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Early Victorian Preston, a new nirvana?

Posted on - 23rd April, 2023 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Avenham, History, Preston City Centre, Preston News, Winckley Square
Avenham Walks in the 18th century Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Avenham Walks in the 18th century Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The new Victorian age began in 1837. It was a time of rapid progress in science and technology. Victoria’s reign lasted into the 20th century and saw massive changes. The railways were only just beginning in 1837 but, by 1914, 23,000 miles of line had been built, almost enough to circle the planet.

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Preston developed from a small village into a large town with many transport links and a port, as well as being a hub for the textile industry

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However, regulation did not keep up with developments and living conditions were appalling.

This week we look at the progressive view of Preston, from writers such as Sir George Head and Peter Whittle. They extol the virtues of the town. Over the next few weeks we will look at the downside.

Avenham Walks

By the early Victorian period the Avenham area had become a high-class district on the outskirts of Preston. Avenham Walk had been established as early as 1696, when Preston Corporation bought land to form an avenue of trees. A gravel path was laid out, along with seats. The local ladies promenaded along the walk from Fishergate.

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Sir George Head had visited Preston in 1836 and was impressed with the area. He wrote: “Amongst the suburbs of the southern extremity, where ample space has been allotted to the streets and houses, many of which are of a superior description… and have been erected within a few years. The eye is refreshed by handsome elevations of bright red brick.” 

Here, he is describing the elegant houses around Winckley Square. He was also impressed with the view south from Avenham Walks: “The prospect below extends over a charming valley, wherein the River Ribble meanders through a country rich in groves, pastures and stately timber.”

The Harris Institute

The Harris Institute in Avenham Pic: Tony Worrall
The Harris Institute in Avenham Pic: Tony Worrall

Another mid Victorian development that impressed contemporaries was the Harris Institute, built in 1847. The Mannex trade directory of 1851 found much to like about the Avenham area, saying the Harris Institute was: “one of the most elegant structures in the town [occupying a] delightful situation near the entrance to Avenham Walks.”

The Avenham Walks area today. The Harris Institute is to the lower right Pic: Google
The Avenham Walks area today. The Harris Institute is to the lower right Pic: Google

The Harris Institute is still with us, with its future up for debate. However one 1840s building is not: the Literary and Philosophical Society building off Winckley Square.

The lost Literary and Philosophical Society building

The Venice like villa, built for the Literary and Philosophical Society Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The Venice like villa, built for the Literary and Philosophical Society Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The Literacy and Philosophical Society building was at the junction of Winckley Square and Cross Street and was demolished in 1960. This was one of several Victorian improvement societies in Preston.

Read more: Preston improvement societies of the Victorian age, education for the masses

The Mannex states:

“The whole, at first site has a picturesque appearance, and presents the beholder uniformity and elegance combined. The vestibule to the front of each building is embellished with two columns and parapets, palisading and gateways… giving the appearance of villas at Venice.”

Next week we look at Preston’s Victorian public utilities such a the waterworks of 1832, and transport developments.

Follow Geoffrey on Twitter for more Preston history.

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