Preston’s proud new face in 1881

When The Builder magazine sent its journalist to report on Preston in 1861 as part of a series titled ‘Condition of Our Towns’, he produced two lengthy articles which were scathing in their condemnation of the filthy conditions in which the town’s inhabitants were forced to live. In 1881 the magazine sent another journalist to report on the town, and what a difference two decades had made. In 1861 the magazine came to condemn the town, in 1881 it came to celebrate its progress. All the illustrations here are taken from the Preston Digital Archive curated by Barney Smith: visit his vast site for many more images of the buildings featured, as well as scores more street views of the town at this period.

The 1861 articles can be found here: A disturbing view of Victorian Preston. The 1881 article follows


Amongst the Lancashire towns, whose material advancement within the last few years is indicated by the public buildings which have been erected and are in progress, Preston claims notice, more especially so at the present moment when preparations, architectural and otherwise, are already being made for the exceptionally historic festival, held every twenty years, which is intended to be celebrated in 1882. In anticipation of the coming celebration several undertakings of a constructive character are now being carried out.


The Public Hall, Preston 1908
The Public Hall, Preston 1908. Photograph taken during a meeting of the Preston Masonic Lodge. Source: Barney Smith’s Preston Digital Archive

Corn Exchange and Public Hall

The Corn Exchange, which was erected in 1824, and which, with the several spacious rooms in connexion with it, has for many years past been utilised for public meetings and entertainments, is at present entirely in course of reconstruction, and being converted into a large public hall.

The external walls only remain, the building internally being completely transformed and greatly increased in height, whilst westward it is being considerably extended by the erection of an entirely new block, containing a range of several apartments in connexion with the general public purposes to which it is in future to be applied. The building, when completed, will be 230 ft. in length by 95 ft. in width, covering a ground area of nearly 22,000 superficial feet.

The principal entrance to the interior of the building will be on the east side, leading into a circular vestibule 17 ft. in diameter. Through the vestibule a spacious entrance-hall, 34 ft. by 28 ft, is reached, having on each side several retiring rooms and lavatories. From this entrance-hall the large hall on the ground-floor is approached. It is 147 ft. in length by 63 ft. in width, having a promenade on the north and south sides 16 ft. in width each, which can be either added to or partitioned off the main body of the hall at any time, by means of revolving shutters. The full width of the hall and promenades will thus be 95 ft.

When used for meetings, concerts, or other similar purposes, it is estimated to seat an audience of 1,500 persons, for whom seven exits will be provided. At the west end of the hall there will be an orchestra, 44 ft. in width by 36 ft. in depth, designed with special regard to orchestral performances, and having accommodation for 300 performers.

At the rear of the orchestra there will be a spacious organ-chamber, for which a powerful organ is now being erected by Mr. Wilkinson, of Kendal, at a cost of £3,000. The instrument is the gift of a Preston merchant. The front of the organ-chamber will be an important feature in the work, having ornamental pilasters, with elaborate capitals and spandrels, with enriched plasterwork, modelled from special designs of the architect.

In the new portion of the building, at the west end behind the orchestra, there will be ladies’ and gentlemen’s retiring and waiting rooms on the ground and first floors, with kitchens, heating apparatus, and storage rooms in the basement. The entrance for the band and principals, on musical occasions, will be from the waiting-rooms on the ground-floor, whilst the entrance for the chorus will be on each side of the organ-chamber, from the waiting-room on the first floor.

Above the promenades galleries will be carried along the north and south sides, and also at the east end opposite the orchestra, the last-named gallery being circular on plan. Behind this gallery there will be a balcony or promenade, 8 ft. in width. The galleries and balcony are estimated to hold an audience of 1,500 persons, and will have four separate entrances and exits.

The fronts to the galleries will have a handsome brass railing, with wrought-iron scroll-work between iron columns 14 ft. apart, with ornamental enriched capitals which spring from circular arches. Above these runs an enriched plaster frieze and cornice, surmounted by a cove to the underside of the ceiling, the latter being perforated by a series of circular lights. The hall will be heated by hot water, and lighted by three sun-burners in the ceiling, each having a large extracting-shaft for carrying off the vitiated air. The first floor over the principal entrance at the east end contains a spacious assembly-room, 102 ft. in length, and 45 ft. in width.

