Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: chapter 3.1

The Mighty Cataract and the Webs of Influence

1. The Mighty Cataract and the Webs of Influence

… the seeds of dissatisfaction… if suffered to ripen into rebellion, will bear down, like a mighty cataract, all opposition, and fill our country with ruin and desolation (1).

This apocalyptic prediction was made not by Joseph Mitchell during the reform agitation, but by one of a number of correspondents to the Preston Chronicle on the subject of the condition of the poor in 1829. Metaphors of elemental disaster were reiterated in the language of some of Preston’s social leaders during the 1830s and 1840s. The vicar of Preston, John Owen Parr, at the annual meeting of the National Society in Preston in 1844:

What we had to fear in this town, was a mass of uncultivated mind, of corruption and demoralisation, which, unless checked by education and religion, were ready to burst forth with a torrent’s might, and spread violence and devastation… as soon as ever the provocation and temptation were supplied (2).

James German at the foundation of All Saints Church in 1848:

… their efforts should be doubled (now that) they had gained the vantage ground, and when we (sic) could now overthrow the torrent of vice and ignorance (3).

Parr’s predecessory as vicar, Roger Carus Wilson had used more moderate language at the foundation of Christ Church in 1835, but his concern arose from the same source: the district west of the canal had sprung up since he became vicar in 1817, there were now ‘eleven manufactories’ there, and the population had increased tenfold –

Think of the misery which must ensue when the salutary restraints and consolations of religion are removed… (the) unbridled passions and uncurbed selfishness of our nature'(4).

John Rigg, vicar of St Paul’s, ‘a true shepherd of souls’, wrote to the National Society in 1829 begging for help in building Sunday Schools:

my church is situated in a district containing five manufactories… this circumstance induces the poor that have large young families to come and reside in the neighbourhood… this will show you what prodigious numbers of little folks we must have… The people are more barbarous and uncivilised than it is possible for anyone to conceive who has not been amongst them. (5).

Although most of these quotations are from contexts in which special pleading is likely, the attitudes expressed are quite credible in the period of most rapid growth of the population of the town. They express fear. The same is true of a letter in the Chronicle in 1841, drawing the attention of the police to

the groups of idle and disorderly characters that assemble almost every Sunday afternoon in… Shepherd Street, for the purpose of insulting and annoying every decently clad and respectable looking person who may happen to be passing by…

On a Sabbath day ‘great numbers’ passed through this street on their way to ‘their respective places of worship, and the insults they invariably receive are intolerable’ (6). In 1838 a member of the Council, R.W. Hopkins, ‘did not consider the present watching of the town… to be sufficient’, quoting a case of robbery in Winckley Square at the time of divine service on a Sunday.

Disorder might reach the proportions of riot, as it did in the elections of 1832 and 1835 (see chapter VI), and with less control and more basic ferocity where the Irish were involved: as victims of

shameful destruction… that territory of the town known by the name of ‘New England’ presents a most wretched and devastated appearance’ (7),

or as agents in the fighting among railway navvies in July 1839 (8) and May 1840 (9).

Opposite opinions were of course expressed. Peter Haydock thought the police force of ten ‘sufficient’ in 1838 (10), though his judgment was self-interested; and in 1839 the Chartist scare elicited from councillor James Park, who ‘thought it very necessary to be prepared for an extraordinary outbreak’ the opinion that in Preston

where there was one Chartist, – one of those persons prepared to injure persons and property, there were twenty of the working classes who would stand forward in defence of both. The advocates of violence in Preston were very few and insignificant’ (11).

Nevertheless, the expression of social attitudes reached its ultimate extreme on 13th August 1842 when a ‘plug plot’ mob began to stone the magistrates, and on the mayor’s order the military shot into the crowd, causing the deaths of two people (see below, p.146). According to Robert Townley Parker, offering congratulations at the mayor’s dinner on the peaceful survival of ‘a period of great public danger’ in 1848, at the time of the ‘outrages’ of 1842

Preston… was only spared from conflagration by the exertion and energy of the then chief magistrate’ (12).

Quite apart from particular conflicts, the ‘respectables’ or elite of Preston were obviously extremely frightened by elemental social forces beneath them.

Their reactions to this fear must have been determined by its origin and nature. Their language suggests that as well as rational anxiety that parliamentary representation might be torn from the hands of those whose property, whether in government credits, land, or industry, might be subject to legislative interference, or that direct mob action or indirect trade union activity would either destroy invested capital or erode working capital, they were suffering irrational anxieties associated with the pace and scale of the tom’s growth.

