The origins of Warrington Museum can be seen in the town’s long association with religious non-conformists and dissenters who were barred from many spheres of public life such as public office, the civil service or even degrees at university.
The high importance these non-conformists placed on education may help explain why, in May 1848, the new borough of Warrington created one of the first Public Museums in a manufacturing district incorporating what was arguably one of the first rate-supported public libraries in the UK. Seven years later in 1855 William Beamont laid the foundation stone of the present purpose-built museum premises and over the following 170 years the building has evolved to become Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.
The Warrington Exhibition of 1840
The story of Warrington Museum began in November 1840 when the people of Warrington were given a chance to marvel at the treasures of the local collectors at an extensive exhibition of “Paintings and Works of Art, Models of Machinery and Manufactures, Philosophical Apparatus, Specimens of Natural History and Objects of Curiosity and Interest.”
Visitors to the exhibition could have their likeness cut by a silhouette artist called Mr. Walker. Several visitors took up the offer including the Reverend Dodgson and his son Charles – later famous as the author Lewis Carroll. As many of the exhibits were later to find their way into the museum collection the world-famous author of “Alice in Wonderland” may have been one of the first to find inspiration from the collections of Warrington Museum.
One of the most intriguing exhibits in this 1840 exhibition was the ‘Invisible Girl’ who was on display between 1 pm and 2 pm and then again between 7 pm and 9 pm.
The Private Museum of 1842
Encouraged by the success of the exhibition two years earlier in 1842 the Warrington Natural History Society opened a private museum in market Street “a large room over the Fire Engine House” in Market Street, now part of Golden Square shopping centre. Between 7,000 and 8,000 visitors flocked to see local antiquities, fossils and an astonishing array of taxidermy in the first two months including two stuffed llamas donated by Lord Derby of Knowsley.
The Public Museum of 1848
Despite its popularity the Natural History Society’s Museum seemed doomed to close when the lease on the premises ran out in 1847. Fortunately that same year Warrington Council received its Borough Charter and new powers of local government and used their new powers under the Museums Act of 1845 to fund a “Museum of Science and Art for the instruction and amusement of the inhabitants”. The new museum – incorporating what was arguably the country’s first public library – opened in temporary premises off Friar’s Gate.
Such was the success of Warrington’s new Museum that by 1854 the Warrington Guardian reported “It is so crowded on all public occasions, as to defy a proper inspection of its contents.” The only solution was a purpose- built Museum funded by public subscription and local landowner Mr. Wilson-Patten generously donated a site fronting on to Bold Street.
The Purpose-built Museum & Library 1855-1857
Between 1853 and 1854 the Museum Committee commissioned the well-known architect John Dobson to design a Museum building fit for their grandiose plans. He responded with an imposing design with an entrance in the new Museum Street which even included a tiered Lecture Theatre.
Although Dobson’s plans were much admired at £4,000 (equivalent to over £320,000 today) was twice the available budget for the project. Dobson was paid off and local architect Stone of Newton-Le-Willows was hired to produce a modified but affordable version of Dobson’s plans. The new building contract was awarded to Haddock at a cost of £1,313 (around £105,000 today).
The foundation day ceremony was set for 20th of September 1855. At noon on that day the official procession left its assembly point in the old Market Square (now Golden Square) at noon accompanied by the Borough Band, the Mayor, the Museum Committee and representatives of local churches and schools. The crowd marched to the site by way of Horsemarket Street, Bridge Street and the present Wilson Patten Street, all of which were decked with flags for the occasion.
An excited crowd of over 2,000 people waited at the Bold Street site to watch William Beamont, the first Mayor of Warrington, lay the foundation stone of the present museum building amidst an atmosphere of public excitement. The ceremony was even photographed by Warrington’s future mayor Samuel Mather Webster.
The next issue of the Warrington Guardian proudly proclaimed that Warrington had “one of the first buildings especially erected as a People’s Museum” and that the people of the town should “feel that the Museum is theirs.”