The architect is Mr. Sykes (of the firm of Messrs. Garlick, Park, & Sykes), of Preston, and the contractor Mr. R. Saul, also of Preston. The estimated cost of the building, exclusive of the organ and fittings, is £10,000.


The Harris Free Public Library and Museum, Preston
Engraving c. 1890. Source: Barney Smith’s Preston Digital Archive

Harris Free Public Library and Museum

The Free Library, Museum, and Art Gallery new buildings, to be erected at a cost of £60,000, part of the fund bequeathed to the trustees for that purpose by the late Mr. Edmund Harris, a well-known townsman, are about to be proceeded with, and it is confidently expected that the Prince of Wales will lay the foundation stone of the building during the guild week next year.

Active preparations are now being made for commencing the undertaking. The corporation have agreed to provide a site for the building, at an estimated cost of £30,000, and an Act of Parliament having been obtained for the purpose, the site will shortly be cleared. The structure will occupy a ground area of about 26,000 superficial feet, and will have four distinct frontages, being completely isolated from the neighbouring buildings.

The principal frontage,—130 ft. in length,—will be on the east side of the Market Place, being the west front, and forming a fit architectural companion to the north elevation of the late Sir Gilbert Scott’s noble Gothic production, the Town Hall, completed and opened a few years ago. There will likewise be a frontage on the east side, of similar length, facing Lancaster-road, a fine thoroughfare of upwards of 50 ft. in width, which has been opened out within the last few years.

The north and south frontages will each be 160 ft. in length, facing two proposed new streets, of 50 ft. in width, which are about to be constructed by the corporation, under a comprehensive street improvement undertaking, intended to be carried out in connexion with the erection of the Free Library buildings.

The designs for the buildings have not yet been prepared, and we are therefore not in a position to state what style of architecture will be adopted, but in anticipation of the foundation-stone being laid in September next, by the Prince of Wales, as above stated, we understand that the plans will very shortly be in the hands of the Harris trustees, at whose expense the building is to be erected.

It is said that there is a strong probability of the designs being entrusted to Mr. James Hibbert, a local architect, who has taken a deep interest in the undertaking, and who has already erected many of the public buildings in the town. This probability receives force from an article on the subject which recently appeared in the leading columns of the Preston Guardian, and from which we make the following extract :  —

We are getting an admirable new Mayor, but we are also parting with a not less able and worthy retiring Mayor. In Alderman Hibbert we have a member of the Council who brings to all he has to do untiring zeal, inflexible straightforwardness, and the highest intelligence. The office of Mayor has lost nothing of its honourable tradition while in his keeping. He has served the Corporation well in every department of its business, but his exertions in connexion with the Free Library deserve especial commendation.
His ‘Notes on Free Public Libraries and Museums,’ privately circulated in pamphlet form, have been sought after by many promoters of such institutions, and are proof of his great industry and ability.
In order to procure the materials, and to make himself fully familiar with all the systems of working public libraries, he visited most, if not all, the principal libraries in the kingdom; and we believe he has mastered the conditions requisite for the planning and structural form of a perfect ,building for library and museum purposes more thoroughly than any other man within reach.
During his year of office he has seized every opportunity to further the interests of the Preston Free Public Library. We trust that his restoration to health, and freedom from the cares of office, will permit him to devote himself in the succeeding years to the superintendence of the erection of a building which shall be at once a stately and splendid memorial of the Harris family, and one so skilfully adapted for its intended uses that the utmost degree of benefit from the liberality of Mr. Harris may be reaped by many future generations of citizens of the ancient borough of Preston.

The structure will include lending and reference libraries, a reading and news room, together with a museum and art galleries. It is intended that when the building is completed and opened, the cost of its care and maintenance shall be defrayed by the corporation.


County Hall, Fishergate, Preston 1894
‘County Hall, Fishergate, Preston 1894. County Hall was about two years old when this photograph was taken. Of interest are buildings seen on the east side of Pitt Street. These included Harding’s Livery Stables and the North Western Hotel. These properties were demolished when the railway bridge was extended c.1902.’ Source: Barney Smith’s Preston Digital Archive

County Hall

On a site on the north side of Fishergate (the principal thoroughfare in the town), covering an area of 32,000 superficial feet, which has been acquired at a cost of a little more than £5,000, a very extensive block of buildings has for some time past been in course of erection, which are intended for the constabulary and all other business purposes belonging to the county, Preston being the centre where all executive business connected with the Palatinate is transacted.

