Victorian Preston’s ‘worst slum’

Section of the 60 inch 1st edition of the OS map for Preston
Fig 1. Section of the 60 inch 1st edition of the OS map for Preston showing the census enumeration district that contained the town’s Little Ireland.

The Preston neighbourhood that came to be known as the Irish district in the 19th century has been the subject of much comment both from contemporary observers such as the Rev John Clay and from later students of the town’s social history, notably Nigel Morgan. They were all agreed that conditions in the district were amongst the worst to be found in the town, and in the rest of industrial Lancashire.

See also:
Poverty and privilege in Victorian Preston
Edwin Waugh’s Portrait of Preston
A disturbing tour of Victorian Preston

The direst living conditions in that district were possibly those experienced by the residents of Foster (or Foster’s) Square, which I believe provided the name for UCLan’s Foster Building, erected adjacent to the original square in the 1960s during one of the university’s periods of expansion.

Dr Keith Vernon, principal lecturer in history at the university and the author of the latest history of the institution, [1] pointed out to me that the campus buildings of that date were simply named for the neighbouring street, as in Maudland Building and Leighton Building in the plan below. The latter would have been named for Leighton Street which in turn was named for William Leighton’s textile mill: so in both cases simply prosaic proximity.

That the Victorian properties that occupied the site now taken by the UCLan campus were incomparably bad was certainly the view of one commentator whose remarks on the appalling overcrowding endured by the district’s inhabitants have escaped notice. That commentator was John Hoghton, the census enumerator for the district in 1861 (RG 9/3131 enumeration district 27). It is highly unusual to come across social commentary on census returns but Mr Hoghton was so provoked by the overcrowded and insanitary conditions in which the residents of the district were living that he crammed the space allowed him on the census form with his views on the subject.

A section of the OpenStreet map of Preston showing the location of Foster Square.
Fig 2. A section of the OpenStreet map of Preston showing the location of Foster Square on the UCLan campus. Foster Building sits astride the site of Thomas Miller’s Canal Street cotton mill. The map pre-dates the latest UCLan campus developments. Map data copyrighted OpenStreetMap contributors and available from

Mr Hoghton described it as ‘one of the poorest and most neglected districts in Preston’, and, after detailing the atrocious conditions that the residents had to endure, singled out those properties owned by a Mrs Foster of Liverpool as the worst. Many of these properties were in Foster Square. When the square first appears in the Preston Land Tax Books one of the occupiers is a builder by the name of Foster. [2] It is quite likely he was related to Mrs Foster and was the person who built the properties and gave them their name. Shortly after he appears to have moved to more salubrious surroundings.

See also:
Preston’s ‘Little Ireland’
A disturbing tour round Victorian Preston

If Mr Hoghton is to be believed, the absentee landlady Mrs Foster continued to extract the maximum profit from the properties while providing very little in return to her tenants.

Elsewhere in his return Mr Hoghton included a veiled criticism of the town’s wealthiest cotton manufacturer, Thomas Miller.

First page of Preston 1861 census return
Fig 3. Mr Hoghton’s description of his enumeration district

The following is a transcript of Mr Hoghton’s  comments in the above document; sadly the final line or lines have not survived:

Description of Enumeration District

West side of Friargate from Hope Street to Canal Street, south side of Canal Street to the canal, along east side of canal thereof to Maudland Road, from Maudland Bridge to Fylde Street, south side of Fylde Street to Canal street, north side of Canal Street to the canal, including Back Canal Street, Pottery Hill, Old Hollow, Whiteheads Yard, Foster’s Square, Friday Street, Dawson’s Square, and Hanson’s Square.
Mrs Foster’s property is numbered 2 to 5 Whitehead’s Yard, Foster’s Square, 7 to 33 Foster’s Square, 27 to 33 Canal St & 1 to 7 Friday St
Enumerator’s Remarks.
In the remarks below respecting Mrs Foster’s Property her 4 cottages in Whitehead’s Yard Foster’s Square, being in reality a part of Foster’s Square the numbers being progressive are treated as in Foster’s Square. No 5 & 6 is a double Cottage, but it is only fair to Mrs Foster to say that the others are only single Cottages containing a … and a Bedroom some of the Bedrooms being on the Ground Floor …

