Preston: Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution
The city of Preston in Lancashire holds claim to being the birthplace of the industrial revolution. In 1769 Richard Arkwright invented the water frame in his three storey house on Stoneygate. According to a local rumour his neighbours mistook the noise of the machine for the devil’s bagpipes and imagined Arkwright and his accomplice, Kay, dancing a jig. This formed an eerie prelude to the rise of the ‘dark Satanic mills’ that came to dominate Preston and its people and made England ‘the workshop of the world’.
Industrialisation led to a massive increase in Preston’s populace. Between 1801 and 1851 it grew from 11,887 to 69,361. The mechanisation of spinning and hand-loom weaving forced people from their rural cottages where they practiced their trades into towns to seek employment in the mills.
Over forty mills were built with terraces to house the workers, which were hopelessly over-crowded. Slums grew up in backyards. Huge pools of waste accumulated due to the inadequacy of foul ditches, the most notorious being known as ‘Brown Friargate’. Cholera and smallpox were rife. Between 1880 and 1900, the town had the highest infant mortality rate in the country.
Class Conflict: Luddites and Chartists
Due to squalid living conditions, unreasonable hours and poor pay Lancashire became renowned for its social divides and class conflicts. In 1779 a mob marched from Blackrod gathering people from Chorley (3-4,000 in total!) to attack one of Arkwright’s earliest mills at Birkacre. After smashing the spinning frames, carding and roving engines and wheels they burnt them and razed the building to the ground.
In 1811 the Luddite movement emerged in opposition to the mechanisation of spinning and weaving. Invoking the legendary General Ludd its proponents burnt factories and smashed machines. Luddite revolts swept across Lancashire in 1813. Whilst I have found references to a Luddite presence and unrest in Preston I haven’t come across any examples of attacks on mills here yet.
Preston’s first major rebellion was the Spinners’ Strike of 1836. Shortly afterward it became a centre of the Chartist movement. This aimed to bring about social reform by winning the vote for working men. One of the main Chartist leaders in Preston was Richard Marsden, a hand-loom weaver from Bamber Bridge.
In 1838 Marsden arranged a massive demonstration of several thousand people including trade unions with four bands and forty banners sporting slogans such as ‘Better to die by the sword than perish with hunger’, ‘Britons strike home. We know our rights and will maintain them’, ‘Who would be free, must himself strike the first blow’.
Marsden affirmed the people’s right to use not only moral but physical force. Fergus O’Connor, who he invited to speak at the demonstration, also stated though he wished moral force would ‘effect every change’ in its failure ‘physical force would come to its aid like an electric shock.’ When the Charter was rejected by the House of Commons in 1839, the following strike (ironically named the ‘Sacred Month’) only lasted three days. The Chartists’ hope and lightning-like enthusiasm fizzled out.
The movement revived in 1842 in the wake of the economic depression. The next rejection of the Charter resulted in the notorious Plug Plot Riots. Mobs stormed across Lancashire pulling the plugs from steam engines and turning workers out of the mills. On Black Saturday (13th August 1842) an angry crowd gathered in Lune Street. As cotton lord Samuel Horrocks read the Riot Act, they pelted him with stones and an order was given to the police to open fire.
Twenty shots were fired. Four rioters were killed and three badly wounded. The mills re-opened on Monday. North Lancashire Chartism perished in 1848. But this did not end the strikes.
The Great Lock-Out
Because Preston’s cotton lords paid the lowest wages in the country, the town became the fulcrum of the struggle for better rates of pay. This led to the Great Lock-Out of 1853-54. Masters decided to close their factories over a cold and bitter winter rather than give in to the workers’ demands.
To staff the factories ‘knobstick’ workers; emaciated inhabitants of the workhouses of Ireland were shipped to Lancashire. Many were intercepted by the strikers, fed and sent back before they reached their destination. Getting them past the picket lines also proved to be an onerous task.
At this point Karl Marx famously proclaimed ‘The eyes of the working classes are now opened: they begin to cry “Our St Petersburg is at Preston”.’ However, Preston failed to become Britain’s revolutionary capital. When union funds ran out, on May Day 1854 the workers agreed to return.
Whilst these radical movements were initially unsuccessful they paved the way to fairer working hours and acceptance of the vote for working men under the Reform Act of 1867. Drawing on their legacy, the Preston-born suffragette, Edith Rigby, played a leading role in the establishment of equal voting rights for women in 1928.
In 1992 ‘The Preston Martyrs’ Memorial’: a brutalist sculpture by George Young was finally built to commemorate the death of the rioters on Lune Street. Its plaque reads: Never without sacrifice have gains been made towards justice and democracy.
The City Deal and Protest
Although the mills are gone, industrialisation has not gone away. The implementation of the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal involves the expansion of ‘Enterprise Zones’ belonging to BAE at Warton and Samlesbury, establishing ‘Development Centres’ for more businesses and building more houses and roads to create more jobs to grow the economy.
The growth of the economy is based upon fuel. Caudrilla are pushing to open a number of new fracking sites across Lancashire. The fates of Preston New Road and Roseacre will be decided between the 23rd and 26th of June. This decision will be crucial for whether fracking will be allowed to go ahead in other places in the county and across the UK. Protests have been planned outside the County Hall by Lancashire Frack Off and supporting groups.
Preston will again become a centre of conflict between those who wish to exploit the land and its people for the benefit of a few rich investors and shareholders and those willing to stand against them.
J. E. King Richard Marsden and the Preston Chartists, 1837-1848 (1981)
Jim Heyes A History of Chorley (1994)
David Hunt A History of Preston (1992)
Yarrow Valley History Trail Leaflet