by the Jeffery's clan and, before the war saw many of them enlist, they often took out the honours in the local comp.

And of course you can't mention cricket and Wingello without including Bill O'Reilly. As most here would know he was a remarkable bowler who represented his town, his state and his country. He had a grip of the ball that was extremely hard to read, even by world class batsmen like Don Bradman. Their first encounter occured in 1925. Bill was returning home from Teachers College in Sydney when he was dragged off the train at Bowral to bowl for Wingello. In his first over he clean bowled one on the openers. Then out came the 19 year old diminutive Don Bradman. Bill was unlucky not to get his wicket early as he was dropped twice by his captain Selby Jeffery, who incidentally was well respected as a veteran from the first landing at Gallipoli. Then the Don gave Wingello some serious "leather hunting" and finished the day on 234 not out. Matches in those days were held over two weekends and when the match resumed... I'll let this song I wrote tell the rest of the story. [Tiger O'Reilly]

The opening of hall extensions in October 1926 was reported by the Goulburn Evening Penny Post:

Saturday October 9, was a red-letter day for Wingello, the occasion being the official opening of the additions to the Mechanic’s Institute. The additions consist of two dressing rooms, the provision of a commodious stage and lining of the main hall. The cost amounts to 320 pounds and thanks to an indefatigable body of lady workers, the hall was opened free from debt.

A Ping Pong club was established in 1926 as reported by The Scrutineer and Berrima District Press:

The Mechanics' Institute Hall at Wingello was, on Saturday night last, crowded with enthusiastic players, the occasion being the opening of the Ping Pong Club recently formed there. Three tables were placed in the hall, and the little white balls were kept on the move In earnest games until 10.30, when supper was served by the ladies but - no sooner was it over than the sound of ping pong: was again to be heard, and more enthusiasm was aroused when one and all joined in progressive ping pong until mld nlght. The club is hoping for two such enjoyable evenings weekly, and matches and tournaments in the near future.

[Wingello Ping Pong Club] And indeed in August 1926 they held their first tournament which had to be interrupted with a few dances to warm everyone up. [Jigs]  

Once a year the Hall was readied for the annual Agricultural Show to display the areas' produce. The main crops in this area were apples, pears and peaches, with many orchards running poultry and/or pigs under the trees to control insect pests and weeds and to fertilise the ground. Quite a few kept bees as well. The pigs, chooks and bees provided alternative income streams which contributed to the area’s prosperity. Orchardists competed keenly for the honours at the annual agricultural show. The Goulburn Evening Post, Friday 20 February 1953, reported on the upcoming show:

Members of the Wingello Agricultural Bureau, and kindred societies are busy preparing for the Horticultural and Agricultural Show. The schedule provides for a comprehensive range of exhibits and awards and a record breaking number of entries are expected by the committee. They expect to prove to even the most sceptical critics that the district's soil is capable of producting excellent products, bountiful season or not.Inside the hall the show was much as they are today with tables displaying produce, preserves, cakes, biscuits and crafts with some items bearing coloured ribbons to boost the pride of the winners.

Meanwhile outside these kids have been captured posed around a motorbike. The clothes and the bike give an idea of the date it was taken.

And no country show was complete without a show queen and or show princess. She and all the other young folk would have taken to the floor for the evening ball, doing such dances as a foxtrot to music like this. [Slow Foxtrot]  

World War 2 World War 2 saw many locals again answer the call. {Honour Roll} The men being absent put greater responsibility for fruit production on the wives and children of soldiers. They, here as elsewhere round the country, managed and sometimes had the assistance of the Women's Land Army. {WLA} The pattern of the previous war was repeated with send offs, fund raisers for the Red Cross and then welcomes for the returned. Dances had moved over the years to incorporate new dance crazes. The foxtrot, quickstep, and the tango as well as many figure couples waltzes. Thse were danced to the popular tunes of the day. Some Australian classics like these I hope you recognise. {Dance Band} [Foxtrot]

Good dances need good musicians and this district has had many. But sadly their legacy is mostly lost. Luckily though, some motivated individuals saw the need to capture and preserve this transient heritage. John Meredith was a pioneer. He recorded elderly musicians singing the old bush songs, and playing instruments like fiddles, pianos, concertinas, accordions, and so on. His recordings are now held in the National Library and he was recognised for his work with the Order of Australia. From this area he recorded two musicians whose music no doubt echoed off these walls. Pearly Watling came from a line of musicians from the Boxer's Creek area. Her life would make a great subject for a film. I had the opportunity to play with her at a dance at Binda in the mid 80s. A strong vibrant musician. She gave us some tunes that she had learnt from relatives including these two shottisches - one from her father Billy Collins and one from an uncle Jimmy Jeffery, was the accordion player in the band I showed earlier. One of the dances that has stood the test of time is the Barn Dance. These tunes suit it admirably. [Local Schottisches]

