Preston’s pre-industrial landscape – introduction

A reconstruction based on Lang’s 1774 plan of Preston. The light black lines are the field boundaries on the plan. The heavier black lines are suggested earlier boundaries – but this is in many cases very speculative.

At the end of the 19th century the distinguished historian Frederic Maitland visited Preston to deliver a lecture. He had recently completed his ‘Domesday Book and Beyond’ in which he advocated the use of the ‘retrogressive method’ of research in landscape history. By this he meant working backwards through time to arrive at a picture of the past, rather than by working forwards from the earliest documentary sources. In his book Maitland recommended the use of ‘that marvellous palimpsest’ the ordnance survey map. He urged his Preston listeners to make efforts to discover their town fields, because of their considerable importance in the history of the town. [1] His views were echoed later by another distinguished historian, Marc Bloch, who argued that to uncover and understand the past landscape historians had to interrogate the present, ‘… in order to ask the right questions, even in order to know what we were talking about, it was necessary to fulfil a primary condition: that of observing and analysing our present landscape.’ [2]

The Preston historian Henry Clemesha, who recorded Maitland’s visit, with regret listed the obstacles to meeting Maitland’s challenge. Lang’s 1774 plan of the township had been lost and only parts were preserved in the histories of the town by Hardwick and Hewitson. And the few field names found among the scarce documentary sources that survived from medieval times Clemesha confessed to be unable to place on a contemporary map of the township. [3] In addition, Marc Bloch’s injunction to walk the ground is difficult to carry out in Preston since so much is smothered under later development. Even by the time of the first edition of the ordnance survey map a great many of the field boundaries surviving at the end of the 18th century had disappeared under new houses and factories. However, that does not mean that ‘walking the ground’ is no longer revealing of Preston’s past landscape.

Not long after Clemesha had been lamenting the disappearance of the Lang plan, a copy turned up in the offices of a local solicitor. The discovery was duly reported by Clemesha himself in the Preston Guardian (see Lang Survey: introduction). At about the same time the Gormanston Register was published which included a calendar of some 79 medieval Preston property deeds, and a little later Lumby published his calendar of the de Hoghton deeds, including some 94 dating from before 1600 relating to Preston properties. Later still the collection of sketch plans loosely attributed to Richard Kuerden and dating from around 1685 were discovered at Townley Hall, Burnley (see 1685 Survey: introduction). These allow for a very detailed reconstruction of the Preston’s urban core at the time; the plans do not cover the township much beyond the built up area, stopping far short of the township boundary. Clemesha and his fellow local historians were unaware of the existence of these plans.

The Lang plan acts rather more like a jigsaw than a palimpsest. The roads and lanes snaking round property boundaries and the marked discordances among the field boundaries themselves allow the plan to be broken up into a number of jigsaw pieces. The task then becomes one of attaching the field names found in the medieval and early modern documents to the appropriate pieces.

Following this method it becomes possible to begin reconstructing the landscape from the 13th century onwards when field names begin to be registered in property deeds. There appear to have been few buildings beyond the built up area in the medieval period, Preston being a nucleated township. This structure persisted at the time of the Lang survey when only a handful of settlements are to be found outside the urban core: Holme Slack, Hole House, Moor Hall, Peel Hall and Charnock Fold to the north, and only Avenham House to the south. Moving further back in time little beyond physical outlines can be discerned. An attempt has been made at reconstructing the communication shortly after the Norman Conquest (Domesday Preston). There is virtually nothing known of the landscape prior to William the Conqueror’s ‘Harrying of the North’ which had left much of this part of Lancashire a tabula rasa.

In Preston itself the slate wasn’t wiped completely clean, the church remained and a town of sorts existed, probably serving as the administrative centre for Amounderness. The Normans then proceeded to impose themselves on the landscape, establishing the royal Forest of Lancaster, including the Forest of Fulwood, the southern edge of which marked the northern boundary of the borough of Preston, established by royal charter in the 12th century. The development of the townscape is considered elsewhere, here the focus is on the fields, moors and meadows that supplied the town with its sustenance.

The Forest of Fulwood had a major impact on the town, barring the main route north and imposing restrictions on access to the land stretching from the forest’s early southern border to the present Eaves Brook boundary with Fulwood. Its development has been documented by Cunliffe Shaw, although his description of the southern boundaries of the forest is not very clear. The demand for land from Preston townsfolk led to assarting in the southern part of the Forest of Fulwood, which was regularized in the 13th century when the boundary was pushed back to the Eaves Brook.

This assarting points to an urgent need for more land to cultivate, leading to the creation of large new fields in the east and north-east of the township by the early 14th century. To what extent this expansion was curtailed by the Black Death at mid-century is unknown, but given the thousands of deaths the town was reported to have suffered it was quite likely to have led to a period of retrenchment.

An indication of the impact of the Black Death is perhaps supplied by the guild roll of 1397, the first that survives. The roll is divided into three sections: in burgesses who were sworn at the previous guild or whose fathers were guild members, foreign burgesses and those admitted by fine who had no claim to membership from the previous guild. The first and last categories have roughly the same number of names, suggesting a considerable influx of incomers setting up business in town after the Black Death’s final outbreaks in the 1360s. Topping the list of these incomers was William of Erghum who had moved over from Yorkshire,and who by then, and for several years after, was possibly the most powerful person in the corporation.

The next major disruption to property ownership in the township came courtesy of Henry VII when the property of religious houses was transferred wholesale into secular hands in the 16th century. Given that much of the land in the Preston township was in the possession of the religious and that the transfer led to much dividing of estates it can be expected that there was much redrawing of property boundaries at this time.

These various upheavals mean that any attempt at a reconstruction of the medieval and early modern landscape must be speculative and open to considerable correction, rather like an early palaeontologist struggling to assemble a whole creature from a scatter of fossilized bones.

[1] Frederic Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England, reprint of 1897 first edition (Cambridge University Press, 1921), v, 15.
[2] Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), 46.
[3] T.F. Tout and James Tait, eds., Historical Essays (Longmans, Green, 1902), 222.