Newsletter Sign up

Historic Books

The Harris has a remarkable collection of historic books – many of which have been hidden away until now. We are working to get them on display through #HarrisYourPlace.

Our historic book collection exists thanks to some remarkable Preston collectors:
Dr Shepherd, John Henry Spencer and Joseph Pomfret.

Dr Shepherd (1694-1761) was a doctor and twice mayor of Preston. He left his large collection of books on medicine and science, theology, history, literature and government to Preston along with £40 to fit up and shelve a room for them. This nationally important collection contains many rare books and is an example of the kind of library that a sophisticated gentleman might have built up in the eighteenth century. It was added to extensively in the nineteenth century and now comprises over 10,000 books.

The Spencer Collection was donated by local collector John Henry Spencer (1875 – 1952) who devoted his life to books. Born locally into a cotton weaving family in 1875, Spencer loved books as a child and took every chance he could educate himself at night school and by attending public talks.  He was also a member of Preston Free Library (a forerunner of the Harris). The collection he built up focuses on children’s books (especially ones about adventure or travel and ones with rich illustrations), chapbooks (cheaply printed booklets sold on the streets from the 1700s) and items relating to the life of Preston-born Catholic poet Francis Thompson.

The book collection was added to by Joseph Pomfret (1878 – 1944) who was Preston’s Borough Librarian from 1928 until his death in 1944. As well as setting up the Harris children’s library, Joseph collected over 300 ‘private press’ books for the Harris.  The private press movement championed handcrafted books and is most often associated with William Morris and his creation of the Kelmscott Press.

We are delighted to be working with Dr Cynthia Johnston of the School of Advanced Studies at the University of London on this project.  Cynthia has been researching the Harris’ historic book collection and has shone a light on the history of both the collectors and the books.  Books from our collection and the stories of Spencer and Pomfret are displayed as part of Holding the Vision: Collecting the Art of the Book in the Industrial North West at Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery (extended until August 2020).

Find out more

Cost: free

This collection is free to visit

Exploring Historic Books

Twelve New Designs of English Butterflies

Date: 1742

Writer: Benjamin Wilkes

This beautifully illustrated book is part of the Shepherd collection and examines the life cycle of English butterflies and moths.

A Curious Herbal

Date: 1751

Writer: Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell was a botanical illustrator and author. This remarkable book is part of the Shepherd Collection and was first published 1737-1739 and is one of the earliest publications on botany by a woman. The beautiful illustrations that she engraved and coloured are accompanied by descriptions of the medical uses of the plants.

A Book of Brave Women

Made: 1914

Writer: Oliver Hope

This book is part of the Spencer Collection and records the deeds of brave women including the story of Miss Evans of Boston who demonstrated great strength of character during the sinking of the Titanic.

A Trip to Venus

Date: 1897

Writer: John Munro

This book is part of the Spencer Collection and involves a trip to Venus and Mercury. Both planets are inhabited and the spaceship is equipped with a smoking room.