Discovering the history of Preston through hidden blue plaques

PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 February 2016

Blue plaque for Joseph Livesey

Blue plaque for Joseph Livesey


As Preston landmarks prepare for a make-over, Martin Pilkington seeks out memorials to people who deserve blue plaques. It’s just that you can’t always spot them.

Blue plaque for Sir Richard ArkwrightBlue plaque for Sir Richard Arkwright

Preston’s heritage dates back at least to Roman times, so it’s not surprising that it has hosted some fascinating figures, and witnessed some intriguing events. Many of the most celebrated are commemorated in plaques that are all too easily missed.

‘Some of the plaques are almost hidden, and others sadly have been stolen by metal thieves – they are made of cast aluminium and cost over £200, so they often get placed out of reach now,’ explains Aidan Turner-Bishop of the Preston Historical Society.

Blue plaque for Thomas MillerBlue plaque for Thomas Miller

This makes them easy to miss – how many of the patrons of one trendy coffee bar look up to its first floor to discover Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers, spent time here? ‘His daughter married a man from Orchard Street, who eventually became the second postmaster-general of the USA. After Franklin had been in Paris he came up to Preston to visit his daughter and grandchild,’ says Aidan.

Another equally out of view plaque sits on the TSB in Fishergate, Preston’s main shopping street. This tells us more about local history, remembering the radical politician Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt. ‘The electoral system in Preston was unusual, because of some medieval law every man had the vote, not just property owners,’ Aidan adds. ‘For a long time the town was a pocket borough of the Derby family, but then in 1831 the rabble-rousing Hunt stood and won – a huge shock.’ The man he beat, Edward Smith-Stanley, Earl of Derby, later served twice as Prime Minister.

Preston’s place in industrial history, and the effects industrialisation had on the then town can be traced via several plaques. On an elegant Georgian House at the end of Stoneygate an inscription records the work Prestonian Richard Arkwright did there on cotton spinning machinery that revolutionised production. The town’s mill owners had cause to thank Jesuit priest and teacher Joseph ‘Daddy’ Dunn, whose innovative use of gaslight for the Catholic School on Fox Street they quickly followed, allowing round-the-clock working.

Blue plaque for Rev Joseph (Daddy) DunnBlue plaque for Rev Joseph (Daddy) Dunn

One celebrated, or notorious, mill owner was Thomas Miller. The fine house he built on Winckley Square holds a plaque that recalls his gift of Miller Park to the town. ‘He owned and ran Horrocks, the biggest cotton company in Lancashire, so probably in the world,’ says Aidan. ‘He became enormously rich, but was too hard and rough to be granted a title – or even buy one. When he died all of his workers turned out for the funeral procession – probably to reassure themselves he was dead!’

The conditions such workers endured drove many to drown their sorrows, but Preston played a leading part in the backlash against the demon drink. ‘Joseph Livesey established the temperance movement here, the first pledge was taken at the Cockpit on Stoneygate, a three storey structure more usually associated with cock-fighting and betting,’ Aidan says, standing by the plaque commemorating the event.

A stroll around the centre and its environs offers further blue-plaque snapshots of history: a reminder of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s brief stay is seen in the courtyard of the Bull and Royal pub; suffragette Edith Rigby and poets Francis Thompson and Robert Service have their wall-memorials too. But when funds allow the Historical Society would like to arrange more. ‘If you do too many you weaken the impact,’ adds Aidan. ‘But there are many candidates still, and areas like women’s and black history that are very under-represented.’

Blue plaque for Edith RigbyBlue plaque for Edith Rigby

Aidan’s suggestions of possible new plaques for Preston
The visit of Czar Nicholas and the Imperial family in the 1890s
Arthur Wharton the first black professional footballer, a PNE player
Leo Baxendale, originator of the Beano’s Bash Street Kids
Brigham Young baptising the first Mormons in Europe
Sir Tom Finney, footballing legend
Angela Brazil, author of innumerable girls’ school stories
Ermintrude de Trafford, First World War nurse at Moor Park Military Hospital


Beauty and the beast

As with so many cities, the 1960s were a mixed blessing architecturally to Preston. Lancashire County Council and Preston City Council are both working on elements of that legacy, good and bad.

Preston Bus Station winning designPreston Bus Station winning design

The good (though not everyone would agree) is Preston’s landmark bus station. ‘Nobody would consider building something like this, on this scale, nowadays,’ says art historian and author James Charnley. ‘Of its type it’s quite daring, and its reputation will improve with time as the ambition behind it is recognised – it could become Preston’s Guggenheim! Preston has produced something of world beating quality and proportions, often labelled as Brutalist but more refined than that.’

Lancashire County Council bought the building for £1 two years ago, and they are now putting plans in place to preserve and enhance it. ‘We had proposals for a Youth Zone elsewhere in Preston, somewhere with a gym, activity spaces, a sports hall and so on, but we thought this would be a great place for it, in the centre and clearly with very easy public transport access. We put it out to an international design competition, to remain as a working bus station and incorporate the Youth Zone building,’ explains LCC Leader Jennifer Mein. From several hundred entries five were selected to go to consultation, the spectacular design of New York-based English architect John Puttick winning out.

‘We hope to get the necessary permissions by the end of the year, begin building in April next year, and complete in 2018,’ says Cllr Mein. ‘It will work better as a bus station with the buses on one side only, give some extra public and commercial space, and add a beautiful and useful new building. And, in the meantime, work is being undertaken on the bus station to bring it back up to standard.’

How the renovated Preston Market will appearHow the renovated Preston Market will appear

In the heart of the city work is starting on refurbishing the smaller of the two huge market canopies as a precursor to more dramatic changes. ‘It will be the first real makeover for the 1920s structure since it was built,’ says Preston City Council Leader Peter Rankin. ‘The metalwork will be completely stripped and repainted to show off the splendid architecture.

‘The wider vision is that we’ll be demolishing the ugly indoor market building beyond the big canopy - I don’t know how they got away with putting a 1960s structure jutting into the elegant Victorian canopy. We’re planning something that will take up a little less than half of the space within the big canopy, for the fishmongers, butchers, greengrocers and so on, and create a cinema and new multi-storey car park in the space vacated. And, longer term, we’re looking at the former post office that adjoins the small canopy. It’s another beautiful building.’

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