Piety and profit in 19th-century Preston

St Peter’s Church, now serving as the UCLan Arts Centre. © Copyright Galatas and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Sir James Allan Park
Sir James Allan Park

When Sir James Allan Park, the recorder of Preston, laid the foundation stone of St Peter’s Church (now the University of Central Lancashire Arts Centre) on a summer’s day in 1822 on land donated by his son, also named James Allan, he can hardly have expected the ceremony to have sparked an angry article in the Manchester Guardian in which he was accused of ‘unparalleled humbug’ and his son of property speculation.

James Park’s gift of land would have been welcomed by the town’s Anglican establishment because at the end of the 18th century, as Preston was beginning a century of rapid expansion, the town’s Anglicans had only two churches in which to worship: the parish church and St George’s chapel. This dearth of churches was a problem facing the Church of England throughout the whole of industrialising England and one that was recognised by the Government, which proceeded to pass a Church Building Act in 1818 which provided a million pounds to pay for the building of new Anglican churches. They came to be known as Commissioners’ Churches. 1

The church commissioners clearly recognised the extent of Preston’s need for more places of worship (and for the schools built alongside them), and it was they who furnished the £6,900 needed to build the new church on James Park’s land. The ceremony to mark the laying of the foundation stone was initially reported in the Manchester Guardian as the sort of public occasion worthy of a mention in its columns. But shortly after, the paper discovered that all was not as simple as its report had indicated. It would seem that someone in Preston with a different view of James Park’s ‘gift’ had contacted the Manchester Guardian, and the paper had followed up their original report with a fuller and more critical account. The second report, which was republished by the Times, is worth quoting in full:

Mr Justice Park

[From the Manchester Guardian]

We mentioned, cursorily, in our paper of the 14th ultimo, the laying of the foundation stone of a new Act of Parliament Church at Preston, by Mr. Justice Park, the Recorder of the borough. We did not then notice any portion of the speech which the learned Judge uttered on the occasion; but shall now insert a few specimens of it, as preliminary to an exposition of its unparalleled humbug:
‘I am extremely happy that it was in the power of my son to give a site of one of them (the churches) upon his estate, the foundation of which has, by the blessing of Almighty God, now been laid; but I am still more happy that he has had the inclination to bestow this portion of his property, on which to found a house for the due worship of God; and, I hope, for spiritual comfort and edification of his fellow-townsmen.
Gentlemen, it has been the wisdom of pious men, who have had the means, in all ages of the Christian church, to appropriate a part of their substance to build temples where God might be fitly and decorously worshipped; thus bespeaking a reverend remembrance of his name, and a laudable desire to make his praise glorious. Every effort, therefore, of societies of men – every exertion or benevolent deed of individuals for establishing or extending the church on earth – is a co-operation with the Almighty in promising the accomplishment of purposes, which must ever have been the object of his gracious attention from the foundation of the world. How gratifying is the thought to a pious breast of being “a worker together with God!” ’
No-one, of course, could doubt Mr. Justice Park’s happiness at his son’s possession of an ‘estate’; but the pretences put forth in the preceding extract make it proper that the real circumstances under which a portion of that estate has been devoted to ‘pious uses’ should be made known. It appears, then, that such is ‘the wisdom of pious men’ at Preston, that there was actually a contention between Mr. Justice Park’s son and Mr J. Pedder, the banker, which should give the land whereon to build the church, both being disposed to ‘appropriate a part of their substance’ to this purpose.
In point of fact, it is asserted, that private influence was used to induce the commissioners to take Mr. Park’s land, in preference to that which was offered by Mr. Pedder. Now for the object of this ‘co-operation with the Almighty’. Mr Park and Mr. James Pedder have both land which has been for years advertised to be disposed of for building upon, without obtaining any customers; and it was a portion of this unsaleable building land which each offered to give for the site of a church; the supposition being, that, to the successful competitor, the disposal of his remaining property would be very much facilitated, and its value greatly enhanced by the proximity of a church. 2

The article needs treating with caution since the radical Manchester Guardian would have viewed Sir James as an opponent, and quite likely welcomed an opportunity to malign him. Sir James was a lifelong member of the High Church wing of the Church of England and was recognised as ‘an active upholder of the established church’. In 1823 he ‘publicly criticised the Quakers for their refusal to take judicial oaths’. As a judge, ‘His record of gaining convictions is said to have made him a favourite of government when attempting to convict “eminent malefactors”. Not surprisingly, he gave out harsh sentences.’ Such a supporter of the establishment both secular and religious could hardly have found favour with the Manchester Guardian, at a time when Radical calls for reform were accompanied by widespread civic unrest, and with Peterloo fresh in the country’s memory.

