On this day … 2 May 1836

The foundation stone was laid for St Mary’s Church in what was then known as New Preston on New Hall Lane, the district which was, to judge by the account by Anthony Hewitson in his Our Churches and Chapels, the town’s equivalent of the Wild West.

Hewitson’s characterisation of the district shows little liking for its inhabitants and implies that cautious folk would have been well advised to give it a wide berth.

He writes, ‘St. Mary’s is situated a district containing about 8,000 persons, and as they are nearly entirely of the working class sort, the congregation is naturally made up of similar materials.’

Here are some selections from his account:

St. Mary’s Church is situated in a huge, rudely-spun district, known by the name of “New Preston.” That district used to be one of the wildest in this locality … and tons of good seed, saying nothing of manure, will have to be planted in its hard ground before it either blossoms like the rose or pays its debts.

This district was originally brought into active existence by John Horrocks, Esq., the founder of the Preston cotton trade … [who] planted in the locality a body of hand-loom weavers … Handloom weaving is now about as hopeless a job as trying to extract sunlight out of cucumbers; but … weavers could then afford to play two or three days a week, earn excellent wages, afterwards wear top boots, and then thrash their wives in comfort without the interference of policemen.

They and their immediate descendants belonged to a crooked and perverse generation. Cock-fighting, badger-baiting, poaching, drinking, and dog-worrying formed their sovereign delights; and they were so amazingly rude and dangerous, that even tax collectors durst not, at times, go amongst them for money … The population has thickened, and civilisation has penetrated into the region since then; and yet the “animal” preponderates rather largely in it now.

… A pack of hounds was once kept for general enjoyment in “New Preston;” but that pack has “gone to the dogs” – hasn’t been heard of for years. During the past quarter of a century what missionary breakfast men call a “great work” has been done by way of evangelising the people in this quarter of the town; and very much of it has been achieved through St. Mary’s Church and schools.

In the pen portraits that Hewitson paints of the town’s clergy of his day he can be so gratuitously insulting that it would have taken a great deal of Christian forbearance on the part of some of his subjects not to attack him when met in the street.

Cover of a tribute to the Rev George Alker, minister at St Mary's Church Preston
Cover of a presentation to the Rev George Alker: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rpsmithbarney/8101608740/

A good example is his portrait of the Rev George Alker, who was the incumbent at St Mary’s when the book was published:

He is still at the church; but we dare say he would be willing to leave it for a rectory, if one were offered, with 500 pounds a year. Mr. Alker is an Irishman, and is about 42 years of age. He is rather tall; is genteelly fashioned, has good features, wears an elegantly-trimmed pair of whiskers, has pompous, odorous, Pall Mall appearance…. After leaving Ireland, he took a curacy in Liverpool. In 1857 he accepted a similar post at St. Peter’s, Preston … and whilst here he set the town on fire with anti-Popery denunciation… Yes, he was a regular Mr. Blazeaway, and what he said was equal to the strongest of the theatre thunder and the most dazzling of forked lightning.

Mr. Alker … in due time got the incumbency of St. Mary’s–an event which seems to have toned down all his fury about the “abomination of Rome,” and made him nearly quite forget the existence of Pope Pius. … Still he has occasional spells of anti-Popery hysteria; he can’t altogether get the old complaint out of his bones; Rome is yet his red rag when in a rage; and he has latterly shown an inclination to wind up the clocks of the Jews and the Mahommedans. He may have a fling at the Calmuck Tartars and a quiet pitch into the Sioux Indians after a bit.

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