Reforming Preston – section 5

Business and malpractice

Is responsible government advanced by the purchase of municipal seats?
(Preston Guardian November 9th 1844)

One of the aims of the Municipal Reform Act had been to stamp out the system of self-election and corrupt practices of the old corporations. Year after year, however, almost without exception, Preston’s local newspapers carried reports of the corrupt activities which occurred in both conservative and liberal camps, at the municipal elections in each ward:

Public houses were open for the dispensing of a drink to voters, money – some say averaging in St. George’s ward from.£3 to £5 a vote – was openly and unblushingly paid.”
(Preston Chronicle November 3rd 1849)

In 1859 there was a move by Preston’s Town Clerk at that time, Mr Cross, to introduce a bill for the prevention of corrupt practices at municipal elections:

To submit such a bill to some councillors would be like laying a copy of a new game law before a board of poachers.
(Preston Chronicle January 8th 1859)

Preston’s fit and proper persons were thus duly elected, and as such their civic responsibility committed them to the alleviation of the physical and social ills of industrialisation. Yet the Municipal Reform Act only insisted that the reformed councils form a watch committee and establish a borough police force. The Improvement Commissioners were responsible for the main environmental services – the control of nuisances, lighting, etc., the physical well-being of the community. However, before and after the Municipal Reform Act they were a separate body from the council and thus a source of alternative authority.

In 1815 a private Act of Parliament was passed which created a body of Improvement Commissioners for the borough. This body was no more democratic than the unreformed council since the members were not elected, but simply owed their right to be commissioners to the possession of a certain property qualification, fixed at the ownership of lands or inheritance worth £100 per year, or the tenancy of property worth £50 per year.

The improvement commissioners were in effect, not necessarily members of the town council. In the case of Preston the committee was comprised councillors, either past, present or at some time in the future, although the minutes of their meetings in 1841 show that out of thirty-seven commissioners only twenty-three were on the town council. The minutes of both the General Purposes Committee and the Improvement Commissioners indicate that there was some communication between the two bodies and that a certain amount of their work was jointly undertaken. From the minutes it would appear that the commissioners took due consideration of the improvement of roads within the town, and also the question of water and gas charges. It is, however, difficult to ascertain the nature and effectiveness of their work between 1846 and 1850 since PRO was unable to locate the minute book for that period at the time of research.

The local newspapers were somewhat critical of the commissioners’ activity, or lack of it:

Why are the powers of the present Improvement Act not more energetically exercised? Improvement Commissioners have powers sufficient to clean every street and every court and to remove every nuisance. Yet ‘Holden-Square’ containing about forty families, unpaved, without light, without water and without a single common convenience! … If Holden-Square had been ‘Winckley Square’ we will venture to affirm that there would have been pavement and lights and water, cleaning and plenty of conveniences.
(Preston Guardian December 21st 1844)

Here speaks the voice of the liberal Joseph Livesey against the commissioners and town council who were looking after their own interests, namely that of Winckley Square, the home of many of the town’s wealthy inhabitants. The distinct nature of the Improvement Commissioners and the corporation also came under attack from Livesey who called for an amalgamation of the two bodies.

The attack on the Commissioners was not only the product of liberal anti-conservatism; the Preston Chronicle was no more generous describing their meetings as:

… little better than the gathering of a gratuitous debating club for small orators, desirous of trying the pitch of their own sweet voices.
(Preston Chronicle June 1847)

The General Purposes Committee was the largest of the corporation’s sub-committees and dealt with questions of construction in the town, and most particularly the development of the dock. The minutes of their meetings between 1835 and 1860 are very much concerned with the details of the dock development and to a lesser extent with the progress of the railway.

A brief study was conducted into the attendance figures of the councillors at these meetings to give some kind of impression of the time which councillors gave up for their civic duties. Three periods lasting three years each were chosen during the twenty-five year study period, covering its beginning, middle and end to ascertain the stability of the committee within these periods and the regularity of attendance at these meetings (see Appendices).