The buildings, which have a frontage to Fishergate, nearly opposite the railway-station, of 160 ft. in length, with a return frontage on the east side, in Pitt-street, of 200 ft., are 54 ft. in height, and contain three floors, besides the basement. They are faced with red brick and Minera stone, from the Welsh quarries near Wrexham. The principal elevation is that in Fishergate.

The several floors contain ranges of three-light mullion windows, and the frontage is surmounted by nine ornamental gables, enriched by a free introduction of sculpture which includes the arms of the county palatine on shields, the ‘red rose of Lancashire,’ and the Prince of Wales’s feathers.

There are three projecting entrances, massive cantilevers supporting elaborately-carved canopies. The Pitt street frontage is, in its main features, uniform with the Fishergate elevation, with an entrance principally for the magistrates, at the north end. The eastern portion of the buildings contains the offices belonging to the clerk of the peace’s department, the treasurer, and the auditor, together with a spacious apartment for the meetings of the magistrates of the county, another large apartment for the storage of the county records, the magistrates’ dining-room, and other apartments; whilst the western portion of the blook is set apart for the business connected with the county constabulary.

This last-named part of the buildings is already completed and occupied, and the other portion is expected to be finished about June next, the interior works being now in progress.

Within the building there is an open area from the basement to the top, faced with white enamelled bricks. The basement contains kitchens, stores, and several apartments for the sergeants and other members of the constabulary force. On the ground-floor a corridor, 6ft. in width, and extending the entire depth of the building, from the Fishergate frontage, gives access to the various offices. The floor of the corridor is laid with polished concrete marble, manufactured in Germany, and the walls are faced with a dado in white and grey enamelled tiles. The offices of the clerk of the peace, the deputy clerk of the peace, and the several clerks’ offices, are on this floor, as also the record-room, the magistrates’ dining-room, and stationery-room.

A spacious stone staircase, approached from the Pitt-street entrance, leads to the court-room on the first-floor, in which the annual meeting and other meetings of the magistrates of the county will be held. The size of this room is 63 ft. by 45 ft., and its height from the floor to the apex of an ornamental lantern-light 45 ft. The lantern-light is glazed with embossed coloured glass. Its dimensions are 44 ft. by 16 ft.

The offices of the county auditor, the treasurer, the bridgemaster, and those of their subordinates, are also on this floor, along which there are corridors, uniform with those on the ground-floor, and similarly paved with polished concrete. An octagonal staircase, in Hopton Wood stone, from the Derbyshire quarries, having Dalbeattie polished granite columns at the foot, leads to the several offices in the upper parts of the building. The second floor contains what are designated spare rooms. All the record-rooms, which will contain documents of great value, are fireproof.

Mr. Littler. of Manchester, is the architect, and Mr. John Walmsley, of Preston, the contractor. Mr. W. Fox is clerk of the works. The sculpture work is by Mr. Miles, who executed similar work at the Town Hall. The estimated cost of the entire building is £50,000.


Preston Railway Station c.1910.
Preston Railway Station c.1910. Sepia postcard RP-PPC by SWJ No 269. Source: Barney Smith’s Preston Digital Archive

The new Preston Railway Station

The new station, the joint property of the London and North-Western and Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Companies, which is said to be the longest roadside station in England, although recently opened for traffic, is still incomplete, and at present, is being further extended in width in a westerly direction. Some conception of the enormous dimensions of this station may be formed when it is stated that its entire length, from the approach in Fishergate to the southern extremity of the platforms, is 1,800ft, or one-third of a mile. The two central or island platforms, as they are called, are themselves 1,360 ft. long, or upwards of a quarter of a mile in length each, and 50 ft. in width.

Between these two platforms there are three blocks of buildings 40 ft. in width, and carried to a length of upwards of 600 ft. The north block contains four spacious waiting-rooms, 40ft. by 30ft. each, and unusually lofty, together with the station-master’s office. The central block contains the first and second class refreshment-rooms, 100 ft. in length; and also the grand dining-saloon, 70 ft. long, and capable of seating 300 persons.

The express trains between London and Edinburgh and Glasgow stop twenty minutes at Preston for dinner.