Rhonda Mair tells about movie nights at the Wingello Hall {Movie Nights} My family came from Goulburn where I grew up during the 1950s and 1960s. My father Hedley Carman was an avid collector of films (movies, documentaries and cartoons). He owned several projectors and as well as watching films at home he would order 16mm films from catalogues. He would travel to a number of small towns around Goulburn and show the films in the local halls. Wingello was one of the towns. Movies were always shown on a Saturday night. An evening's entertainment would include a feature movie and one or two cartoons and a newsreel. Our whole family would be involved and we would load up the old Ford V8 with projectors, speakers and a large screen. The screen was rolled up and transported pointing out the front passenger window. The projectors were set up on the stage and films projected to the screen which was hung at the front of the hall. Curtains were drawn across to hide most of the set-up. Mum, my two sisters and I would sell tickets at the entrance - two shillings for children and four for adults. The show would start with the newsreel and cartoons followed by a short interval then the main movie. We would sell crisps and drinks during the break. The audience was mostly children, all excited in anticipation of the entertainment. After the show we packed away all the seats and swept the floor while dad attended to the projection equipment. It was a night out for all of us too.  

Another local musician whose music was captured by John Meredith was pianist Rita Garbutt. I have been assured by her daughter who is here tonight. Rita is the pianist in this cameo of what looks to me like an Empire Day celebation. Empire Day was celebrated on the 24th May with a half day holiday from school and events like pageants and fireworks in the evening, Cracker Night.

Rita was Jimmy Jeffery's daughter, and like many dance musicians, played by ear (that is she didn't need to read music to play she just remembered the tunes). She added trills, grace notes and octaves to decorate the tune, and played with impeccable dance tempo which she beat out by kicking the front panel of the piano with her right foot.

The Nights of Gladness is a beautiful waltz probably derived from 20th century sheet music. It is the only tune she remembered that she learnt from her father. I think this shows how tenuous our musical history is. Perhaps it was played for these gorgeous debutantes and their dashing partners at their debutantes’ ball. [Nights of Gladness]

The next item is a schottische that Rita played called The Honeybees Schottische. The dances and balls provided the opportunity to meet potential partners and over the years they would have been the starting point for countless marriages in the town. Both men and women took the dancing seriously and learnt the steps. Blokes that couldn't or wouldn't dance were at a real disadvantage in the courting stakes. [Honeybees Schottische]

The bushfire of March 1965 had a huge impact on Wingello and Tallong. It burnt out 620,000 acres and destroyed thousands of head of livestock and is still the greatest disaster in the recorded history of this area. Three people were killed, 31 homes were destroyed in Wingello and 28 in Tallong and most of the surrounding orchards were obliterated. It was the turning point for many orchards that were struggling to compete in the state fruit market with rising costs and price squeezing. Many families left the village for good. Fortunately the hall survived and remained the focus of community life. Another bushfire in 2001 saw a Wingello bush fire brigade crew caught in a deadly inferno. One crew member David Quilivan died at the scene and the rest of the crew suffered life changing burns. We should ackowledge the important community role that the RFS continues to play in this community.

Gradually the township has recovered though not with the orcharding focus it once had. The village has grown as reasonably priced land has attracted new building and new families here. The Wingello Shop and the school continue to provide vital services for the community. With television and numerous other modern diversions the hall resounds but rarely to the sounds of the dance band and swishing of feet. Here you see a crowd enjoying a bush dance with Paddys River Band. [Local Dance Tunes]  


In 2009 the costs of needed repairs was such that, with community approval, the management of the hall was transferred to the Wingecarribe Shire Council.This has resulted in rather tedious procedures to actually use the hall, but on the plus side the roof has been replaced and the walls repainted.

Fortunately, we have at Council the wonderful Lynne Morrison who helps the committee wade through the (pause) paperwork. Current use of the hall is effectively a record of the social life of Wingello in the 21st century.

  • Rural Fire Service fund-raiser dinners
  • Halloween parties
  • School concerts
  • Musical concerts like Loosely Woven
  • Craft group meets
  • Theatrical performances like the Holdup at Jeffery's Inn
  • Yoga and pilates
  • Tap Dance and Belly Dance
  • And others

So there it is, a potted history of this wonderful social institution.

Thanks to Carol Olde for many of the pictures you have seen.

The National Library’s Trove has been a wonderful source for newspaper articles that were able to give you eye witness accounts of village events. Would you please thank our musicians and narrators. [Rhonda Langford, Bertie McMahon, Duncan McAulay, Leslie Ferrier, Richard Officer, and Anne Pidcock]

My name is David Johnson and I live behind the Eureka Flag that flies between here and Penrose. Special thanks to my inspiration and critic, Anne.

We’ll finish with a song written for the occasion, and hopefully you’ll get the drift and sing along.

[If These Walls Could Speak]