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Rockhampton School of Arts (former)

  • 600788
  • 230 Bolsover Street, Rockhampton


Also known as
Rockhampton Municipal Theatre; Rockhampton Municipal Library
State Heritage
Register status
Date entered
21 October 1992
Education, research, scientific facility: School of arts/mechanics institute
8.2 Creating social and cultural institutions: Cultural activities
8.3 Creating social and cultural institutions: Organisations and societies
9.3 Educating Queenslanders: Educating adults
Construction period
1893–1938, Rockhampton School of Arts (former) (1893 - 1938)
Historical period
1870s–1890s Late 19th century


230 Bolsover Street, Rockhampton
Rockhampton Regional Council
-23.381271, 150.513682


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Criterion AThe place is important in demonstrating the evolution or pattern of Queensland’s history.

The Rockhampton School of Arts is important for its contribution to the cultural and social development of Rockhampton. Constructed in 1894, the place demonstrates the growth and evolution of the School of Arts movement which fostered and developed an interest in education, cultural and social activities, and the performing arts, in towns and cities throughout Queensland in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The building is located on the site of an earlier School of Arts constructed in 1865, on land which was proclaimed as a School of Arts reserve in the 1862 Rockhampton Town Plan.

The place is also important in demonstrating the development of the civic centre of Rockhampton, particularly during the late 19th century, and is significant for its association with the separation movement, which was established in the earlier School of Arts building in 1890, and which was active in Rockhampton and central Queensland in the period of 1890-1901.

Criterion DThe place is important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a particular class of cultural places.

The School of Arts is a fine example of a major regional School of Arts building providing accommodation typical of this class of cultural place including a library, reading room, committee room, classrooms and museum. The substantial two-storey masonry building is highly intact and demonstrates the civic prominence of the School of Arts institution, with its ornate façade another important characteristic of a major regional School of Arts building.

Criterion EThe place is important because of its aesthetic significance.

The School of Arts is important for its aesthetic significance as an example of Victorian Classical architecture of the late 19th century, and in making  an important contribution to the streetscape of Bolsover Street, Rockhampton. The building is an important component of the civic centre of Rockhampton, and its elaborately decorated symmetrical façade [imposing projecting entrance and ornate Corinthian pilasters] is expressive of the grand vision the community held for Rockhampton as a future northern capital during the separation movement of the 1890s.

Criterion GThe place has a strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons.

The School of Arts is important for its contribution to the cultural and social development of Rockhampton. The building replaced an earlier school of arts erected on the site in 1865. For the community of Rockhampton and district the place has a strong and special association with educational, cultural and social activities since the mid-19th century. The 1894 building is an important component of the Rockhampton civic centre and symbolises the community’s former grand vision of Rockhampton as a future northern capital.

Criterion HThe place has a special association with the life or work of a particular person, group or organisation of importance in Queensland’s history.

The place is significant for its association with the Central Queensland Territorial Separation League, which was established in the earlier School of Arts in 1890, and which agitated through the 1890s for the creation of a separate central Queensland colony centred on Rockhampton. League President John Ferguson guaranteed the loan for the building work, and several members of the League were involved with the School of Arts. The building’s design also reflects the association with the movement, as a substantial building designed to indicate the importance of Rockhampton as a potential northern capital.


The Rockhampton School of Arts building was constructed in 1894 and is an important element of the streetscape of Bolsover Street, Rockhampton. The building is a fine example of late 19th century Victorian Classical architecture. It has formed a major part of the cultural, social, civic and political life of Rockhampton since 1894, and has associations with a previous school of arts building that stood on the site from 1865. The School of Arts building is evidence of the growth of Rockhampton, and reflects the prominence of Rockhampton and the drive and energy of its citizens in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Schools of Arts were synonymous with Mechanics' Institutes, established in Britain early in the 19th century, and transplanted throughout the British Empire during the colonial era. The movement was instituted by George Birkbeck who established a class for journeymen mechanics in Glasgow in 1804, and formed the first Mechanics' Institute in London in 1824. The purpose of forming such an institute was to improve the education of working men, and to instruct them in various trades. By the late 19th century, Mechanics' Institutes had become popular agencies of general adult education. They were part of a wider 19th century movement promoting popular education in Britain, at a time when co-operative societies, working men's colleges and the university extension movement were established. Mechanics' Institutes flourished as a means by which working men might improve their lot, either through self-education in Institute-provided reading rooms, or by participating in instructional classes organised and funded by Institute members.[1]

The first Queensland School of Arts opened in Brisbane in 1849. They spread through the developing colony, serving as one of the principal sources of adult education. 26 were established in Queensland towns and districts by 1880. The government recognised the importance of such institutes by making land available, subsidising books and assisting with building costs.[2]