No. 27 is one of the poorest and most neglected districts in Preston, it is called the Irish district as it is chiefly inhabited by natives of Ireland and their descendants. With the exception of the Public Hous [es?, letters missing] and a few Shops in Friargate and Fylde St, the Houses are all Cottages and many of them are sadly overcrowded, there being Lodgers at most of the Cottages, in many cases there are two families besides other Lodgers living in one Cottage, and in a few cases there are three distinct families living in one Cottage. In No 39. Canal St there were three families besides two Lodgers, being altogether sixteen persons in one Cottage. In all the district there are only 7 Lodgers who take a separate eating room. In all the other cases the Lodgers eat at the same Table but provide their own food, paying a Rent of from one shilling to 2/6 per week for an adult. – The Cottages are very dirty and miserable. Indeed there is such an entire absence of social comfort, that few respectable persons would imagine that there was such an amount of misery and destitution in Preston. In Foster’s Square about one third of the Cottages had a Bed in the Kitchen, and in some of the Cottages in Canal St, Back Canal St [&c?] there is a Bed in the Kitchen. But there is one feature to which I wish to draw special attention [word defaced] the serious insufficiency of Conveniences for the easement of Nature (“Necessaries”). Perhaps the property of Mrs Foster of Liverpool is the worst off in this … [line below defaced].

Further on in his return Mr Hoghton turns his eye on the wealthy cotton merchant Thomas Miller, owner of the mills that provided employment for the inhabitants, as shown in the following comments squeezed at the bottom of two of the pages in his return:

Section of Preston census return
Section of Preston 1861 census return
Fig 4. Mr Hoghton’s comments on Thomas Miller

Canal St Mill is one of the Cotton Mills of Thomas Miller Esq. of Winckley Square and now solely belongs to him. Thos Miller Esq. is an Alderman of the Borough, and is the principal Capitalist in Preston. I believe that he was a member of the Corporation Committee of Taste and Recreation for the improvement of Public Walks etc, he is probably not aware of the sanitary conditions of Foster’s Square, Canal St etc, which are contiguous to his mill. (RG 3131/73/32 and 33).

I think there is a criticism of Alderman Miller in Hoghton’s comment that Miller ‘is probably not aware of the sanitary conditions of Foster’s Square’. If Miller truly was unaware of the housing conditions endured by his employees then he was blindly uncaring. If he was aware then he was complicit in their degradation. I think Hoghton believed the latter.

The ‘Committee of Taste and Recreation’ would have been the Committee of Health and Recreation established in 1836, which was the subject of much satirical comment from the likes of Joseph Livesey as funds were diverted from amenities for all the town to amenities solely for the affluent, as recorded by Nigel Morgan.

The following material is based on a chapter in Nigel’s MPhil thesis. Many more examples of the creeping embourgeoisement of the town’s cultural institutions can be found elsewhere in his thesis and in his account of middle-class housing in the town, Desirable Dwellings. The latter publication describes in great detail the ways in which a bourgeois material culture shaped the social gradations in the town’s middle-class neighbourhoods.

When the committee was first proposed Livesey and like-minded reformers had envisaged it as providing such public amenities as public baths and ward schools for the poor, ‘the present schools being of advantage only to the rich’.

However, the exertions of committee members quickly shifted away from any notion of social reform, provoking the comment that, ‘They had appointed a committee of health, whose exertions were mainly in behalf of the higher classes …’ Soon the provision of public baths and ward schools was forgotten and attention was turned to extending and improving Avenham Walks. This move won:

… the support of alderman George Jacson who ‘had enjoyed the advantages of residence in the neighbourhood of Avenham Walks’ and reminded the Council that ‘the particular classes whose advantage was chiefly contemplated (were) those who have little leisure except during certain hours of the day… this made it necessary to provide for them near their homes’; the motion passed unanimously and in November the land was mortgaged to Pedder’s bank.

This was followed up by a council grant to help fund the Avenham Institution on a site opposite the Walks. Livesey commented:

If the building be intended as an ornament to a part of the town that needs it the least… nobody ought to complain, … a more unlikely site could scarcely have been chosen. It is quite at an outside corner of the town, and convenient only to the comparatively wealthy. And not only so, but it will become less and less central as the town extends…

As Nigel Morgan noted, ‘Such was the fate of early municipal idealism.’

[1] Keith Vernon, A History of the University of Central Lancashire (Preston: UCLan, 2018).
[2] ‘Preston Land Tax Assessment’, 1781-1831, QDL/A/50, Lancashire Archives.

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