Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: Conclusion


See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings

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The most important of the conclusions derived from this work and its greatest weakness, is that the life of a community is a seamless garment. Understanding the parts of it – past, present, or future – depends on familiarity with the whole. That only raises the obvious question: what is the whole? ‘In origin this work began as the history of a single firm’ wrote Farnie in his preface to The English Cotton Industry and the World Market; and he continued: ‘the industry’s most significant product may well have been neither yarn nor cloth but the factory communities of Cottonia’ (1). In origin this thesis began as part of the history of the English Martyrs Catholic Church in Preston, at the request of the Rector, which in its turn drew my attention to a Catholic attack on an Orange procession, and thence to my ignorance of the nature of the community in which it occurred. But ‘community’ itself begs a question. Although the existence of such an entity has been an implicit assumption throughout, it is a word which cannot be used in the singular, and despite the visual appearance of the geographical identity of a town, represents at best a working overlap of innumerable circles of widely different radius. Joseph Livesey tramped from Walton le Dale to Bolton and back to court his future wife; John Addison encouraged the extension of Avenham Walks because of the examples he had seen in Germany; and Thomas Miller conducted some of his correspondence with James German in 1852 from his London office in Bread Street, and was surprised to learn that he had been appointed chairman of Grenfell’s committee while he was in Paris. In Anglican eyes the Catholics were either Roman or Irish; Catholics themselves looked chronologically backwards to the recusant communities of the north west as a whole. Towards the lower end of the social scale the radius of vision of the tramping artisans in the early part of the century was gradually reduced, together with the sweeping political ideals of a nationalised Radical movement, to a more intensely confined local trade union movement. The Factory movement, Temperance, the Peace movement, the Anti Corn Law League, all created temporary functional communities, intelligible only in a wider view than that of a single town, and served the complementary and reciprocal functions of stimulating a sense of local community interest by face to face contact and enlarging its education in a national context.

Howsoever constituted – and I have shown, I hope, that the processes were even more complex than the problem of social class – the leadership of this community was changed, the individuals themselves changed, by the inexorable demands of ‘urbanisation’, and by the same process were brought into somewhat closer political relationship with the people and with the requirements of their collective life. Ideology and politics had little to do with this, but incipient sectarianism might have had much more than it did if Grenfell had not voted for the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill. This fortunately confused the Roman Catholics and the Conservatives so that sectarian leadership at the top was separated from increasingly acute sectarian rivalry at the bottom of the social scale.

As for the conclusion on more detailed aspects of the urban experience, I am uncomfortably aware that a great deal my research and writing adds little to the perceptions of one Lancaster who covered a much longer period with greater economy: Osbert Lancaster. (2)

Although Preston in the 1820s was already a large and important town, with a significant presence of capital-intensive mechanised industry, it still had more in common with the 18th century than with the second half of the 19th century. But while the typical worker of the 1820s was the handloom weaver rather than the operative, by about 1850 the opposite was the case. A boom in the building of cotton mills between 1835 and 1850, stimulated readier availability of capital, by the large scale production of a reasonably reliable power loom, and by the plentiful supply of female and child labour, was matched by a rate of population growth (mainly by immigration) unequalled before or since.

By mid century the size of cotton firms in Preston appears to have been at least as great as in any other Lancashire town at that date, measured in terms of average numbers of hands per mill. This crude average, however, masks an apparent contradiction. While most mills employed fewer than 300 people, most mill operatives worked in mills which were much larger: in 1847 three quarters of the operatives were employed in sixteen mills where an average of over 500 people entered the gates each morning. As this was the experience of a quarter of all the people, for half of whom town life was novel in itself, the influence of industry on social awareness must have been powerful. This influence could work simultaneously in contradictory directions: by establishing an hierarchical dependence on the master with overtones of family loyalty in the mill (especially in the minds of the masters), or by fostering an awareness of collective opposition of interests between master and hands. In the domestic neighbourhood either might prevail at different times, but here other pressures and interests were felt; and disentangling them for measured assessment demands detailed analysis at a more fundamental level than has been possible in a general study.