The article also raises a number of questions. Would the building of a church enhance the value of surrounding land and lead to its subsequent development? Is there evidence that James Allan Park and James Pedder had been unsuccessfully advertising their estates for sale and subsequently profited from their development? Was Sir James guilty of ‘unparalleled humbug’? And finally, and probably unanswerable, What evidence did the Manchester Guardian have ‘that private influence was used to induce the commissioners to take Mr. Park’s land’?

To answer the first question it is necessary to trace the history of church building in 19th-century Preston. Shortly after the laying of the foundation stone at St Peter’s another ceremony followed for St Paul’s Church on open land to the east of the town. The original intention had been for the commissioners to finance just one new church in Preston, but they were persuaded to fund two:

It is not generally known that the grant of £12,500 was obtained by the bishop of Chester (Lawe) to defray the expenses of one church, St. Peter’s, on the representation of Nicholas Grimshaw, esq. and Thomas Troughton, esq.; but that, on the suggestion of the vicar, the commissioners resolved upon the erection of two churches out of the original grant, which was effected, exclusive of the burial-ground attached to St. Paul’s. 3

So, in 1823 the foundation stone was laid for Preston’s second Commissioners’ Church on North Road. The land for St Paul’s was given by another of the town’s principal landowners, Samuel Pole Shawe, who possessed an extensive estate in the neighbourhood, later to be let out as building plots around Pole Street, which was named for the church’s benefactor. At the time of the laying of the foundation stone the site was surrounded by empty fields.4 The Catholic church of St Walburge’s and the Anglican church of St Mark’s were subsequently built on Pedder land. Preston’s major landowners were ecumenical in their property dealings: another landowner, Fletcher Lutwidge, sold the land for the Anglican church of St Luke’s (and gave £500 towards the building costs) and for the Catholic church of St Joseph’s, both in the Ribbleton district to the east of the town. 5

Whether Shawe’s land, as the Manchester Guardian alleged was that of Park and Pedder, was ‘unsaleable’ before the building of the church is not known. What is known is that up until this time developers had been relying on in-filling empty spaces in the town’s urban core and building terraces near the new cotton mills to supply housing for the hundreds of handloom weavers moving into the town from the surrounding districts to service the mills. 6 Those mills had been established in open fields, just as were the churches of St Peter and St Paul.

Throughout the rest of the century the Church of England marched in step with the expansion of industrial Preston, establishing churches and schools in district after district, under the direction of the town’s vicars, the Rev Roger Carus Wilson and his successor the Rev John Owen Parr. The town’s Catholics and Nonconformists sometimes led and sometimes followed the Anglicans in this rash of church building. The building of churches of all denominations marked the spread of the town just as much as the erection of cotton mills.

I think it is clear that building a large cotton mill led to the construction of the terrace houses that surrounded it: the mill came first, the housing second. I’m not sure whether the same causal relationship applies to churches (as the Manchester Guardian article suggests). To take as an example St Peter’s, before the church was built the neighbourhood already had the mills built by John Horrocks near the newly opened canal, and streets of terrace houses stretched between the mill buildings and Canal Street to the south, as the map of 1810 below clearly shows. Those houses were only yards from the site chosen for St Peter’s, so development had already been in progress for a number of years when James Allan Park donated his land for the church.

A section from the 1810 Shakeshaft map of Preston

This suggests that the Manchester Guardian might have been wrong to accuse both Park and Pedder of offering land so that ‘the disposal of his remaining property would be very much facilitated, and its value greatly enhanced by the proximity of a church’.

Green Bank estate plan of 1813
Greenbank Estate in 1813 taken from Preston Street Names Chapter 3

In fact, it is difficult ascertain just how extensive Park’s estate was. It would have been part of the extensive holdings owned by descendants of the Atherton family of Preston. The Manchester Guardian probably assumed that Park was the owner of what was known as the Greenbank estate shown on the 1813 plan above, but the Lang plan of Preston in 1774 shows that the Athertons were absentee owners of much more land in the town (by that time the two principal Atherton landowners were living in the Liverpool area, where their slave trading enterprises were by then based). These lands were passed down through the family in the 18th and 19th centuries in a complicated web of inheritances that devolved parts of the wider Atherton estate, which extended throughout Lancashire and included slave estates in Jamaica, to different branches of the family, and involved numerous residual legatees.

