When Christmas of 1969 came around, a flu epidemic was sweeping the North West, and in Preston sickness benefit claims were double the usual December figure.
At Preston Post Office they were struggling to complete the Christmas mail with up to one-fifth of the staff on the sick list and the backlog stretched into the following week.
Forecasts of freezing fog and icy roads for Christmas travellers proved to be true. With motorway traffic often down to a crawl it was wiser to make it a stay-at-home holiday.
Preston commuters were just getting used to the new Tithebarn Street bus station, but under threat were a number of the Christmas bus services with more than 50 transport staff missing from duty on the Preston Corporation buses.
Similarly stretched were the Preston hospitals with the flu bug hitting many staff despite a vaccination effort.
By 1969 Christmas shopping was at a new level in town with the arrival of the shopping centres. Following the success of the St George’s Shopping Centre the St John’s Shopping Centre had soon emerged and within was the popular Fine Fare supermarket opened in 1967 and ideally located with a subway to the new bus station.
Attracting many Christmas shoppers was the former Fame store on Dundonald Street which was spending its second Christmas as the Gem Super Discount Centre. Described as a one stop shopping centre it was happy to provide a free bus service to tempt folk to venture out of town. Although changes to the Preston markets were in the pipeline the Preston market traders were carrying on as they had done for decades.
The outdoor Covered Market was still essential for Christmas shoppers selling, as it did all year, fruit and vegetables, cheese and meat, pies and pastries, lace and linen, hats and scarves, ribbons and bows, sweets and chocolates, all of life’s essentials.
And across the way was the Fish Market with an outdoor aroma all of its own. Fresh prawns and crabs, smoked kippers and mackerel, cod and haddock, salmon and tuna all a fish lover could ask for. Well used to standing outside in all weathers the market traders proved to be sturdy souls. Also popular as ever was Orchard Street where you were sure to find a plump turkey for your Christmas feast at Dewhursts, Rainfords and Mark Williams three of the butcher’s shops which had plenty of poultry and pork sausages too.
The arrival of the Ring Road had helped to ease the traffic through the centre of town and, coupled with the traffic free shopping centres, gave a more relaxed feeling to the shoppers of the town. Although some traders on Friargate felt cut off by the Ring Road others seemed to benefit and the C & A store attracted the crowds. Fishergate, with retail giants Boots, Owen Owen, Woolworths, British Home Stores and Marks & Spencer, had a busy run up to Christmas and the tills were jangling like jingle bells.
Shopping completed, it was a foggy Christmas Eve when Santa came to town and the presents beneath the Christmas trees were diverse and delightful.
Lunar rockets, space capsules and pioneer rockets reflected that year’s heady days of space exploration as did games such as ‘Moon Probe’ and ‘Billy Blastoff’. Likewise, the traditional
Christmas annuals such as the Beano, Dandy, Sparky, Hornet and Mandy had competition from the Thunderbirds, Stingray, Joe 90 and Fireball XL5. Barbie and Sindy dolls were popular as ever and Action Man was one for the boys. The most popular toys of the year though were the bouncy play Spacehopper and the game KerPlunk.
It was a bumper Christmas Day for babies with three born in Preston Royal Infirmary, two at Sharoe Green Hospital and several home births. One of those who gave birth at Sharoe Green was Barbara Scott, the daughter of Preston’s senior consultant gynaecologist Mr W H Tod. His granddaughter Eleanor Catherine weighing in at more than 9lbs.
The much admired Howie Tod spent more than 28 years at the Sharoe Green Hospital before he retired in 1974 having been responsible for the safe arrival of about 1,500 babies each year.
It was also a busy day for the midwives in the Longridge district with nursing sisters Simpson, Gates and Carroll all called from their Christmas Day festivities to successfully deliver babies at Goosnargh, Longridge and Chipping.
There were carols by candlelight, nativity services, evensong, holy communion services and masses aplenty including midnight mass. The passion of the priests, parsons and preachers of Preston being rewarded by parishioners who flocked to worship.
It is interesting that 50 years on the likes of St Jude’s, St Paul’s, St Luke’s, St Thomas’s, St Mark’s, St James’s, St Mary’s, St Oswald’s, Emmanuel, the Unitarian Chapel and the Fishergate Baptist church where the Christmas choirs sang loud and clear are no longer places of worship, although the little Railway Mission on Corporation Street is still a place to celebrate Christmas.
While Preston folk had become accustomed to sitting down together and watching the Queen broadcast to the nation on Christmas Day there was no broadcast that year only a written message as there had been an official ‘Royal Family’ documentary on television. And on Christmas Day the BBC broadcast H M the Queen attending St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle for the Christmas service.
By 1969 the three TV channels were broadcasting in colour with programmes generally from midday until midnight. On Christmas Day BBC1 had Billy Smart’s Circus, a Cinderella pantomime and the Morecambe and Wise Show, while BBC2 screened a Royal Ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty, a Colourful Year of Sport with Henry Cooper and a Christmas Edition of Call My Bluff. For ITV the feature film Treasure Island proved popular as did Des O’Connor with his Comedy Carnival before the Benny Hill Show.
In town entertainment included family films at the town’s three remaining cinemas. All three were closed on Christmas Day but had bumper Boxing Day attractions, at the Ritz they were showing Those Magnificent Men In their Flying Machines, at the Odeon on offer was Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang, while those tempted to visit the ABC Cinema were treated to the Walt Disney cartoon Bambi. Mind you at two of the town’s former cinemas the Empire and Carlton it was eyes down for a full house as bingo was becoming ever popular.
For those prepared to wrap up and venture outdoors there was Second Division soccer at Deepdale on Boxing Day. Preston North End, with new chairman Tom Nicholson at the helm, played fellow strugglers Bolton Wanderers, managed by Nat Lofthouse. The biggest Deepdale crowd of the season - almost 24,000 - saw North End play the better football but squander their chances. In the end they had only an Archie Gemmill goal to show for their efforts as the visitors recorded a 3-1 away win with the former Liverpool striker Roger Hunt making a quiet debut for the Wanderers.
The fog which had lifted to allow the Boxing Day clash was not so obliging the following day. A number of matches were cancelled while North End’s visit to Oxford was postponed when the flu epidemic left Oxford short of players, leaving Preston with a pointless holiday and in second bottom place in the league table.
The tonic of Turkey and tinsel did not have the effect of improving the post Christmas influenza epidemic with hundreds of workers at Leyland Motors, English Electric, Goss, Atkinson Vehicles and BAC all reporting sick, leaving production slow.
Despite the fog and the flu Christmas had provided pleasure for many local folk. The end of a decade of change in Preston was coming to an end with a feeling of prosperity and progress in the town.
* Keith Johnson’s book Preston In The 1960s is available priced £14.99 from Amberley.