The History of UCLan Part 1: The Early Years

Have you ever wondered how and why the University of Central Lancashire was founded? In the next blog posts we will introduce you to the history of UCLan, about its origins and how it was like to study there in the early years.

The origins of the university can be traced back to October 7th 1828, when the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge was founded. Its founding members were a group of 24 men at the Preston Corn Exchange, which still stands today (recently renamed as the Bar 1842). This institution was established as there was a need for providing adult working men with an education, often in technical subjects. Similar institutes, also known as Mechanics’ Institutes, sprung up all over Britain. They were a consequence of the Industrialisation, which saw the growth of industry and a population boom. This in turn led to a demand for facilities, social and cultural, that would ensure that the good order and economic advance of Preston could be sustained.

One of the most important figures behind the foundation of the Institution was Joseph Livesey (1794-1884), a cheese monger by trade, who was committed to many radical causes during his long life, including educational projects. He believed that writing was important for young people, as it improved their prospects in later life. Not only did he set up a Sunday School for adults, but he also wanted to provide free education for young people, which is why he opened a Sunday School.

Portrait of Joseph Livesey

It seems that there was an interest in establishing a mechanics’ institute in town, which is evidenced by a letter published on 23rd August 1828 the Preston Chronicle, where Livesey proposed the establishment of an Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge. This can be regarded as the starting point for the foundation of the University which would later be the University of Central Lancashire. It seems that the naming of the Institution was deliberately omitting the word ‘mechanics’, as it might have widened the support for the project.

On 11th September 1828 Livesey went a step further towards setting up such an institute, as he invited interested parties to a private meeting at “Mr. Smith’s large room” above Mr. Templeton’s School at 11 Cannon Street. The attendees formed a provisional committee, which called for the inauguration of the Preston Institute for the Diffusion of Knowledge on 7th October 1828 at the Corn Exchange. 24 people were present, and they formed the first council of the institution. The institution was run from rented rooms in Cannon Street. A local surgeon by the name of John Gilbertson gave books and equipment for the enterprise. The library was large, and there were lecture series and some self-funding classes. Thus a small museum was founded, where over 800 objects were held, mainly relating to natural history.

C. E. Shaw, Preston Corn Exchange (on the left side)

If you wanted to participate in the institute then you could subscribe. There were special privileges if you paid a higher rate. You could attend the library and lectures. The subscription model proved popular, as there were about 600-800 members in the early stages. The institute was open in the afternoons and evenings from Monday to Saturday, with a librarian in attendance. The library offered periodicals and books. “Works of imagination”, or rather, novels, were included after a change to the rule book. The library contained about 1,500 books by the end of 1828, and this number grew to 3,000 volumes by the late 1830s. The number of books grew constantly, and by the 1870s the library held over 11,000 volumes. It had the reputation as “one of the best provincial libraries in the kingdom”. Whilst the library was a full success, the attendance to the lectures was poor.  The committee commented in 1831 that “the subscribers did not appear fully the utility of lectures in the sciences”.

Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Cannon Street, Preston
Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge at Cannon Street, Preston (the Institution was housed in the house on the left side with the street lamp)

Interestingly, this poor support led the committee to stop hiring lecturers and rely on volunteers. These lectures by mostly unpaid speakers would grow to be more popular, indeed, some lectures seem to have been overcrowded. So, what were these early lectures about? The range was wide, and you could hear lectures about topics about chemical sciences, electricity, galvasnism, magnetism, human anatomy, astronomy and “vegetable physiology”.

So much for the very early years of UCLan, or as it was then known, the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge. We will continue this series soon, so watch this space.

Picture credits

Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge at Cannon Street, Preston, 1891, image via <;

Portrait of Joseph Livesey, image via <;

C. E. Shaw, Preston Corn Exchange, late nineteenth century, image via <;


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