Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: introduction 4a

4. A brief outline of the growth of Preston 1800 – 1870

(a) Impressions

The speed with which this region has increased in wealth and population finds no parallel except in America or Australia…

observed James Bryce in the introduction to his report on Lancashire schools for the Taunton Commission in 1868. He had travelled in Australia but not yet in America, and his comparison with society at the frontiers of European settlement is a refreshing reminder of the still palpable novelty and vigour of industrial Lancashire a whole century after what is normally accepted as the beginning of the industrial revolution:

So too, as in a colony, society is in an unsettled and fluctuating state … It is a consequence of the whole social state of these towns, with their broad and striking contrasts of wealth and poverty and their active local life, as well as a relic of the excitement of the free trade struggle … that political feeling runs very high and that it sometimes degenerates into the mere spirit of faction, which converts things indifferent into grounds of quarrel. (1)

But Bryce’s moving picture of ‘factories and houses … climbing the slopes of the great bleak moors that hang over the smoky valleys’ will be more convincing with the support of Gradgrind’ s factual discipline. In this section I summarise the quantifiable growth of the town as a whole, and attempt to show both the increasing institutional complexity of it and some of the sense of change experienced by contemporaries. As the cotton industry was fundamental to the economy of Preston I deal with its growth and development in greater detail.

The people I am concerned with lived through the experiences drily summarised in facts, and aged with them. While it is not, of course, true that the generation at the elite level in the 1860s had held that position throughout the period, those bearded ranks included a surprising number whose youthful faces were already known in the 1830s, and in some cases even earlier. Town life was new to these men not only because it was new in itself, but also because many of them were immigrants to the town. For example, of the 48 members of the Council described by ‘Atticus’ in 1870 (2), only nine had been born into Preston families, and eleven had originated outside the county. The largest number came typically from villages and small towns in the neighbourhood which would have given them little experience of the new dimensions of urban life. It would not be surprising, therefore, to find that they applied to the solution of new problems habits of mind and behaviour appropriate to small face-to-face communities, that they were slow to come to terms with the scale of those problems, that in the excitement of an ever-changing present they made mistakes, or that, looking back as Joseph Livesey did in 1868, they might have shared his amazement at the difference which their lifetime had made since the beginning of the century:

In (that) period there were no National Schools, no Sunday Schools, no Mechanics’ Institutions, no Penny Publications, no cheap Newspapers, no Free Libraries, no Penny Postage, no Temperance Societies, no Tea Parties, no Young Men’s Christian Associations, no People’s Parks, no Railways, no gas, no anything that distinguishes the present time in favour of the improvement and enjoyment of the masses. (3)

Livesey’s list is selective. He took for granted the fundamental changes.

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Notes
1. Report of the Schools Inquiry Commission PP (1867 8), Vol. IX p. 749-50
2. ‘Atticus’ (Anthony Hewitson), Preston Town Council or Portraits of Local Legislators (Preston 1870).
3. Joseph Livesey, Autobiography of Joseph Livesey (Preston 1868).

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