The relevant sections of the Lang plan of 1774 superimposed on the six inch Ordnance Survey map surveyed in the late 1840s. OS map courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

What part of that estate James Allan Park had inherited and what was his claim on it is unclear. His mother, Lucy Atherton, who was still alive at this time, was the daughter of Richard Atherton, one of the four sons of William Atherton of Greenbank House, and family wills show her as a residual legatee of portions of the estate. The section of the Atherton family tree below shows the relationships between the Athertons and the Parks:

The web of Atherton inheritances is still being untangled, but what is clear from the Preston tithe map of 1839 is that by then the Athertons had disposed of most if not all of their Preston holdings: no Atherton appears as an owner in the tithe schedule. When work began to prepare the Green Bank estate for development in 1834 it was owned by the Tomlinson brothers, William and Thomas, landowners and tanners (see the Frenchwood Tannery). 7 The first Ordnance Survey map of the town in the late 1840s below shows the area still being developed. And when William Tomlinson’s share of the brothers’ estate was auctioned off in 1850 following his death, the sales description noted that a ‘considerable portion of the estate is laid out for streets’, suggesting that development was still not complete. 8 If James Allan Park’s gift of land was designed to spur development of the district, in addition to that already in place around the Fylde Road mills, then it was several years before it gained its object.

The district around St Peter’s as shown on a section from the six-inch Ordnance Survey map of Preston surveyed in the late 1840s. Map courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

Turning to another of the questions raised by the Manchester Guardian article, Was Sir James guilty of ‘unparalleled humbug’? The tone of his words in the Manchester Guardian above might smack of saccharine sanctimony to today’s readers, but they would have represented the accepted and approved sentiments of many of his listeners at the ceremony. It is difficult to doubt the sincerity of his piety to judge by a critical modern examination of his views 9, even if they would have found little favour with either the Tractarian or Clapham School sections of the Church of England. He wrote a biography of William Stevens, a leading High Church layman, which ‘provides an important account of traditional High Church spirituality and one generation’s esteem of an individual (Stevens) who provided a model of Anglican faith and practice that he and others greatly admired and sought to emulate’. Sir James was a member of the Philanthropic Society and on his death was remembered as ‘a kind and charitable individual who often helped the poor’. His loyalty to the establishment of the Church of England possibly offended the Manchester Guardian, given that the ‘aspect of Park’s life that most impressed observers was his fervent High Church devotion to the rites and teachings of the Church of England’. 10

If the Manchester Guardian had wanted to highlight the worldliness of Sir James’s piety they could perhaps have levied a charge of simony against him by suggesting that the family had bought or inherited the rectorship of Elwick Hall in county Durham for James Park junior in 1828 when he was just 28. He stayed there until his death in 1871. An example of just such alleged simony can be found in the case of Arthur Townley Parker, the fourth son of Preston’s MP Robert Townley Parker, who was ordained and became rector of Burnley in 1855 at the age of 25. It was said the position brought him an annual revenue of £3,000 when the other churches in the town were staffed by clerics on stipends of just £150 a year. The Townley Parkers owned an extensive estate in the district. 11

Anglican benefices were treated as a form of property, inheritable and saleable, just as much as were the Athertons’ slaves in the West Indies, as, for example, in just one small corner of Lancashire:

The frequent occurrence of the names of Langton, Standish, Halsall, and Le Walsch among the rectors of Wigan, Standish, Halsall, and Aughton illustrates the habitual use of livings by lay patrons as a provision for younger members of their families. Rectors were instituted when only in minor orders, or even with the first tonsure, occasionally under the canonical age, and so little qualified for their work that licences of absence for several years to study at a university had to be granted to them. The bishop might and did insist that the cure should not be neglected; but for this there was no real guarantee when its duties were performed by chaplains not too well paid and without security of tenure. Leave of absence was also freely granted to rectors for other reasons the nature of which is seldom expressed, and in such cases they were allowed to put their churches to farm. 12

Slaveholding and the benefits of simony were just two aspects of that vast portfolio of properties in 19th-century England that included land, persons and offices, that was held together by social and family ties, and which ensured that wealth was preserved and passed down the generations (see Who owned Lancashire?). James Allan Park and his brother, Alexander Atherton Park, profited from this tradition. The cumulative riches of the Atherton family had descended to Eleanora Atherton, their mother’s cousin and daughter and granddaughter of Preston Athertons, who was reputed to be one of the richest women in England when she died in 1870. 13 The brothers were major beneficiaries in her will:

