A new portrait of Robert Townley Parker

One of the most rewarding aspects of local history research is the way in which close study of often-overlooked detail can transform the accepted view of a period or a person, confounding the established orthodoxies. It shows that historical study should be fluid, not fixed: more fractal than broad brush. This continuing revisionism is fuelled by the ever-increasing sources that are being revealed and made widely available, thanks to the internet. A case in point is the character of the 19th-century Preston MP Robert Townley Parker, who has been portrayed as a Catholic-hating bigot. New material is now suggesting he was possibly deserving of a far more rounded portrait. I wrote the following article for the Lancashire Local History Federation‘s’ latest newsletter, which gives some indication of the complexity of his character:


Robert Townley Parker, as a young man
Robert Townley Parker, as a young man. (Wikipedia Commons)

I’ve recently started working on a shortish biography of the 19th-century Preston MP Robert Townley Parker, which I thought was going to be a straightforward account of a ‘Church and State’ Tory and his hostility to the town’s Catholics. This would have aligned him with the virulently anti-papist position of the town’s Anglican clergy, led by the vicar, the Rev John Owen Parr. And this was the view I had taken from the many references to Townley Parker in Nigel Morgan’s Lancaster University MPhil thesis on politics in Preston in the first half of the 19th-century.

Nigel wrote:

The right wing, identified from 1835 to 1852 with the bigoted Protestant squire of Cuerden Hall, Robert Townley Parker, exploited the sectarian and anti-Irish animosities of the lower orders … the Tories resorted to the 19th century equivalent of race riots: they attacked the Irish, … possibly with the connivance of Robert Townley Parker, the Tory candidate … Townley Parker denied that he was a violent Orangeman: he was not ‘one who would flog alive all Roman Catholics’.

But when I started gathering material it soon became clear that Townley Parker was a far more interesting and complex character. This in no way diminishes Nigel’s contribution to historical research, it is simply that sources not available when he was writing have now become available. Indeed, the people working on the next section of the History of Parliament project were delighted to discover Nigel’s thesis, and his work will be incorporated in the section on the Preston constituency.

Although a formidable opponent of any attempts to weaken the Church of England establishment, Townley Parker was a lifelong friend of many Catholics and supported many of that church’s Lancashire projects. For example, in 1814, at the end of a European tour, he and his companion were granted an audience with Pope Pius VII, when Townley Parker would have just turned 20. He included among his friends the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, and the Catholic bishop of Liverpool, who was a welcome guest at Townley Parker’s home, Cuerden Hall. He saw to it that priests were provided for Catholics in the Preston House of Correction and in the county asylum, with their stipends paid by the county. When he decided not to contest his seat again a delegation of the town’s leading Catholics visited him at Cuerden Hall and tried to persuade him to change his mind.

Politically, Townley Parker was an unlikely candidate for Preston, which was becoming increasingly industrial. He was a prominent member of the county’s landed gentry, living on his rents and rigorously enforcing the game laws, both in court and on his estate, where an armed battle between his gamekeepers and a gang of poachers left one poacher dead and several badly injured.

He was a staunch opponent of Free Trade and firmly resistant to many aspects of electoral reform, including the ballot, at a time when Preston was the scene of mass protests against the Corn Laws and for electoral reform. Why did he persist in supporting measures unpopular in the town? In his defence he followed Edmund Burke in arguing that as MP he was a representative of his constituency, not its delegate:

I could have given my vote [in line with the town’s Anti Corn Law Association] … for the sake of popularity it would perhaps have been the most expedient conduct; but in so doing I must either have disguised my real sentiments … or have acknowledged myself the Delegate of the Electors of Preston, and have abandoned all the feelings on an independent Member of Parliament. [Emphasis in original].

Later he expressed himself more forcibly, ‘I will either enjoy a seat in parliament unshackled, the independent representative of independent electors, or I must decline accepting it.’

Two public statues in Preston give a clear indication of Townley Parker’s political views. When subscriptions were sought for a statue of Sir Robert Peel, he subscribed on the understanding that it was made clear that his subscription was for Peel the man, not Peel the politician who had split his party. Yet when the former prime minister the Earl of Derby died Townley Parker showed his support for Derby’s politics by leading the fund raising for a statue and was instrumental in ensuring it was sited prominently in Preston and not in Lancaster, the other suggested site.

