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Early Preston

The name 'Preston' is derived from Old English meaning 'Priest's settlement', or 'Priest's Town', as it was originally founded by St. Wilfrid for his priests. This name was given to the town by Angles, one of the main Germanic peoples who settled in Great Britain after the Roman period. Its well-known coat of arms originates from its strong Catholic roots depicting the Biblical Lamb of God with the PP standing for "Princeps Pacis" or Prince of Peace.

However, discoveries in and around the city shed some light on its history before the Angles. Evidence of a Roman road was found running through Preston and leading to a camp at Walton-le-Dale. There are also signs of settlements along this road and around the River Ribble in the South Ribble district.

Evidence of Vikings has also been discovered nearby. The Cuerdale Hoard was found by labourers repairing the River Ribble's embankment in 1840, in Cuerdale near Preston. The hoard is one of the largest Viking silver hoards ever found and consists of more than 8,600 items, including silver coins, hacksilver, ingots, and English and Carolingian jewellery. The Ribble Valley was the main route between Viking York and the Irish Sea and it is thought that the hoard was buried here by Irish Norse exiles who were planning on reoccupying Dublin after their expulsion in 1902.

Industrial town
Historical Horrockses cloth manufacturer poster.

Preston was granted a Guild Merchant charter in 1179, giving it the status of a market town and leading to the famous Preston Guild celebrations which still continue to be held every 20 years. Preston continued as a small market town, with textiles being produced there as far back as the 13th century. 

It was in Preston that Sir Richard Arkwright and John Kay developed their highly important spinning frame, aiding the arrival of cotton mills in Preston and many other northern towns.

At the time of the industrial revolution, in the 19th century, the picturesque Georgian town had been transformed by mills, engineering works, housing, canals, and railways. Cotton was the principal employer for women in Preston for more than 150 years, and famous names such as Horrockses, Goodhair, and Hawkins sent their cotton cloth from here to places all around the world.

In the following years many more names emerged including Dick, Kerr & Co.'s electric works for trams and Goss for printing presses. Perhaps the most notable name would be The Preston Gas Company, which led Preston to being the first English town outside of London to be lit by gas.

The more oppressive side of industrialisation was seen in a number of strikes orchestrated by cotton workers. Strikes include the Preston Strike and Lune Street Riots of 1842, where four demonstrators were killed. A memorial now sits on Lune Street where the strike took place in memory of those who died and suffered. 

Another notable strike is the Great Lock Out during 1853/54. The period of unrest made headlines across the country as a struggle of the cotton workers against the Preston Cotton Masters. Charles Dickens' novel 'Hard Times' was thought to have been inspired by his visit to Preston during the Great Lock Out.

Dickens wrote:

'It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled'.

Social and political movements

There has always been a strong link with people in Preston and social and political reform, with Prestonians playing a significant role in national campaigns. It was in Preston where Henry Hunt fought for and won an election, defeating future Prime Minister Edward Stanley and gaining a parliamentary seat during the implementation of the Reform Act. Henry Hunt was a radical speaker and agitator, remembered as a pioneer of working-class radicalism as well as an important influence on the Chartist movement.

Prestonian and temperance campaigner, Joseph Livesey (1794-1884), was an active campaigner and published many magazines throughout his life to help spread his word. He was the founder of the Temperance Movement - a social movement against the consumption of alcoholic beverages - and published 'The Struggle', in favour of anti-corn laws. It was in Preston where Livesey recorded the meeting where the word 'teetotalism' was born, and where he drew up the first pledge.

The Women's Suffrage movement also has several important links to Preston. Edith Rigby and Patti Mayor were two Prestonian suffragettes who were active in protests.

Culture and learning

While Preston only had one school until the late 18th century, major changes were soon underway. The development of culture and learning institutions began with the creation of the first public library (the Shepherd Library), the Bluecoat School, and institutions like the Literary and Philosophical Society.

The men that created these were connected to legal professions. During the 19th century the church took an active role in education, giving working children the opportunity to learn to read and write for the first time.

The industrial revolution created a number of successful Preston businessmen, many of whom began to improve and establish schools, public lending libraries, museums, and art galleries in the city. Those included Joseph Livesey and Moses Holden; both amongst the 24 founders of the Institute for the Diffusion of Knowledge. The institute was the first organisation inviting working men and women to borrow books and attend classes on a range of topics, from astronomy and photography to natural history and foreign languages.

Perhaps the most important development, however, was the Harris Library, Museum and Art Gallery, created after the death of Edmund Robert Harris with the help of his bequest. Through the same Harris Bequest the first formal accredited adult education college, The Harris Institute, took on the pioneering work of the Institute of the Diffusion of Knowledge, which became the University of Central Lancashire.

To discover more of Preston's history see Tours and Trails.