First, the flood of people: behaviour appropriate to a small 18th century community must-have been confusingly inappropriate in a town of forty or fifty thousand. Sartorial display of wealth or rank caused derision rather than deference. Fellow townsmen could not normally be known by name, without the aid of some sort of institutional selection, whether at work, worship or recreation. Secondly, the very large number of migrants brought unfamiliar cultures with them, not only the Irish and the Scots, but also the larger numbers from the Lake counties and outlying rural villages which were dialectically distinct. There must have been strong social and psychological pressures either to preserve an established cultural identity (native Anglican or Catholic, and Irish Catholic, for example) or to establish an alternative or provisional identity, through neighbourhood, religious sect, Friendly Society, ‘political’ loyalty, or a judicious combination of them: hence Bryce’s later observation that ‘political feeling runs very high… and… converts things indifferent into the grounds of quarrel’ (13).

Third, there was the increasing difficulty of regarding the poor as brethren: there were so many more of them, they were poorer, especially handloom weavers, they were exiled by residence (‘streets have crept out… forming new and populous districts’), and work (‘ our townsmen whose evocations require much of their attention within doors’ (14)), and their habits and pastimes were alien to ‘the broadcloth’. Finally, it is possible that the most fundamental of the underlying fears was of the hostility psychologically projected onto the victims of extreme economic inequality.

The nature of these anxieties, their connection with some social institutions, and uncertainty about the proper response of local leadership, were beautifully expressed in an exchange of letters published in the Chronicle in 1829. Its origin was the fear of violence. On 16th May ‘Gaius’, observing the ‘recent outrages’ in the manufacturing districts was thankful that in Preston ‘the social bond has not been broken’. This mercy he attributed to judicious local administration and the spirit of mutual benevolence, but suggested that further security would be gained if the various benevolent associations – the Dispensary, the Lying in Charity, the Clothing Charity and the Samaritan Society, all excellent but limited in scope – acted in concert through ‘an institution for bettering the condition of the poor’, which would help them in finding jobs, obtaining relief, and managing their domestic economy (15). This suggestion appalled ‘An Englishman’ who regarded the proposed institution as

a sort of self-elected poverty police… which would furnish the interested with data to calculate the least possible charge at which human beings could possibly be kept alive… (and) debase the labouring classes.

The charitable institutions and ‘soup committees’ were mere expedients; they should make ‘corresponding exertions to remove the causes of our evils’, by which he implied the burden of taxes, especially the Corn Law, and then ‘the old institutions of society’ and the poor laws would be sufficient. He ‘would not break in upon the wholesome existence of ranks and orders, and mutual dependencies, … nor sever those cords which bind society together‘ (16) (- the new wine of laissez-faire in the old social bottle.)

Other contributors joined, pointing out the advantages of door to door visiting and the example of the Liverpool Select Vestry which practised it, or accusing the ‘Englishman’ of being ‘cold hearted’, but it was ‘Lucius’ who identified the problem as one of social class:

None (of the present evils) bears a more dismal aspect or threatens to be more destructive… than that erroneous notion which has ingratiated itself into the minds of the higher orders of society, that they maintain their dignity only in proportion as they keep themselves distinct and separate from their inferiors… The wide breach which this notion has occasioned between masters and their servants is most conspicuous in the manufacturing department… The conduct of the masters in keeping themselves at what is commonly termed a “respectable distance” is at this time especially highly impolitic (17).

His prediction of the consequences is quoted at the start of this chapter.

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1. P.C. 13 June 1829 (my emphasis).
2. P.C. 10 February 1844 (my emphasis).
3. P.C. 4 November 1848 (my emphasis).
4. Pilot 15 August 1835.
5. National Society Letter Files (hereafter NSLF), Preston St. Paul’s 13 May 1829.
6. P.C. 4 September 1841. Compare ‘Atticus’ on the district of St. Augustine’s in.1870 (Introduction 4b).
7. P.C. 29 July 1637.
8. Lancs CRO CBP Watch Committee Minute Book, 29 July 1939 and P.C. 3 August 1839.
9. P.C. 3 August 1840.
10. P.C. 4 September 1841.
11. P.C. 3 August 1839 (my emphasis).
12. P.G. 23 September 1848.
13. See Introduction 4a
14. P.C. 27 February 1836.
15. P.C. 16 May 1829.
16. P.C. 23 May 1829.
17. P.C. 13 June 1629.

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