A disturbing view of Victorian Preston — 1

Title page of The Builder magazine compendium for 1861

One of the most graphic accounts of the awful conditions in which many Prestonians lived in the middle of the 19th century was provided by two lengthy articles that appeared in The Builder magazine in December 1861 as part of a series titled ‘Condition of Our Towns’. [1] They are frequently quoted from and the first article was transcribed in full with added illustrations in a fairly recent book. [2] The intention here is to provide a transcript of both articles together with maps to enable readers to follow the author of the articles on his, or possibly but unlikely her, journeys round the town. (To simplify pronoun use, and to recognise the reality of Victorian career opportunities for women, I am going to assume the reporter was a man.)

The Builder, an ‘illustrated weekly magazine for the architect, engineer, archaeologist, constructor, sanitary-reformer, and art-lover’, was founded by Joseph Hansom, the architect of St Walburge’s church. But he had long left the magazine by the time of these two articles.

The following year the Lancashire writer Edwin Waugh visited Preston and painted a depressing picture of the poverty in which the town’s working class was living during the Cotton Famine. Combine the two accounts and it is clear that life in Victorian Preston could be very grim indeed.

Related articles
Edwin Waugh’s portrait of Preston
Child murder in Victorian Preston
Irish ‘ghettoes’ in 19th-century Preston
19th-century Preston’s ‘worst slum’


Day One

Map of Victorian Preston Lancashire UK showing route taken by visiting reporter

The reporter arrived at Preston Railway Station, and was immediately disappointed:

Neither tradition, politeness, nor truthfulness can call upon us to admire the exit from the railway station … by the first and second class booking-office entrance, which is in a coke-shed. It is grimy with coke-dust; all the painted work resembles stucco, as the surface of it is raised with particles of coke dust, which must have settled upon it before it was dry; and the sweepings of platform and offices—dust, scraps of paper, envelopes, and such litter—are lying on the road.

Stepping out into Butler Street does not improve his initial impression of the town, ‘And beyond the ruined and neglected entrance is the advance guard of the town, a short street of beershops’. Turning into Fishergate, he does not like the Theatre Royal — ‘the hideous box of a theatre’ – and is dismayed by what he discovers in Winckley Square:

Chapel Street leads to Winckley Square, the garden part of which is large and sloping to a hollow, in which vegetables are cultivated and clothes hung out to dry. This piece of utilitarianism is scarcely called for, and must be an eyesore to the handsome houses at the upper end of the square …

The Corn Exchange, now generally acknowledged as one of Preston’s finest buildings, is witheringly dismissed:

… not a building that strangers need seek to see. It was built in 1832 [actually opened in 1824], and is as ugly as even the level of public taste at that time can account for; having pig shambles at one end, and fishmongers and shrimp dealers at the other. The approaches, in a neighbourhood of bonded warehouses and of a large timber-yard, are scandalously in want of scavenage [by which is meant street cleaning], and all the doorposts are made use of as urinals.

The town hall ‘is a dingy worn-out mansion’, the rear of which is ‘ragged, tasteless, smoky, and dirty.’

So, first impressions not very favourable (although Fishergate Baptist Church and the grouping of the Grammar School and the Literary and Philosophical Institution in Cross Street are singled out for praise). What then is he going to make of the worst that Preston had to show, as described by town’s prison chaplain, the Rev John Clay:

There is in the ‘lowest deep a lower deep;’ and in the ‘districts of the worst kind’ there are certain streets and courts, &c. the worst of the district. These have been most minutely and carefully examined by the agent of the Preston Charitable Society, a person well qualified by his intelligence for the task he has performed. The names of these streets, &c. are Canal-street, Back Canal-street, Hope-street, Holden’s-square, Holden’s-yard, Edward-street, Buckingham-street, Clarence-street, Poplar-street, Willow-street, Queen-street, and Savage’s-court. [3]

In fact, he makes nothing of ‘Preston’s worst’. The only one of Clay’s streets that he visits is Queen Street, and that only in passing. The maps here show how he circles the districts containing those streets without ever arriving in them. Perhaps it was as well he was spared the worst that the town had to offer, for what he did see of the town’s working class districts sickened him, as when he ventured down Friargate:

The rear premises of both sides of Friargate, which is about a mile long, and, starting from the market-place, is in the centre of the town, are horrible masses of corruption and forcing pits for fever. In Fishwick’s Yard there are three vile privies and a crammed offal-pit close to the wretched houses, which, with their broken paved and damp floors, are scarcely fit for human habitation: and the overflowings from slops of another row of houses run down the yard. Four more dreadful pits at the end near a back lane are piled full, and leak across the alley into Friarsgate.

