The History of Preston
In the Roman era, the invaders reaching the Preston area in about 79AD, conquering the Brigantes who inhabited the land at that time. As a spot at Walton-le-Dale on Preston’s outskirts was the last fordable point of the Ribble making its way to the sea the site became a natural transport hub – 1900 years later that bottleneck finally alleviated by the building of the Preston bypass in 1958, the first motorway in Britain.
Roman roads running north-south between Carlisle and Manchester , and east-west between Ribchester and the coast, crossed at Withy Trees just north of Preston; legend has it an inn has stood there since those times. A Roman military camp is thought to have existed in Preston, and forts were built at Kirkham and Walton nearby.
After the legions departed in the early 5th century Preston became part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. In the 7th century St Wilfrid supposedly oversaw the development of Christianity in the area, and he remains Preston’s patron saint. Ecclesiastical roots are reflected in its name: Preston meaning Priest’s farmstead, either derived from it being precisely that originally, or a comment on its lands and revenues being traded from one great church to the next for centuries.
In the late 9th century the Vikings held the town, only dislodged by King Athelstan in about 927.
Preston is mentioned as being of local importance in the Domesday Book , evidenced by the Normans building a fort at Tulketh. Tulketh increased in significance when the future King Stephen built an abbey there in 1124, though three years later it shifted to Furness.
A Guild Merchant was established in 1179 by royal charter, granted control (and monopoly rights) over trade at the town’s market, and freedom from duties and tolls if travelling elsewhere to do business. These rights were maintained by regular if widely spaced meetings, leading to the situation that applies to this day when Preston Guild is celebrated every 20 years. The rights even recently allowed local traders to veto a market in a nearby settlement.
In the early 13th century Preston was the wealthiest place in Lancashire, and inevitably developed a trading fair.
A Benedictine friary was founded at Penwortham in 1140; the Franciscans followed suit in 1260, two such religious houses indicating continued prosperity, as does the creation of a grammar school in the next century.
The wealth of Preston was based on its rich agricultural hinterland, but also on linen and wool production in medieval times. Linen in particular continued to be important for centuries, eventually displaced by king cotton – its first cotton mill opening in 1771. Prestonian Richard Arkwright invented the spinning jenny in the town, patenting it in 1769. Even after the cotton industry collapsed in the early 20th century textiles remained important – Courtaulds a major employer until 1979.
Industry changed the infrastructure and eventually the ethnic mix of Preston: the Lancaster Canal built in 1792; Preston being the second place in England to have gas-lighting as early as 1815; the railways arriving in 1838; and Preston’s docks developed to handle both imports and exports, including shamefully slaves in the 18th century. During the 1950s and 1960s immigrant workers arrived from the Indian-sub-continent to man the town’s factories.
The factories brought wealth to some, struggle to others: in August 1842 four protesting cotton-workers were shot by troops; and in 1854 a lengthy strike in Preston drew Charles Dickens , gathering material for Hard Times in which Coketown is based on Preston. One temporary escape from misery was drink, a situation addressed by the temperance movement which began in Preston: Joseph Livesey promoted education as well as temperance, and the modern University of Central Lancashire, one of the largest in Britain, was originally a temperance foundation – hard to believe on a Thursday night now. Another escape was football, with Preston North End founder members of the football league, and its first winners in 1889, when they went unbeaten all season.
Preston’s strategic location and wealth have also made it a magnet for armies fighting over English soil: predominantly Catholic, Preston supported Charles I when the Civil War began, but the place changed hands several times. In 1648 Charles’s hopes were all but ended when his army was defeated at Preston. After James II ’s forced abdication two attempts by the Stuarts to regain power were witnessed by the town: in 1715 a battle was fought there whose outcome seriously weakened the Jacobite Rebellion ; and in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie , perhaps history’s most useless if romantic leader, passed through Preston heading south, and again retreating north.
In 2002 Preston was finally made a city to celebrate the golden jubilee of Elizabeth II , also marking its place in English – and British history.