Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: chapter 1.1

Baseline characteristics of Preston about 1825

See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings

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1. Economy and town

Peter Borsay (1) has shown how the characteristics of what he calls an ‘urban renaissance’ in Preston and other towns accumulated between the late 17th and late 18th centuries. This process which increasingly distinguished urban civilisation continued in the early 19th century. But by 1825 Edward Baines was aware of a change of direction:

For many ages Preston took the lead of all the towns of the county, as the resort and residence of persons of birth and polished manners, … A material change has taken place in some of these respects within the last forty years, by the introduction of the manufacturers, and the claims of gentility have been materially abated by the presence of an active and enterprising industry, which has served to place Preston more on a level than it formerly stood with the larger towns of the county. (2)

Baines was puzzled to explain the extension of trade and greatly augmented numbers of people in Preston ‘seeing that Preston is at a distance from the mines which supply the manufactories with fuel’, no other town having been able to flourish under the same disadvantage. The combination of causes which he suggested – ‘the central situation of the town, … the united advantages of river and canal navigations; and … the skill, capital, and enterprise of the principal manufacturers’ gives a convenient framework for a brief description of this very transitional economy and society.

From the evidence in Baines’ Directories alone it is clear that ‘the central situation of the town’ gave it a social and occupational character quite distinct from that of other comparable industrial towns in Lancashire in 1825. Quite simply, it had a much bigger professional and commercial middle class. There were far more lawyers and corn merchants in Preston than in Blackburn, Bolton, Oldham, Rochdale, Warrington or Wigan. The table below gives the figures for these and other occupations which could be expected to have capital or know where to find it.

Table 5. Comparative table of selected middle class occupations in 7 Lancashire industrial towns

Preston Blackburn Bolton Oldham Rochdale Warrington Wigan
Attorneys 55 18 17 5 16 13 15
Barristers 3 0 0 0 0 1 0
Bankers 3 1 3 2 3 3 2
Agents 15 10 0 0 3 0 0
Land Surveyors 6 0 5 2 5 2 3
Corn and flour dealers 49 16 6 4 33 20 10
Corn millers 8 3 0 0 7 7 0
Joiners etc. 39 27 24 18 20 13 9
Total 178 75 55 31 87 59 39

A simple and cruder estimate of the relative strength of the “middle class”, “broadcloth” or “better sort of people” can be obtained by the simple expedient of comparing the length of the lists of “Gentry, Clergy and Manufacturers” in the same Directory.

Table 6.

Town Number of columns of ‘Gentry…’ etc.
Preston 8
Bolton 6
Blackburn 5
Rochdale 4
Warrington 4
Wigan 3
Oldham 2

The numbers alone are important, but so are the social connections which they reveal. As Baines himself observed

the Court of Chancery of the County Palatine, the Court of Common Pleas of the County Palatine, the Court of General Annual Sessions, the Quarter Sessions of the Peace for three hundreds of the county, and the Sheriff’s County Court, are all held here, [and likewise] the Coroner’s Elections, the General Lieutenancy meetings, and all public meetings of the Freeholders and inhabitants of the County… and the elections for Knights of the Shire

and, finally, the Wapentake Court of the hundred of Amounderness for the recovery of small debts. With county society, the legal gentlemen of Preston certainly had plenty of business contacts at least; the extent of their social engagement may be left as a matter of speculation. The same may be said of the extraordinarily large number of corn and flour dealers, but in this case the net stretches also from the Ribble across the Irish Sea. The River Ribble is fated to play its own unhappy part in the story later (see chapter IV) and Baines may be blameworthy for his optimistic reference to “the example of the Clyde” but the significant facts were that in 1824 forty five registered vessels belonged to the Port of Preston, and the trade between Preston and Ireland employed ‘upwards of forty vessels, averaging about seventy tons each’. A bank character book of 1834-7 confirms the strength of merchant connections with Ireland.

Baines was still expecting the Lancaster Canal to be completed by the execution of the final link from Preston to the Leeds- Liverpool canal at Clayton Green, to replace a horse-drawn railway which had been adopted as a temporary expedient because of the prohibitive cost of carrying an aqueduct over the Ribble. I doubt whether the existence of either the Preston to Lancaster canal or the ‘tramroad’ had much effect on the economy or society of the town in 1825. Coal reached Preston more easily by the Douglas Navigation and the Ribble estuary from Wigan than it would have done by canal, but although coal in transit northwards by canal may have made a marginal difference to the number of coal dealers, and was necessary to fuel the score or so of steam engines in the town, it was not yet the vital and indispensable source of energy for the whole economy. There were more corn dealers and millers than cotton spinners and manufacturers in Preston in 1825. Although steam powered cotton factories were well established, with probably sixteen mills in the town (see above), the greatest enterprise of all, Horrockses, already having the yard works and three other mills at work, the commonest experience of the cotton industry for the inhabitants must have been the coming and going of handloom weavers in the streets where manufacturers and corn dealers warehouses were all intermingled, especially in the small streets round the parish church, off Fishergate, and north and east of the Market Place in Lord Street and Back Lane. More in daily evidence were the activities of the markets on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, which were to be found not only in the Market Place, but also in Church Street and in and about Lune Street: here, the Corporation had significantly erected not a Cotton but a Corn Exchange (1822-24), an investment in what would be a relatively declining branch of the local economy but powerful enough in the early 1820s to have been forced on the Corporation by the initiative of merchants who had launched the scheme with a public subscription.