A School of Arts movement was initiated in Rockhampton in 1861, not long after the town was founded. The settlement of Rockhampton had emerged to serve pastoralists in the late 1850s and grew quickly following a gold rush at nearby Canoona. It was surveyed in 1858 and declared a town in 1861, with a population of nearly 700 people.[3]

Following a public meeting a School of Arts Committee was established in July 1861, with the aims of spreading ‘literary, scientific and other useful knowledge amongst members’.[4] Donations of books, magazines or money were sought from the general public. A one acre reserve was granted to the School of Arts under the 1862 Rockhampton Town Plan. The reserve, allotment 1 of Section 59A, was a centrally-located block, fronting Bolsover and William Streets on its north-eastern end.[5] It adjoined the Town Hall site, a reflection of its perceived importance.

Despite the Committee’s grandiose hopes of educating the community of Rockhampton, the movement initially met with a lukewarm response. Rockhampton’s small population was transient and not highly literate, and contributions were not forthcoming. The movement nearly folded in its first five years, but the Committee raised enough money to construct a building on the reserve, facing Bolsover Street, which opened on 24 February 1865. Shops and a hotel were built on the William Street frontage and leased to tenants, an additional source of income which proved vital during times of economic hardship.

The School of Arts was the first public adult educational facility in Rockhampton, and soon emerged as the cultural centre of Rockhampton. Courses were offered in classical languages and scientific matters, though they relied on volunteer teachers and the standard of instruction varied. Between 1865 and 1890 the School of Arts’ membership increased from 40 to 380 and the library’s stocks grew from 250 to 7,000 volumes. Membership generally comprised middle-class residents who had leisure time and could afford subscription fees. The School of Arts also expanded physically, with an additional grant of land in 1869 and a museum which opened in 1872.[6]

While the institution was growing, however, the building was sinking. The clay soils on which the first School of Arts stood proved detrimental to the building, which began to crack. In 1882 a public competition was launched to design a new building and was won by Brisbane architect Alexander Brown Wilson. Reconstruction plans were also submitted by prolific local architect John W Wilson (no relation to AB Wilson) but financial difficulties prevented construction.[7]

Despite its deterioration, the School of Arts remained the centre of debate and learning in Rockhampton. Technical education began there in 1890, with classes in shorthand, model drawing and architectural drawing. The building was also used for the inaugural meeting of the Central Queensland Territorial Separation League (CQTSL) in January 1890. The CQTSL was the most significant of the separation movements which sprang up in north and central Queensland through the latter half of the 19th century. It agitated throughout the 1890s for the creation of a separate colony centred on Rockhampton. By this time, Rockhampton was the commercial centre of central Queensland. It was the major port in central Queensland, serving a plethora of pastoral, agricultural and mining lands. Wealth and immigrants poured into the town after gold mining at nearby Mount Morgan began in 1882 and the cattle industry fed further growth. With a population of around 11,600 people in 1891, it was the second largest town in Queensland, making it the logical choice for a capital for a central Queensland colony.[8]

As an element in what was possibly the location of a new capital, a School of Arts building would have to represent the aspirations of its citizens. Sizeable new Schools of Arts had already been built in Toowoomba (1882), Maryborough (1888, QHR 600701), Bundaberg (1889, QHR 600362) and Townsville (1891, QHR 600925), while Rockhampton’s building continued to fracture. The Daily Northern Argus noted criticism of the building by a ‘stranger from the South’ and encouraged subscribers to agitate for better accommodation. The School of Arts Committee raised £1,000 for a new building, but this was deemed insufficient for a structure ‘intended to be the centre of intellectual life in the Rockhampton community.’ The Legislative Council passed the Rockhampton School of Arts Act in 1892, allowing the Committee to mortgage the William Street commercial properties. Despite an economic depression which had struck Queensland, the committee borrowed £5,000 from the Union Bank of Australasia. At an eventual cost of £5,578, the Rockhampton School of Arts building would be the most expensive in the colony.[9]

In the ten years that had passed since the first design competition, the growth of the School of Arts had rendered AB Wilson’s plans ‘quite inadequate to present and prospective requirements.’ A new design competition was launched and won by local architect Walter Cherry in November 1892. Rockhampton newspapers announced their gratification that ‘a fellow townsman should have wrested the prize from Maryborough, Brisbane, and other foreign competitors’. John W Wilson was employed to supervise the design, and in January 1893 the contract was let to builder Walter A Lawson for £4,500.[10]

