On this day … 10 March 1849

Avenham Institution, Preston
The Avenham Institution. Source: Hardwick’s History of Preston

The Preston Guardian carried a report on the new Avenham Institution, the building now named the Harris Institute and facing an uncertain future. The Avenham building replaced the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge in Cannon Street that had been established as a mechanics institute in 1828 to provide educational facilities for the town’s working classes. Its students included the future climate change pioneer John Tyndall, the discoverer of the greenhouse gas effect.

The move to Avenham was not without its critics, including the temperance campaigner Joseph Livesey, for while the building and its setting facing Avenham Walk are aesthetically pleasing, its creation rests on dubious ethical foundations, as the Preston historian Nigel Morgan discovered.

The first move was for the corporation to extend Avenham Walk, which one alderman resident in the neighbourhood urged on the grounds that the middle classes needed somewhere nearby to take their exercise, their time being precious.

Nigel had such blatant hypocrisy skewered. In 1844 the mayor, John Addison:

… referring to some examples of such gardens he had seen in France and Germany, and to the brutish reputation of the lower orders in England, which he trusted was no longer true, “hoped that the efforts made to educate the people… had instructed at least the younger portion of the lower orders to curb their taste for destruction”, and with the support of alderman George Jacson who “had enjoyed the advantages of residence in the neighbourhood of Avenham Walks” and reminded the Council that “the particular classes whose advantage was chiefly contemplated [were] those who have little leisure except during certain hours of the day … this made it necessary to provide for them near their homes”; the motion passed unanimously.

One year later Jacson asked the Council to vote a grant of £250 towards the funds subscribed for erecting a new building for the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge on a site fronting Avenham Walks. John Addison reminded the Council that the Corporation had purchased land at Avenham “to benefit the inhabitants” and pointed out that by assisting the new building for the Institution in the same vicinity “their land would be rendered still more valuable”. Passed unanimously.

Twenty eight of the 48 members of the corporation at this time lived in Christ Church ward, sixteen of them in “the same vicinity” as the proposed site. Press comments are equally interesting. The Chronicle (proprietor Isaac Wilcockson, residence in Ribblesdale Place, adjoining the site) said firmly: “there cannot be a reasonable doubt as to its propriety, or as to its being in perfect accordance with the legitimate objects of Corporate Institutions – the promotion of the social welfare of the entire municipal constituency”.

The Guardian (proprietor Joseph Livesey, a founder member of the Institution in Cannon Street) thought that “If the building be intended as an ornament to a part of the town that needs it the least… nobody ought to complain, except, perhaps, those members who are attached to Cannon Street… [but] a more unlikely site could scarcely have been chosen. It is quite at an outside corner of the town, and convenient only to the comparatively wealthy. And not only so, but it will become less and less central as the town extends …”.

Nigel commented, ‘Such was the fate of early municipal idealism.’

In 1882, the Avenham Institution was renamed the Harris Institute when the trustees of the Harris bequest granted £40,000 to change it into a further education institution.

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