The Ribble Navigation Company

The first Ribble Navigation Company (hereafter RNC) was formed in 1806 by ten landed gentlemen. By 1820 the number of ships using the Ribble had increased from fifty to four hundred and Preston’s merchants were applying pressure to extend and improve facilities to accommodate the traffic and demand of a rapidly growing manufacturing town. However, the RNC was in no position to implement such improvements being £4,000 in debt — this situation roused the Corporation to take action.

Soon after the reformed Corporation had taken office, Alderman Peter Haydock, an attorney and liberal in politics, who devoted many years to the Ribble cause, presented his case to the new council:

It (is)now within the province of the Corporation to forward a great undertaking … were the scheme accomplished … in ten years Preston would be double its present size … The Ribble might, for the purposes of navigation, be made equal to the Mersey, and Preston be formed into a port like Liverpool for the reception of large vessels. [1]

With the Council’s approval a nautical survey of the Ribble estuary was undertaken by Robert Stephenson, an Edinburgh engineer, and a new company was formed in December 1837 to carry out the suggested improvements. The new RNC had an authorised capital of £50,000 divided into one thousand shares of £50 each. The Corporation had agreed to purchase shares to the value of £2,500, but Alderman Haydock was determined to increase the Corporation’s commitment. He compared the Ribble favourably with the Clyde and speculated as to the amount of revenue accruing to the Corporation from increased investment. Isaac Wilcockson, owner of the Preston Chronicle led the opinion that the corporation should become sole proprietor of the RNC, and thus a motion was passed allotting two hundred and fourteen shares of the Company to the Corporation. In the accompanying high expectations of the future the source of the capital for this investment had been ignored. 1837 however, was only the beginning of the ‘financial problems concerning the RNC commitment which were to plague the Town Council.

By 1855 they held 872 shares yet the average annual revenue from their investment fell far short of the Clyde’s average of £20.000, and in fact the total receipt for the years between 1837 and 1883 came to a mere £4,470 – an average of just over £97 per year. This investment was a consistent outflow of Corporate funds; direct investment was not the only source of financial liability for the Corporation. The development of wharves to serve the port was carried out on Corporation property on the Marsh and, therefore, the accompanying cost of quays, sheds, cranes and later the railway connecting the quays to the North Union fell to the Corporation, and expenditure averaged some £2,000 per year. This was offset to a certain extent by the revenue from rents levied on rented property on the developed Marsh estate.

The composition of the list of investors in the RNC compares interestingly with one of those with a vested industrial interest in the town. [2] The list includes twenty lawyers, seventeen ‘gentlemen’ and bankers; one hundred shares were taken up by twenty-seven merchants who would naturally have an interest in the development of the port, but strangely only six of the great cotton manufacturers purchased shares — a meagre twenty shares in total with fifteen of these being in the possession of two men. The cotton interest had forty cotton firms in Preston in 1837 yet the ‘cottonocracy’ preferred to invest in the Preston and Wigan railway, taking two hundred and forty shares between twenty-six of them in 1833.

The direct involvement of Council members in RNC investment also provides interesting results. Twenty-six Council members had already taken shares in the company before the crucial meeting of December 1837, and of the subscribers to the original RNC one third were at one stage, town councillors. Peter Catterall, a lawyer, conservative and later mayor of the borough, exposed the extent of the Corporation’s involvement when advising them to take no more shares in 1850 in a company with £18,000 debts:

… it appeared that there were a number of gentlemen so bound up with the … company that they would not listen to contrary views.
(Preston Chronicle February 9th 1850)

By 1855 the Corporation had allocated funds of £21,885, £20,292 of which had gone to the RNC for the purchase of shares. [3]

The development of Preston Docks held a position of extreme importance in the eyes of the Corporation – it served only to further the a growth of their manufacturing town. However, the Ribble commitment had serious repercussions on the: development of the town quite apart from the financial difficulties which it brought. Without doubt, the Council had entered their speculations on the Ribble with every belief in its success and the benefits of the town — it resulted, however, in clouding their vision of public responsibility and civic needs, and funds which were urgently needed within the town were invariably diverted to the RNC.

