Lytham St.Annes Coat of Arms
Lytham St.Annes, Lancashire, England


 The Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Preston
(now known as the Harris Institute)

From History of Preston and its Environs, by Charles Hardwick, 1857. 



Preston possesses no Mechanics' Institute, at least none which is so styled. There are, however, several libraries and mutual improvement classes, in connection with some of the leading establishments, which might, perhaps, with greater justice, claim the title, than many of the so styled " Mechanics' Institutions."


'The Penny Magazine' of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, London. An 8-page national publication, this is part iv, 7-14 July, 1832. Click on the image to view this copy as a PDF.

Preston was not, however, backward in the cause of popular education, for as early as October, 1828, the "Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge" was opened in Cannon-street, avowedly with the same objects as Mechanics' Institutes. From six hundred to eight hundred members joined during the first twelve months of its existence, a large proportion of whom were operatives.

At the end of the first year the library contained about 1,500 volumes, and the museum above 800 interesting specimens, chiefly in the departments pertaining to natural history. The institution was, however, too far advanced in its character to meet the then state of the education of the masses, and, like many other Mechanics' Institutes, soon ceased to be much patronised by that class.

The number of subscribers, in the course of two or three years, fell to between three and four hundred. Previously to August, 1837, works of fiction, including Shakspeare and dramatic literature generally, were excluded.

The committee of the institution originally rented the upper room in a building on the east side of Cannon-street, which served as both library, museum, and lecture room. The lower room was afterwards added, but still the accommodation was very limited. The first effort towards the raising of a fund for the erection of a suitable building was made in 1840, when an exhibition of works of art, scientific apparatus, machinery, etc., was held in the Exchange-rooms.

It proved very successful, and realised a profit of £280. This sum was afterwards increased by a legacy of £100, bequeathed by Mr. Hamer Hargreaves, of Manchester, a talented and enthusiastic amateur musician, This gentleman formerly resided in Preston ; and was for many years the conductor of the choral society, and chief patron of musical talent in the town. Considerable exertions were afterwards made, and liberal subscriptions resulted. The corporation voted £250 in aid of the building, fund.

In 1844, it was resolved to erect a suitable edifice in Cross-street. This site was, however, afterwards abandoned. The foundation stone of the present handsome building, at Avenham, was laid in June, 1846, by the then mayor, the late Thomas German, esq.

A bazaar was held in the Corn-exchange during the spring of 1849, in aid of the funds. This proved one of the most successful enterprises of the kind ever undertaken in Preston. The total proceeds amounted to about £1,800.

In order to raise the necessary funds to complete the building, Thomas Birchall, esq. advanced the sum of £600. This was entirely repaid in the year 1854. The total cost, including fitting, was about £6,000. The building was opened in October, 1849. In architectural character it partakes of the Greek composite order, combined with modern. Italian. It was erected from designs by the late Mr. Welch. The portico is, to some extent, imitated from an antique edifice at Athens, known as the "Temple of the Winds."

The Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, PrestonThe basement contains several good offices and class rooms. The principal story includes a large library and a reading room of similar dimensions, committe room, ante-rooms, and large lecture hall. The latter including the gallery, will contain about six hundred persons.

The platform is spacious, and is tastefully ornamented by an architectural proscenium. A fine oil picture, representing Eve pleading to Adam, decorates the hall. This picture was presented through Thomas Birchall, esq., by the artist, H. O'Neil, Esq. In the sides of the building are other class rooms.

The upper story consists of two large exhibition rooms, lighted from the roof, and united by corridors. One of these has been set apart for Dr. Shepherd's library, the trustees of which pay a rent of £40. a year to the council of the institution. From the top of the building, an excellent view is obtained of the town and surrounding country. The approach, or entrance terrace, was not added till 1849. It is in the Italian villa style, and was designed by Mr. George Latham. The cost of this work, about £350, was defrayed by James German, esq., and a few of his friends.

The number of members at the present time, about one half of which may be included in the operative class, is nearly six hundred,` and the number of volumes in the library upwards of 6,000. Lectures, gratuitous and otherwise, are regularly given in the theatre of the institution ; and exhibitions and soirees, are occasionally held in connection with it. The museum has not yet been fitted up within the present building.

The actual numbers on the books in April last, were as follows :-

Out of business, professional, and tradesmen




Females and minors




Its contents have been greatly neglected, and portions irretrievably injured. The project for the establishment of a free library and museum in Preston has met with some favour. Several meetings have been held, at one of which Lord Stanley and Sir Robert Peel, bart., and at another the Bishop of Manchester, and Sir J. Kay Shuttleworth, bart. Advocated the cause with great and much commended eloquence. The subscription list, however, does not exhibit yet, an equal proof of practical zeal in the undertaking. The total amount promised (April, 1857), is £2,274., of which £476. 4s. 6d. is contributed by Preston operatives.

Doubtless, the recent praiseworthy example and munificence of William Browne, esq., M.P., will stimulate the local patriotism of the inhabitants of Preston, and, in a short time, the ancient borough will occupy a position in this respect commensurate with its wealth and population. The numerous and attentive audiences, which have frequented the Corn-exchange, during the past season, to listen to a course of lectures, gratuitously provided by the mayor, bears testimony to the increasing desire of the operative population for the acquisition of knowledge.

From History of Preston and its Environs, by Charles Hardwick, 1857. 


Harris art Institute, Avenham Lane, Preston, Lancashire on Flikr

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The Harris Charity