A History of Preston

By Tim Lambert

Preston in the Middle Ages

Preston began as a village. It was called Priest’s tun, which means a priest’s farm or estate. In the 12th century, it grew into a town. This was partly because of its position. Firstly Preston is on a river. In those days it was much cheaper to transport goods by water than by land so goods could be easily transported to and from Preston. Preston was also the first place inland where the river could be bridged so a great deal of traffic passed through the area.

Preston was also on the main road from northern to southern England. Many people passed through the town and spend money there. In 1179 Preston was given a charter. (A charter was a document giving the townspeople certain rights).

Medieval Preston may have had about 1,500 inhabitants and about half a dozen streets. It would seem very small to us but towns were very small in those days. By the standards of the time, Preston was a fair-sized market town.

Though Preston was too small to have stone walls it did have stone gates, where tolls could be charged on goods entering the town. By the 12th century, Preston had a weekly market. From the 13th century, it also had a fair. In the Middle, Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a period of several days. People would come from all over Lancashire to buy and sell at a Preston fair.

In the Middle Ages, there was a leper hospital just outside Preston. It was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. About 1260 the Franciscan friars arrived in Preston. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach and to help the poor and the sick. Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of their grey habits. Furthermore, by the 14th century, there was a grammar school in Preston.

Preston in the 16th century and 17th century

In 1539 Henry VIII closed the friary. Despite the religious changes of the 16th century most of the people of Preston remained staunch Catholics.

Tudor Preston was a flourishing town. The main industry in Preston was textiles. Both linen and wool were made in Preston. Like all towns at that time Preston suffered from outbreaks of plague. A particularly severe outbreak occurred in 1631. But each time it struck the population soon recovered.

In 1642 came the civil war between the king and parliament. The people of Preston steadfastly supported the king. But in February 1643 parliamentary troops attacked Preston and quickly captured it. The mayor was killed. However, the royalists recaptured Preston in March 1643. They did not hold it for long. In April 1643 the royalists were forced to withdraw from Preston and the surrounding area. The civil war ended in 1646 and the King was captured.

In 1648 a Scottish army tried to restore him to his throne. They marched into Lancashire but they were met by an English army east of Preston and they were routed.

In the late 17th century Preston probably had a population of about 3,000 and from 1699 the streets of Preston were lit by oil lamps. At the end of the 17th century, the travel writer Celia Fiennes described Preston as a very good market town. She was impressed by the range of goods on sale on market day and commented on the ‘pretty church’.

Preston in the 18th century

In the early 18th century a writer said Preston was: ‘A pretty town with an abundance of gentry in it, commonly called Proud Preston’.

In 1688 James II was deposed as king of England and Scotland but in 1715 a Scottish army attempted to put his son, James III back on the throne. The Scottish army marched into Preston. Many of the townspeople were sympathetic as James II was a Catholic and Preston was a stronghold of Catholicism. Some townspeople joined his army. However, an English army soon marched to Preston. The defenders erected barricades and dug trenches. The first English attack on Preston was driven back. The English then set fire to the outskirts of Preston but, fortunately for the defenders, the wind was blowing away from the center of the town and the flames did not spread.

Then English reinforcements arrived from the East and English soldiers completely surrounded the town. Realizing their position was hopeless the Scots surrendered. They were held prisoners in the church and were fed on bread and water at the expense of the townspeople. Furthermore, 12 people were executed for treason at Preston. The Scots returned in 1745 and they marched as far as Derby but they then turned back. This time no battle took place in Preston.

In the 18th century, Preston continued to trade with Europe. Hemp, timber, and iron were imported from the Baltic region. Preston also traded with the West Indies. Some ships from Preston took part in the slave trade.

For centuries wool and linen were woven in Preston. However, by the late 18th century they had given way to cotton. The first cotton mill in Preston opened in 1771. Some cotton was made in mills but there were also handloom weavers, who made cotton cloth in their own homes.

In the mid-18th century, a writer said that Preston: ‘may for its beauty and largeness compare with most cities. For the politeness of the inhabitants, none can excel. Here are a handsome church and a town hall where the corporation meets for business and the gentlemen and ladies for balls and assemblies. Here is likewise a spacious marketplace in the midst of which stands a fine obelisk. The streets are neatly paved and the houses well built of brick and slates. The town being a great thoroughfare (i.e. a stopping place on the main road to Scotland), there are a good many inns for travellers. This town has pretty good trade for linen yarn, cloth, cotton, etc.’

