Hard Times in Preston in 1861: squalor, poverty and disease

Map of Preston in 1852
Map of Preston in 1852

Gaslights stutter in the early morning gloom as a thousand clogs rattle on the cobbled street. Smoke
swirls and another grim 14-hour day begins in the factories of the North.


The early industrial revolution left no prisoners. Squalid housing and unregulated industry created a
toxic mix of waste and pollution. Preston fascinated Charles Dickens and he first visited the town in 1854.

In his book Hard Times, Coketown stands in for Preston.

Conditions were almost medieval. For example, the population had grown from 11,887 in 1801 to 82,085 in 1861. However sanitation had not kept pace with the growth. Refuse and human waste was not collected on a regular basis. Consequently, it often choked side streets, becoming a fetid mass of disease.

Writing in 1861, an article in The Builder states: “The site at the rear of the 17 houses on St Wilfred Street contained ,17 privies, 17 offal-ash pits and 17 slop drains. These harbours for filth have soiled and chocked the ground until they could be bourne no longer”.

“The rear premises of Friargate are horrible masses of corruption and forcing pits of fever”.

Extreme wealth was often juxtaposed with total poverty. The genteel Winkley Square was only a few blocks away from St Wilfrid Street.

Read more: The dark goings on at 3 Fox Street in Preston as it stands abandoned

The textile industry

By 1861 an industrialised working class toiled in 64 textile firms across the town. More than a quarter worked in textiles, including women and young children.

Although cotton wages were relatively high may families were in primary poverty.

Engraving c.1862 from The Illustrated London News detailing the construction of Moor Park - Preston was said to be the inspiration for Dickens 'Hard Times' Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Engraving c.1862 from The Illustrated London News detailing the construction of Moor Park – Preston was said to be the inspiration for Dickens ‘Hard Times’ Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Dickens described the scene:

“Coketown was a town of red brick, or the brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it… it was a town of machinery and tall chimneys. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill smelling dye.”

Gradually regulation began to a take a hand. First, factory hours were reduced to 10.5 hours a week with half of Saturday off.

Second, relatively high wages led to more money being available for leisure, with pubs and music halls proliferating. No regulation for pub entry or opening hours existed until the 1870s.

Things can only get better

By the 1880s, when the county councils were established, a raft of legislation had abolished most of the ills of the early Victorian period, paving the way for the welfare state.

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