Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: introduction 1

1. The hypothesis

See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings

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This study of a single town, Preston, in a relatively short period of time (c.1820 – c.1860) was undertaken in the hope of learning something in detail about the early development of modern industrial towns. In several respects Preston can be regarded as suitably typical of the transformation of English urban society in general during the 19th century. It was a medieval incorporated borough, and by the end of the 18th century was both a market centre  for the surrounding agricultural area and, as one of the seats of the County Sessions, a place of legal and social resort of the county gentry. It lies on the northern fringe of the cotton manufacturing districts of Lancashire and became as much a mill town as Blackburn or Bolton. By 1851 it was an unquestionably large town – the largest in Lancashire apart from Manchester and Liverpool – but not so large as to lose all claim to description as a single community, and while not remote or isolated was at least comfortably separated from its nearest truly urban neighbour, Blackburn, by nine miles of farmland. The unseen tentacles of trade which fed its growth might – and did – reach westwards as far as New Orleans and eastwards as far as Calcutta and Canton, but the social body was distinct enough to be viewed in isolation.

I have not tried to explain the growth and development of the Preston economy, but, given that growth and development, to understand some of the social, administrative, political and institutional adaptation to it, especially the way the local leadership responded to the demands and stresses of a social aggregation of unprecedented mass at its fastest rate of growth. Much of this is necessarily descriptive, and the possibility of a comprehensive theory of urban social morphology would be beyond the scope of a study at this level. Nevertheless the accidental and deliberate discoveries of an unusually protracted period of research have demonstrated the limitations of a severely analytical concentration on single themes. Joseph Livesey’s efforts to help the poor to help themselves were not confined to temperance festivals. James German’s pretensions as a Liberal candidate in the election of 1852 were based to some extent on his achievements at the baths and wash-houses, and wrecked partly by his magisterial severity to publicans during his year as Mayor. Or, as a generalisation, leadership in one role seems to have implied, or perhaps depended upon, leadership in other roles.

Political leadership demanded careful management of relationships with religious denominations: to be identified as Roman Catholic was to be necessarily Radical or Liberal in politics. This is well known and easy to demonstrate.

It is more difficult, because time-consuming, to correlate all the public roles of individuals. It is certain that there were many who would be found at church or chapel tea parties, Free Trade meetings, temperance gatherings, committees and sub-committees of Council or Local Board, Guardians’ Weekly meetings, Gas Company, Water Company, railway company or Ribble Navigation Company meetings, Oddfellows’ dinners, and addressing ward meetings of burgesses or electors. With the normal daily necessity of work at shop, mill, or office, usually from dawn to dusk, it is surprising that men could be found to fulfil any of these functions regularly over a long period, yet most of those who were at all prominent in one role were also active in several others. It is therefore possible to argue that at the level of public leadership the town was a Single community despite its size. Extracts from verses written by Charles Roger Jacson while serving on a Relief Committee during the cotton famine shows how it was possible for at least one of the established leaders to regard his community role:

‘Four tens of thousands clatter up the stair
Of storied depot; with the soup and bread
Of charity the multitude are fed
…. thank with silent tears the friends who gave
Th’abundant store.’

‘A band of resolute, devoted men.
Their wealth, fame, power, and crown are stored on high
For labours here with guileless hearts achieved.’

The first general hypothesis of this work, implicit throughout and explicit in chapters 3, 4 and 6, is therefore that in this town, and probably in most towns of equivalent size in this period, local leadership functioned as a single community; not an oligarchy because neither closed nor united;and its corollary is that historical research on separate aspects abstracted from the whole is likely to be partial in more than one sense.

It is very much more difficult to trace the sense of community down the webs of leadership to the mass of followers. But I believe that historical understanding of the nature of Victorian society – especially perhaps of social class, respectability, and political behaviour – would be enriched, possibly transformed, by thorough research on the means by which individual families could establish their social identity and gain access to what sociologists inelegantly call ‘life chances’, in this period of collective individualism. The widespread abhorrence of receiving poor law relief must have derived from something more concrete than pride: could it have been fear of the consequences of losing political character, in the most general sense? There are several fleeting and tantalising suggestions in the sources even at mid century, when the population was nearly 70,000, that it was still expected that every man should be known, not only by sight, but who he was and where he lived. Voluntary organisations such as the operative political associations, visiting and provident societies, and individuals such as Joseph Livesey, made it their business to visit the voters, the heathens, or the poor, and Livesey was outraged that more of the well to do did not follow his example. Access to medical treatment at the Dispensary depended upon the patronage of a subscriber. Patronage seems to have been the expected means of securing ‘a position’. Richard Palmer, Town Clerk, owed his first public appointment to the patronage of the manufacturer John Horrocks, and the appointment of postmistress in 1852 was secured by a numerously signed memorial to one of the MPs.

