Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: introduction 2

2. Historiographical context

A seemingly small patch of human history, Britain during the industrial revolution, carries a staggering weight of scholarly interest from Marx and Engels to the present, and I have been guided by a mere morsel of it. Persin’s (1969) attempt at an analytical description of the nature and significance of social change in England between the 18th and the 20th centuries, whether right or wrong, clearly demonstrates the need for a history of society as social history with the politics not left out. I have not consciously been guided by his theory of a transition from a hierarchical society of orders based on vertical interest groups to a viable class society, but the observable pattern of change in this small damp corner of the country seems to be compatible with his theory. Kitson Clark (1962) and Dyes (1968) with Wolff (1975) have respectively, hinted at and demonstrated in detail the need for much more detailed and comparative attention to the wide range of historical phenomena of urban society. Gash (1953), Hanham (1959) and Vincent (1966) have established the concrete connections between politics and political behaviour at the level of the voter and party organisation. Hobsbawm (1964, 1968) and the gloomy school of historians have perhaps cast too heavy a shadow over the historical scene by implying that painful social adjustments to rapid acceleration of deep rooted economic progress were the inevitable and unmistakable symptoms of a temporal equivalent of expulsion from the Garden of Eden, leaving working man to suffer for the sins of capital. It may have been so, but the conclusion is premature. This biblical characteristic is shared by the monumental work of Thompson (1965) which seems to conflate Moses and the Messiah by treating the artisanal resistance to loss of status as the foundation of the modern working class. Thompson’s martyrs and heroes are clearly recognisable in Preston, but they were certainly not representative of the working class which had been ‘made’ by the time of the 1853 Lockout or the cotton famine, who were defined by their acquiescence in their political stations, not their resistance to it.

More recent work on 19th century urban and social history which I have found helpful has been highly specialised. Hennock (1973) has drawn attention to the need to understand the social composition and achievements of urban government, and Fraser (1976 and 1979) has demonstrated both the political character of statutory authorities at the local level and their interconnections. Dahrendorf (1959), Neale (1972) and Morris (1979) have helped me to appreciate, if not to understand, the complexities of the question of social class, which I am.inclined to treat, along with the concept of respectability, as a matter of functional relationship rather than objective reality. In this respect among others I have found Foster (1974) very stimulating, both for the vision of Oldham society which strikes me as so different from what I have understood of Preston (a difference which may stem from the fact that there were no Oldham newspapers for his revolutionary period) that it might have been on another continent or another century, and for his many ingenious uses of sources.

Understanding of the behaviour of Victorian voters has advanced very far since the work of Vincent (1967), mainly by Moore (articles variously, book 1976), Nossiter (1967) and Joyce (1975) all of whom have helped to show the sociological significance of voting behaviour, while Garrard (1977) in a study of political clubs in Salford at a slightly later period, has shown the non-political face of local politics in forms recognisable from Preston: recognisably more human 1 than the mensheviks of Oldham.

Social administration in Lancashire as a whole has been heroically attempted by Midwinter (1969) in a comprehensive factual survey for which there is no substitute; but I have found him mistaken in his treatment of Preston, and vulnerable to the charge of treating lack of convenient printed sources as proof of lack of activity. The historian’s need to fill gaps by intuition is far more successfully met by Ward (1962) on the factory movement, whose reading of the connections of the movement with others has been verified by my work (and his facts are right).

In recent work specific to Preston Anderson’s (1971) study of family structure from census records stands like Everest without the Himalayas: an awesomely thorough application of statistical techniques to the sociological question of the strength of kinship networks in times of personal need. As far as I understand him, he has shown that kinship support was useful if reciprocal. How useful Anderson’s conclusion may be to historians will depend on the results of corresponding attention to other networks which has unfortunately not been done. The politics of 1830-32, and the establishment of the Poor Law Union have been treated by Miss Proctor in two articles which serve as accessible introductions but are limited in scope by the small range of sources used. Taylor’s article on politics in the cotton famine suffers more severely from the same limitations, having been based almost entirely on the Melly papers, parts of which were clearly unintelligible out of context, but it contains valuable evidence on party organisation and the expectations of some voters which is consistent with my work. Borsay’s article on the development of provincial urban culture in the 18th century suggests unexpectedly encouraging ideas on the development of the town as an ‘open’ society offering geographical, intellectual and social ‘space’ for communal interaction which are compatible with my view of the nature of the community in the 1820s.

A deterioration in the nature of urban society since the Victorian period or in the economics of publishing may be reflected in the difference in quality of Preston’s historical writing about itself. Clemesha (1912) and Berry (1928) produced outline histories from the earliest settlements to the present which have consequently little space for curiosity about the details of the 19th century, and while both are competent Clemesha has the more interesting ideas. Barron’s history of the Ribble Navigation (1938) has been far more valuable as a.mine of information, but as history suffers the double handicap of having been written by the borough Ribble Engineer. By comparison the works of 19th century writers – Whittle, Hardwick, Dobson, Abram and above all Hewitson – qualify as primary sources. Although all (except perhaps Whittle) were identified with liberal causes in politics they were neutral collectors of local information: and the fact that there was evidently a commercial market for it suggests a spread and quality of local interest which distinguishes that century from the present. These men, and their readers, were aware that they had lived in a new and historically important age. Whittle’s is the least professional and most disorganised work, marred, from an historical point of view, by antiquarian genealogical concerns, but containing much useful information under the gloss of adulation. Both Hardwick’s (1857) and Hewitson’s (1885) histories are encyclopedic in scope in their own period, containing so much information that they can be read and browsed in at different times in different ways, like Ordnance Survey maps giving the facts but leaving the reader to his own interpretation. Hewitson’s reprinted articles for the Preston Chronicle under the pen name ‘Atticus’ on local legislators and on churches and chapels, combine information, personal observation and entertainingly forthright comment which breathe life into the dead as none of the other books can do. Although they were written after the end of my period, they have plenty to say about it.

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