There has been some debate about the identity of the designer, Walter Cherry being confused with Brisbane designer and works foreman William Cherry. The former was a Rockhampton-based licensed surveyor who worked for civil engineer, surveyor and architect FJ Byerley. No other architectural works attributable to Cherry have been identified. He advertised himself as an architect while living in Victoria in the 1870s but does not appear to have practised in Queensland, though he did teach the inaugural Rockhampton School of Arts architectural drawing class. Few other details are known about his life.[11]

Hints of the influence of the Separation movement crept into the School of Arts building project. CQTSL president John Ferguson offered security for the building loan, while politician (and future premier) Robert Philp, responding to parliamentary criticism of the Rockhampton School of Arts Bill, declared that ‘it was little irritating things like this that made the people of the North dissatisfied with the South’.[12]

On 6 March 1894 the School of Arts building was officially opened in the presence of the Governor Sir Henry Norman, who declared it ‘the finest school of arts he had seen in the course of all his travels in the colony’.[13] The two-storey building was designed in the classical style. From the Bolsover Street entrance patrons walked into a vestibule, with committee room, two classrooms and cloak room on the right, and a secretary's office and library subdivided by arched openings into four compartments on the left. Above this, accessible from a stairway on the right, was a suite of five apartments comprising the reading room, and on the left side of the building were four rooms for use as a museum and another classroom. An 800-seat hall stood behind this section of the building, accessible through the main building or via a service lane. The reading room apartments were ‘finely lighted and ventilated, and even in the hottest day in summer should be cool and pleasant’.[14] All rooms opened out onto the verandah. Ornamentation was limited to the façade, reflecting the School of Arts’ educational rather than aesthetic focus. The building jutted slightly into a service lane, later known as Millers Lane, next to the William Street commercial rental properties.[15]

The building was quickly recognised as the ‘first in importance amongst the public buildings’ of Rockhampton. The ‘imposing mound of bricks and stone’, as the Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser described it, had ‘probably no equal in the colonies as a school of arts’.[16] The grandeur of the building, however, would not reflect its status as a new capital city. The CQTSL had come close to success when a motion to form a separate colony was placed before Parliament in 1897, but the advent of federation brought its downfall. The anti-separation Rockhampton Federation League also met in the School of Arts and the federation vote which effectively ended the movement was held at the School of Arts in September 1899.[17]

The Rockhampton School of Arts continued to grow in the 20th century. Its ambit expanded to include entertainment, with a recreation room built on the site in 1902.[18] Under the education charter, new classes were offered in metallurgy, geology, chemistry, mineralogy and mining. The mining classes proved so popular that a two-storeyed School of Mines was built on the Alma Street frontage in 1907. Classes were transferred to the new state Technical College (QHR 600789) in 1915, and the vacated School of Mines building was leased to tenants. The School of Arts held the city’s only library and museum, and its hall hosted political meetings, fancy dress balls and patriotic rallies. The institution was so prominent that Rockhampton’s City Council looked to the School of Arts to provide an adequate public hall when new administrative facilities were planned in the 1930s.[19]

The School of Arts building was improved in the 1920s and 1930s. The foundations were underpinned at the southern corner of the library in 1923. Portions of the walls were replaced by louvres and woven panels to improve ventilation. In the library, air passages were placed in the dividing walls, and a large lantern light was installed in the roof. The supper room verandah, which faced the service lane, was enclosed. Electricity and septic toilets were installed in the building in 1927, and the library floor was replaced in 1938.[20]

However, membership in Queensland’s Schools of Arts began to decline in the 1930s and 1940s. Schools of Arts had already faded in southern states, where legislation provided for public library services. In Queensland the institutions had persisted, with 233 operating by 1925, but the growing popularity of new forms of entertainment (radio and cinema) gave Queensland’s residents other options.[21] The growing obsolescence of Rockhampton’s School of Arts was apparent by 1938:

while the library has been maintained at high standard, its hall has been superseded by more modern theatres, the museum remains in embryo, the technical classes have passed, as a fully-fledged technical college, under complete government control, and other organisations have taken over the recreative activities for which it catered.[22]

In 1943 the Libraries Act established the Queensland Library Board to promote a national standard of education and improve public access to books. The Act allowed public authorities to take over schools of arts. In light of its declining membership and reduced financial subscriptions, the Rockhampton School of Arts and its assets were taken over by the Rockhampton City Council on 1 July 1947.[23]

Despite the end of the School of Arts as an organisation, the building continued as a hub for Rockhampton’s cultural life. The library and museum were run by the City Council, though the library remained subscription-based until 1972 and the museum later closed. The building became the headquarters of the Rockhampton Little Theatre from 1945 to 1979, the Rockhampton and District Historical Society from 1949 to 1983, and the Rockhampton Regional Promotion Bureau from 1959 to 1971.[24]

