Preston - a potted history

Friargate Preston

A Short History of Preston

Preston has long been a significant market centre, however, its early history is mostly unrecorded.

The original settlement was clearly not of Roman foundation, but appears to have developed from an Anglian settlement sometime around the 7th Century. Land was given to St Wilfrid in the 7th Century to establish a church that took his name until 1581.

It is clear that Preston was, for most of its history, a small town but relative to other market centres in the county it was always of significant economic importance, being considered the richest borough in the 14th Century.

It was never walled, had only one church until the 17th Century and almost into the 19th Century comprised of only three main streets; Church Street, Fishergate and Friargate. Their medieval burgage plots are still visible today. These were surrounded by scores of fields owned by the freemen of the town whose names were recorded every 20 years at the famous Preston Guild.

Admired by writers such as Daniel Defoe, Preston developed into the fashionable resort of the county's 'polite society'. Headed by the Stanleys, whose political and financial influence remained important for decades, Preston became well known for its grand houses, elegant streets, coaching inns and Avenham Walk, the 17th Century promenade with its views of the River Ribble.

Despite its small size, Preston was the stage for battles of national importance - in 1648 Cromwell's brilliant victory over the Duke of Hamilton and in 1715, the defeat of the Jacobites. In 1732 it was the birthplace of an individual who had a significant role in creation of the modern world - Richard Arkwright.

Suddenly Preston changed. Industrial development resulting from better toll roads and bridges, the Lancaster Canal, numerous railways, gas lighting, of which Preston was a pioneer and the water and steam powered technology of cotton manufacturers such as the Horrocks family, transformed Preston into the model of the 19th Century industrial society.

The gentry quickly abandoned their great houses while a new class of wealthy professionals and entrepreneurs developed areas such as Winckley Square, and then created the suburbs in the 1850s.

The problems of poverty, pollution, unrest and social polarization were central to Preston's history at this time. Thousands poured into Preston, filling the old quarters with overcrowded yards and alleys. Insufficient water supplies, lack of sewerage and child mortality remained significant problems for 100 years, although this period also saw educational and scientific advancements, public transport, sporting achievements and the rise of teetotalism.

Charles Dickens and Karl Marx were among many who visited Preston to witness a new society forming as the town fields quickly disappeared beneath factories, terraces of workers cottages, churches and public parks.


This new society left Preston an architectural heritage of elegance (the Harris Museum and Library in 1891), economic power (Centenary Mill in 1895), religious confidence (St Walburgs in 1854) and civic pride despite the loss of important buildings in the 20th Century including Sir George Gilbert Scott's Gothic town hall (1867).

The 20th Century was a period of economic and social diversification as Preston responded to regional, national and global changes.

From the end of the 19th Century Preston became the seat of the new county council (1882). The huge Albert Edward Dock which opened in 1892, answered the challenge of the movement of cotton manufacturing to other parts of the world. New industries developed. Dick Kerr still exists as part of British Aerospace; Cortaulds' factory at Walton, once the world's largest producer of Rayon, does not.

In the second half of the 20th Century the Preston by-pass, the nation's first motorway and the Preston ring road addressed the growing problems of traffic congestion at this ancient crossroads.

As old factories and terraces were demolished, new modernist buildings such as Preston bus station (1969) and the Guild Hall (1972), were constructed. Manufacturing declined in importance and its place was taken by service industries. Today the University of Central Lancashire, which can trace its history back to a Sunday school founded in the 1830s, is an expanding influence on the fabric of modern Preston.

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