Preston, a self governing city state and a tale of four Town Halls

Posted on - 24th December, 2023 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston City Centre, Preston News
The original medieval Town Hall complex Pic: The Harris
The original medieval Town Hall complex Pic: The Harris

This is part one of a two-part article on Preston’s Town Halls.


Early charter towns such as Preston had a form of local government that allowed for a lot of autonomy and indeed corruption. Below we look at how the Town Halls developed and how the Preston set book, Dark Waters by Robin Blake, throws light on the murky and complicated world of Georgian politics.

Medieval Moot Hall

In earlier times the functions of Town Hall, Moot Hall, and Guild Hall were interconnected, especially in Preston with its regular 20-year Guild celebrations. The administration of Preston was based on a charter granted by the King. This was a form of local government where the town could elect a mayor. They could also appoint judges as well as officials. Payments were made to the King for the use of the land. The money was paid by merchants and craftsmen who then had the right to hold markets and fairs. This was a form of local taxation. 

The original Moot Hall in Preston was close to the present Town Hall and had an adjoining council chamber where the town’s burgesses or councillors met. It was also where justice was served on court days. In fact, the Moot Hall building held the courts for the entire county as well as dealing with the election of burgesses and parliamentary candidates. It was also the gathering point for the Guild celebrations. 

Moot means subject to debate in old English, and in Anglo-Saxon times the elders of the local Hundred would meet on a moot hill or mound to deal with any disputes. These locations often acquired a building. Unfortunately, the Charter system tended to create oligarchies and Preston was no exception.


Dark waters by Robin Blake

The book Dark Waters by Robin Blake is set in Georgian Preston when the local oligarchy was in full swing. Another peculiarity of Preston was the fact that the coroner was also the mayor. This was not normal practice as the coroner was usually a crown appointment and was supposed to be independent of the Corporation. The book plot makes the coroner independent as he is investigating a possible political murder. Before the founding of the police force any deaths were investigated by the coroner. The other main protagonist in the book is a doctor. The plot surrounds the investigation of the possible murder of a landlord whose body is fished out of the Ribble.

Georgian Preston 1714-1837

Fine Georgian houses surround Winckley Square Pic: Geoff Whittaker
Winckley Square Pic: G Whittaker

Georgian Preston was an oligarchy in that the council’s 24 members or burgesses appointed each other. They also selected the mayor and two bailiffs annually between themselves. The town was run like a city-state and outsiders were kept away.  

This was also the period of the Town Hall debacle. The Guild of 1762 was approaching and the oligarchy decided that a new Guild Hall should be built. This was duly built adjoining the existing medieval Town Hall building. The new building was constructed by builders who should remain nameless. Unfortunately, the building collapsed before the next Guild was due, in 1782. Luckily it had collapsed just after a ball had been held and not during it. 

Next week we look at the Victorian and modern Town Halls.

Read more: Dig into more Preston history with Geoffrey

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