Major alterations were made to the site in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1960 a mezzanine floor was added above the adult library section on the southern side of the entrance vestibule. Settlement problems re-emerged in the foundations, and in 1962 the hall portion of the building was deemed inadequate for continued use. It was removed in 1963 and replaced with an auditorium building called the Municipal Theatre. Outbuildings including the recreation room were removed in 1976 for a new building containing an immunisation clinic, club rooms for the Rockhampton Little Theatre and a caretaker's flat. The School of Mines building was removed and replaced by a child care centre. The immunisation clinic and child care centre, still extant in 2017, are not of cultural heritage significance. An 8.43 perch (213.22m2) section on the south-eastern corner of the site was excised and library facilities were transferred to a new location in March 1977.[25]

Conservation programmes and proposals for the building’s reuse were floated in the 1980s and 1990s, but did not eventuate at that time. The commercial buildings on the William Street frontage (Queensland Hotel and Millers Buildings) were demolished in 1999 and the land sold into private ownership.

In 2009-10 a major refurbishment of the School of Arts building was undertaken by architectural firm Riddell Architecture and JM Kelly builders. Structural improvements were made, including underpinning and stabilising the building, and laying new floors. Internally, the original layout was reinstated, air-conditioning was installed, the enclosed verandahs opened and the stairway was restored.[26] In 2008-9 the Municipal Theatre behind the School of Arts was demolished and replaced by a new library building (designed by Brewster Hjorth architects)[27]. Part of the 2009 building is included in the boundary of the School of Arts but is not of cultural heritage significance.

In 2017, the Rockhampton Regional Library operates from both the 1894 School of Arts and 2009 buildings. The School of Arts is a continuing link with the social, educational and recreational aspirations of the people of Rockhampton and central Queensland.


The Rockhampton School of Arts, a two-storeyed rendered masonry structure, is located fronting Bolsover Street to the northeast and adjacent to the Rockhampton Council Chambers Town Hall (QHR 601572) to the southeast. The front section of the original 1894 structure is attached by a two-storey link to the 2009 Rockhampton Regional Library building at the rear.

The building has an elaborately decorated symmetrical facade to Bolsover Street. A central colonnaded verandah with entrance topped by a pediment, is flanked on each side by projecting corner wings. The facade has Corinthian pilasters supporting a deep entablature, which is surmounted by a parapet with corner urns concealing a hipped corrugated metal roof. The pilasters, which surmount a base extending to the ground floor window sill height, are regularly spaced on the projecting corner wings. The central entrance has paired corner pilasters, and the entablature has the name SCHOOL OF ARTS in relief. Both ground and first floor verandahs have been enclosed with glass louvres above balustrade height.

The ground floor has segmental arched sash windows to the projecting corner wings, with coursed rendered abutments. The ground floor verandah has arches with expressed imposts, and the first floor verandah has similar arches with expressed extrados and keystones. The first floor projecting corner wings have arched sash windows with expressed imposts, extrados and keystones, and semi-circular balconettes.

Both sides of the building are unadorned, and consist of four bays with relief mouldings at sill and floor heights, with roughcast render finish between smooth finish pilasters, and centrally placed window openings with glass louvres. The northwest side fronts onto a service laneway, and the southeast addresses the grounds of Rockhampton Town Hall.

Internally, the building has boarded timber ceilings and painted masonry walls. The ground floor consists of a central entrance vestibule, leading to a staircase at the rear, flanked on each side by a series of large rooms interconnected via arched openings. Some sections of masonry walls have been removed. Bricked-up openings and some partition walls were uninstalled during the 2010 restoration. Internal doors are of timber panelling with fanlights and architraves, and French doors with fanlights open onto the enclosed verandahs. The staircase has turned timber newel posts and timber handrails, with cast iron balustrades panels, sections of which were restored in 2010. A stair has been installed in the northern end of the front verandah, toilets are located in the western corner, and several high level ventilation openings have been installed in internal walls. The first floor is similar in plan, with a roof lantern lighting the stair landing, and paired timber and glass doors with sidelights and fanlight opening from the central hall to the enclosed verandah.

Areas of the building which had deteriorated due to foundation subsidence and water ingress and resulted in large cracks in masonry walls, were repaired in 2010. New floors were installed in 2010 to replace failed sections of flooring. Air conditioning, data and electrical services and a lift were added in 2010.[28] Several archways have timber bracing, and tie rods are visible throughout the building.