At the very end of his long life, in 1878, looking back on his political career, he said he was still unconvinced of the benefits of the century’s parliamentary reforms. On Free Trade, he was still an opponent, arguing it was those countries that had maintained tariffs that had prospered at Britain’s expense. He would probably have supported Joseph Chamberlain’s Imperial Preference tariffs.

There was clearly much more to Townley Parker than a superficial account of his career would suggest. I plan to compare and contrast the careers of Townley Parker and his contemporary the social reformer Joseph Livesey, which I believe might help illuminate the politics of Preston for much of the 19th century. However, I blundered badly and blushingly in my early researches on Livesey, and had to be reined in by the Preston historian Steve Harrison. To avoid more embarrassment I would like make contact with anyone who could suggest avenues to explore or who would be willing to point out the grosser errors in anything I put on line.

The Rev John Owen Parr’s public face

The last post dealt with the scandalous secret third marriage of the 19th-century vicar of Preston, the Rev John Owen Parr, to one of his servants. His public life was often as controversial as his private one. He was an arch Tory and a virulent opponent of Roman Catholics outside the Church of England and of Anglo-Catholics within the church. He mobilised his parish clergy to support his position, ensuring that they instructed their congregations how to vote on matters both political and religious. He was also an eloquent and forceful campaigner for improvements in the working conditions of mill workers, and in support of the temperance movement.

The public face of the Rev John Owen Parr

The scandalous marriages of the Rev John Owen Parr

Marriage certificate Rev John Owen Parr and Alice Stewardson

John Owen Parr (1798-1877), the vicar of Preston for 37 years from 1840 until his death, led a seemingly conventional life as a Victorian Church of England minister: he instructed his parish clergy to ensure their congregations voted Tory at every election, he was a virulent opponent of Catholics, both Roman and Anglo-, and he routinely set the bailiffs on anyone of whatever faith who objected to paying him his tithes and Easter dues.

But behind the closed doors of the vicarage he was hiding what was for Victorian Preston a shameful secret that when revealed created a major scandal in the town and laid bare the hypocrisy that he had presumably hoped to keep hidden.

The vicar’s marriages

Preston Orange Order MP’s Catholic sympathies

Robert Townley Parker, as a young man
Robert Townley Parker, as a young man. (Wikipedia Commons)

I’ve recently started working on a biography of the 19th-century Preston Conservative MP Robert Townley Parker, which I thought was going to be a straightforward account of a ‘Church and State’ Tory and his hostility to the town’s Catholics. This would have aligned him with the virulently anti-papist position of the town’s Anglican clergy, led by the vicar, the Rev John Owen Parr. And this was the view I had taken from the many references to Townley Parker in Nigel Morgan’s MPhil thesis on politics in Preston in the first half of the 19th-century.

Nigel wrote:

The right wing, identified from 1835 to 1852 with the bigoted Protestant squire of Cuerden Hall, Robert Townley Parker, exploited the sectarian and anti-Irish animosities of the lower orders … the Tories resorted to the 19th century equivalent of race riots: they attacked the Irish, … possibly with the connivance of Robert Townley Parker, the Tory candidate … Townley Parker denied that he was a violent Orangeman: he was not ‘one who would flog alive all Roman Catholics’.

Elsewhere, Nigel took Townley Parker to task for ‘holding out the stick of papal despotism’ in his electioneering.

But when I started gathering material it soon became clear that Townley Parker was a far more interesting and complex character. For, although a formidable opponent of any attempts to weaken the Church of England establishment, he was a lifelong friend of many Catholics and supported many of that church’s Lancashire projects.

For example, I came across a newspaper account of a speech he gave at the end of his life in which he referred to an audience he was granted with Pope Pius VII in 1814, when he would have just turned 20. It seemed implausible that as a Protestant visitor to Italy, just out of his teens, he and his companion would have been granted such access. But with a bit more digging I discovered that not only was the newspaper report correct but I also found an account of what was discussed at the audience.

In addition, Townley Parker included among his friends the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, with whom he shared a platform at St Augustine’s RC Church when Manning visited Preston. Another friend was the Catholic bishop of Liverpool, who was a welcome guest at Townley Parker’s home, Cuerden Hall.

I discovered many more examples of his active involvement in Catholic affairs: he threw open the grounds of Cuerden Hall to hundreds of children from St Augustine’s; he saw to it that priests were provided for Catholics in the Preston House of Correction and in the county asylum, with their salaries paid by the county; he gave land for Catholic schools; and when he decided not to contest his seat again a delegation of the town’s leading Catholics visited him at Cuerden Hall and tried to persuade him to change his mind.

