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Preston 100 years ago, cotton in decline, new industries rise

Posted on - 15th January, 2023 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston City Centre, Preston Docks, Preston News
Preston Corporation Tramways, Church Street 1931 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Preston Corporation Tramways, Church Street 1931 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

One hundred years ago Preston was beginning to diversify away from textile production. New industries were already well established. Moreover, Preston was more advanced than the typical Lancashire mill town. Preston had its port and good transport connections. However, the trams were short lived.

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The lead image shows a Preston Corporation tram car. The system was never as extensive as other towns and was to be closed by 1935. Perhaps the shortest running system was in Accrington, that closed in 1932. Blackburn trams trundled on until 1949.

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1900 cotton in decline

1937 was also a Coronation year and the still working mills in Preston celebrated Pic: Preston Digital Archive
1937 was also a Coronation year and the still working mills in Preston celebrated Pic: Preston Digital Archive

By the early 20th century it was becoming apparent to some that Britain was losing its competitive edge. The once great Lancashire textile industry was losing markets in South America and the East. These countries had begun to industrialise and make their own textiles.

There was a short-lived post war boom and then oversupply forced mills to start closing. The first to go were those producing cheaper material. By 1930 more than half of the spinning and weaving capacity was not being used. However, Preston had a wider industrial base, and was not as badly affected as other towns such as Blackburn, which had an unemployment rate of 50 per cent.

Preston in 1920, a diverse economy

Preston in 1920 was an important regional administration centre. Notably the County Council was based there.

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County Hall, Preston Pic: Preston Digital Archive
County Hall, Preston Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The present building in Fishergate was built in 1882, as the County Court. The local Government act of 1888 established County Councils and the building then became Lancashire County Council headquarters. It was extended twice, in 1903 and 1934.

Preston was also an important distribution centre, with its port and good road and rail connections. The Milk Marketing Board was also based in Preston, from 1933. 

Timber, fish, coal and petrol were all distributed from Preston. By the mid 1930s, 80,000 tons of timber and 180,000 tons of coal were handled in a year.

Preston dock in the 1930s Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Preston dock in the 1930s Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The new industries

Preston already had well-established engineering and electrical industries by 1923. English Electric, Siemens and Ensign Lamps were all based in Preston. Engineering and coach building accounted for 3,700 jobs by 1935. The unemployment rate was also lower in Preston.

New roads and bridges

1923, and Blackpool Road bridge is under construction Pic: Preston Digital Archive
1923, and Blackpool Road bridge is under construction Pic: Preston Digital Archive

In 1923 Blackpool Road was under construction and a new bridge had to be built over the main railway line. Note the crane support wagon already boasts the LMS logo. The early versions had an R on the end, but that was soon dropped. For example LMSR.

Nationally, 1923 saw the amalgamation of the railways. During the war the railways had been controlled by the Government. Consequently a plethora of small companies were merged into The Big Four, and the lines around Preston became part of the LMS. In fact the two railway companies that served Preston had been amalgamated in 1921. That was the Lancashire and Yorkshire and the London and North Western Railways.

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