Both the refreshment rooms and dining saloon are luxuriously fitted and furnished, and the floors are laid with ornamental encaustic tiles. The south block contains another general waiting-room, as the same dimensions as those already named; together with what are designated re-booking offices, or auxiliary booking-offices, in addition to the principal booking-offices at the entrance to the station.

Also telegraph offices, transfer, parcel, and other spacious offices which are occupied by Messrs. W. S. Smith & Sons. In addition to these, there are also the buildings, with booking-offices, waiting-rooms, and platforms on the east side of the station, which are specially set apart for the traffic of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Company.

The station, when completed on the west side, will be about 400 ft. in width. There are at present twelve lines of rails, and the station is covered in to the entire length of the platforms with a light iron girder-roof in three bays.


Park Hotel, Preston
Park Hotel, Preston. Tinted postcard. Lochinvar N&C. Source: Barney Smith’s Preston Digital Archive

The Park Hotel

A short distance to the south of the station, on a high level, very considerably above the railway, the company are erecting a large hotel, an illustration of which has already appeared in the Builder. The building, which is in red brick, is almost externally completed, with the exception of a prominent tower, now in progress.

The site of the hotel is on the summit of a beautifully laid out park, which slopes down to the margin of the river Ribble, and from which there is a commanding and extensive view of the valley beneath, and of the surrounding country for many miles in the distance. On the east side is the lofty eminence called Hoghton Tower, which has an interesting place in history as having been visited by James I.; the Rivington Hills; and other places inland, extending to the borders of Yorkshire; whilst on the west side the winding course of the Ribble is discernible down to its mouth, between Lytham and Southport.

The hotel is intended to be approached from the railway platforms by an ornamental bridge thrown over the line leading to garden grounds, which are about to be formed on land between the railway and the hotel, at present covered by warehouses and sheds.


West Lancashire Railway Bridge, Preston c. 1900
‘West Lancashire Railway Bridge, Preston c. 1900. The old Penwortham bridge can be seen beyond the railway bridge.’ Source: Barney Smith’s Preston Digital Archive

The West Lancashire Railway

The West Lancashire Railway, a new line between Preston and Southport, is at present in course of construction. A section of the line, about eight miles in extent, from Southport to Hesketh Bank, in the direction of Preston, has already been completed and opened, and the works on the remaining portion to the Preston terminus have for some time past been in progress.

The heaviest portion of the work is that part of the line which is carried over the valley of the Ribble by an embankment, and thence across the Ribble itself by an iron girder bridge of five spans, and in continuation to the intended station at Preston, on a stone viaduct of twelve arches. The bridge is 320 ft. in length, the central span being 64 ft., and the other spans about 51 ft. each.

The girders will rest on stone piers, for the construction of which coffer-dams have been made, but the contractors have met with considerable difficulties in consequence of the coffer-dams having been swept away on three occasions by storms and floods. Owing to a project on the part of the Ribble Navigation Company for lowering the bed of the river, the contractors have been compelled to excavate from shore to shore, to a depth of 10 ft. down to the solid rock, and this has increased their difficulties. One of the piers is already in position, and coffer-dams for the others are being constructed. Several of the arches of the viaduct on the Preston side of the river are already completed, and it is expected that the line will be finished and ready for opening during next summer.

The engineers of the line are Messrs. Brunlees & Fox, and Messrs. Braddock & Matthews, of Southport, are the contractors.


Gas Company Offices, Fishergate, Preston
‘Gas Company Offices, Fishergate, Preston. From a drawing dated 1877.’ Source: Barney Smith’s Preston Digital Archive

Other buildings

Several buildings of a public character have been erected in the town within the last few years, notably in Fishergate, where the street architecture of that locality has undergone great improvements. Amongst other structures may be enumerated the Lancaster Banking Company’s premises, the Preston Banking Company’s buildings, the new Post Office, the Preston Gas Company’s Offices, a fine Gothic structure, both externally and internally; the Reform Club, the Conservative Club, and the refacing of the theatre. The Manchester and County Banking Company are also about to erect new bank premises in Church-street, opposite the Town-hall.

It may be added that the town is rapidly expanding in several directions, more especially northwards and north-westward, on the banks of the Ribble, where building is actively going forward. The population of the town, which in 1871 was 84,000, has within the last decade increased to 94,000.

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