The History of UCLan Part 2: Expansion

We are back with the second instalment of our ongoing series about the history of UCLan. In our previous blog post we traced the origins and reasons for the establishment of the Preston Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge in 1828. It was a successful enterprise, but this soon caused some space issues, which would lead to the construction of a new building, the Avenham Institute. We will be exploring the fascinating backstory of this building and what role the Harris fund played in the history of the Institution in this blog post.

Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Preston

As we covered in our previous post, the Institution grew, and became ever more popular after being founded in 1828. It was run from rented accommodation at Cannon Street, but as subscription numbers grew, space became an issue. Remember, at first the Institution did not have students, but subscribers. This subscription model enabled participants to attend lectures and use the library.

Large classes could not easily be accommodated, and this problem was soon recognised and donations raised for a new more suitable building. A site was selected in 1844 at the end of Avenham Walk, and the plans by John Welch, a local architect, were approved. The building was in a classical-revivalist style, harking back to ancient Rome and Greece. But there were problems ahead for the future Avenham Institute.

In 1846 a foundation stone was laid, but the funds were not very exhaustive. In addition, the mason’s business also went out of business. At least the shell of the building was completed in 1847, but there was another problem, as it still had to be fitted out. Loans had to be taken out, though the building was still largely unfinished when the Annual Meeting took place there for the first time a year later. There had also been protests by some founding members who argued that this new building would no longer serve the classes for whom it was intended, in other words, that the Institute would be there not be for the working classes but the middle classes.

Charles Wilson, Avenham Institute, 1853

However, soon afterwards the Avenham Institute was in use, though it was also sometimes known as the Mechanic’s Institute. Links with the School of Design in Manchester were established, and attempts to found an elementary school of design were also pursued. This resulted in the Preston School of Art, which was founded in 1859. It offered classes for children of both sexes and to young adults. There were also classes offered for apprentices, artisans, schoolmistresses, schoolmasters and pupil teachers. It was successful, not only in student numbers, but it also achieved national status, and the achievements of its pupils often equalled or surpassed those of more established centres, like at Glasgow or Liverpool.

The Avenham Institute also hosted exhibitions, like this one of two microphalic children from St. Salvadore, one of the first travelling human zoos

The Institution introduced also science and language classes in the 1860s, and it began to rival the School of Art in its achievements. But there were many hardships ahead. The Institution had to struggle with a lack of sufficient subscribers and funds. This caused the Institution to apply for additional support from the Harris Trust in 1879.

Edmund Robert Harris

This trust had been set up after the death of local solicitor Edmund Robert Harris. He had left a considerable sum of money which was to be used for setting up a free library and museum for Preston. These funds would be used for the Harris Building, now the Harris Museum and Art Gallery. Preston’s first public library was opened in 1879, the same year the Institution applied for funds from the Harris Trust. In 1882 the trustees of the Harris fund endowed the Institution. Houses in Regent Street were purchased and demolished for the Institution to be extended. Since then it was known as the Harris Institute.

As we have seen the Preston Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge was transformed over time. During its beginnings its library had been its centre, and the Avenham Institute, in a purpose built environment, was the next logical step, and it was almost like a technical college. This shift was probably partly linked to the opening of the Harris library, which operated as a public lending library, different to the library access provided by the Preston Institute, where access was restricted to subscribers. This shift was important, as the focus was now on teaching.

Art class at the Harris Institute, c.1892

The Avenham Institute is currently empty, after it had been used by UCLan for art studies until 2009, when it was put up for sale. Since then, students have been able to use the facilities at the Media Factory, a much more suitable venue than the Avenham Institute, which had grown too small (and unsafe) for 21st century demands. Ever since, the future of this building has been uncertain, as plans for a school seem to have come to nothing. But we are getting ahead, as the history of UCLan still has a few chapters that deserve to be told.

Picture credits

Art class at the Harris Institute, c.1892, image via

Edmund Robert Harris, image via

Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge, Preston, 1854, image via,_preston,_1850s.html

Poster for exhibition at Avenham Institute, 1854, image via

Charles Wilson, Avenham Institute, 1853, image via


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