Additions to the Museum: 1873-1920
By 1874 plans had been drawn up to extend the Museum 600 yards along Museum Street on yet more land donated by Colonel Wilson-Patten. This added more space for the Library on the ground floor and allowed the addition of a new Art Gallery upstairs.
This new Art Gallery was chiefly constructed to house the work of a famous sculptor John Warrington Wood who had trained at the Warrington School of Art. Another £3,000 was raised for the construction of a gallery to house both the statue and the works of other Warrington artists.
Warrington Wood was commissioned to sculpt a work of his choice for display in Warrington, and the resulting statue showing the Archangel Michael killing Satan, cut from a block of marble weighing 15 tons, required a special gallery.
The Large Art Gallery was officially opened on Thursday 4th October 1877 by Mayor Samuel Mather Webster, who had photographed the Museum’s foundation stone ceremony almost 20 years earlier.
The opening of the New gallery in 1877 was marked by a special exhibition featuring works loaned from prominent townspeople and from the Victoria and Albert Museum including Chinese, Japanese and European enamels, illuminated manuscripts and embroideries. Admission was from 10 am until 10 pm and cost one shilling (five pence) in the daytime and sixpence (two and a half pence) after dusk.
Unfortunately even by 1877 the Warrington School of Art – based in what is now our Cabinet of Curiosity gallery – were already finding their space restrictive. The School of Art were to remain in the Museum for another 7 years before moving to a purpose-built art school across the road in 1884. This led to a further internal remodeling of the Museum & Library.
Further Developments 1920-1937
In 1920 Charles Madeley, the Director of the Museum and Library, died. This led to another period of internal redevelopment as the Museum and Library separated into two institutions with their own staff. Madeley’s former assistant G.A. Dunlop was promoted to Director of the Museum and immediately set about a programme of alterations including the creation of a Fish and Reptiles Gallery.
In 1925 the museum staff, led by Dunlop, organised a series of ‘Talks to Children’ on topics ranging from “the Babyhood of Birds” to “The Story of a Penny”.
By 1928 the Museum management were discussing plans to extend the Museum into the land adjoining the present Library. This extension was built between 1930 and 1931 by Brew Bros. of Cadishead and was opened by the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres in October 1931.
Following the death of G.A. Dunlop in 1933 William Sprunt was appointed Director and began work on improving the original Museum Galleries. A grant from the Carnegie Trust enabled him to install 43 overhead transparencies in the Ethnology Gallery showing the evolution of mankind by geographical area.
The outbreak of the Second World War prevented further improvement work as the art galleries were given over to propaganda exhibitions.
Post War: 1948-1964
In 1948 the Museum celebrated its centenary with a major exhibition in the Large Art Gallery. Major Markham, former President of the Museum’s Association was generous in his praise of the collections saying “Great cities in the United States, Canada and Australia would give a great deal to possess the collections of distinction and variety” that Warrington had and that the museum has “one of the best reptile collections and one of the finest collections of the bronze age outside London …”
Between 1962-4 the Museum management planned new extensions to the Museum and Library along Museum Street. This included extending the 1870s Large Art Gallery block with a first floor education room over the entrance to the yard.
Between 1990 and 1991 the Vis Williams Partnership refurbished the Large Art Gallery creating a Mezzanine Gallery above. Whilst the building was closed the Museum staff transformed the old mammals gallery into a new Social History Gallery.
In 1993 the installation of a public lift in the Museum entrance hall meant removing and re-siting the statue of St. Michael. The Small Art Gallery was simultaneously completely refurbished.
Between 1996 and 1998 the Botany & Geology Galleries were refurbished with the aid of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
In 1998 Warrington Borough Council resumed control of the local Library service which had been taken over by Cheshire County Council during the local government reforms of 1974.
Formed in May of 2012, Culture Warrington now operates Warrington Museum & Art Gallery along with the Pyramid Arts Centre and Parr Hall while the central Library is operated by Livewire. In 2013 the museum added a new ‘Cabinet of Curiousity’ gallery in place of the old Bird Gallery.
The museum today prides itself in being a rare example of a largely preserved Victorian style Municipal Museum, retaining much of its original charm. It is often described as a “museum of museums”.