The reformed Corporation’s first duty under Peel’s Act was to provide Preston with a Police Force; they believed that ten constables were capable of policing 50,000 inhabitants. The question of a covered market for the traders of Preston emerges continuously throughout the minutes of the General Purposes Committee. In 1841 the minutes record details of final plans which were drawn up and the delimitation of three prospective sites, but the motion was finally defeated in February 1842 by twenty-four votes to nine after consideration of the state of Corporation funds, and the market traders were confined to the public streets much to the inconvenience of traffic and customers. The issue was not forgotten and continued to occur in the Council minutes and newspaper reports:

The Ribble Navigation Company requires more money. Councillor Bray points out that Corporation funds should not be appropriated to one particular channel, he considered now there was a good opportunity of considering and adopting some plan. Produce was now exposed in Church St, Fishergate and Friargate, in a way which they must not feel a proper plan in a large town – perhaps a covered market …
(Preston Chronicle May 18th 1844)

Sanitation and public health

Undoubtedly the most important of all the departments of municipal government is that which concerns itself with the public health.
(H.W. Clemesha: A History of Preston in Amounderness 1912)

The nineteenth century has been called the ‘new sanitary age’ and certainly sanitation and other public health issues were at the centre of many of the problems which Victorian cities experienced during that century. Until 1850 the Improvement Commissioners were responsible for public health issues and thereafter the Local Board Of Health assumed the Commissioners’ responsibilities.

Questions of the town’s cleanliness and living conditions of the working classes were frequently in the news. On February 17th 1844 the Rev. J. Clay gave a series of three lectures on ‘The Sanitary Condition of Preston’ to the Preston Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge. The results of his lecture were startling and the committee of the Institution would have done well to take due note of his findings, since they included George Jacson’(President), Robert Lawe, William Dobson, John Billington Booth, Laurence Spencer and Robert Segar, all of whom were councillors but only one, Spencer, an Improvement Commissioner at that time.

His lectures revealed that the average age of Preston’s living population was 24.5 years; below the national average of 26.5 years of age

Table 7: Conditions in Preston 1844
Ages Well-conditioned streets Moderate-conditioned streets Ill-Conditioned streets
  Deaths % Deaths % Deaths %
Under 1 21 15.5 158 20.8 250 38.3
Above 1 &
under 5
26 19.3 238 31.3 210 32.2
Above 5 88 65.2 364 47.9 192 29.5
 Total 135 760 652

 He blamed a large number of deaths on physical and moral causes. Firstly, ‘bad air, wretched cleanliness, insufficiency of food and clothing and nauseous smells’. On moral grounds he also blamed the deaths on ‘ignorance, laziness, intemperance and a great indifference to and neglect of human life’. The Rev. Clay feared not only for the physical ills of bad sanitation but also for the morality of the working class:

Here was moral disorder at work of the most serious character – not only eight persons in a bed but persons of both sexes! … Filthiness of person and sordidness of mind are usually united.
(Preston Guardian March 16th 1844)

The newspapers at this time reported on a number of lectures given in Preston relating to its sanitation and expressing genuine concern about the mortality in the borough resulting from the filthy conditions of some quarters. In 1845 a second Report was published by the Health of Towns Commissioners inquiring into the ‘State of Large and Populous District’. [4] The report contains descriptions of towns throughout the kingdom and the Preston entry revealed that the town was in desperate straits:

… for the activity of its authorities(it) has been strangely negligent in its endeavours to procure a systematic sewerage. [5]

Mr Philip Park, the steward for the Corporation, stated that Preston had no specific regulations concerning drainage and that the majority of the water from the houses flowed freely along the streets. The building of new streets had made no accommodation for drainage or sewerage, and the London Commissioners found that the information relating to the condition and location of the principal sewers was so vague that several weeks of excavation were necessary to ascertain the facts.

There also seemed to be little control of house construction.

Table 8: Living conditions in certain quarters of Preston
(Source: Parliamentary Paper 1845 XVIII)
District Houses Persons Privies
Canal Street 33 175 4
Back Canal Street (1) 19 108 4
Back Canal Street (2) 11 66 2
Pottery Hill 3 24 0
Hope Street 34 188 7
Savage’s Court 12 45 1
Court in Hope Street 3 20 1
Back Hope Street 4 19 1
Willow Street 20 128 12
York Street 10 51 9
Holden’s Square 21 137 2
Holden’s Yard 9 55 2
Total 179 1016 46

The absence of a Building Act in Preston has been severely felt, houses in the out district have sprung up, fair in their aspect but most defective in their construction. [6]

The Report made recommendations to be laid out in a general Act for the improvement of drainage, sewerage, paving, etc. and Lord Morpeth’s Public Health Act also outlined details of the provision of Local Boards of Health answerable to a General Board in London, which would do away with the Improvement Commissioners and replace them elected body.

