This week marks the 35th anniversary of the closing of Preston dock following a six year-long battle between dockers and the council. Imogen Cooper reports.
Preston Docks first ran into serious trouble in 1975, six years before its official closing in 1981, when it reported a loss of £1.5m, the biggest deficit in the port’s history.
The number of ships visiting the port was recorded at 675 and sank to an all-time-low of 538 one year later.
Port managers’ response was to announce the redundancy of 450 dockers effectively serving notice on almost a century of transatlantic trade.
It was clear that something needed to be done. A Ribble committee was set up, responsible for investigating the possibility of dock closure.
A survey was put out to explore the options available to the failing dock: to see whether it could continue to operate as it was at present with all possible economies; to assess the financial future of the dock with predictions of trade at their lowest expected level; and finally to judge the cost and potential benefit of closing the dock altogether.
The committee soon said that a mere reduction in the labour force would not be enough to save the dock - more drastic action needed to be taken.
Closing the dock would not be an easy decision or straightforward procedure: an Act of Parliament was necessary as well as a Private Members’ Bill, which would take about six months to prepare. Many of the docks assets could be sold, such as dredgers, pipelines, vessels and cranes, generating an estimated £1.4m.
However, the closure, which included the costs of paying off outstanding loan debts and offering redundancy pay and compensation, was estimated at costing £3.5m over a span of 10 years, to be paid by taxpayers.
A suggestion was made of a redevelopment of the dock, which would offer employment for 2,000 people, an increase on the 1,500 who were working in the port in 1976.
The news that the dock potentially faced closure was broken to workers on Saturday October 16, 1976.
The real battle to save it began the following Monday when the dock was brought to a complete standstill as a mass meeting of all 400 dock workers took place to formulate their action and unite their resistance against the closure.
A cooperative of employees and users was formed in an attempt to save the dock and met the Ribble committee chairman Coun Arthur Taylor to discuss the port’s future and try to persuade him to allow it to stay open.
Preston North and South Labour MPs Ron Atkins and Stan Thorpe both came out firmly against the closure.
The campaign was further supported by the Lancashire Evening Post, which stated that, “The council...is being tempted into an impetuous and hasty action that may not help the ratepayers in the least, and will damage the economy of the town and a wide area around it.”
Shop stewards from ports across England and Scotland also agreed to join the fight against closure.
The date was set for Thursday, November 11 for a special meeting of Conservative-controlled Preston Council at which the Ribble committee would present their recommendations and the decision of dock closure would be debated and eventually decided.
It was revealed to the dock’s union representatives by Coun Taylor that, despite the best efforts of the dockers, the Ribble committee was going to recommend the closure of the port.
The day after the meeting, the details of the committee’s presentation and the decision of the council hit the papers: a Labour amendment to the closure proposal had lost by 44 votes to 11, and therefore Preston dock was to be closed.
Conservative council leader Coun Joe Hood said that Preston could no longer afford to shoulder the burden of running the town’s dock.
In protest at the decision, dockers from all Britain’s major ports marched through Preston, with 700 people marching to the Town Hall to hand in a 2,000 name petition against the closure.
Twenty dockers remained outside the Town Hall after the meeting on picket duty. Nevertheless, the closure went ahead and five years later on October 31 1981, the last ever ship left the dock.
Preston Dock had been at the centre of town life for the 91 years it was open to ships, and undoubtedly the dynamic and purpose of the town was altered by its closure.
Opened in 1892, the Albert Edward Dock was the largest single dock in the country with water area of 40 acres when it first starting welcoming ships from the Ribble.
But Preston’s maritime importance was established centuries earlier and really took hold in the first half of the 19th century.
By 1860 Preston was home to more than 70 cotton mills and the arrival of the railways from Scotland and London saw the town emerge as a growing strategic presence.
In 1853 Preston Council, which already owned riverside quays and warehouse, purchased shares in the Ribble Navigation Company but remained a silent partner for 30 years when the need for improvements to grow trade became apparent.
The Navigation and Preston Dock Act of 1883 saw Preston become one of the few municipal run ports in the country.
The importance of a wet dock was prioritised and, following a wave of opposition from ratepayers, a Government inquiry was held and approval granted.
The foundation stone was laid by Prince Albert Edward, later King Edward VII, on July 17, 1885.
This date was selected because the Prince was in Preston to attend a meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society of England being held on Moor Park.
A special bridge over the old river bed had to be erected at the bottom of Pedder Lane to allow spectators access to the ceremony.
Seven years later on June 25, 1892 the docks were officially opened by Prince Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh who arrived in the dock on the open bridge of a steamer and declared the new dock open by sailing through a blue ribbon which had been placed across entrance to the main basin.
Nowadays, the port is a popular spot for leisure users, dog walkers and shoppers alike thanks to the redevelopment of the 1980s.
It is the centre of the Ribble Steam Railway, houses a museum and a shop and has most recently become the main car dealership area of Preston.