Reforming Preston – section 1

Pre-reform Preston

In 1830 Whittle, who was a local historian and author of two volumes on the history of the borough of Preston, described the town thus:

It is situated upon an eminence so much in height, as to command a prospect from every side, and yet not so appenine as to be severely exposed to the inclemency of the weather, having too, a gentle declivity on all points from every side – its streets are, for the most part, airy, clear and cheerful – and the vicinity presents at every appui all those objects in rich and variegated succession that constitute the beautiful and sublime in landscape – the river spanned by elegant bridges and winding through verdant meadow and pasture lands, studded with cattle, thickly wooded valleys and uplands, gemmed with hanging sylvan scenery, stately mansions, villas, old halls, farmsteads, and lovely cottages, the abode of peace; …

This idyllic picture was painted at a time when industrialisation had made little mark on the townscape and industry itself was still largely concerned with the produce of the surrounding rich agricultural area of the Fylde. Yet this way of life, which had long supported the domestic system, was in serious decline, and the rise of the factory and the advent of the ‘new’ society were becoming firmly established in the growing towns of Lancashire.

In the years between 1820 and 1850 the town of Preston experienced unprecedented growth; the population in 1831 was 33,112, rising to 50,887 in 1841, and 69,542 in 1851. A community of over 10,000 in population would undoubtedly be considered ‘urban’ in the nineteenth century and thus Preston was a large centre. In area, however, the town was very compact and expanded in terms of density rather than area. The main part of the town was only approximately one and a half miles from east to west, and one mile north to south.

The rapid population growth of Preston was due, not only to a high birth rate, but above all, to immigration. The population of the town in 1851 was almost six times that of 1801, and seventy per cent of the adult population was born outside the town (Anderson, 1971). Of the total population in 1851 forty-eight per cent were born in Preston and a further twenty-one per cent within ten miles (this group also comprised forty-two per cent of the total immigrant population). Such growth coupled with an increase in density of the dwellings and industrial activity within the town led to the development of serious problems: overcrowding, inadequate sanitation and water supply, disease and poverty. These were but a few of the problems with which the reformed corporation of 1835 was faced.

The town’s prosperous period began in about 1830 with the town experiencing an increase in house building and the cotton industry beginning to employ a large proportion of the population. The cotton trade dominated the employment of the lower classes, and in 1851 thirty-two per cent of men over 20, and twenty-eight per cent of women over 20 (that is, fifty-three per cent of all women in employment) were involved in cotton manufacturing (Joyce, 1980). Thus the population was particularly susceptible to distress during periods of depression, since there was little alternative employment to which they could turn.

However, in the 1830s:

Five or six large factories are in progress of building and two others are projected; five or six factories are engaged in spinning flax, which is afterwards sent to Ireland and elsewhere to be woven into linen, but it was confidently expected that means would soon be found of adapting the power-loom to that manufacture, which would of 1 course cause an immediate extension of the trade. [1]

Expectations of the prosperity of cotton and its value to the town were thus running high, and, at least, for the factory owners, the future looked bright.

The enlargement and improvement of Preston

(February 27th 1836 Preston Chronicle)

Within the last few years, a number of new mills of large dimensions (principally for the manufacture of cotton) have been erected; streets have crept out in various directions, forming new and populous districts; shops and warehouses have been built or struck out, and the din of commerce is already heard in situations erewhile devoted to the dull monotony of private life; elegant mansions have been built by many of our active citizens on airy sites in the outskirts, while others have erected handsome villas in the neighbourhood, wherein, after a life of successful devotion to business, they may enjoy rural quiet and amusement. The Moor which was for ages little better than a bleak and profitless waste has been enclosed, intersected with ample public rides and walks; here and there planted with decorative trees and prepared for further improvement – the railway from Wigan, which will form a main artery for the influx of trade, is in rapid course of formation.

Green Bank Estate (property of Messrs R. & W Tomlinson) laid out in streets, some of which, on the south side are already filled up with, handsome small houses. The whole of this land, which has long been occupied as gardens and fields, and forms an airy and salubrious eminence rising towards the middle, will probably in a year or two become a sort of new town, or compact manufacturing district; and the neatness and Convenience of the houses will, we doubt not, render it the favourite residence of a large portion of our operative community, for whom it is principally intended. The works in which this population will find employment, will for the most part be situated along the valley of the brook before alluded to on the north and beyond which is open country. The supply of water afforded by the brook as well as by springs and streamlets on each side, together with other local advantages render this valley a peculiarly suitable site for a considerable number of cotton works and will probably supersede all idea (if such were entertained) of building such structures on the south or south-west side of the borough; where their erection would be detrimental to the property of those quarters and destroy the beauty of the finest part of the town – Ribblesdale Place and Avenham.

Map of municipal wards in Preston in 1835
Map 5. Municipal wards established in 1835
[1] Great Britain Boundary Commission for England, Municipal Corporation Boundaries (England and Wales). Preston: Report upon the Proposed Boundary of the Borough of Preston, 1837.

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One thought on “Reforming Preston – section 1

  1. Another really valuable contribution to a fuller picture and to our understanding of how Preston developed and more intriguingly WHY it developed in the way it did. Nice to see Nigel’s name appearing again. His legacy is not solely in what he wrote but in the assistance he offered to so many people who were carrying out their own research.


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