Such moves brought an onslaught of criticism from Preston’s Improvement Commissioners over the proposed manipulation of a local body by a General Board, and a petition against the Bill was sent to Parliament through Sir George Strickland Bart., the town’s M.P. During the year of 1848 there was much debate over this topic with the Improvement Commissioners themselves coming in for fierce attack:

No.14 Arthur Street – stagnant cesspool etc. – owner of the property being an Improvement Commissioner. Four deaths have occurred there from diseases of miasmatic origin.
(Preston Chronicle April 15th 1848)

A month later the paper insinuated that the town councillors and Improvement Commissioners were owners of ‘unhealthy yards, cottages and cellars, as well as of mansions’.

The facts could not be ignored and the mortality figures required Preston to report to the Board of Health so that an inspector might be sent down. This resulted in a local Board being created in 1850, to which was transferred the powers of the Improvement Commission.

On the 9th August 1850 a Local Board for Preston was established. By September a surveyor had been appointed and by the end of the year a Public Health Committee came into existence consisting of the Mayor, four aldermen and twelve councillors; sub-committees deemed necessary were appointed from this body. The minutes of the Local Board show that the newly formed committee appeared to be very astute, ordering weekly meetings, creation of records and the sending of a copy of the Public Health Act to each builder, architect and surveyor in the town, as well as issuing many public notices. Many applications for the erection of new houses were not passed by the Local Board of Health. Over the next few years the Local Board of Health was very active in supervising the improvement of the sewerage in Preston, and in 1853 Henry Wrigg, the engineer and surveyor appointed to the Board, produced a report on the proposed new sewerage system for the town.

The plan was fairly detailed illustrating three chief mains and second-class mains, and the whole of the district, comprising 2,819 statute acres, was divided into five drainage areas. This scheme received praise from the General Board of Health:

… the General Board can only congratulate the inhabitants on the able manner in which the great work has been commenced at Preston upon which their health and welfare so large depend.
C. Maucaulay

In 1857 a further report was produced by a new surveyor John Newton (the Local Board had, in the meantime, come to blows with Wrigg and he duly resigned). The new report expanded on the old and proposed uses for the sewage, for example its application to agricultural land or the construction of a deodorising plant. Thus much work was undertaken in the 1850s to remedy Preston’s sanitary mismanagement. By 1859 the conditions in some parts of the town had improved but:

The increase (in mortality) has occurred mainly amongst the undrained, ill-ventilated dwellings of the working-class.

Table 9: Annual mortality rate in the borough of Preston
Year Computed population No. of deaths Proportion of deaths to pop. per 1,000 No. of births Proportion of births to pop. per 1,000
1838 45,540 1,286 28.24 1,833 40.25
1839 47,350 1,302 27.49 1,950 41.18
1840 49,170 1,993 40.53 1,999 40.60
1841 51,000 1,508 29.57 1,974 38.70
1842 52,840 1,550 29.33 1,944 36.79
1843 54,680 1,459 26.68 1,975 36.12
1844 56,520 1,380 24.42 2,200 38.92
1845 58,360 1,635 28.01 2,293 39.29
1846 60,200 2,189 36.36 2,475 41.09
1847 62,050 2,059 33.18 2,268 36.59
1848 63,900 1,550 24.26 2,223 34.79
1849 65,750 1,751 26.63 2,403 36.55
1850 67,600 1,745 25.81 2,649 39.91
1851 69,450 2,241 32.26 2,803 40.36
1852 71,300 2,284 32.03 2,998 42.05
1853 73,150 2,346 32.07 3,072 42.00
1854 75,000 2,013 26.84 3,037 40.50
1855 76,850 2,557 33.27 3,071 39.96
1856 78,700 2,255 28.65 3,151 40.04
1857 80,550 2,134 26.49 3,286 40.79
1858 82,450 2,542 25.42 3,083 37.38
Total and averages 39,779 29.66 52,686 39.20
Source: Council Minute Book 1858