Placing a growing lad as an apprentice or an articled clerk must have been achieved by similar manipulation of friendly connections at a more modest level. Horrocks Miller and Co. reported in the early 1830s that their operatives brought their children to work for no wages in order to put them in the way of employment when they reached the required age.

Only gradually did the Radical demand for the ballot make ground against the aristocratic scorn for a device which would deprive voters of their political manhood. A man’s political character was a public responsibility, however impurely he used it. For many voters impurity was clearly the purpose of voting: it was the use to which the asset was put.

The sense of belonging in a social network, often of overlapping webs, may help to explain the frequency with which the people collectively took to the streets. The potentiality for street drama was ever present e with 50 or 60 thousand in an urban stadium whose ‘radius was only half a mile, any day might be Cup Final day. Public procession, whether behind the dashing young Stanley in the election of 1826, or the bands and committees of striking operatives in 1855, seems to have been a necessary expression of the strength of collective attachment. Why else would the operatives begin their cotton mill by summer excursions by marching at dawn to the station in processions with bands and banners? Ceremonial collective behaviour is treated in this work as part of the evidence for the thesis that community identity was a necessary qualification for political behaviour in Victorian towns.

This raises questions about the nature of community identity and behaviour at different social levels, and of its development during the period. There is a danger of seeming to make a mountain out of a molehill while trying to make only an historical point. I am trying to draw attention to social tendencies which may well have contributed as much to behaviour at elections as it did in a more obvious way to the building of churches and schools, the formation of friendly societies, the temperance movement and so on: and to suggest that political tendencies in the most general sense, permeated every aspect of public, and some aspects of private, life.

During the period from about 1820 to about 1860 I think it is possible to detect a general change in the nature of the political community of the town as a whole (using ‘political’ in both a broad and a narrow sense). An ‘open’ community gradually became ‘closed’ or exclusive. This is obviously true in the sense that the electorate shrank absolutely while the population expanded. But I mean more than that. In the years 1830-1852 acceptance on public platforms seems to have been granted to men of all ranks and opinions, and the working classes or their Radical spokesmen, even when preaching class struggle, appear as an integral element in the whole society. But the cumulative effect of the Reform Act, the Poor Law Amendment Act, and municipal corporation reform was to banish these classes from the main organs of urban politics and administration. Instead of sharing the Corn Exchange, the Theatre and the Town Hall with their more fortunate brethren, these people then began to congregate separately: as Chartists on the Moor, Ten Hours men (and women) in the Cockpit, and as unionised spinners or weavers on the open land known as the Orchard. Subscribers to the Provident Society dwindled. The Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge became middle class, moved from Cannon Street to a more polite site on the fringe of the most eligible residential quarter of the town, and the mechanics and operatives formed their own mutual improvement classes out in the mill districts. At the same time, as new streets, mills and churches spread northwards and eastwards, the old central focus on the market place was diffused. Polling took place at separate stations in different parts of the town. Ward meetings were held in distant public houses; and by the election of 1852 the candidates toured the town and repeated their longwinded statements of principle from pub windows in sight of the fields. Only in the 1850s, with the admission of great numbers of compounding householders to the burgess register, did the municipal constitution begin to open again, and the effect then was the introduction of ratepayer opposition to Council and Local Board Spending – and a sharp rise in the cost of a seat on the Council.

The part of this thesis which has perhaps the most general significance is the hypothesis that structural changes between 1830 and 1850 created a much sharper division between different levels of society, fixing an institutional gulf between middle class and working class. I suggest that at about mid century a subtle but awful change crept over ‘the language of class’: those who had been described by their betters as ‘the lower orders’ and by themselves perhaps in rugged pride with the emphasis on the first word as the ‘working classes’, a richly varied spectrum of mechanics, cloggers, handloom weavers, factory spinners and so on, were reduced to a collective singularity, ‘the working class’. At the same time communal antagonism between Catholics and Protestants seems to have increased.

Meanwhile, the work of building a civilised urban society, or rather its fabric and watery infrastructure, was still to be done: streets paved, lighted and watched, markets administered, baths built, crime punished, cesspools and middensteads removed, clean water supplied and dirty water removed, and poverty relieved. These staggering tasks, in which achievement always lagged behind need (Preston was still one of the most unhealthy towns in Lancashire at the end of the century), were undertaken by the relative handful of men whom the increasingly exclusive political process left in command of public enterprises with public financial resources laughably small compared with those of manufacturing enterprise. I try to show what sort of men they were, the politics which led to municipal office, and the way they worked together. Their ambitions, as far as public responsibility was concerned, seem to have been rather modest until 1850; which may partly explain a drift towards a closed Tory caste, immune to outside political pressures. The most interesting feature of local government – local self government which they fiercely defended against centralisation – is that while these men gradually learned the political catechism of Liberalism, the arguments and principles of local administration became wholeheartedly collectivist: until lesser men representing ratepayers joined their counsels in the late 1850s.

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