The advanced industrial section of Preston’s economy included in the 1820s a relatively strong and prosperous machine making interest. The 1821 poor rate valuation of premises ‘with steam engines and boilers’ (3) included three machine shops and a foundry, valued respectively at £45, £47, £58 and £83, which may not sound much but should be compared with the valuations of Horrocks’s Frenchwood mill at £150 and Caton and Leach’s mill at £50. Baines listed eight machine makers in 1825; and Thomas Banks, writing in 1888 recalled

Sixty years ago we had several machine shops in our town – Munday’s, Sleddon’s, Grundy’s, and Ainscow and Tomlinson’s – who did a thriving trade for many years up to a certain period, when a great change took place in our cotton spinning … from ‘hand-mule spinning’ to ‘self-acting mules’ … our local machine shops… did not follow up quick enough with the improvements of the day; they were left behind in the race … (4)

The mechanics employed by these men, distinguished by their blackened leather aprons, were to play a collective political role on the Radical side, as ‘the Black Fleet’.

Westall's engraving 'Preston from the North' 1828
Illustration 1. Westall’s engraving ‘Preston from the North’ 1828

In Westall’s engraving of 1828 windmills are more conspicuous than cotton mills. The first railway line would not be constructed until the late 1830s so, whether by canal or turnpike, horses provided the motive power for the fastest travel.

The few places of entertainment and congregation for secular purposes were, so to speak, nucleated, that is, pretty well concentrated in the town centre, which was not difficult as it was so small. Beside or close to the Market Place were the Guild Hall and the Town Hall, the two newsrooms (for gentlemen and for merchants) the Assembly Room in the Bull Hotel, the Cockpit in the yard adjoining, the Library, the Free Grammar School and the National School at the bottom of the lane behind the Bull. West of the town centre were the Theatre (1802) on Fishergate, the Dispensary (1809) almost opposite, the Catholic School in Fox Street, and the Corn Exchange with its Assembly Room at the bottom of Lune Street. Decently removed to the east were the House of Correction, at the end of Church Street, which served the county, and the Workhouse and House of Recovery, both of which were so far from the town centre that they do not appear on Baines’ town plan.

Significant public enterprises were the century-old waterworks which had long ceased to be adequate to the needs of the town, and the Gas Light Company established in 1815, a well-managed enterprise (5) which combined private profit with public service by doing much of its business with the Improvement Commissioners. In the Savings Bank in 1824 lay £20,305 belonging to 549 creditors (the average account of £36 would represent almost a year’s earnings in handloom weaving, and roughly six months of a spinner’s wages), but alternative forms of ‘social security’ were provided by a number of ‘those excellent provident institutions called BENEFIT SOCIETIES’ particularly remarked upon by Baines (for their number and dates see chapter III), and by the Catholic Charitable Society (1731), the Benevolent Society (1812), the Ladies Charity associated with the Dispensary; and finally two small groups of almshouses.

In summary, this was a town with the fabric and institutions appropriate to a small face-to-face community, which was already large and becoming larger. The real or potential divisions within it, at the literate levels of society, were reflected in the publication of two weekly newspapers, the Preston Pilot, a Tory organ, run by Mr. L. Clarke, with an almost rabid attachment to the Established Church, which began its long continuous history in January 1825, and the Preston Chronicle, a Whig-Reformist paper which had been published by Isaac Wilcockson since 1812.

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1. Peter Borsay, ‘The English urban renaissance: the development of provincial urban culture c1680-c1780, Social History 5
2. Edward Baines, History, Directory and Gazeteer of the County Palatine of Lancaster (1825), Vol II p.504. This is the source for all information in this section unless otherwise identified.
3. Lancs C.R. DDPr 140/6.
4. Thomas Banks, A Short Sketch of the Cotton Trade of Preston for the last 67 years (Preston 1888), p.15.
5. B.G. Awty, ‘The Introduction of Gas Lighting to Preston’, Hist. Soc. L. and C. No 125, 1974.

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