She bequeaths her estates at Prescot and Walton-on-the-Hill, to the Rev James Allan Park. Her estates in Jamaica, some tenements at Prescot, and the chambers in Lincoln’s Inn, formerly belonging to her father, she bequeaths to Alexander Atherton Park, and leaves him all law books. 14


Further reading:
The best treatment of Preston and the slave trade is Aidan Turner-Bishop’s article on the Preston Historical Society website. Individual biographies of the Athertons can be found on a website devoted to the family and in a number of Wikipedia articles. A sobering treatment of the extent to which slaveholding was woven into British society is provided by Michael Taylor’s The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery. The following quotation is taken from chapter 17 ‘The Price of Liberty’:

Until 1833, slavery had been an essential part of British national life, as much as the Church of England, the monarchy, or the liberties granted by the Glorious Revolution. When we remember it otherwise, we promulgate a self-serving and misleading version of British history.
Further still, slavery was abolished only because Parliament recognised the legal right of ‘property in man’ and consequently agreed to compensate the slaveholders for the confiscation of that property. This cost the British government £20 million. In 1833, that was 40 per cent of the government’s annual expenditure, and until the banking rescue package of 2008 it remained the largest specific payout in British history. More strikingly, as a proportion of government spending in 2020, it was equivalent to approximately £340 billion and, to put that figure into perspective, the IMF estimates that the combined GDPs of all Britain’s former West Indian colonies amounted in 2018 to just £69 billion. In other words, British slaveholders received a windfall that was five times greater than the current wealth of the whole of the formerly ‘British’ Caribbean

A very good fictional account of British slaveholding, which follows a Liverpool family’s involvement in the slave trade, is Barry Unsworth’s Booker Prize winner, Sacred Hunger. Michael Taylor reveals in the final chapter of his book the Booker Prize connections with slaveholders:

The billion-dollar holding company the Man Group was founded in the 1780s as a sugar brokerage; coincidentally, the cash-and-carry retailer Booker, whose literary prize was once sponsored by Man, was chaired by Labour peer Jock Campbell, whose family’s wealth came from the Caribbean.

Both books are available as Lancashire Library ebooks.


1 ‘Commissioners’ Church’, in Wikipedia, 10 April 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Commissioners%27_church&oldid=1081979231.

2 The Times P2, 9 October 1822, The Times Digital Archive.

3 E. Baines, History of the County Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster, vol. 4 (Fisher, son & Company, 1836), 336 footnote, https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_History_of_the_County_Palatine_and_D.html?id=G904AQAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y.

4 Baines, 4:336.

5 ‘CONSECRATION OF ST. LUKE’S CHURCH’, Preston Chronicle P5, 6 August 1859, British Library Newspapers, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/Y3207452298/BNCN?sid=bookmark-BNCN&xid=4b4e4e4b; ‘LOCAL INTELLIGENCE’, Preston Chronicle P4, 27 September 1856, British Library Newspapers, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/Y3207446345/BNCN?sid=bookmark-BNCN&xid=cd977666.

6 Nigel Morgan, Vanished Dwellings (Preston: Mullion Books, 1990).

7 Charles Hardwick, History of the Borough of Preston and Its Environs, in the County of Lancashire (Preston: Worthington & Co, 1857), 431.

8 Preston Chronicle P4, 5 October 1850, British Library Newspapers, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/Y3207434084/BNCN?sid=bookmark-BNCN&xid=92dd8b4f.

9 Robert M Andrews, ‘William Stevens (1732-1807): Lay Activism in Late Eighteenth-Century Anglican High Churchmanship’ (PhD thesis, Murdoch University, 2012).

10 Andrews, 5–6.

11 Preston Chronicle P2, 24 April 1869, British Library Newspapers, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/Y3207473348/BNCN?sid=bookmark-BNCN&xid=f4af3f71.

12 William Farrer and J. Brownbill, eds., The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, vol. 2 (London: Constable, 1908), 31.

13 ‘Eleanora Atherton’, in Wikipedia, 3 June 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eleanora_Atherton&oldid=1091340752.

14 ‘Wills and Bequests – Prescot History’, n.d., https://www.prescot.org/?page_id=129.

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