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Examining Preston’s Fossilised Past

Posted on - 2nd September, 2010 - 10:15am | Author - | Posted in - History, Nostalgia, Observations, Redevelopment

It’s difficult even with help of study and older relatives to imagine the days when Britain was a leader in domestic manufacturing. Factories, mines, and shipping have largely been superseded by gleaming office blocks, shopping centres and colourful high streets. Massive outsourcing of labour, coinciding with a rapid period of decolonisation introduced commerce to the fact that both labour and resources were plentiful abroad; and both could be gathered cheaper than in Britain where, as a developed nation, wages and prices of goods are higher.

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In Preston, traces of de-industrialisation began to appear following WW2. By the 1980s the docks were closing with most of the factories and mills vanishing in tandem. Fragments remain, though the majority of jobs in the city are away from manufacture and manual labour. Technology played its part; Preston, similar to larger urban centres like Liverpool, Glasgow, Plymouth saw change as shipping containerisation arrived in the 1960s. Jobs were shed as machinery replaced people as a means of work. Britain soon had a dubious reputation as ‘the sick man of Europe’ due to employment and inflationary concerns. It was the reality of the River Ribble’s limited width and depth that forced the private sector’s hand: Newer, bigger vessels superseded older models and this trend was the killing blow for the docks which closed in 1981.

Half a century ago, factories, textile mills and skilled labour comprised the largest part of labour in Preston. Due to low taxation cigarettes and alcohol were affordable even to working class dockers and labourers. Recreational events such as football had yet to be commercialized and amenities such as cinemas likewise were tailored to those with low disposable incomes. Television was new-fangled, and many households hadn’t a car – walking or catching the bus to work was common for all bar the priviliged.

Preston Docks Marina, Early Afternoon 26th August 2010Upon speaking to older Preston residents in a local pub (The Wellington on Tulketh Road) a picture I could only somewhat imagine manifested. Nostalgia formed a quiet backdrop, one fellow commented that getting work was a matter of knocking on windows rather than going through employment agencies: Today we’ve thousands employed to find other people work; the fact emerged that there was much less of this during the years the men I spoke to were starting work.

In Preston Marina we see one of the few indications remaining that Preston was once a shipping town in the form of a preserved crane. However the entire river is populated by leisure craft for those who indulge in sailing or fishing as a hobby. A resident of Ashton informed me that many of these see only occasional use by owners. An extraordinary contrast to when Shell and other firms transferred oil in quantity to Preston, together with archaic cargo vessels (later container ships) that imported a smorgasbord of goods.

In Riversway there’s little else to indicate Preston’s past. There is a tourist steam railway which is unfortunately open just on weekends – this forms the renovation of the old rail link present many years ago. Modern Riversway is largely offices for small business, a modern cafe/shop named ‘Preston marina’ and newly built residential structures. Chain Caul Way is home to the most industrial place extant – a bitumen works. The biggest present-day project for the Ribble is an EU backed water cleansing scheme with a view to allowing water sports and greater tourist revenue.

Preston Docks circa 1905

I was at pains in Ashton and the city centre to take a photo of a derelict factory or old workshop. I’d planned to take a filtered monochrome shot against a cloudy backdrop; however this was thwarted by how good the weather was as evening approached. I had ample modern but was coming up short finding the old and the antiquated in the time I had.

The pub was home to several pictures of the old Preston. It’s notable that despite a greater class spirit, awful living conditions dogged most working folks for generations. Protests and strikes versus appalling pay and work conditions occurred from time to time. Health and safety was diminutive compared to today. Many lived hand to mouth, and the notion of being educated and ‘making good’ or pursuing one’s hobbies or talents would only commence in earnest by the mid-20th century.

Life today is comparitively flush with luxury. Cars are near-ubiquitous, and even in the midsts of a recession many find the money to take a yearly holiday abroad, and own computers and gadgets impossible only a few decades ago. Preston today has largely reinvente itself to suit the service economy: The downtown shopping centres (that opened between the 1960s and 1980s) were crowded with customers as I walked through to get lunch early on.

Thus, Preston’s industrial heritage is fossilised. It is recoverable, but only as an impression of the original carcass. It’s rather like when archaeological digs occur; older things tend to be buried further beneath the topsoil. Preston has put on an eclipsing layer of modernity: Shades of British manufacture remain though most of us wear imported clothes, use imported appliances and electronics, and today many would dispense or dispute the notion of Preston being a true ‘industrial town’.

So it’s hard to see how it was over half a century ago without attending a library or museum with ample social history books, old newspapers and so on. Other than the occasional husk such as the aging crane at the marina little remains that’s visually apparent. Whether this is tragic given Preston’s prior status as a proud boomtown or necessary given subsequent social and economic realities – or both – I leave to the perspective of readers.

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