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Edmund Robert Harris, Preston’s enigma, benefactor and philanthropist

Posted on - 3rd April, 2022 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Arts, Ashton-on-Ribble, Fulwood, History, People, Preston City Centre, Preston News, Winckley Square
Edmund Robert Harris Pic: The Harris
One of the few existing representations of Edmund Pic: The Harris

Perhaps the best known Prestonian is Edmund Robert Harris. He was born in 1804 and died in 1877, a wealthy man who bequeathed his massive fortune to the town.

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Edmund lived in a number of famous buildings including the house of the Free Grammar School in Stoneygate and the now demolished Whinfield House in Ashton. 

An engraving of Whinfield Pic: Illustrated London News
An engraving of Whinfield Pic: Illustrated London News

His fortune was used to fund a number of public buildings, including the Harris Museum and the Harris Institute. Later in his life, Edmund became a recluse and an enigma; very few images of him survive and no photographs were taken. The Harris family remains a mystery with only a few contemporary descriptions known.

However, we can follow his life and times through the buildings he lived in or helped to create.

Map of Preston in 1824 Pic: OS Maps
Preston in 1824, showing the home and workplace of Edmund Pic: OS Maps

The house of the Free Grammar School, Arkwright House

The house of the Free Grammar School, later Arkwright House Pic: Wikimedia
The house of the Free Grammar School, later Arkwright House Pic: Wikimedia

In the early 19th¬†century, the Harris family lived in the house of the Free Grammar School. It was here that Edmund’s father lived, as headmaster of the school.¬†The family had four children, with Edmund and his brother later becoming solicitors. The building was erected in 1728 and became famous when Richard Arkwright developed his spinning machine in one of the back rooms.

Read more: Richard Arkwright, dances with the devil in Preston

Chapel Street solicitors

Winckley Square Pic: Geoff Whittaker
Winckley Square, Chapel Street is on the left Pic: Geoff Whittaker

When they left school the Harris brothers went into the legal profession. They were initially articled to their uncles, Edmund and Jonathan Lodge. Later they took over their practice in Chapel Street, off Winckley Square.

Whinfield House

Whinfield House, the gateposts still survive Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Whinfield House, the gateposts still survive Pic: Preston Digital Archive

In 1862 the Harris brothers moved to Whinfield, a grand house overlooking the River Ribble at Ashton. The house boasted a dining room, drawing room, library and several bedrooms. There were also servants quarters. Additionally the cellar was said to contain over 500 dozen bottles of the finest wines. 

Edmund’s brother died in 1875 and Edmund passed away in 1877. At the time he died he was the heir to all the Harris fortune. He had let it be known that the bulk of the money was to be used for charity and to build public buildings in Preston.

Harris Orphanage

Harris Park, the former orphanage, stands off Garstang Road in Fulwood Pic: Tony Worrall
Harris Park, the former orphanage, stands off Garstang Road in Fulwood Pic: Tony Worrall

Initially, £100,000 from the Harris bequest was used to build an orphanage. This was to be built on the Crow Trees estate in Fulwood. Twelve acres of land was obtained for £4,800 and construction began in 1885.

The Harris Orphanage was a progressive institution where children lived in family groups of 15 or 20. It was not one massive building but a collection of villas around a central green.

The Harris Free Public Library and Museum

The Harris Pic: Tony Worrall
The Harris Pic: Tony Worrall

A further £77,000 of the bequest, was used to fund the Harris, which opened in 1893. An additional £23,000 was used on art works and for the contents of the library.

The building took more than ten years to build and was designed by local architect James Hibbert. The neoclassical design went against the prevailing gothic style, as was used for the Town Hall.

The Harris bequest also funded the Harris Institute, which was used for technical education.



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