Only in the provision for work and worship did the pace of building keep up with population growth. In other respects the transformation of experience came later, perhaps a generation later. The suddenly swollen population was grossly overcrowded (and under-provided with water and drainage), until the beginning of the long and sustained building of suburban streets in the 1850s. The social segregation which followed acquired an architectural form which may have determined the patterns of communal identity well into the 20th century,

Given an historiographical choice between the concept of either community or class formation in this period, which might be represented by the works of Dr Joyce and Dr Foster respectively, my conclusion is that for understanding a Victorian town and its social institutions the concept of class on its own would be practically useless, leading to gross misunderstanding of whatever was not obliterated from the map at the outset. On the other hand the danger of concentrating on the concept of community is that it romanticises reality.

I have been concerned with trying to understand the nature of the developing urban community, starting with the supposition that such a singularity might be detectable. An attempt at theoretical definition of ‘urban‘ appears below, but at a concrete level I have concluded that there is sufficient evidence in Preston during this period to justify the use of the concept of ‘community‘, though the way that concept corresponds with reality changes during the period.

The relationship between the community and its leadership changed in many ways during the period. Crudely summarised, before about 1835 a relatively small community with few regulative institutions, and those accessible to all its member, which proved to be potentially beyond the means of control available to the traditional leadership, became a large and complex society regulated by institutions closed to a significant proportion of that population but open to a newly risen leadership. This is most clearly true of the distribution of political power in parliamentary and in municipal elections, and in the control of poor law administration.

Such a crude reduction of reality demands qualification. First, the Radical victory of December 1830 which at first sight appears a natural consequence of Preston’s uniquely democratic franchise was not only singular in Preston experience, but also the result of a combination of thorough organisation by a visionary ideologue and mass discontent among a declining section of handcraftsmen, particularly the handloom weavers then in the midst of a period of extreme distress which was to destroy the way of life of most of them. Radical capture of the Select Vestry was a by-product of the same circumstances, together with confusion among Reformers resulting from differences of tactics over the Reform Bill. Next, the intricacies of strictly local politics, down to the level of ward, church and mill would have to be taken into account to determine whether those who were not formally enfranchised were there by excluded from the exercise of influence. The reaction against the cottonocracy in municipal politics in the 1850s suggests otherwise. So does the influence of religious questions on parliamentary elections in the same period. Finally (though not, of course, definitively) the phenomenon of public ritual in a wide variety of causes, must have both reflected and influenced communal identity more than I have been able to prove in too fleeting references.

Some continuities through what one would have supposed were very different phases of development stand out, notably the political idiosyncrasy of St. Peter’s ward. This is but one topic which deserves more detailed investigation: was it merely a coincidence of political leadership by a few astute manufacturers?

The main limitation of this work is that it deals more with the outcomes of leadership than with the means by which leadership was achieved. I suggest that a finally satisfactory explanation will require investigations more detailed, local, and personal than Drs Joyce, Clarke or Foster have suggested in their references to mills, churches and social class. Elusive references, such as the Preston Chronicle‘s exhortation to the burgesses ‘to divest themselves of party bias and private attachments‘, suggest what might be revealed by applying Michae1 Anderson’s methods of investigation to such sources as the pollbooks (in Preston an uniquely valuable source) At the same time  there is a need for a much more subtle sociological theory than that of class conflict, one capable of comprehending the multiple relationships and roles of 19th century society, all of which must have been taken into account by individuals acting politically. The elevation of a relatively small number of individuals to public leadership in local affairs was a consequence of multidimensional roles in society as a whole. Alderman Peter Haydock attended the 1842 Guild Fancy Dress Ball as a Port Admiral: he was surely not the only guest attired in similarly transparent disguise?

The deve1opment of local government, by the 1850s implicitly collectivist in assumptions though explicitly so only in the utterances of a small number of local leaders before 1850, needs little further comment. It followed a pattern of almost Hegelian logic, though circumscribed (in comparison with continental experience) by peculiarly English principles of local taxation. But the role of salaried officers in different stations, and the growth of their departments, deserves more historical attention than it has so far received in easily accessible form. The first Superintendents of Police, Surveyors, Engineers, Town Clerks and Treasurers, probably had a greater influence on the individual and collective experience of life in 19th century towns than has been recognised, and perhaps more influence on their successors. It is too easy to overlook this possibility when reading the minute books of the elected committees who were their theoretical masters, or analysing the political and occupational composition of the bodies which formed those committees. In Preston the minute books tell us only the names of those who were responsible for decisions, not how those decisions were influenced.

