Site Name: Clifton School of Arts
Address: Lawrence Hargrave Drive Coledale
GPS Coordinates: H 312978 E 6207039 HSL 64.0 Metres
Site Access: Public viewing of the Building only (if without specific arrangements). The building is available for hire with funds going to support of the facility. See here for details.

The Clifton School of Arts

An International Movement

The School of Arts at Clifton, NSW was founded as a local representation of a much wider phenomenon. The ‘School of Arts’ movement originated in Edinburgh in 1821. It aimed at bringing education to the working class, and spread rapidly through the English-speaking world in the mid 19th century. It was adopted early in Australia, a Mechanics Institute being founded in Hobart in 1827. Over around a hundred years, some 750 such schools or institutes were founded in NSW alone. One of the directors of the first school saw the objectives of the school as including “… the universal diffusion of useful knowledge among the lower orders”.

The early institutes had an orientation towards technical education, as the ‘Mechanics Institute’ term implied. Over the years however their role evolved to a more general one, with an array of activities including providing ”.. a local home for reading, culture, civic action, recreation and entertainment.” The schools also provided a means towards the development of public libraries, a site for recreational activities, and a platform for diverse other community functions. The history of the School of Arts at Clifton very much mirrors this pattern. Clifton itself, a town perched on cliffs facing the sea, was very closely linked to the operations of the local coal mine, which was to be significant to the history of the School

Clifton NSW from the south ca 1900; 1900-1910

Alexander Stuart

The School arguably had its beginning as an organisation on the night of 22nd December, 1880. Then, only days after the conclusion of the 1880 state election, the electors of Clifton took part at short notice in a meeting addressed by their local member of parliament, also owner/operator of the local coal mine, Mr Alexander Stuart. He there expressed his wish to “…confer with them as employer and employed on social matters”. It is worth using the illawarra Mercury  reporter’s account of Mr Stuart who “…expressed his opinion that a further step should be taken in connection with [the Education Question], namely, the carrying out of technical education for the working classes.”

“On this subject he spoke at some length, giving good sound advice to all to improve their minds whenever an opportunity occurred, and showing that our education depended to a great extent on self-help, which he was prepared to assist as far as he possibly could at Clifton. As an earnest of what he proposed he placed at their service a room properly fitted up with tables, seats and a book case, for the purpose of establishing a School of Arts.”

He also promised to intercede with the Minister of Education for an educational grant, and as further help gave his own donation of £30, a splendid nickel silver reading lamp and an offer of assistance in other ways. The community was not slow to act on Mr Stuart’s offer, and the School of Arts commenced to function, with a meeting of subscribers electing officers of the association on 13 December 1880.

Community Engagement

The first concert to raise further funds for the school was held with a sell-out audience on 14 January 1881, with the room being opened for members a few days later, with newspapers available for members’ perusal. The School was to continue in this manner for the next thirty years, in a room about 20 feet by 10 feet, serving as a community basis for both educational and social activities, and with community support particularly through fund-raising.

There were problems though. White ants, which were to be a problem in other nearby buildings also were a major problem, the Illawarra Mercury(27 july 1883) noting as early as 1883 that “…white ants have taken full possession of the…School of Arts”. Space was also a problem, with a need seen for larger premises to adequately serve the town. This was eventually to lead to the construction of the premises in place today.

A New Building

The present building was constructed in 1911 after much fund-raising by the local community. Land for the purpose was donated by Mr Vickery of the Coalcliff Colliery, continuing the association begun by Alexander Stuart. Miners at Coalcliff mine were on strike for six months at that time, and are reported to have provided some of the labour for the construction of the building.

Coal Mines & Mining: Clifton Miners

As originally envisaged, the facility was to comprise the building as it now stands, including a reading room, library and two offices, with, at the rear, a large hall some 72 feet by 38 feet. Plans and specifications for the latter were prepared, but it was not part of the initial construction. Despite arguments at the time that it should proceed as early as possible, this was not to be the case. Both finances and membership were healthy after the opening of the new facility and reflected active fund-raising. Enrolled members numbered 97; liabilities were £399 2s, and assets £1200 approximately. The cost of the building was £655 including architects’ fees and land transfer with all outstanding finance being paid out in March 1923. over half of the total cost having been raised by the public.

Clifton NSW from the north

The fact that the hall was not built in subsequent years reflected in part a drift in population which had occurred away from Clifton to other centres. The present building though served for many years as the basis for community activities in Clifton. It also housed at various times doctors’ surgeries, a billiard room, a shop, an electoral office and more recently, an artist’s studio. With a reducing population in Clifton over the years, and reduced interest, the building declined in condition. Ultimately a School of Arts Committee was formed in the mid 1950s, and concerned residents and Wollongong City Council moved to restore and preserve the building. That work commenced in 1996 and the restoration was completed in 2001.


The School of Arts is significant from several perspectives. It was a real representative of community sentiment and activity of the time, and a demonstration of the way in which a small and relatively isolated community of the day could be a part of a larger, international social movement. Its later restoration is a further demonstration of that community sentiment. The circumstances in which it was founded, its flourishing and later decline as an organisation reflect the central role played by significant industrial operations in their local social environment. In the case of Clifton that was of course the Jetty mine, and later the Coalcliff mine, both significant in industrial terms, and which are dealt with elsewhere. Its history also reflects well the extent to which needs which were once supplied communally are now supplied much more individually – thus reducing the motivation for the development of both the organisation and the facility of the Clifton School of Arts.

Painting of the Jetty Mine by Michael Hay
Courtesy Clifton School of Arts

The School served for many years of a focus for the Clifton community and its history reflects the lives of that community, and particularly those associated with the mine.  This is well illustrated by the 2021 publication for the school, marking 110 years since its construction.