Reforming Preston – section 6


Preston was, then, fundamentally different from many northern industrial towns in that, in spite of radical reform in 1835, power still lay firmly in the hands of the Conservatives. The Liberals had undoubtedly strengthened their position in municipal politics but remained under Tory domination. One might imagine that this would have had a profound effect on social and environmental policies in Preston but, in the long run, the development of local government and its associated increasing interest in, and attention to, the problems of the urban environment differs little from concomitant development in other towns.

The emergent industrial elite of Preston was, in the main, Conservative often with a landholding background, who recognised the potential fortune to be made in ‘King Cotton’ and other new industries. Since they already occupied prominent positions within society, were head of their own factory communities which were societies within themselves, they were an inevitable choice for municipal leadership, and thus the elite strengthened their reputation and influence.

Reform had endeavoured to put an end to the nepotism of the old corporations, but the opportunities brought by municipal duties were too great to be so swiftly eradicated. This study has shown how councillors furthered their own interests along with, but sometimes to the detriment of those of the town – the development of the port and the provision of adequate water supplies are only two examples.

One speaks of the power lying in the hands of the cottonocracy and other industry, yet it is wise to look more closely at the stability of the Council and the relative positions of the main occupational groups on the Council. Preston saw a decline in the cotton interest during the 1850s and the rise of the ‘professional group’ in the late 1840s and early 1850s (see Figure 2) in response to the needs of the town. The balance of power fluctuated continually between 1835 and 1860 with the merchants and retailers finally regaining the measure of their former representation after two decades of subjugation.

An interesting fact which emerges from this study is that of the struggle of the Town Council to maintain their independence in the face of increasing interference from Parliament. The replacement of the Improvement Commissioners by the Local Board of Health in 1860 was fiercely but vainly opposed by Preston Council. Yet the period 1835 to 1860 covers the beginning of an evolutionary period for municipal government in Preston. A body formed essentially for the maintenance of public order developed into one embracing much wider social goals; sanitary reform became a major objective, as was the more efficient provision of gas and water. The 1850s saw the establishment of public baths and wash-houses, and of a public park, Avenham Park, for the enjoyment and recreation of all Preston’s citizens.

The passing of many local acts increased the Council’s powers and was ultimately more responsible for the foundation of an effective municipal administration than the attempts at centralisation made by Parliament. The growth of the Council meant the growth of the town, although this was no easy task at a time of high mortality and the advent of economic difficulties in the 1860s. The Council which had just begun to discover its civic responsibilities and duties was faced with a threat to its most important industry – cotton. A study of this length could not hope to tackle the further question of the maturing Council’s battle against the Cotton Famine. It has sought only to investigate and explain its years of infancy.


Table 10: Attendance at General Purpose Committee meetings 1836/37/38; 1849/50/51; 1858/59/60Preston Council attendance figuresPreston Council attendance figuresPreston Council attendance figuresPreston Council attendance figuresPreston Council attendance figures

Attendance at General Purpose Committee meetings 1835-1860

The GPC met to discuss questions of construction and building within Preston, as well as the buying and selling of land. The Tables show clearly that the regularity and frequency of these meetings declined over the twenty-five year period. I took three periods of three years within the study period in order to ascertain the stability of the Committee’s composition and the variation in attendance among the councillors and thus infer some measure of the effectiveness and importance of such meetings.

The first period, 1836-38 saw the largest number of meetings and, on the whole, high attendance. Over the three years attendance rose some 12% from 42.5% to 54% and the composition was fairly stable.

The enthusiasm of the early years of municipal reform waned and the middle period, 1849-51 saw a drop in the frequency of meetings. Stability was again good, there being only two or three changes including the mayoral seat. Attendance, however, fell considerably, standing at 29%, 30% and 30.8% in 1849, 1850 and 1851 respectively.

The final period, 1858-60 saw an increase in the number of meetings and stability in its composition, although the stability over the whole twenty-five year period was understandably not as great, and no member of 1836 remained on the committee until 1860. There was also a rise in attendance much more towards its level at the time of reform at around 44%.

These levels of attendance may, however, be deceiving since analysis shows that they depended very much on the attendance of only a small number of councillors. The later years are characterised by the presence of one or two councillors who went regularly to meetings and many who went infrequently. Individual attendance during the earlier years is higher. Therefore, even though general attendance at the beginning and end of the period is higher than in between, individual attendance has declined. No one particular occupational group attended significantly more or less than any other.


Primary sources

Lancashire Record Office
1. General Purpose Committee Minutes: CBP 30/L1; CBP 30/2; CBP 30/4
2. Improvement Commissioner’s Books: CBP 53/1 1838-45 (1846-50 Book mislaid at time of research)
3. Water Committee Minutes: CBP 51/1
4. Composite Volumes of Local Board (Health) Committee Minutes: CBP 17/1; CBP 17/2; CBP 17/3; CBP 17/4
5. Preston Chronicle: 1835; 1836; 1839; 1844; 1845; 1848; 1849; 1850; 1853; 1859; 1860.

Harris Library Preston
6. Preston Pilot: 1837; 1838; 1839; 1841; 1842; 1843; 1844; 1845
7. Preston Guardian: 1844; 1845; 1847; 1852; 1856; 1860.
8. Council Minute Books (printed): 1835-1860
9. Report on the Proposed Municipal Boundary and Division into Wards of the Borough of Preston 1835. Parliamentary Paper (PF 914.272)
10. Reports on the Examination of the Supply of Water to the Town of Preston 1842 (P628.1)
11. Report to the Mayor, Aldermen and Councillors of the Borough of Preston, as the Local Board of Health upon the Principal Main Sewers proposed to be constructed under the powers of the Public Health Act, 1848. By Henry Wrigg – Engineer and Surveyor to the Board 1853 (P.628.2P)
12. Report on the Sewerage of the Borough of Preston by John Newton 1857 (P.628.2)

University Library, Cambridge
13. Second Report of commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts. P.P.1845 XVIII

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