The Port Of Preston

The new dock at Preston was opened in 1892. There had been discussion from the beginning of the century about expanding the quays that lay along the River Ribble. The work would include diverting the river away from Strand Road and digging a main dock and an outer basin. Also the river is tidal only for a few miles beyond Preston, so it would fluctuate greatly in depth and require constant dredging. Tides at Lytham vary from 20 to 30 feet and Preston is some 9 miles upstream so at high tide there is deep water and dredging can enable fairly large ships reach Preston. People spoke of the ships that appear to be crossing fields as they pass Freckleton Marsh.

The main dock was called the Albert Edward Dock after Queen Victoria’s husband. It was one of the largest single docks in the country, and still is. When visiting such places as Albert Dock in Liverpool it makes Preston look massive as a single dock.

When the electricity power station was built on the other side of the river a coal conveyor belt was built from the dock over the river to the power station. Also a pipe was laid under the river to enable the dock to be used as a cooling source. Every now and then steam would rise from the dock water at the south east corner.

Other features were the railway line that went under the town from the main station to the dock and then by level crossing over Strand Road. This line is still there now re-opened for tar trains to the tar works and of course the Ribble Steam Railway.

The dock was always a financial problem for the town as it never made money in its own right although as a greater entity it brought jobs and outside money into the area. In particular the many public houses near the port.

The port competed with Liverpool for trade mainly to Ireland. Nearby there were also Lancaster and Fleetwood ports at various times. There was also fruit from the West Indies and woodpulp and timber from Scandinavia and Russia. A small Fina oil depot was at the port and oil was imported. In later years Preston experimented with Roll-on and Roll-off traffic and was a pioneer in that field. However it brought in other difficulties such as labour disputes about how much manning was needed. A large crane was bought for container traffic and was never efficiently utilised. Before that time dockers had been treated as casual workers and had recently earned the right to guaranteed work, coupled with the general explosion in worker power, managements incapability to deal with this new phenomenon, high levels of inflation and a lack of industrial stability became a national feature. The building of the motorways enabled traffic from Scandinavia and Europe to dock on the east coast and lorries to quickly reach the west, also there was a move to larger ships and problems with maintaining the river depth. The Port of Preston was unable to survive these events and the council pulled the plug in the early 1980’s.

After its closure many grand plans were laid including a proposal to fill the dock. A long term development plan evolved and today the dock is surrounded by modern apartments, supermarkets, multi-plex cinemas, a large gymnasium, drive in fast food outlets,offices and contains a marina. Its large expanse of water and high quays doesn’t exactly make it appear cosy. Over to the east the Pennines can be seen, to the west the flatness of the Fylde creates a big sky. A dual carriageway enables easy access west towards Lytham and Blackpool and a southerly by-pass enables faster access south to the M6, M61 and M65 without travelling through Preston.

Although never a major port, Preston pioneered roll on roll off ferry transport. Albert Edward Dock opened in 1892 – at that time it was the largest single dock in the country. In 1948 the dock was the first to introduce roll on roll off traffic. By the 1960s the port held the record for the handling the largest amount of container and ferry traffic. Traffic reached a peak in 1968, when 500 dockers were employed and 1,437,000 tons of unit load trade passed through the port (16% of the UK total).

Cotton and wood pulp were the most important cargoes landed here. As the size of ships increased, fewer could use the dock. At the same time, the import of traditional cargoes decreased, and the cost of dredging silt from the channel increased. The early post-war advantage of being the pioneer in roll on roll off operations was lost to competing ports which could offer faster turn round time. In the 90 year history of the port, it only made a profit in 17 years.