How acres of Moorland was transformed into heart of Preston

One of the oldest known photos of Preston taken circa 1862 which shows the sod cutting ceremony on Preston Moor signalling the start of work on Moor Park
One of the oldest known photos of Preston taken circa 1862 which shows the sod cutting ceremony on Preston Moor signalling the start of work on Moor Park
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On this day in 1867 Preston’s Moor Park was officially thrown open to the public. Local historian Keith Johnson recalls a landmark day in the history of the city and charts the life and times of the much loved green space

Moor Park is Preston’s largest park and is presently undergoing some renovation and landscaping work.

Tom Benson, centre, during his world record breaking walk in Moor Park, Preston

Tom Benson, centre, during his world record breaking walk in Moor Park, Preston

Such is its status that in 2013 it was listed as a Grade II listed park. A fitting honour for the former moorlands that was officially recognised as Moor Park in 1867, making it 150 years old this year.

The official opening of Moor Park took place on

Friday, October 4, the day after the Duke of Cambridge had visited Preston to open the ill-fated Town Hall.

Great crowds had gathered in Church Street in the morning to walk to the new park accompanied by bands, both drum and fife, and they formed an orderly procession with banners aplenty.

Landscape designer  Edward Milner who oversaw the development of Moor Park and Avenham and Miller Parks, in Preston

Landscape designer Edward Milner who oversaw the development of Moor Park and Avenham and Miller Parks, in Preston

Societies and Orders galore were represented, be they Oddfellows, Druids, Orangemen, Foresters, Mechanics, Gardeners or sons of Temperance. It was a magnificent spectacle with richly caparisoned horses, mounted by persons in odd and quaintly looking dress.

The best Sunday dress was worn by the participants with white gloves and rosettes commonplace. Cheering crowds lined the procession route to the park that firstly did a circular tour of the town before travelling up Deepdale Road.

Once order had come to the proceedings at the park the Mayor of Preston, Edmund Birley, took to the stand and told the gathering Lord Derby would have carried out the opening had his recent indisposition not prevented his appearance.

After a brief address, and tributes to those who had toiled, the Mayor declared the park open amidst great cheers from the enthusiastic crowd which numbered more than 60,000.

Moor Park Auxiliary War Hospital, Preston, circa 1917

Moor Park Auxiliary War Hospital, Preston, circa 1917

The famous aeronaut Mr Coxwell marked the occasion by departing from the park in his hot air balloon, moving skywards in rapid fashion, and soon he was barely visible, heading to a safe landing at Westhoughton, near Bolton.

This difficult period in Preston’s history, due to the cotton famine from 1861, meant that idle factory hands were used to develop it, in return for wages to avert poverty.

It was landscaped to the design of Edward Milner (pictured inset) who had overseen the development of the Avenham and Miller Parks. New paths, shrubs and trees, ornamental

gardens, an improved Serpentine Lake, bowling greens and cricket pitches all made for a reason to celebrate.

Mill hands at work on Preston Moor in 1862

Mill hands at work on Preston Moor in 1862

Milner was much sought after for landscape projects, having been employed as a gardener at Chatsworth in his early days before studying in Paris.

Other impressive landscaping was done to his designs at Buxton, Lincoln, Halifax, Northumberland and abroad in the years that followed. Born in 1819, he lived until 1884.

This land on the northern side of the old town was once known as Preston Moor and in 1834 the Preston Corporation enclosed 100 acres of the land that had been, in its day, uncultivated, rough and heathery kind of terrain.

Preston’s claim to this land goes back to the reign of Henry III who, in 1253, granted the burgesses the moor. Records show that from 1786 to 1833 horse racing patronised by Preston Corporation took place on the moor, while the Earl of Derby held races in opposition across the way on Fulwood Moor.

Even Preston’s legendary Gold Cup winning horse Doctor Syntax triumphed on the moor and the old starting stone post still remains embedded in the grass.

