Reforming Preston

Local politics and the geography of the Victorian city: the activities of Preston Municipal Corporation in the nineteenth century

This was the title of the final year dissertation that Margaret Spillane (or Margaret Ainscough as she then was) wrote while a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, 40 years ago. She was the first woman to graduate from the college.

In her preface Margaret, whose family came from Preston, thanks the staff of the Harris Reference Library and the Lancashire Record Office in Preston for their help, and constant fetching-and-carrying, Nigel Morgan for his advice, and her aunt, with whom she stayed in Penwortham while working on the dissertation.

She met Nigel, the acknowledged authority on the 19th-century history of Preston, in the summer of 1980 in the Harris Library where she was researching information for her dissertation. She recalls, ‘He was a great help to me and, as a research novice, he pointed me in the right direction on many occasions. I was very sad to hear of his death through your website. I remember him as a very amiable and helpful man.’


Section 1 : Pre-reform Preston
The beginning of the social and geographical separation of the classes in Preston is captured by Margaret in the following extract from the Preston Chronicle from February 1836, describing the new Green Bank Estate on the north of the town as a ‘…peculiarly suitable site for a considerable number of cotton works [which] 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.’

Section 2: The Municipal Reform Act – 1835
The act led to the drawing of ward boundaries with what looks suspiciously like gerrymandering that meant that the ‘…population most hostile to the Tories were confined within two wards out of the six; thus, even if they elected sixteen Radical aldermen and councillors between them, they could do nothing against the wishes or votes of the other four wards.’

Section 3: Politics and the town councillors
In most boroughs the effect of the act was to shift power from the Tories to the Liberals. Not so in Preston where, possibly assisted by the gerrymandering of ward boundaries, the ‘… old Tory-dominated corporation became a new reformed yet still Tory-dominated corporation, and although the Liberals gained many more seats than previously, there was little transference of power.’

Section 4: Manufacturers, professionals and merchants
This section provides a detailed discussion of the political, occupational and religious complexion of the membership of the town council from 1835 to 1860. Catholic Preston could supply only two of the 42 aldermen and councillors in 1859: both Liberals.

Section 5: Business and malpractice
Improvement commissioners were appointed and one of their responsibilities was what would now be called environmental health. Joseph Livesey was not impressed, writing, ‘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.’ This section also contains a very good treatment of the financial nightmare resulting from the council’s involvement in the Preston Dock development.

Section 6: Conclusion, appendices and bibliography