On this day … 18 May 1878

The Preston papers reported that the mayor had read the Riot Act, called out the military from Fulwood Barracks and sworn in a hundred special constables to quell the violence erupting in the London Road/New Hall Lane district.

The violence, which also erupted all over Lancashire, was sparked by the decision of the cotton mill owners to lock out their workers. The industry-wide lock out followed the mill workers waging selective strikes at factories in the region to try to force the employers to abandon a ten per cent cut in wages, which the mill owners wanted to cushion the effects of a trade depression.

The lock out caused great indignation in Preston where the workers had agreed to accept the wage reduction and wanted to work. They were barred from work because the Lancashire mill owners were determined to maintain a united front and keep all mills closed until all workers agreed to their terms.

Preston’s mayor knew trouble was threatened when talks beween employers and workers in Manchester broke down. He recruited a hundred special constables, including members of the town’s fire brigade, to support the police. When a crowd started to mass around London Road and New Hall Lane, these specials were employed, and according to one newspaper report, ‘were too free with the use of the staff’, which provoked the crowd to throwing stones.

The police lost control of the situation and the mayor called in the military, who had been waiting in readiness. A detachment of the 17th Lancers, numbering about sixty, arrived on the scene. Their appearance at first restored order, but soon trouble broke out again, and the police charged the crowd, lashing out with their truncheons.

At 9.35 pm, the mayor read the Riot Act, but that failed to calm the situation, the crowd scattering into the surrounding streets, smashing windows as they went, including hundreds at the Swainson and Birley mill.

Preston 1853/54 lock out ballad
The ten per cent cut would have reminded the workers of the earlier dispute in 1853/54 when the town’s mill workers had previously fought against the cotton lords who had imposed just such a cut. The cotton lords won then, too, despite the optimism in the ballad above.

The authorities came in for criticism from the Preston Chronicle, which claimed the riot could have been prevented:

.. if, instead of apparently waiting for the streets to get rough, and then bringing into play the suppressive mechanism in readiness, they had, at once, given orders for the streets to be cleared – given orders prohibiting all persons from assembling as they have frequently done, on the parapets and in the centre of the streets – orders directing every person, no matter what his rank or station, to move on.

The dispute fizzled out at the end of June, when work resumed on the employers’ terms. In the meantime. It was the last serious industrial dispute in the town for more than thirty years, for, as the Chronicle noted, Preston’s mill workers, unlike their fellows in neighbouring towns, were ‘more docile, and enduring, and order-loving’.

The Preston Chronicle
Clemesha’s History of Preston https://prestonhistory.com/preston-history-library/clemeshas-history-of-preston/

4 thoughts on “On this day … 18 May 1878

  1. I love this
    Great historical account about the Preston riots. What other incidents happened during this time period and what was the aftermath of the mill lockouts and worker strikes? Excellent write-up on the Preston riots and the causal events leading up to it. The Preston Chronicle’s criticism of the authorities’ response is duly noted. I’m curious to know if there were any other significant incidents during this time period and what were the long-term aftermath of the mill lockouts and worker strikes?


    1. Tomorrow’s post has more on industrial unrest in nineteenth-century Preston, Jo. Especially the most serious dispute that attracted the attention of Marx and Dickens.


  2. Fascinating to read and real life events which were fictionalised in part in Gaskell’s ” North and South” ( published earlier in the 1850’s) Suggesting that the solidarity between Mill Owners, regardless of willingness to work by their employees, was commonplace.

    The ballad sheet was a bonus. Thanks. Steph

    Ps I’ve no idea why I have the descriptor ” Onecogshort…..” It may accurately reflect my state of mind and sporting interests, but far too imaginative for me to dream up??!!!


  3. Just astonishing as a Pedder with strange leftover tast for calling dad’s pop, wearing cotton no wool and a taste for port


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