Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: introduction 3

3. Institutions examined, and plan of work

A finally satisfactory treatment of the whole urban environment of early 19th century Preston is obviously not yet possible. There is no adequate modern study to provide the framework which would make sense of the interesting detailed work already done, or still to be done. Quite apart from ideological predispositions, the needs of the case have dictated that my approach should be basically integrationist: without an appreciation of what held this society together it would be impossible to understand what tended to break it apart. Despite the speed and strain of its growth, Preston was a more peaceful and stable – acquiescent, perhaps – community at the end of the 19th century than it had been at the beginning.

If the building of a town and of its social institutions, and the development of social and political relationships within it, may be compared in some ways with the ecology of a growing area of detached woodland, then the statutory authorities and constitutionally determined political events, elections for example, are the trees, and the voluntary associations – churches and schools, friendly societies and clubs, newspapers and pressure groups – are the shrubs and ground cover, and all are rooted in the economy (the special characteristics of which I have already described). The analogy could be extended to the climate as well.

I begin (chapter I) with a brief description of the basic economic, denominational, and social and institutional characteristics, at and of the immediately preceding political experience, of Preston in the 1820s. To see how the community – if ‘community’ it was – actually worked in a political sense at that time I then examine (in chapter II) the peculiarly interesting election of 1826 when a weakened traditional elite beat off a serious challenge from democratic Radicals, and then the short-lived success of the Radicals, in both vestry and parliamentary elections, during the agitation for the Reform Bill, ending with an attempt to analyse the nature of the political community in terms of interests, influences, and parties.

This leads to a survey (chapter III) of some of the most obvious social and potentially political problems experienced by contemporaries in the two decades of most rapid population growth between 1830 and 1850, of the fears and responses of the elite, and of the development of institutions of influence. In this chapter I try to justify and define the use of the word ‘community’ while at the same time showing how conflicts in interest were tending to break it down.

In chapters IV and VI examine first the creation and composition of the statutory authorities responsible for social administration and for shaping the environment, and then the use which they made of their powers and their relationships with the society which they served. Were they an accurate reflection of the community, were they representative of its interests, and did they shape its growth by their activities: in short, were they effectively leaders?

Chapter VI returns to political experience, related to the society already described by examination of the formation of the political parties, and of political behaviour, principally, but not exclusively, in the parliamentary elections from 1835 to 1852. The very broad definition and interpretation of the political nature of the urban community is placed in this chapter. I conclude with a review of the hypothesis as a whole and some suggestions of questions which seem to deserve further investigation in the light of my findings.

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