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Things you never knew about Preston Docks

Posted on - 23rd June, 2017 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Ashton-on-Ribble, History, News, Nostalgia, Preston Council, Riversway
Foundation Stone at Preston Docks
Foundation Stone at Preston Docks

Ships have come to Preston Docks for hundreds, if not thousands of years, navigating up the river to shelter and load/unload berthing originally at a natural basin and man-made wharves, located at the confluence of the river Ribble and the Moorbrook.

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The rapid expansion of industry in the industrial revolution and the need for heavy import on the doorstep of Preston’s manufacturing and distribution service industries led to the building of a major dock

First, the river was diverted (by The Ribble Navigation Companies) in 1893

Then the dock was dug and built (by the Borough of Preston)

The Dock foundation stone was laid in 1885 by Queen Victoria’s first son,

Albert Edward the Prince of Wales. The main basin was named after him. (He later became King Edward VII).

The Dock was opened in 1892 by Alfred, the Prince of Edinburgh and Queen

Victoria’s second son (Prince Alfred was known as ”The Sailor Prince” because he was a Commander of the Fleet in the Royal Navy at the time he opened the Dock. In the following year he was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet.

The owners of Preston’s cotton mills opposed the dock venture and formed a political party; “The Party of Caution”, to contest local elections with the manifesto of stopping the spending of public money on building the Dock. Their true incentive was that they feared that the Dock, and the industries it would attract, would provide an abundance of employment for the people of Preston and hence drive up the cost of labour.

There was no single industry which drove the development of the dock. Cotton was just one of the imports, others were timber, coal, china clay, wood pulp, fruit and oil but there were always problems with finding return cargos to export (e.g. coal to Ireland)

The continuous change in ship technology provided one of the big industries at Preston dock;- shipbreaking (i.e. Thomas Ward’s ship-breaking yard)

Full moon rising over the Docks
Full moon rising over the Docks

The Albert Edward basin is 3,000ft long by 600ft wide and was the largest single dock in Europe

Large ships have captains, but for safety, when they enter the waters of a port they are often placed under the control of a Pilot who knows tides, currents, channel depths and conventions peculiar at the port. The Pilots for Preston Dock were based at Lytham and used to go out to sea to meet the ships and bring them safely up the river to the dock. The point at which arriving vessels could await the Pilot is known as “safe water” and was marked by the Nelson Buoys now displayed at the road junctions of Riversway/Port Way and Riversway/Pedder’s Way.

The estuary can be a dangerous place: in 1886 the Mexico, a German ship, sank in the Ribble estuary. It had set off from Liverpool to Ecuador but was driven back by a severe storm at night, becoming grounded in the mouth of the River Ribble. Three lifeboats set out rowing from St Annes, Lytham and Southport in heavy seas. Two lifeboats were lost with 27 crewmen; the largest loss of lifeboat crew in the UK.

The navigable channel in the river is marked to show the hazard of the “training walls” that confine deeper water. They are marked with “perches” and “lights” known as “Aids to Navigation”. Some are “Statutory Marks” which are required by the regulating body: Trinity House. Most of the Aids in the river and estuary are “Port” or “Starboard” Marks.

Marks and Lights:
Port (Left / Red / barrel or can) Starboard (Right / Green / triangular or conical)

The river can only be navigated around the high water time of tide and ships have to be “locked up” into the waters of the dock, which are kept as near to Spring Tide level as possible. Water to fill the Dock only comes from the river and is “impounded” at suitably high tides by letting it flow in through the Lock Gates and then closing the gates when the tide is at its highest.

Water depths are critical for navigation to Preston and the river used to be dredged to remove sand and keep the channel deep enough for large ships. The cost of dredging was pivotal in the economics of the Dock and the drain on income meant that throughout the 89 year life of the Dock it was only in profit for 17 years

As ships got bigger and bigger the channel became too shallow for the newer, bigger, ships to navigate and it became too expensive to keep dredging. The port became uneconomic and was closed in 1981 by Act of Parliament.

Preston Dock was the first “Roll-On/Roll- Off Ferry Terminal in the UK. The concept was taken up after the Second World War from the “Tank Landing Ships” used on D-Day and the installation at Preston utilised a section of the “Mulberry Harbour” assembled in Normandy for landing our troops and supplies. The Ro-Ro ferry idea pioneered at Preston ultimately led to containerisation and sea cargo transport as we know it today.

The lock gates are the original ones, installed at the building of the port between 1884 and 1892, and are made of Greenheart main timbers and Iroko planking. Weighing 98 tons each.

The large blue and red 100 Ton crane adjacent to the Control Centre was built in 1958 to remove the gates from the water for refurbishment on land. Large floatation devices were fixed each side of a gate and the gate was then floated out of its fittings and brought through to the crane for lifting. The crane is still used today for lifting bigger boats.

There used to be 38 miles of railway track on the dock. To allow the area to be redeveloped the railway was moved to the south of the basin requiring the building of the 1,000 Tonnes swing bridge.

The railway is used today for commercial freight and for steam excursions from the Ribble Steam Railway museum. A minimum of three freight trains each week, often comprising 12 tankers carrying 74 tonnes each of bitumen are brought into the Total UK distillery on Chain Caul Way.

The work done by Preston City Council staff at the Dock today includes:
– Maintenance of the aids to navigation in the river and out to sea
– Operation and maintenance of the lock gates (approximately 360 boats enter and leave via the locks each year)
– Operation and maintenance of the swing bridge (there are approximately 350 bridge swings each year to give passage to boats)
– Maintenance of all Dock infrastructure, facilities and grounds, including the 43 lifesaver stations around the main basin

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