Death, disease and murder in Victorian Preston

Posted on - 22nd October, 2023 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston City Centre, Preston News, Preston Railway Station
A cholera engraving from Punch magazine Pic: The Science Museum
A cholera engraving from Punch magazine Pic: The Science Museum

There were many ways to die in Victorian Preston; everything from exploding locomotives to cholera and murder were reported in the local press. Knowledge of disease was limited until the late 19th century. Some dangerous quack remedies were suggested during a Preston cholera outbreak in 1832. Additionally, fatal industrial accidents were common, and one exploding locomotive killed a worker in 1869. Finally, murders in Preston were not unknown.


Cholera and quack remedies, 1832

Cholera epidemic, 1832 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Article about the cholera epidemic in 1832 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Cholera was a major cause of death in the overcrowded towns of the early industrial age. Preston suffered a cholera epidemic in 1832, and there was an outbreak in London at about the same time. The cause of cholera was not then known. It is, in fact, caused by a bacteria, that gets into the water supply, from sewage and the like.


A published advice leaflet was probably more lethal than the bacteria. The first piece of advice involved not eating fruit: “Abstain from eating fruits of all kinds… vegetables as are flatulent and the most liable to fermentation…” It also recommends that potatoes be well boiled and salt applied. This is actually, accidentally, a good idea, as boiling would kill the bacteria. However the leaflet also encourages readers to avoid ale. Unfortunately, it was much safer to drink beer rather than the contaminated water supply. Another piece of advice involved keeping yards and privies clean. This was a good idea, but it did not prevent sewage from contaminating the water supply. Water was often taken from wells, using hand-cranked pumps. The water was not treated in any way and was often full of lethal bacteria.

Railway accidents, 1869

A damaged locomotive Pic: Wikimedia
A damaged locomotive Pic: Wikimedia
Exploding locomotive, 1869 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Article about an exploding locomotive in 1869 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Industrial accidents were very common in Victorian Preston. There was very little training for machinery operators and being handed an unfamiliar locomotive could result in fatal consequences. One such incident occurred in 1869. Just north of Preston Station was a set of coal yards. These had extensive sidings, some of which had a steep incline. At the time of the incident, a locomotive was at the rear of a rake of wagons that were being lowered down an incline and under a culverted bridge. The weight of the wagons proved too much for the locomotive and the whole assemblage plunged under the bridge knocking off the locomotive chimney. Shortly afterward the engine exploded, sending the dome through a wall and fatality scalding a worker. The inquest suggested unfamiliarity with the engine was a primary cause of the accident.

A murder in Preston 

Murder in Preston 1883 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Murder in Preston, 1883 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Preston was not immune to murder and one such incident was reported in the Preston Guardian, in 1883. Apparently, the perpetrator of the murder, John Aspinall Simpson, was once looked upon as “a smart and promising lad”, however, he took to “athletics and pedestrianism” and got “very loose and what may be termed caddish”. It was reported he murdered his prospective wife Ann Ratcliffe – who was the daughter of Alfred Ratcliffe, landlord of the Blue Bell Inn on Church Street – in a pre-meditated attack.

"The long drop" Pic: Capital Punishment UK
“The long drop” Pic: Capital Punishment UK

The penalty for murder in the Victorian era was usually hanging. However public executions had ended in 1868 and the sentence would have been carried out behind closed doors, using a trap door system.

Read more: Dig into more Preston history with Geoffrey

Read moreSee the latest Preston news and headlines

Barton Manor Christmas deal Preston in pictures Preston CityscapeDerelict WindmillA lovely view tonight from Sherwood WayWinckley SquareMiller ArcadeThe Union CarriageworksPreston City-22Preston City Fishergate View more Advertisement Subscribe to the newsletter

Sign up below to receive Blog Preston's weekly newsletter. It wings its way into inboxes every Sunday rounding up our best content from the last week and a look ahead to what's happening.

Advertisement News by location

Find news by location, select an area of your choice to be kept up to date with the latest goings on.

Advertisement Categories

Find news by category, select an category of your choice to be kept up to date with the latest goings on.

Blog Preston email updates

Receive our digest of the biggest and best stories every Sunday to your email inbox

We respect your privacy and you can unsubscribe at any time from our emails