What life was like in Preston's biggest orphanage

Youngsters praying at bedtime in Harris Orphanage circa 1905
Youngsters praying at bedtime in Harris Orphanage circa 1905
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One of Preston’s grandest old landmarks is up for sale. Local historian Keith Johnson charts the life and times of the Harris Orphanage and the valuable role it once played in city life

The future of the former Harris Orphanage is uncertain with for sale notices appearing.

Children at Harris Orphanage in 1947

Children at Harris Orphanage in 1947

Back in 1863, as Lancashire struggled through the crippling effects of the Cotton Famine with cotton mills silent and hands idle, there was concern in Preston over the couple of hundred destitute orphans of the town.

Consequently, a meeting was held in the Temperance Hall to see what could be done about them. The meeting, attended by leading clergy, resolved that a school for free instructions was essential and one was arranged to take place on a Sunday.

At the first gathering, more than 20 selected orphan children attended and within a year more than 100 were attending weekly. They clearly benefited from the charitable care and the organisation became known as the Preston Industrial Orphan Home and School, operating from the Temperance Hall.

Twenty years on, 725 children had passed through their system, of which 190 were on the books, 426 were known to be doing well, 75 had been lost sight of, 30 had sadly died and only four were known to have strayed to the side of lawlessness.

Memorial to Harris Orphanage boys who died in the two world wars

Memorial to Harris Orphanage boys who died in the two world wars

Besides that facility, there was also the Church Orphan Aid Society which funded the boarding out of orphan children with respectable families. Generally they had some 30 children on their books, while the St Joseph’s Orphanage, at the southern end of Theatre Street, was providing shelter solely for Roman Catholic orphan girls.

READ MORE: Preston's Harris orphanage site plans revealed
One of those who had observed first hand the great progress in the wellbeing of the orphans was Edmund Robert Harris, that great benefactor of the town. When he died in 1877 among his generous bequests was the sum of £100,000 for the building of an orphanage - equivalent to more than £11m today.

Design of the Harris Orphanage was trusted to local architect Benjamin Sykes and the foundation stone was laid in September 1885 by Charles Roger Jacson, pictured inset, chairman of the Harris trustees. The site chosen being the area known as the Crow Trees estate of 27 acres off Garstang Road.

The orphanage was opened without ceremony in early November 1888 and the first children admitted a month later and soon after the place became full of happy and contented orphans. They lived in house groups under the guidance of house parents.

Children at play at the Harris Orphanage

Children at play at the Harris Orphanage

Each morning the orphans would rise at 6am and carry out allocated tasks before sitting down to breakfast. There was a school, chapel, hospital, laundry, tailor’s shop, joiner’s shop and even a small stable. Within a decade, as the place became established, there was even a swimming pool the children could use on a Friday, sewing and knitting rooms for the girls and excellent gardens.

The man entrusted with the role of resident governor was Colonel Thomas Riley Jolly who, along with his matron wife Kate Jane Jolly, oversaw the training and education of the youngsters.

The orphanage was often a place of great activity with a gala or festival day commonplace and attracting large crowds. The orphans welcoming the visitors on to spacious lawns where the large marquees soon filled with excited folk as flags and bunting fluttered in the breeze.

Sadly the harsh reality of war touched all classes of society and among the victims of the atrocities were a number of the orphan boys who had spent their formative years at the Harris Orphanage.

Edwardian era postcard of the Harris Orphanage

Edwardian era postcard of the Harris Orphanage

After the war Col Jolly was instrumental in the planning of a suitable memorial to honour the memory of those killed. His fund raising efforts included a concert at the Empire Theatre in Church Street in March 1924. A committee of old boys and girls had persuaded the Preston Philharmonic Orchestra to entertain the audience.

The success of that night helped the hopes of Col Jolly to come to fruition and he was a proud man in late October 1924 when he unveiled the soldier monument in the orphanage grounds. The impressive white marble figure in the form of a youthful soldier standing, with his firearm reversed, on a pedestal of polished granite, with a dedication inscribed in letters of gold was to be a lasting reminder of those who had fallen.

Col Jolly, speaking with visible emotion, explained how, when the call came, 127 boys had enlisted and of those 18 had made the supreme sacrifice, with a large number of others being wounded and disabled.

He said he was proud of them all and their brave deeds that had been recognised with at least seven military medals. As the moving ceremony concluded with the ‘Last Post’ wreaths were laid at the foot of the monument as thoughts of Preston’s youthful victims filled the air.

Col Jolly, who was also a magistrate and involved with the work of the Blind Society for many years, died in September 1929, aged 80, after spending more than 40 years caring for the town’s orphans.

The man chosen to take over as governor was his son-in-law Henry Bassett Jones, with Col Jolly’s daughter Jennifer continuing as matron - a role she had taken on after her mother’s death.

Charles Roger Jacson, chairman of the Harris trustees, left, and Preston architect Benjamin Sykes

Charles Roger Jacson, chairman of the Harris trustees, left, and Preston architect Benjamin Sykes

Unfortunately, his tenure was short lived, his death occurring in 1933 leaving his widow in control of affairs. At the annual meeting of the institution in December 1933 it was reported that 62 children were in residence and that since the opening day no fewer than 700 children had been admitted.

By the early 1950s the orphanage was run by Captain Watkins and his wife who, like their predecessors, were concerned that the children entered the outside world ready for adulthood.

Many of the young lads took up work on local farms or progressed into industry or business and the skills the young ladies were taught ensured them gainful employment. Over the years, the policy of fostering became the way forward and the Harris Orphanage held regular adoption days when prospective parents would visit. On such occasions all those eligible for adoption would be well scrubbed and dressed in their best clothes.

Gradually the young people were allowed to remain in what became known in circa 1955 as the Harris Children’s Home until they were ready to settle in society. This was highlighted in September 1957 when Miss Josephine Ridley, aged 19, and still a resident of the Harris, was married to Derek Webster, a plumber, from Ramsbottom. Their reception being held in Clayton Hall inside the orphanage grounds.

As far as education of the children was concerned it was in post war days absorbed into the state system and links with the Fulwood and County School and a later merger with Ingol and Lightfoot Primary School followed to create the Harris County Primary School.

The Harris Orphanage/ Children’s Home finally closed in 1982 and it was calculated that more than 2,200 children had been cared for within the grounds of the institution.

Within three years the then Preston Polytechnic had taken over the historic site for student accommodation and by 2001 the buildings had been converted to offices and a conference centre, with the site known as the Harris Knowledge Park.

UCLan chose to put the site up for sale in 2006 and it was bought privately by businessman Mr Yusef Bhailok. In August 2010 a great reunion was held in the grounds when dozens of former residents were reunited and they recalled the days they spent in the historic houses during the 1960s and 1970s.

Their fond memories of life in the children’s home bringing tears and laughter. Among the guests was a lady from Faringdon Park who had lived at the home for six years who remarked: “It has not changed. It was a beautiful place to be brought up and everyone was so kind.”

There is no doubt many a good citizen was brought up within the Harris Orphanage and the money that Edmund Robert Harris the orphans millionaire donated saved many from a miserable existence. With the site, now the Harris Park, up for sale once more along with planning permission it seems unlikely those cherished buildings will remain part of the Preston landscape for much longer.