Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: chapter 4.2

Reform of the Old Corporation

See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings

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2. Composition of the Council 1836-60

The reform had not in fact made much difference to the social and occupational composition of the Corporation as a whole. Sixteen of the members were cotton or flax employers, ten were professionals (mostly lawyers) and sixteen were merchants or retailers. The power of the great cotton lords to control the potential radicalism of Fishwick was obvious: Samuel Horrocks sen., Samuel Horrocks jun., Thomas Miller, and Charles and John Swainson had won while in St. Peter’s, although William Taylor and Thomas German, both big men, had been elected, three other textile employers – all cotton spinners – had been beaten.

It took only one cycle (i.e. three years) of conciliar retirements and elections to remove most of the ‘leprous spots’. After the elections of November 1839 the Council contained 42 Tories, 5 Liberals and no Radicals. The balance of power changed very little thereafter (see below) (36).

I deal with such aspects of municipal electioneering as are relevant to the relationship between the community and its civic leaders below. The occupational and political analysis of ward representation from 1836 to 1860 I have condensed, for the sake of brevity and clarity, into Figure 9 below, and of the Council as a whole in the table following. Taking first the Council as a whole, it is fairly clear that up to 1860 it contained a very substantial proportion of millowners and professionals throughout, reaching a maximum of 36, or three quarters of the whole Council, in 1845, but falling off in favour of merchants and retailers after 1853, which appears to have been a turning point though they remained in the majority in 1860. They were still so in 1870, although by that time Hewitson observed that the Council contained both ‘more practical and more mediocre… more sterling and more stupid elements than formerly’. The lawyer Paul Catterall, he wrote, was ‘inclined to think, with most folk, that there is precious little honour in being a member of the Council as it is at present constituted’ (38). If a consequence of enlarging the electorate was a decline in the social and economic importance of its municipal representation (39), this-effect was scarcely noticeable in Preston before 1860.

Table showing occupational and political analysis of Councillors and Aldermen 1835-60

Note on classifications
Textile employers: cotton spinners and manufacturers, and flax spinners.
Professionals: lawyers (majority) bankers, surgeons, surveyors and, from time to time, the proprietors of the Preston Chronicle and the Preston Guardian.
Merchants and retailers: corn, timber, iron or coal merchants, drapers, grocers, druggists, tobacco manufacturers and tobacconists, drink trade.
Others: machine makers, spindle makers, broker, manager, plumber and ‘gentlemen’ whose occupations were not identified.

Table showing occupational composition of Preston Council by wards 1836-60

The representation of the wards, shown diagrammatically in the chart, makes clear the very marked differences between certain wards, and locates geographically the influence of the different ‘interests’ within the town. The cottonocracy dominated Fishwick (with some professional allies) and St. Peter’s (without them), and shared St. George’s with professionals and traders. This last ward included Friargate and the group of mills near the canal, at the top of Marsh Lane, Paleys in particular. Christ Church was just as clearly the professionals’ ward: it included Winckley Square and the rich houses of Fishergate Hill and West Cliff. Trinity, which included the market place and the north side of Church Street, was the ward of trade and shopkeeping, shared with professionals. St. John’s, the smallest and most central, was occupationally mixed, owing its cotton representation to the Horrocks and Jacson’s mill in Avenham Street.

The chart also demonstrates some chronological patterns. In the early years ‘native’ millowning Conservatives pushed ‘foreign’ shopkeeping Radicals out of St. Peter’s seats, and in their turn were supplanted by rising Liberal millowners. Then in the 1850s the relative political strength of the mainly Conservative millowners of Fishwick (Swainson and Birley in particular, the ‘free trader’ Liberal Thomas Miller, though economically by far the most powerful, reputedly declining to use his employer influence in elections) and of the mill owners of St. Peter’s and St. George’s becomes clear. St. George’s cotton men could, but St. Peter’s and Fishwick could not, defend themselves against the reaction of 1853 (see below p.206). I am not sure why this should have been so.

The changing political balance in the Council is shown in the graph below.

Figure showing changing political balance in Preston Council 1836-60

Four periods in this curve need to be explained. First, was a difference between the liberalism of the late 1830s and the Liberalism of the late 1840s. The minority elected in1836 represented the shopkeeping members of the Reform agitation of 1830-32, while the Liberals elected from 1845 to 1849 were mostly millowners associated with the Anti Corn Law League. Thomas Miller (jun.) who inherited Horrocks Miller and Co., from his father in 1840, was joined in Fishwick ward by Henry Miller (?brother) and by William Ainsworth, another League member, in 1845; between them they employed 2,800 operatives in 1847. St. Peter’s ward likewise fell under the influence of four League Liberals, all of whom played a very active part in the political life of the town. One, John Catterall, probably a brother of Paul Catterall, of Park Lane mills (employing 750 in 1847), was converted to Liberalism between 1847 and 1852 (40). The other three had all worked their way up from handloom manufacturing and built or acquired mills along the line of the Moor Brook. John Hawkins, a cambric manufacturer in Back Lane in 1825 (41) was building Greenbank Mill in 1836 (42) and employed 500 there in 1847. George Smith, a calico manufacturer in Leeming Street in 1825 and 1834 (43), acquired Moor Brook Mill after the death of Richard Crankshaw in 1843, and employed 200 there in 1847; he was sharp and dogged in pursuit of the liberal ideals of improvement and economy but brought the blessing of laughter to Town Hall meetings (see chapter V). Finally, John Goodair, son of a once prosperous London cloth merchant who came to grief in Chorley, had begun as a warper there when he was 13 years old, became a manager to a Preston manufacturer about 1830, trudging on foot to the country weavers, set up on his own account ‘as a handloom manufacturer’ in 1836, and entered the ranks of the millowners when he built his first weaving shed in Brookfield in 1843. He employed 500 in 1847. ‘Since then he has become the possessor of two or three other manufacturing establishments in Preston … is today (1870) one of the largest manufacturers in Preston’ (44). Hewitson wrote that he ‘has often had charge of both the compass and the rudder of our municipality’ (45), and I agree (see chapter V).