There was clearly much more to Townley Parker than a superficial account of his career would suggest. While I continue working on the biography I would be grateful if anyone who can suggest avenues worth exploring would get in touch: all assistance would be fully acknowledged.

Preston’s Roman roads

Roman roads around Preston are being plotted with ever-increasing accuracy by archaeologists using lidar scanning technology. The results north of Preston have been especially impressive. South of Preston, industrial development at Cuerden has uncovered the Roman road, helping to establish its exact route north and south. Where previously there was only speculation there is now certainty, which has often proved the previous speculation to be mistaken.

Could other routes through the town be waiting to be discovered? Two of Preston’s 19th-century historians believed there were, so I thought I would do some speculating: Preston’s Roman roads.

Problem with pdfs

The WordPress.com service which hosts this website has recently hit a problem with a bug that means pdfs do not display on their sites. The pdf images can still be downloaded, and a link is supplied, but sadly no image. The developers have told me that they do not know when, and even if, the bug can be fixed!

I’m working on a way to restore the getting on for a hundred pdf images on this site, which means fiddling with some bits of code. Hopefully, normal service should be restored shortly.

Lewis Carroll’s Preston family connections

Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll, .a.k.a. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, in 1866. Wikimedia

Sue Latimer was working her way through the 19th-century tithe schedule records on this site when she came across what looked like a possible link between Preston and the author of Alice in Wonderland. A Charles Lutwidge was listed in the schedule as owning a large estate in the town, and Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Could there be a family connection? Sue tore herself away from her own research to investigate further, establishing that there was indeed a connection: Charles Lutwidge was Lewis Carroll’s grandfather. She discovered that the Lutwidges were settled at Holmrook in Cumberland and that Charles’s father, Henry Lutwidge, married Jane Molyneux of Preston at Walton-le-Dale in 1767.

Tracing the connections brought out networks of families and friends that controlled large tracts of prime development land in Preston from the 18th century through to the early years of the last century and shaped the town as it grew rapidly in the 19th century.

Lewis Carroll’s Preston family connections

Winckley Square and the industrial revolution

Cover of book by Geoffrey Timmins

Geoff Timmins, professor emeritus of History at UCLan, has written a book describing the various ways in which the industrial revolution shaped the landscape in the textile districts of Lancashire. What should be of particular interest to Preston historians is Chapter 4 ‘Housing the better-off: Winckley Square, Preston’.

The book is titled The Built Environment Transformed: Textile Lancashire during the Industrial Revolution. Details at https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/books/id/55108/. The book is offered at half price until 31.12.2021. Details at: https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/

Geoff points out that all royalties go to Liverpool University Press’s Open Access Fund that supports early-career historians and social scientists.

Related: The development of Winckley Square is covered extensively In Nigel Morgan’s Desirable Dwellings, and the district has its own website: https://www.winckleysquarepreston.org/.

Preston tithe maps

Map based on Preston tithe map
Map showing the owners of the Preston tithe plots overlaid on the 1840s 6in OS map. The tithe owners map can be inspected at full resolution by following the link below. (OS map courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.)

Maps showing the owners and occupiers of the plots listed in the Preston tithe schedule are now online, along with maps from the Lang survey of Preston in 1774. The schedule was transcribed by volunteers working on the tithe schedules project for the Lancashire Place Name Survey. Set alongside each other, the Lang maps and the tithe maps provide a visually compelling reminder of how dramatically the landscape of Preston transformed between the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th, and plot the transfer of land ownership in that period that paved the way for the rapid spread of housing north of the town from the middle of the 19th century. .

Preston tithe schedule and map


Coming next: the Ashton tithe maps

Farmer Joe — another side to Livesey

Moor House at Holme Slack, Preston, the home of Joseph Livesey.
Moor House at Holme Slack, Preston, the home of Joseph Livesey.
Joseph Livesey

Temperance campaigner Joseph Livesey is variously described as cheese merchant, printer, publisher and newspaper proprietor, but I have not found a single reference in the literature to his time as a farmer. Yet, for some 20 years his home was a farm at Holme Slack. At the 1841 census he was listed as ‘Cheese Factor, Printer & Farmer’ and in the 1851 Mannex Directory for Preston [1] he is listed as a gentleman living at Holme Slack. So, a fuller description of Livesey’s occupations would include gentleman farmer.

See: Joseph Livesey — gentleman farmer