The Athenaeum was founded in January, 1829, on the model of a Mechanic's Institute. The building was a gift from William Laslett, erected in 1834, and was behind the Museum of Natural History in Foregate Street; being approached by way of the 'Athenaeum Court'.
The building contained a lecture hall, 40 ft, by 28 ft, which being lit from above, was used for exhibitions of paintings. Constable exhibited a number of his great paintings there, but only sold one, and that a small one. There was a libary, reading rooms, and rooms where evening classes in music, French, mathmatics were taught, and a laboratory for science subjects. It catered especially for the artisan and lower middle classes, with the subscription being 3s. per quarter. An honorary Membership cost 5s. with the tickets admitting two to the lectures. With the opening of the Victoria Institute, the activities were transferred to the new building.