Work was still taking place to create Avenham Park, in Preston when revellers descended to roll their Easter eggs 150 years ago.
Easter in 1867 began in the third week of April and, coming as it did after years of struggle due to the troubles endured by the ‘cotton famine’, it gave local folk a chance to celebrate in the traditional ways.
Although the Avenham Valley had undergone much development, thanks to the toil of the cotton operatives employed in transforming the area with pick and shovel, it would not be officially unveiled as Avenham Park until later in the year. Nonetheless it did not deter those who traditionally indulged in Easter egg rolling to head to the Avenham Valley.
Among those drawn to the occasion was a correspondent from the ‘Liverpool Mercury’, who sent this report of the activities he witnessed: ‘I spent Easter Sunday in Preston, which is, to my mind, the pleasantest and brightest of all your northern manufacturing towns, and as much unlike and superior to its neighbour, Blackburn, as light is different from and better than darkness.
‘I never saw the festival of Eastertide don such an air of thorough-going festivity in any town as in Preston. The people have a park there – nestling snugly on the brink of the river Ribble, so famous for its salmon; and though this park is the very miniature of all its race it is so well ordered, so tastefully laid out, so entwined and enfolded in beautiful walks, so dotted with fountains and streams and miniature lakes, and so picturesquely
situated, that it is a very gem of parks.
‘On Easter Sunday – a day, happily, of radiant sunshine and evenly-tempered breeze, inviting everyone to pleasant strolling – the park was full of folk, and its slopes were dotted with thousands of people broken into hundreds of happy-faced and ever-varying groups quite refreshing to look upon. But the sight of all others which had most seductive attractions for me was one which embodied what I am told was an old and long observed local custom, of a quaintly curious character.
‘The children at Eastertide are all supplied with what are called ‘pace’ eggs – eggs boiled in different dyes by which they are stained, and some very beautifully, with various colours. These eggs are taken to the park on Easter Sunday and Monday, and rolled by the youngsters against each other, for the sole purpose, so far as I could guess, of seeing which would be soonest broken.
‘Thousands of eggs were rolled in every direction, children were everywhere laughing and capering in
infantile pleasure, the elders were looking on with a more staid and demure, but not less hearty enjoyment, and altogether the scene was one of the strangest and yet most thoroughly happy and enjoyable that I have seen for years.
‘When night set in the park was strewed with egg-shells, which, like the killed and senseless on a well-fought field, were silent tokens of the stern combat that had been in progress.’
Perhaps because money was tight, the number of railway travellers was less than previous years, although quite a few visitors from neighbouring towns had
arrived to experience the egg rolling extravaganza.
Mind you some of the richer fraternity had taken advantage of ‘Mr Marcus’s Easter Excursion’ booking their tickets at Mr Worthington’s on Church Street and heading to London. For the princely sum of 15s they got the early train on Maundy Thursday morning and returned the following Tuesday, having experienced Easter in the capital.
As always at Eastertide the churches played a significant part in the festivities. St Mark’s held a tea party and entertainment for their parishioners, the Lancaster Road Congregational Church held a bazaar in aid of church funds, St Peter’s on Fylde Road was the venue for a Choral Service, St Thomas’s held a tea party for older folk, the choir at Christ Church held a concert and at Holy Trinity they had sermons morning, noon and night with uplifting themes. This was to be the year when matters came to a head regarding the payments known as ‘Easter dues’ that had caused much strife among the working classes. Arguments had raged for a number of years with claims that they were an unjust impost, and that no one should be forced to pay them.
As a consequence, the Rev Canon Parr, Vicar of Preston, had summoned 40 or 50 persons before the magistrates for non payment of the dues. Following that, the matter was taken to a higher court and it was ruled in favour of those who did not wish to pay.
Consequently, the Vicar published the following
notice as he announced that he would be waiting at the Parish Church for payment of Easter dues: ‘Easter dues will be received from persons who may wish to pay them at the Parish Church every morning and every evening during next week, from 10am to 1pm, and from 6pm to 9pm.’
The reality was in those days folk were often obliged to pay for their pews in church, as was highlighted when the pew owners held their annual meeting on Easter Tuesday at St Thomas’s vestry. The Rev JP Shepperd being happy to relate that the generosity of these elite worshippers, including Preston MP Edward Hermon, had raised an additional £425 to aid with church restoration work.
Besides the reporter from Liverpool there was another distinguished visitor over the Easter period. Great excitement abounded when it was announced that Mr Charles Dickens was coming to town on the following Thursday, April 25.
The venue was the Theatre Royal on Fishergate, with tickets costing 4s in the Dress Circle and 1s in the gallery.
The concert was a resounding success and many dignitaries attended, including Edmund Birley, Mayor of Preston. A reporter who witnessed the event having this to say: ‘Mr Dickens’ genius as a writer is only equalled by the talent he displays in the impersonation of the characters he has created. He never once referred to the book before him, but he secured the attention of his audience and held them spell bound.
‘The charm being dissipated only by the frequent bursts of applause which greeted his great humour.
‘In his recital of ‘Doctor Marigold’ he introduced fresh passages and in the trial scenes of ‘Mr Pickwick’ he impersonated every character. The entertainment lasted for almost two hours and it must be acknowledged as perfection.’
It had been an interesting Easter and one that was spent in the traditional way. As for the Bull Inn, where Mr Dickens spent the night before continuing on his tour, it was an historical one with a celebrated name to add to those who had dwelt there.