The rear of the place includes part of the 2009 library building and the connection to the School of Arts building, the fabric of which is not of cultural heritage significance.


[1] Riddel, Conservation Management Plan: Rockhampton School of Arts, 2005, p3.
[2] Beddoe, ‘Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools of Arts in Australia’, 2003, pp123 & 125.
[3] Pugh’s Almanac 1862, p21; 1870, p24; McDonald, Rockhampton: A history of city and district, 1981,
[4] Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser 27 July 1861 p2; Courier (Brisbane) 17 September 1861 p3.
[5] PC8: Township of Rockhampton, 1858.
[6] Shield, ‘Building community: the role of not-for-profit organisations in the development of Rockhampton, 1860-1880’ 2017, p6; McDonald, Rockhampton: A History of City and District, 1981, p373; Riddel, Conservation Management Plan: Rockhampton School of Arts, 2005, p8; Queensland Government Gazette Vol 10, 1869, p6; Certificates of Title. The grant was Allotment 4 of Section 59A, 2 roods 14 perches (2,377.53m2).
[7] Watson & McKay, Queensland Architects of the 19th century, 1994, p212; Queenslander 31 March 1883 p485; Morning Bulletin 20 July 1888 p5
[8] Morning Bulletin 14 March 1890 p4 and 29 March 1890 p1; McDonald, Rockhampton: A History of City and District, 1981, pp547f; Queensland Places: Rockhampton; Pugh’s Almanac 1892, p147 (1891 census population 11,629).
[9] Toowoomba’s School of Arts burned down in 1898. Daily Northern Argus 31 March 1892 p5; Morning Bulletin 16 July 1892 p5, 22 July 1892 p6, 7 May 1894 p5; Riddel, Conservation Management Plan: Rockhampton School of Arts, 2005, pp8-9. Entries on the Queensland Heritage Register 600701, 600362, 600925 and 600787.
[10]Watson & McKay, Queensland Architects of the 19th century, 1994, pp34, 212-3; Morning Bulletin 16 July 1892 p5; Daily Northern Argus 16 November 1892 p5 and 5 January 1893 p5.
[11] Watson & McKay, Queensland Architects of the 19th century, 1994, p34; Ballarat Star 15 May 1871 p3; Morning Bulletin 13 May 1890 p7 and 17 November 1892 p5. Fittingly, Cherry entered the design competition as ‘Nemo’.
[12] Daily Northern Argus 31 March 1892 p5; Legislative Council, Thursday 13 October 1892 p1555; Riddel, Conservation Management Plan: Rockhampton School of Arts, 2005, p8.
[13] Morning Bulletin 7 March 1894 p5.
[14] Morning Bulletin 7 March 1894 p5.
[15] Ivan McDonald for Rockhampton City Council, Millers Building Rockhampton Assessment Report, 1996
[16] Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser 4 May 1895 p900.
[17] McDonald, Rockhampton: A history of city and district, 1981, p560.
[18] Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 17 December 1902 p3. It featured a billiards table and a card and chess room.
[19] Capricornian 18 May 1912 p47; Morning Bulletin 16 November 1937 p6; McDonald, Rockhampton: A history of city and district, 1981, p122. Aldermen also claimed the School of Arts was the town hall when showing the city to visitors.
[20] Riddel, Conservation Management Plan: Rockhampton School of Arts, 2005, p13; Evening News (Rockhampton) 13 April 1927 p5.
[21] Inkster, ‘Growth and Decline of the Queensland Schools of Arts 1849-1981’, 1994, p273; Pugh’s Almanac 1927, p294.
[22] Central Queensland Herald 10 March 1938 p27.
[23] Certificates of Title; Morning Bulletin 13 September 1947 p4; Queensland superseded legislation, Libraries Act 1943, ss 9(2), 13(2), 16(5), 19. Section 19 allowed local authorities to take over Schools of Arts.
[24] McDonald, Rockhampton: A History of City and District, 1981, p403; Radbourne, Little theatre: its development, since World War II, in Australia, with particular reference to Queensland, 1979, p133.
[25] Certificates of Title, Riddel, Conservation Management Plan: Rockhampton School of Arts, 2005, p18.
[26] Conrad Gargett, ‘Rockhampton School of Arts Project’ ( and JM Kelly, ‘Awards: Rockhampton School of Arts (’.
[27] Brewster Hjorth architects, ‘Rockhampton Library’ (
[28] Australian Heritage Services, Rockhampton School of Arts (former) Conservation Management Plan for Rockhampton School of Arts, 2016.

Image gallery


Location of Rockhampton School of Arts (former) within Queensland
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Last updated
20 January 2016
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