The Hay Athenæum was, without doubt, the centre of literature and the arts in Hay in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its contribution to the 'mental' stimulus of the township was quite significant, to say the least. The Hay Athenæum Committee first met at The Riverina Grazier office on 15 November 1875. The inaugural meeting, chaired by a Mr Andrew, discussed the feasibility of erecting a temporary building to house the institution and commence operation. For a number of years Committee members lobbied the New South Wales Government to make available the building of the Hay Court House for the expanding Athenæum, in exchange for land which was occupied by the institution at that time. In 1888 a Bill was passed successfully through parliament authorising the exchange, and in April the following year the Committee took possession of the court house.
Over many years the Athenæum staged various social and cultural gatherings and provided educational material on a number of subjects. Facilities at the Athenæum were also made available for other community groups, including the Benevolent Society, Red Cross and Girl Guides. The Athenæum built up a rather modest library collection to cater for the town's reading interests, although the library was only a part of its overall functioning. For several years, Committee members were concerned about the meagre support the institution was receiving from its citizens. As the Committee pointed out in its 1884 Annual Report, members were encouraged to contribute to furthering the Athenæum's aims, rather than viewing it as 'a mere circulating library'. In an attempt to attract new and younger members, the Athenæum changed its direction by opening up a billiard room on 6 May 1911.
Whilst early organisers had egalitarian intentions, management of the Athenæum later became politicised. Subscription costs were capped in order to ensure that everyone had access to the facilities. However, those able to pay larger subscription fees were given voting rights and a place on the committee. In 1895, Committee member Mr F. J. Clancy argued that, because members could not pay the higher subscription fee, there was no reason why they should be denied full voting rights. He argued that working class men should have equal access in deciding the direction of the Athenæum. The Committee had always prided itself on setting the tone for intellectual and moral development in the region, however as Clancy highlighted, the institution at times risked alienating those who it initially wished to serve.
In 1947, the Hay Municipal Council adopted a recommendation from a library sub-committee to amalgamate the library of the Athenæum with the Council's library and transfer the Athenæum building to the Council. Two years later, the reconstituted Hay Municipal Library was fully functional with the new Committee of the Hay Municipal Public Library holding its inaugural meeting on 24 March. One cannot help feel a sense of irony about the Athenæum's demise. The pioneers of the Athenæum envisioned a broader cultural role for the institution, yet the only tangible legacy left by the Athenæum that was still in use was its library collection.
Compiled by : James Logan and Troy Whitford.
Sources : The Hay Athenæum Minute Books, 1875-1958, RW610, CSURA.
Image : Pen and ink drawing by Caroline Merrylees of the Hay Athenæum (1908), which was originally the Court House.