The other Liberal additions of the 1840s were two lawyers and a Catholic timber merchant and cotton manufacturer, George Corry. Both the lawyers were to be important in Preston’s history in the mid-19th century as the cotton men described above. Robert Ascroft, an attorney who had figured briefly in the reform agitation of 1832, and James German, a barrister, who was only in his twenties when elected in 1846, together with Smith, Goodair and Catterall, were the leaders of a vigorous and successful campaign to reform corporate efficiency (see chapter V). Resigning his elected place Ascroft was appointed Town Clerk in 1852, and if not the first of the reformed Corporation’s officials in point of time, was certainly the first and possibly the greatest in efficiency and influence. ‘Not a cuter, not a more far-seeing, not a more strategical man is there in Preston’ (46). His quick and busy hand in Council minute books gives the same impression. James German’s mark on history was brief and, in the classical sense, tragic. None made a more powerful impact on the town so young or so quickly after his election: crime, dirt, disease, debt, he attacked them all with indefatigable zest and won (up to the limits of the age). He was elected mayor in 1849. But, contesting the parliamentary election of 1852, he wrecked the Preston Liberal Party (see chapter VI); and resigned from the Council in 1853.

The elections of this handful of Liberal councillors in 1845-47 were probably the most important in my period in the town’s 19th century history.

The shrinkage of municipal liberalism in the early 1850s (the third phase of the graph above) therefore needs explanation. It was caused by a combination of circumstances which I deal with in greater detail below: spontaneous reaction against ‘the cottonocracy’ aggravated by the Great Strike and Lockout of 1853-4, and by a further reaction of ratepayers to local Board spending after the enlargement of the, municipal electorate in 1853.

The last phase of the graph shows a Liberal recovery. This was not as simple as it looks. Only three of the ten Liberals elected after 1855 were cotton men. But in this-period there seems to have been a deliberate tactical use of aldermanic elections to minimise the potential influence of Liberals. For seven years from 1852 St. Peter’s ward for example was represented not by the eight members its burgesses were theoretically entitled to elect but by seven, and, for four years, only six; vacancies for aldermen were filled by men from Fishwick. In this ward (Fishwick) the only Liberal millowner was Alderman Thomas Miller, but his political influence in the Council was smothered by the four Conservative aldermen who had been elected as councillors for the ward. This is clearly shown in the chart above.

The reason for the difference of political colour between Fishwick’s and St. Peter’s’ representation probably derives from the very different social background of its principal millowners, after Horrocks Miller and Co. The Horrockses’ and Millers’ fortunes were founded in Preston, they had the greatest possible interest in ‘the imperialism of free trade’, and Thomas Miller jun. was politically identified with Preston’s Liberal imperialist MP the London merchant C.P. Grenfell (see chapter VI). But the Swainsons and the Birleys of Fishwick, partners in the Big Factory ‘an immense concern, reminding one, with its contiguous buildings, more of a cotton manufacturing colony than of a single establishment’ (47), were an intermarried clan: the Birleys were Kirkham landowners whose position was derived from flax spinning, sailmaking and the West India trade of the 18th century (48). William Birley (elected in 1847) was brother-in-law of Charles Swainson (elected in 1850) and Edmund Birley, William’s son (elected in 1855), whose rank and dignity almost terrified Hewitson in 1870, entered the partnership in 1842. The family network extended into Trinity ward, because Richard Pedder, a member of the banking family though himself a tobacco manufacturer, married Edmund’s sister Mary in 1849; and Charles Swainson jun. was elected councillor for that ward in 1860. It would be interesting to know how George Smith, John Hawking and John Goodair thought of these established local lords while they were foot-slogging their hand weaving business up to mill ownership in the 1830s and 1840s.

36. The balance was the same in 1870.
37. Sources: Corp. Procs. 1835-1860 passim; pollbooks 1835, 1837, 1841, 1852, 1857, 1859; poll list 1847 in P.G. 14 Aug 1847; political identity derived from most proximate election(s) to each municipal year, or from a sequence, classifying any vote for conservative as Conservative, regardless of splits. Those not identified (3 at most) not included in conservative totals.
38. Atticus op. cit. pp.9 and 93.
39. Hennock (1973) passin.
40. Census enumerators returns 1851; poll list 1847 (see note 37); pollbook 1852.
41. Baines (1829) op. cit.
42. P.C. 27 Feb 1836.
43. Baines op. cit.; Pigot Directory 1834.
44. Atticus op. cit. 1870 p.28.
45, ibid p.29.
46. ibid pp.122-3.
47. ibidpp.43-4.
48. D. Foster ‘The Social Composition of the Lancashire Magistracy 1820-1850’ unpublished PhD thesis University of Lancaster (1971); Atticus loc. cit.; E. Walford The County Families of the United Kingdom (1891).

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