Preston – A Dock Too Far!

Whilst travelling on the Steam Railway recently and gazing out of the carriage window at the Ribble alongside, I remembered reading that until the mid-18th century there were no bridges across the river. Walton-le-dale was at that time the nearest crossing to Preston.
Indeed, those who wished to travel to Penwortham, Ormskirk, Southport or Liverpool had either to cross at Walton-le-dale and fetch a compass until they reached the road or to make use of a ferry or the fords!
In 1771, after an Act of Parliament, commissioners were appointed who collected subscriptions for the purpose of building a bridge which was opened in 1755. Unfortunately the original structure fell down about a year later!
Another Act of Parliament was then needed to collect £2,000 from the county to reconstruct the bridge and this was duly erected in 1759 and is still standing. Its upkeep and repair were obtained from tolls which were occasionally imposed for short periods.
The best method of travelling around the county had been on horseback and in 1771 the first stagecoach was established in Preston running between the town, Wigan and Warrington. Towards the end of 1823 seventy-two stage coaches arrived and left Preston every Wednesday increasing to over eighty in mid-1830.
The transport system of the area was also being improved by the building of canals. In 1798 a canal was cut between Preston and Lancaster and extended as far north as the town of Kendal. Four years later a canal was opened between Bamber Bridge and Wigan. The two systems were connected via a tramway* which ran from Wharf Street in Preston across the River Ribble to the Bamber Bridge terminus of the Wigan Canal. Whilst all this construction was in progress the coming of the railway was not far away**
The first attempts to have a Port of Preston were started in 1806 when a company was formed for this purpose and to improve the navigation of the River Ribble. They had £2,000 capital and achieved very little.
In 1837 the Ribble Navigation Company was formed with £50,000 capital and in 1845 they obtained powers to make quays and constructed a branch line to connect them with the ever growing railway system.
They were also given powers to reclaim land on the margins of the Ribble. From these quays on the river the company failed to attract much business and in 1866 a survey of the river took place. A year later it was suggested spending up to £130,000 on improving navigation, the construction of a dock, increasing facilities for loading and discharge of vessels and the formation of a Dock Board.
The problem with navigating the Ribble was an immense problem. Although the company improved the channel for eight miles from Preston in the direction of the sea, from that point for a similar distance it was a winding course with ever shifting sandbanks at its mouth. This meant that only small vessels used in the coasting trade could use the navigation and even they had to wait for the high tides to float them up to the port. Even then they had to stay over the neap tides unless they could be unloaded in time. When they did reach their destination in the absence of a dock, they could not float and were stranded in the bed of the river by the quayside, which led to the straining of vessels laden with cargo.
Preston had advantages over Liverpool and Fleetwood as being the nearest and most convenient port for the large manufacturing and coal mining district of East Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire.
In 1884 Alderman James Hibbert spoke against the dock scheme as “an adventure beyond our proper province – never likely to pay – one the corporation should never have embarked into -”
In spite of ratepayers protests the scheme went ahead……
The Preston Dock opened in 1892 and only made a profit in the first two years!
Investigations, enquiries and surveys were undertaken into how to improve the navigation of the Ribble including obtaining a satisfactory channel through the maze of tortuous sandbanks between Southport and Lytham.
The Ribble Act of 1905 enabled construction of training walls to fourteen and a half miles from Preston. The main opposition to work came from St Annes-On-Sea council who ensured that all dredged material was carried out to sea so as not to affect their foreshore.
This improved condition of the river brought increased trade and with improved handling and warehousing the increase would continue.
The chief articles imported were wood pulp, timber, petroleum, macadam, grain, china clay and iron whilst coal was easily the largest of the exports. It is noteworthy that many vessels which arrived with cargoes were compelled to leave light as Preston did not become a large exporting centre.
In 1911, the dock income was £73,945.12s7d whilst the working expenses were £52,530.12s9d.
The improvement of the waterway and the making of Preston into a port for ocean going traffic had a great strain on the town and the council had no choice but to impose a Ribble Rate on its population. It was worked out that a total of £1,386,323.19s2d was expended on the project which resulted in a rate of 1/10 in the pound.
It was stated that ‘future generations of Prestonians would reap the advantages of this long struggle with the forces of nature’. It is more likely that those who have lived in Preston have often reviled rather than blessed the stream that flowed at their feet.
As already mentioned the port only made a profit in its first two years although it did become a busy concern. The Dock Offices were opened in 1936 and new dock gear was purchased. Despite pioneering the ‘Roll-On / Roll-Off’ road traffic service profits proved elusive.
Alderman Hibbert had been right as the dock closed in 1981.

*The tramway was worked by horse drawn trucks on a five mile journey twice a day between Walton Summit and the Preston sections of the Lancaster Canal. The Avenham Incline saw trucks lifted onto flanged rails by attaching them to an endless chain over large wheels and worked by a steam engine at Avenham Tower. The Tram Bridge over the Ribble was nearly demolished in 1859 but remains today, having been rebuilt in the 1960’s.

**After the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830 public attention was centred on this new means of communication and in 1838 a line was opened between Preston and Wigan. In 1840 three separate lines united Preston with Lancaster, Fleetwood and Longridge and in 1846 by the opening of a line to Bolton, Preston was at last connected to Manchester.
The North Union Railway bridge was built in 1838 to carry the Preston – Wigan line (now the West Coast mainline) and the East Lancs bridge was built in 1850 between the main railway line and the old tram bridge.
The railway extensions and different systems that ran through the town eventually came into the hands of the London & North Western and Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Companies. Under their control Preston became the possessor of one of the largest stations in the kingdom, a great centre for the collection and distribution of merchandise and one of the most important junctions on the western route to Scotland.

(Chris Mills)