Another writer, of the same period, said that Preston: ‘Lives chiefly by its being a great thoroughfare and by many families of middling fortune living in nit’. From 1771 stagecoaches ran from Preston to Wigan and Warrington. In 1792 a canal was built to Lancaster.

Preston in the 19th century

By the time of the first census in 1801, Preston had a population of 11,887. By the standards of the time, it was a large town. Moreover, Preston grew rapidly during the 19th century. By 1851 Preston had a population of 69,361. This was despite epidemics of cholera in 1832 and 1848.

Like all early 19th century towns Preston was dirty and unsanitary. The situation improved a little in the late 19th century with the building of sewers but even in the early 20th century many of the townspeople used earth closets (basically a bucket that was emptied at night into a cart by the ‘night soil men’).

During the 19th century, there were some improvements in the amenities in Preston. From 1800 Preston had night watchmen that patrolled the streets at night. The first modern police force in the town was formed in 1836. Meanwhile, in 1809 a dispensary where the poor could obtain free medicines opened. The Royal Infirmary opened in 1870.

After 1816 the streets of Preston were lit by gas and a corn market, where grain could be bought and sold was built in 1824. From 1832 there was a piped water supply. At first, it was provided by a private company but in 1853 the corporation bought the waterworks. Then in 1838, the railway reached Preston.

Life in 19th century Preston gradually improved. The first museum in Preston opened in 1841. Then in 1855, a cemetery was opened. Also in 1855 St Johns Church was built. A new Town Hall was built in Preston in 1867. Also in 1867, a cattle market was built in the town.

In the late 19th century Preston council opened public parks. Miller Park was laid out in 1864. Moor Park opened in 1867. From 1879 horse-drawn trams ran in Preston. Also in 1879, a free library opened in the town hall. The first telephone exchange in Preston opened in 1881. In 1893 the Harris Museum and Art Gallery opened. A training school for deaf and dumb children opened in 1894 and Victoria Jubilee Technical School opened in 1897.

During the 19th century industry in Preston was dominated by cotton. By 1835 there were 40 cotton mills. There was industrial unrest in the early 19th century with demonstrations in 1808 and 1818 and a strike in 1836. In 1853-54 the employers locked out the employees.

The docks in Preston also flourished during the 19th century. Albert Edward Dock was built in 1892. As well as export and imports to other countries there was a considerable coastal trade in the 19th century. Grain was ‘imported’ from other parts of the country and coal from the Wigan coalfield was ‘exported’ to other parts of Britain.

Preston in the 20th century

In 1901 the population of Preston was almost 120,000. The Leyland steam wagon company was formed in 1896. In 1904 they began making petrol-driven vehicles. The name of the company was changed to Leyland Motors in 1907. After 1918 the cotton industry, which had dominated the town for so long, collapsed. There was very high unemployment.

However, some new industries such as electrical goods and engineering came to the town, which largely offset the decline of textiles. In 1918 aircraft manufacture began in Preston. Courtaulds rayon factory opened in 1939.

In the 1920s and 1930s, nearly 3,000 council houses were built in Preston. Another 1,500 were privately built. Penwortham and Fulwood grew rapidly at that time. In 1903 Sessions House was built in Preston. The Town Hall was added to the building in 1933. A Cenotaph was built in Preston in 1926.

Preston escaped serious bomb damage during the Second World War and nobody was killed. However, in 1944 61 people were killed when a plane crashed in Freckleton.

In the 1950s immigrants from India, Pakistan and the West Indies came to Preston.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the cotton industry continued to decline and eventually virtually ceased. The dock also declined and closed altogether in 1981.

Things grew worse in the late 1970s as firms such as British Leyland began making people redundant. Furthermore, the Courtaulds factory closed in 1979 with the loss of nearly 3,000 jobs. It was a severe blow to the local economy. Mass unemployment returned. The only bright spot in the gloom was the expansion of service industries like tourism.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a great deal of slum clearance in Preston and many new council houses were built. The Larches estate was built at Ashton. Other estates were built at Middleforth Green, Brookfield, and Penwortham. From the mid-1970s, the council’s policy changed from tearing down old houses to giving grants to the inhabitants to improve them.

The Preston bypass was built in 1958. The St Georges Shopping Centre was built in 1964. The Fishergate Centre opened in 1986.

The ring road was built in the early 1970s. A bus station and a Guildhall were also built in Preston at that time. In 1999 Preston Guildhall was refurbished using a National Lottery grant.

Preston in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Preston continues to thrive. In 2001 the National Football Museum opened in Preston. Furthermore, Preston has become a regional shopping center for Northwest England. In 2002 Preston was made a city. In 2021 the population of Preston was 141,000.