From 1602 until 1835 pasturage rights were given to the freemen of the town to allow their cattle to graze upon the moor – a rule that was repealed in 1833.

Interior of Prestons Jeremiah Horrocks Observatory, in Moor Park

Interior of Prestons Jeremiah Horrocks Observatory, in Moor Park

When enclosed, the moor was limited to its present dimensions on the eastern and western sides; the northern boundary was Fulwood brook and the southern limit was the ‘Ladies Walk’, now known as Moor Park Avenue.

The parks development was slow for many years and much of it was used for

agricultural purposes and as grazing pasture, with brewer Matthew Brown the tenant of much of it.

That opening day hot air balloon flight was the first of many in the park. What excitement there was in late August 1912 when that great aviator Henri Salmet landed his monoplane on the park as thousands looked to the sky.

In June 1927, just in time for a total eclipse to be viewed, the newly-built Jeremiah Horrocks Observatory was opened and it became a much appreciated place for locals to view the stars above.

Down the centuries the park has hosted many significant events. In its early days it was host to the annual Preston Agricultural Show and the Royal Lancashire Show has graced its pastures, indeed in 1885 the Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VII – was among the visitors.

Some of Moor Park’s significant structures have now disappeared. The aviary next to the avenue, where the peacocks strutted proudly, is no longer there. And the water fountains no longer quench a schoolboy’s thirst. By the 1920s there was a grand bandstand, built not far from the bowling greens. Many a local brass band filled the air with marching music, although now gone the melodies linger on.

You can no longer take a dip in the chilly waters of the Open Air Swimming Baths, opened in 1905 by ex Mayor William Henry Woods, and finally closed 70 years later. And the once popular children’s paddling pool on the northern boundary is long gone. It may be hard to

imagine now, but a century ago during the First World War the park became the site of a hospital to care for the war wounded troops.

Older generations will tell of the battles between local cricket teams, the highlight being the chase for the Turner Cup. This final was often held over three or four evenings and would attract thousands of enthusiastic spectators who ringed the boundary ropes. The winners were simply local

heroes everyone. The amateur footballers of Preston can still be seen on the numerous pitches each weekend while baseball, rounders, hockey and basketball have all been played within the boundaries. Road runners and walkers have circled the park for generations and cyclists have wheeled their way up the avenue.

Only in 1932 did a much sought after pavilion and café get built and catered for decades only to be destroyed by fire in 1976. It was replaced by a more functional pavilion equipped with showers and changing cubicles. If you walk along the magnificent avenue of limes from Garstang Road you will observe a large stone boulder inscribed with the achievements of one Tom Benson, the World Non Stop Walking Champion, who for days on end circled the park’s 1.8 miles perimeter to achieve greatness and have Tom Benson Way named in his honour.

You can also view from the Avenue a brick monument built by apprentices to mark the Preston Guild of 1952.

Significant citizens of our old town have also had their dwellings along the Moor Park Avenue, notable pioneering showman Hugh Rain lived there, as did mill owner William Birtwistle and William Henry Woods of tobacco factory fame.

Of course the other premises on the dwellings side of the avenue close to Deepdale Road have been all about education. Many folk will tell you of the grand days of the Park School. This grammar school for girls was opened in 1907 and they were joined by the boys of Preston Grammar School, from its Cross Street origins in 1913.

After the demolition of the old school in 1957 the stone gateway was transplanted on the avenue and there it remains. Both of the cherished schools giving way to a Sixth Form College under education changes of 1969. The park is still blessed with two park lodges, one beside the Serpentine Lake and the other in the south east corner facing Garstang Road. Once home to Preston park keepers whose appearance would send mischief making youngsters scurrying away lest they got a ticking off. The park rules were clearly displayed upon a noticeboard, and they were there to be obeyed. No doubt Moor Park is steeped in history and long may local folk enjoy the magnificent pastures which our parks department tenderly take care of.

Old starting post for horse racing in Moor Park, Preston

Old starting post for horse racing in Moor Park, Preston