On a recent visit to Warrington I realised that I had been in the town many times but had never knowingly seen the famous Academy, or what remains of it. Famously the Academy was physically moved on rollers to preserve it after road widening in the early 1980s. I hadn’t realised, however, that this careful and no doubt expensive feat of engineering had not prevented it being demolished and rebuilt with hardly any original features in the 1990s.
Two plaques still stand on either side of the entrance of what is left of the Academy. One commemorates the Academy, and another which is difficult, if not impossible, to read, was deciphered for me by Luke who tells me it recalls Arthur Bennett. The wording of the plaque is recorded on the Open Plaques site (http://openplaques.org/) as being:
A poet who had dreams and to his dreams gave life. Arthur Bennett 1862-1931 Honorary Freeman and Alderman of the Borough of Warrington Mayor 1925-1927 A founder and president of the Warrington Society, the members of which erected this tablet in recognition of his services to the town he loved.
Clearly very proud of his Warrington heritage Arthur Bennett’s poem on eighteenth-century prison reformer, humanitarian and Warrington citizen ‘John Howard’ concludes with a stanza on his friendship with Dr John Aikin, son of one the founding tutors of the Academy and brother of Anna Laetitia Barbauld:
Then to “the Doctor’s, whom he loved so well,
Past the still halls with Memory’s laurels wreathed,
The sacred “seats where Science loved to dwell
Where liberty her ardent spirit breathed”.
The day’s work tested, he would journey home
To take his simple cup of tea and creep
Up the quaint old stairs in the familiar gloom,
Content to catch four fleeting hours of sleep.
I am sure Anna Laetitia’s poems relating to the Academy are better known today, one of her earliest poems discussed its educational role:
The Muses here have fixed their sacred seats.
Mark where its simple front yon mansion rears,
The nursery of men for future years!
Here callow chiefs and embryo statesmen lie,
And unfledged poets short excursions try….
Here Nature opens all her secret springs,
And heaven-born Science plumes her eagle-wings.
The Open Plaques site also tells me there is a plaque for Joseph Priestley in Warrington which I didn’t realise. He was perhaps the most eminent of all the staff of the Warrington Academy and another subject that inspired Anna Laetitia to poetry, writing to tease Priestley after she found a mouse caught in a trap which was destined to be a part of his experiments on air. She wrote:
O hear a pensive prisoner’s prayer,
For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
Against the wretch’s cries!
For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at the approaching morn,
Which brings impending fate.
If e’er thy breast with freedom glowed,
And spurned a tyrant’s chain,
Let not thy strong oppressive force
A free-born mouse detain!
The cheerful light, the vital air,
Are blessings widely given;
Let Nature’s commoners enjoy
The common gifts of Heaven.
One of the things you notice when you visit Warrington is that even if the original building of the Academy has not been preserved its story is still valued in the town. An advertising hoarding promoting the town outside the Golden Square shopping centre makes use of the image of the first Academy:
I am not sure what the date 1775 is meant to commemorate. It may be an error for the date of foundation in 1757.
The most notable feature of the modern Academy building is a large statue of Oliver Cromwell. This was put up in 1899 although I am not sure if this was the original site.