 The water and gas question

Let then the question of the municipal appropriation of the water and gas works be resumed. It is true that mercenary obstructions should be removed – that public health and convenience should be fully consulted without the necessity of keeping up a constant clamour against the gross obstinacy of monopoly.
(Preston Guardian February 13th 1844)

In 1844 the Waterworks Company was in a state of prosperity, but concern was growing over the quality of water being supplied, its source and its cost to Preston’s citizens. The Commissioners investigating Preston’s health found that in fact Preston was one-of the more satisfactory towns in the country with 5,300 houses out of a total of 10,000 enjoying a constant pressurised supply of water from the mains.

The passing of the Public Health Act in 1848 required the Corporation to take over the waterworks and supply the town with water for domestic needs, for cleansing the streets, scouring the sewers and drains, and the extinction of fire. After the establishment of a Local Board of Health their surveyor was instructed to make a full report upon the water supply of the town. He found the water supply wanting in purity, pressure and quantity, recommending that the water be used ‘extravagantly’ at a rate of not less than thirty gallons daily to each inhabitant. The only method of purification up to that time had been by deposition which was felt to be extremely unsatisfactory.

There followed over the next few years a constant exchange of correspondence between Wrigg and the Water Company concerning the condition of the supply, being ‘positively unwholesome’. Samples of water were sent to Professor Calvert at the General Board of Health who found that the present supply was deficient but that pure water was readily obtainable by using the sandstone and millstone grit hills in the surrounding areas which acted as excellent natural filters. This pure supply from Cowley Brook had remained untapped because the Company were afraid of interfering with it since it supplied no fewer than nine mills at lower points along its course and the company would thus have to pay out large amounts in compensation. The General Board of Health declared that:

… although the condition of the water has been a matter of complaint by the inhabitants for years, the Company have hitherto taken no measures whatsoever for its improvement by filtration. [7]

On September 16th 1852 a provisional agreement for the transfer of the waterworks from the Company to the Local Board for the sum of £135,225 was established.

The only opposition to the Local Board’s purchase of the waterworks came from Alderman Thomas Miller, a cotton spinner, who felt that private companies were better qualified than public bodies to undertake the management of the water supply, the former having:

… the direct interest of a regard for their own pockets to induce an efficient supervision of such undertakings.
(Preston Guardian August 14th 1852)

In 1853 there was a canvassing of members of the council to induce them to withhold their consent from, or to oppose further work on the water scheme. The Preston Chronicle of August 9th 1856 records that Birley and Goodair, both millowners were also against the public waterworks. However, the Local Board pushed their Bill through Parliament without delay to confirm purchase and obtain powers for the improvement and extension of the waterworks which became the Preston Waterworks Act of 1853. The Act’s provisions, which were based on the fact that Preston’s population had doubled between 1831 and 1851, proposed schemes which assumed a further doubling of the population every twenty-three years.

In 1856 there was a move by Council members, led by Alderman Peter Catterall, to remove Mr Wrigg: the Local Board’s Surveyor. It was alleged that he was unwilling to fulfil the terms of his contract by not devoting himself fully to work for the Local Board, and that his works on the waterworks was negligent, and Mr Wrigg replied with his letter of resignation of both posts as surveyor and engineer as from November 15th 1856.

[1] H.N.B. Morgan, ‘Origins of Preston’s Dock Problem’, Lancaster University Regional Studies Bulletin, no. Summer (1977): 3–6.
[2] Morgan list of subscribers to the RNC October 1837.
[3] Philip Park, Report on Corporation Finances (Preston, 1855).
[4] ‘Second Report of Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts’, Parliamentary Papers XVIII, 1845.
[5] ‘Second Report into the State of Large Towns’.
[6] ‘Second Report into the State of Large Towns’.
[7] E. C. Oakes, Water Supplies through Three Centuries: A Centenary Handbook to Commemorate One Hundred Years of Public Ownership of the County Borough of Preston Waterworks (Preston: Mather (Printers), 1953).

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