Author STEVE WOODS’ latest novel Priest Town is set in Preston at the turn of the 20th century. Here he looks at what life was like in the town in 1899.
Alexandrina Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India was in the 61st year of her reign.
Her Majesty’s Government had declared war on South Africa’s President Kruger and the forces of the British Empire were mobilised.
The bands and drums of the 1st Volunteer Battalion Loyal North Lancashire’s and The South Lancashire Regiment (Prince of Wales Volunteers) followed by columns of soldiers, four abreast all dressed in khaki drab issue and pith helmet, each carrying the bolt action Lee-Mitford rifle, marched from Fulwood Barracks to the railway station, cheering crowds lined the route for the first part of the 7,000 mile journey to the Cape.
The war would last for three years and cost 75,000 lives, including 22,000 British soldiers.
Approaching the end of the 19th century, Lancashire had been transformed into the greatest textile centre in the world, despite competition from Japan and India, Preston was at the heart of the cotton industry.
With a population of 117,000 nearly 40,000 men, woman and children worked in the towns cotton mills. Preston was booming but not everyone was prospering. The town had the highest recorded infant and adult death rates in the country.
Squalid housing, poor or nonexistent sanitation and a diet bordering on starvation were the main reasons for the sudden deaths.
Most houses used an ash pit as a privvie, which along with contents of the chamber pot, were emptied on to a midden heap in a corner of the yard, an ever growing mound of human waste. Only wealthier families had a water closet with a flushing toilet, the majority of Prestonians relied on the ‘Night Soil Men’ to call with their horse and cart and shovel up the excrement, but in reality this never happened.
Add to this, the choking layer of smog that often hung over the town from 37,000 domestic and industrial coal fire chimneys, that would even obscure the 309 foot high spire of St Walburge’s.
By 1899 the Corporation had made the connection between the squalor and disease and began a period of sanitation improvement and slum clearance.
The expanding cotton trade increased pressure to improve the port facilities and work on building Preston Docks, as we know it today, began in 1884, eventually completed in 1892.
It was a massive project, diverting the River Ribble from its original course, which is now Riversway and Strand Road, creating a huge area of reclaimed land, allowing the excavation of five million tons of earth and rock to construct the dock basin, the largest of its kind in Europe.
The docks became an even more important sea route to the North West, bringing cargo boats from France, Holland, Denmark, Norway and Morocco.
As the twentieth century beckoned transport links became more vital. The arterial rail system was extensive and the canal waterways established. The canal connecting Preston, Lancaster and Kendal had already been servicing the town for nearly a hundred years and was particularly beneficial to the cotton mills. Preston was an important stopping point for passenger and postal traffic, being halfway between London and Glasgow. The main coaching highways were former turnpike roads, north to Kendal and south to Wigan, now called the A6 and A49 respectively.
Road building was on the increase in the late 1800s and ‘land navigators’ or navvies, nomadic labourers, no longer needed for digging out canals or railway cuttings and embankments, were employed in road construction. Thirty or so navvies set up a makeshift camp of ramshackle huts and tents on Walton Summit overlooking the Lancaster Canal terminus. Navvies were a lawless bunch of ruffians,truculent and their camps dangerous to approach.
Even in 1846 the Commissioner of Liverpool Police said: “It is folly for the police, two or three of them, to attempt to arrest one of them in their neighbourhood; there must be a considerable force.”
Huge camps of several thousand of these nomads, including women and children, were a thing of the past, but even small encampments could leave local inhabitants living under a sporadic reign of terror.
They would strip orchards of fruit, plunder dairy sheds and henhouses, not just of eggs but of complete poultry stocks, resulting in frequent and violent clashes with local farmers and villagers. The county constabulary were largely ineffective in policing these unruly gangs and there was often a groundswell of public resentment towards the navvies and lack of action by the authorities to bring them under the rule of law.
Within a few years these volatile ‘navigators’ now dwindling in number no longer posed a threat to public safety and the term ‘navvy’ would be applied to a local road mender or anyone employed in highway tarmacadam.
Extract from Priest Town
The Stanley Arms Hotel built in the town centre in 1854 is a striking building on a grand design.
It stands in the shadow of the Harris Library, Museum and Art Gallery with its vast façade of columns, one of the magnificent public buildings surrounding the Market Place.
Further down Lancaster Road is the police station and their close proximity, together with an amenable interior and welcoming landlord named William Walmsley made The Stanley Arms a favourite meeting place for officers, both on and off duty.
Albert Meadowbank propped up the bar side by side with Samuel Huggins.
“I mean, could the’ bi wrong? Jack t’ Ripper ’ere in Preston. It doesn’t mek sense.”
Huggins said to his friend.
“The Doc presents a pretty convincin’ case Sam. An’ t’ Colonel ’as swallowed it ’ook, line an’ sinker. Problem is, suppose they are reet an’ that maniac is runnin’ loose rownd town. It doesn’t bare thinkin’ abaht.”
He took a gulp of ale then continued,“Thing is Sam, once yer sit down an’ look at everythin’, yer know, t’ case ’istory from
Scotland Yard an’ what’s ’appened ’ere, I think only a fool would discount any connection.”
“S’ what ’appens now?”
“Some bloke from London is coming up. A retired chief inspector. ’E was involved in t’
Whitechapel murders fer years, accordin’ t’ Colonel. Said ’is name is Frederick George Abberline.”
Both men agreed they had never heard of him.
“I ’ope wi can keep th’ lid on this fer awhile. If t’ press get a whiff an’ it ends up on t’ front pages, yer can imagine what would ’appen. Lynch mobs, vigilantes. We wouldn’t bi able t’ move fer mobs outside police station, mobs roamin’ t’ streets an’ sightseers would flock ’ere, ’opin’ fer a glimpse of Jack t’ Ripper.”
Huggins nodded in agreement.
“Yer don’t think everythin’ that’s ’appened is all connected?”
“’Ow d’ yer mean Sam?” This was a theory Meadowbank had not considered.
“T’ body-snatchin’, then two murders an’ then t’ vicar. They all ’appened within a few days. Seems a bit strange that, t’ me.”