What Victorian Benefactors Did For Preston

The industrial era is one easy to overlook in a provincial context in the face of what I and people of varying ages I know learnt in school. We were granted a rough idea about how life changed, but my education in the matter was confined to specific developments leading up to the years prior to Queen Victoria’s reign. Things like Stephenson’s Rocket, Telford’s roads, canals, textile mills and so on.

Lacking in this education was insight into individuals: I ended up deriving more of this in teenage years from the works of Dickens than from history prescribed to me formally. Unsurprisingly literary dramatization of Victorian life by a middle-class gentleman like Charles Dickens are not representative of certain deeds and personalities that emerged to prominence at the time.

Blog Preston - Harris Museum Frontage

The Harris Museum's frontage.

Preston’s Victorian epoch saw much the same conditions as any town or city in Britain; the poor worked and lived in an abysmal, grueling drudge. Often their wages permitted very little purchase outside of the essential. It was not until the early 20th century with the rise of trade unions, the Labour party, new technology and homes that workers started to see better conditions.

It is true that most bosses within the higher classes – be they long-established rich or businessmen made wealthy from canny ventures colonial and domestic – were not benevolent or kind to those they employed. Despite the Victorian times being home to institutional morality, rapid development and imperial prosperity many were too poor to buy into it or even notice.

Yet it wasn’t all cloying gloom as there were some who wished to carry grandiose ideals to the uneducated poor. Various noble ideas accompanied these magnanimous sorts and resulted in some profound changes to Preston. Most evident today is the Harris museum, which was the result of an extremely rich lawyer bequeathing £300,000 – then a gargantuan sum – to the city.

Edmund Robert Harris’s father was a minister who spent 64 years of his long life as a vicar. It was in memorial of his late father that Harris the younger donated a massive sum on the condition it be used to enhance Preston’s artistic and cultural heritage.

There followed the Harris museum, which is a superb example of late Greek architecture with some of the frontage sculpture derived from the Parthenon. The local architect commissioned to design the structure, James Hibbert, brimmed with idealism: “Intelligence and culture are becoming more general, and that intellectual pleasure is being opened to classes who, not a very long time ago, were strangers to the ideas and the examples of art.”

Over the decades to follow the museum received much art from wealthy people from the local area and further afield often from stipulations in wills. Paintings, ceramics and sculpture were over a span of decades filling the museum which the public may enter for free. However the benevolence of the wealthy in relation to Preston life was not confined to cultural pursuits:

Blog Preston - Joseph Livesey portrait

Joseph Livesey.

Social reformers likewise spent their lives striving to address issues of the day. The nineteenth century was a time when alcoholism was rife amongst many, particularly working folk for whom it formed a cheap, often sole luxury to partake in. A famous local named Joseph Livesey was active in the temperance movement having grown up in tough conditions, losing both parents and his grandfather when he was young and residing in a cellar close to the River Ribble with flooding being a constant peril.

Passion led Livesey to dedicate his entire life to mitigating the heavy alcohol use that Preston harboured. A tireless campaigner, he dabbled in all sorts of local initiatives – but his preferences were in matters of temperance and literacy. In the 1830s and 40s he founded some distinguished publications including an early Preston newspaper – the Preston Guardian as well as the Preston Temperance Advocate – a monthly magazine.

This spirit in provisioning reading material relevant to a mass readership for cheap was to be a forerunner of paternalistic or familial newspaper proprietors that were to dominate journalism for over a century to come. Livesey’s will stipulated that every house in Preston receive a copy of one of his most well received lectures.

It’s easy to laugh at and declare hypocrisy of those who sought to push Britain towards ideals they envisaged would benefit all. Yet despite the human strive for glory which were shared overtly or covertly by many influential people in Victorian Britain one can observe and learn consequences that ultimately had life improve dramatically for the downtrodden and indeed everyone.

Nowadays one can derive lessons from the life Joseph Livesey led what with heavy drinking and all the problems therein recurring in post-industrial Britain. Prominent figures carrying on that sort of legacy are absent today. Many young people, myself included, can learn much from the past when it comes to alcohol: Though Livesey’s passion came at the price of being sententious, a lot of what he opposed rings true today.

A Britain with far more degradation, crime, and ‘brokenness’ than today’s managed to pull itself to cultured modernity thanks to the efforts of a minority of willful, driven and passionate individuals. Though Preston’s technological industrialist Sir Richard Arkwright lived in pre-Victorian times, throughout the country men in all kinds of fields be they the scientific, penal, literary, political, manufacturing or legal put forth noble investment and effort with undeniable degrees of selflessness.

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