By the end of his first day in town he was clearly in need of some light relief, and so took himself off to the Theatre Royal in the evening (and even then his praise was a little on the thin side):

The audience, composed of factory operatives, occupied the pit and gallery, and brought their babies with them. The performance comprised the ‘Colleen Bawn’ and the ‘Artful Dodger’, with a comic song between the acts … there was but little to find fault with.

Full transcript of the Day One route here


Day Two

Map of Victorian Preston Lancashire UK showing route taken by visiting reporter

The man from The Builder was soon back in town, this time turning left as he left the station and reached Fishergate and heading for the Ribble. And this time finding a more pleasing prospect in ‘rows of suburban streets and terraces of a generally clean and healthy character’, the newly-built Christ Church ‘remarkable for two extremely colossal and massive octagon western towers’. He particularly admires Stanley Terrace, ‘very sunny with terrace gardens set out in a hollow before it’.

On reaching the river, he strikes off ‘along the “pathway by the river,” the walk to which the lads and lasses of Preston may betake themselves of a summer’s evening for air and exercise’ (this reference to summer and to the ‘very sunny’ Stanley Terrace suggest the visits were possibly made some months before the report appeared). This sunny mood is soon dispelled when he comes across an open space which a butcher is using ‘to bury, a few inches beneath the surface, the blood and guts and offal from his slaughter-house!’

He is delighted by St Walburge’s (perhaps remembering that the founder of his magazine was its architect) ‘a magnificent Roman Catholic establishment, containing church, schools, and domestic buildings’. But even here there is disappointment, ‘before the elaborate west end facade of the church of the aforesaid establishment, there is another crater-full of green foecal matter, which … but little doubt represents the drainage of the schools and domestic buildings of the establishment aforesaid’.

He is not delighted when he reaches St. Peter’s School for Girls:

… a tasteless, neglected brick building … where the girls’ privies are so disgusting that the children are reduced to the necessity of using the paved yard, which is accordingly defiled with pools of urine; further, a channel has been actually made to convey these away past the entrance-door. The state of the windows and of the whole of the establishment, too, would be a disgrace to a community of savages.

Full transcript of the Day Two route here


Day Three

Map of Victorian Preston Lancashire UK showing route taken by visiting reporter

The reporter returns to Preston for a third time and sets out to visit the new cemetery at Ribbleton. His route takes him along Church Street, ‘past the fine rebuilt Parish Church, a handsome edifice with a tower and spire, but surrounded by miserable dwellings’. He walks up Grimshaw Street, passing the Independent Chapel, and turns left at Queen Street to reach ‘wide and airy’ London Road. Left again and he reaches New Hall Lane, where, passing the mills and ‘unhealthy houses for the operatives’ and, further on ‘an isolated row of houses in Skeffington Road’, he reaches open fields.

Here New Hall Lane becomes:

… a length of blighted trees, blighted hedges, and foul ditches, on either side of the coal-ash road; cows grazing in fields where there are stagnant pools and the grass is tinged with an unearthly green by the soakage of too much town percolations; more ditches, and more stagnant pools in low-lying fields.

Finally, he reaches the cemetery, where ‘another innovation meets the eye. This is a stagnant pool of drainage from the lodge and retiring place for ladies, cut into a meandering shape to resemble a small lake’. He is, however, pleased by the three chapels for the different denominations, praising the ‘neat little tower’ of the Roman Catholic chapel and the ‘pretty bell-turret to the Dissenter’s Chapel’.

More blighted fields must be crossed to reach the town’s reservoirs:

Our task would not be complete without an examination of the reservoirs. The farm-houses on the route show the infectious nature of the bad example set in the town, as they have ditches full of black foecal matter round them; and one of them has the addition of a lake of the same material close to the door: while Ribbleton Moor, likewise on the route, is undrained and swampy. The reservoirs are in good order, except that there is a weed and a fungus-like leaf growing in all the crevices of the stone bottoms—probably on account of their not having been cleaned of late years.

He then heads back to town, pausing at St Luke’s, ‘a beautiful new church’ with a school to match, where ‘the roads around do their best to spoil the effect of both with their disgraceful negligence.’

It is here that he abruptly and without explanation ends his journey (perhaps he had a train to catch?). He concludes by commenting on the physical condition of the townsfolk who seek to enlist in the army, as the only alternative to entering the factories:

The enlisting sergeant will tell that there are more recruits to be had in Preston than in any other town in the kingdom; but they are so weak with their tea and bread diet that it takes two years to feed them up to be soldiers. Under their present conditions, the men of Preston are old at forty; at forty-five they are ‘auld and done’.

Full transcript of the Day Three route here


[1] The Builder (London, 1861), 833–35, 853–55, http://archive.org/details/gri_33125006201855.
[2] David John Hindle, Life in Victorian Preston (Amberley Publishing, 2014).
[3] First Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring Into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts, vol. 1 (W. Clowes & sons, 1844), 179, https://archive.org/details/b21365179_0001/page/n7.

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