Barnsley School of Art

At Barnsley Archives we regularly hear from people who are trying to trace family members who lived in Barnsley in the past. Sometimes those enquiries also help us to enhance our collections and really bring our records to life. One recent enquiry that did just that was connected to the Barnsley School of Art, which was housed on the top floor of the Mechanics Institute on Eldon Street in the late 1800s. Katy Best, Visitor Services Assistant with Barnsley Archives and Local Studies, tells us more.

The Barnsley School of Art opened in 1874. It had been a number of years in the planning. There had been talk of establishing a school of art and science connected to the Barnsley Mechanics Institute since the 1850s, but although classes were set up in the 1860s, the vision of a dedicated school to enable Barnsley people to access art education was not realised for another decade.

William Harvey, a successful Barnsley linen manufacturer, was president of the Mechanics Institute from 1853 until his death in 1867. He actively supported the need for better cultural education for the working people of Barnsley and left £1000 (the equivalent of over £100,000 today) in his will for the promotion of a school of science and art for the town. His generous bequest helped the school to become a reality. After opening, the school was also supported by an annual grant from the Harvey Trust.

Illustration of the Mechanics Institute, impressive four-storey building with large arched door in the middle of the ground floor, and a central turret on the roof
The new Mechanics Institute on Eldon Street opened in January 1878 and included the new public School of Art and Crafts on the top floor (illustration from The Builder, March 1878)

From 1874-1877, the School of Art and Crafts was housed in temporary accommodation in the school rooms at the Band of Hope Chapel on Churchfield. When the new Mechanics Institute and Public Hall was built on Eldon Street a few years later, it incorporated purpose-built rooms for the school on the top floor. This included two classrooms – one for boys and one for girls, and a master’s room overlooking Eldon Street.  Mr William Jones was engaged as the first art master, on a salary of £100 per year. The school moved into their new rooms in March 1878. Mr James Behenna-Taylor took over the role of art master in 1880 and stayed at the school until 1908. In the same year, the school became a department of the Barnsley Technical Institute.

The school remained at the Mechanics Institute, which later became known as the Harvey Institute, until 1946, when they moved to larger accommodation at Fairfield House, Churchfield. Their former rooms on the top floor of the Harvey Institute were taken over by the Barnsley Naturalist and Scientific Society, who used them as a museum until the early 1960s.  

Floor plan of the school of art showing the layout in 1923
Plan of the School of Art at the Mechanics Institute (then the Harvey Institute) in 1923, courtesy of Barnsley Archives.

A family connection

Barnsley Archives holds many records relating to the School of Art, including registers of the many students that attended between 1874 and 1947. The school catered for both children and adults, and the student records show that it attracted people from a wide variety of backgrounds and occupations. Courses ranged from general art, life drawing and pottery, to technical drawing, lettering, painting and decorating and dress design, and included daytime and evening classes.

One of the pupils was Kate Walker (later Kate Battison) who enrolled in 1889, aged 16. Her granddaughter Christine recently contacted Barnsley Archives, as she was researching her grandmother’s early life. Luckily the school’s admission registers from 1874 to 1935 had been transcribed by archive volunteers so we were able to quickly find Kate’s entry.

As well as recording the age of the student and the date of enrolment, some of the registers also include family information such as addresses, and parents trade or occupation. Kate’s father was listed as a ‘music-seller’. This information was particularly interesting for Christine as she had heard through a cousin that Kate’s father, Job Walker, had begun life as a miner, but due to an accident became a piano tuner and used the money from his accident compensation to pay for Kate’s course!

Black and white photo of lady sitting with two young boys to either side of her. She is in a long floral dress.
Kate Battison (nee Walker) and her sons John and William in 1919

By all accounts Kate performed well at her studies, receiving First Prize in the Barnsley School of Art Local Award in September 1895 for her copy of Gainsborough’s Bubbles. The award ceremony was presided over by the Mayor of Barnsley at the Public Hall on Eldon Street, at a public exhibition of artwork from the school. This was a popular annual event, and was covered in the local papers.

After leaving school and getting married, Kate continued to pursue her love of art with weekends away, sketch book in hand. The family still treasure Kate’s paintings, and Christine kindly shared some photos with us, as well as some of her own drawings that she does for family and friends. She clearly shares her grandmother’s talent!

Painting of roses laid out on a table next to a bowl of water, against a vivid blue background
Still life of roses by Kate Battison (nee Walker)

Kate and Christine’s story shows how personal family memories can really bring our archive collections to life. We love finding out more about the people who are recorded in our collections, and hearing where their story went afterwards. Coincidently, we have recently been researching the history of the Mechanics Institute and Public Hall, including the School of Art, as part of the Eldon Street Heritage Action Zone, so hearing from Christine was particularly timely. It’s exciting to know more about one of the female artists who studied at the school in its early years, and to hear that she continued that love of art throughout her life, passing it on to her children and grandchildren. We’re sure William Harvey would have been delighted!

William Harvey art collection

As well as supporting continuing education for working class people in Barnsley, William Harvey was an art enthusiastic and a distinguished art collector in his own right. Cannon Hall Museum holds 54 paintings from his collection, mainly by Dutch and Flemish artists. The paintings were bequeathed to the nation in 1917 by William Harvey’s nephew, and the collection was transferred to Barnsley in 2002. One painting from the collection, ‘Flowerpiece’ by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum, will be on display in the Cooper Gallery in Barnsley town centre, from June 10 2021.

Oil painting of decorative flower arrangement against a dark background. Flowers mainly red, pink and white with dark foliage
Dutch masterpiece ‘Flowerpiece’ by Jan van Huysum, part of the William Harvey collection

Eldon Street High Street Heritage Action Zone

The Eldon Street High Street Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) is a 4-year partnership project between Barnsley Council and Historic England. The project will help to restore historic buildings on Eldon Street, one of Barnsley’s most important historic high streets. The project will work with local people to research and celebrate the fascinating stories of the street from the past 180 years, including the Mechanics Institute and Public Hall, now the Barnsley Civic.

Read more about the Eldon Street HSHAZ in our previous blogs:

Read more about the William Harvey Art Collection

Find out more about Barnsley Archives The search room is currently closed to visitors (April 2021) due to Covid-19. We are hoping to reopen to the public on or after May 17, as Covid-19 restrictions allow.