Looming darkly over all the details of this study is the inescapable realisation that the Preston of 1860 was fundamentally different from the Preston of 1820, and the academic duty of defining the difference. To say that it was more ‘urban’ is to suggest that there were degrees or kinds of urbanity. Size and scale are inadequate parameters. I suggest, first, that there might be identifiable characteristics of urban society by which to measure that elusive but unquestionable quality of human experience, and second, that differences of character between one town and another might be explained, at least partly, by reference to the phasing of institutional development in relation to the growth of population.

Most historical urban populations have been rooted in agricultural society, and by their ‘central place functions’ an integral part of it, but nonetheless occupationally, legally and constitutionally different from rural society. Perhaps the most important difference inherited from the-medieval and pre-industrial period has been constitutional: whereas in the countryside public authority was-traditionally inseparable from personal property, land ownership, in towns public authority was formally separated from individual wealth by incorporation. Perscnal property might be a qualification for admission to a guild or a corporation, but the authority thereby acquired was derived from the group, and was essentially shared. To this extent unincorporated towns were less ‘urban’, whatever their size: parish offices, courts leet, courts baron and so on had no corporate being distinct from the roles of the individuals who comprised them.

The commercial and industrial ‘revolutions’ added to the constitutional distinctness of urban communities an economic base largely independent of domestic agriculture, and hence a source of political power and local authority which rapidly outstripped the capacity of landownership to control it. In Preston this was ideally demonstrated by the demise of Lord Derby’s influence on the parliamentary representation of the borough.

The fierce urban resistance to central interference in local self-government can be sympathetically understood much more easily in this light. Not only was there a long tradition of self government, conservatively defended, but in the mid-19th century the power to use it, decisively augmented, was a prize to be fought for by those who challenged traditional leadership in the town. This on its own would go far to explain another characteristic of Victorian urban communities, the extraordinary vigour of their local political life.

Differences of social and ‘political’ character between economically and topographically comparable towns might be explained by reference to the available collective forms and institutions on which ‘political’ rivalry could be focussed at the time when large group formations reached a critical mass. Dr Joyce has found that in Blackburn the cotton mill was such a focal point, more so than in other Lancashire towns (to which I would add Preston). It is possible that the reason for an evident difference between Preston and Blackburn might be that in Preston incorporation and parliamentary representation preceded the building of mills; while in Blackburn factory organisation was in rapid progress when the Reform Act bestowed the political privilege of parliamentary representation; and the town’s incorporation in 1851 was achieved in – and by- a mature cotton mill community. Influence already acquired is seldom surrendered. The same might apply to religious groups in Preston, the Catholics especially. Joseph Livesey, looking back over a lifetime in the town, observed the far greater institutional complexity of Preston in the 1860s (p20 above). I would wish to add to the essential definition of ‘urban’ society the concept of a matrix of voluntary associations of all kinds which allows individual inhabitants a theoretical choice of association and identity. The freedom of anonymity in parts of this matrix would be a characteristic of truly urban society. Preston may have reached this stage by 1860, (though leadership was a visibly personal function) and anonymity was only reluctantly and regretfully conceded by leaders to the mass of the population: ‘I never saw the faces of many of you before’. In such a society communication by word of mouth could be rapid and efficient, but reliance on mediatised forms becomes heavier. An active and varied local press is an essential feature of Victorian urban communities, and therefore an immensely rich historical source. Literacy is arguably the most significant of Victorian achievements.

Urban society may now be defined as a social aggregation not primarily dependent on agriculture, politically independent of land-ownership, subject to autonomous forms of authority formally dissociated from personal property, offering its members a choice of social roles, having a high degree of economic interdependence especially in relation to communal services; and mediatised forms of communication. In mature form all of these characteristics exist together, whether on a local, national or international scale. They began to appear at the time of the Reformation in Europe, but did not reach a mature combination until the 19th century.

By 1860 Preston had become a controllable urban community with more singular collective purposes than had been conceivable in 1820. That was the view at the top. From below it had become a multiple of apparently inescapable fates.

1. D.A. Farnie The English Cotton Industry and the World Market (1979).
2. Osbert Lancaster Draynflete Revealed.

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