Why did Preston port close?

It may come as a surprise to some that Preston port didn’t make it to its centenary. The port officially closed on 31 Oct 1981, just over 98 years after it opened. Perhaps it would have added insult to injury to keep a loss-making port open for another two years and close it on its hundredth birthday.

Another surprising fact: Preston’s port only made a profit for 17 years of its existence. Preston’s council bore the losses for many years due to the communication links it gave to the outside world.

The port’s story isn’t one of failure and collapse, however.

The dock was built to feed Preston’s cotton industry, establishing an important trade in materials such as wood pulp and logs. When the cotton industry declined Preston was quick look towards new ways of working.

After the Second World War, the first commercial roll-on roll-off ferries in the UK docked at Preston, and the port was one of the early adopters of the booming technology of lift-on lift-off containers. This led to the port   taking on a significant proportion of Britain’s trade with Ireland, especially due to the city’s excellent transport links. The port also had a long-established banana trade.

By the 1970s, however, other ports had begun to catch Preston up. Liverpool, Fleetwood,  Garston and Heysham expanded into the same markets as Preston. With the development of links with the common market, the UK’s eastern ports took away Preston’s trade in wood pulp and logs. Competition increased, exposing some of the inherent weaknesses of the city’s dock.

Preston’s port was tidal so was only accessible twice a day. Ships had to sail 11 miles up the Ribble along a channel which had to be regularly, and expensively, dredged. Other ports offered a quicker turnaround. Preston lost its banana trade when its main supplier began to use larger ships that couldn’t access Preston.

By the late 1970s the port was losing between £800,000 and £1 million each year. As early as 1975 reports were produced looking into what could be done to stem the losses. A phased closure was  announced in 1976 but a vigorous campaign gave the port a reprieve. The government gave a grant of £2 million to pay for a two year trial to try and  revive the port but a resulting report, 18 months later, found no solutions to the dock’s inherent  problems.

When the government refused to put up any more money, the council was faced with a stark choice: continue to subsidise the port at a cost of £1 million per year, or close it. The decision was made in  October 1979: the port would close in two years.

It was second time unlucky for the port. Another campaign was launched to try and keep it open, but this time, faced with the inevitable, enthusiasm had seeped away.

The closure of Preston port was hugely controversial at the time. 350 jobs were to be lost during a deep recession. It was difficult to see what good would come out of the port’s closure. As the Lloyd’s List newspaper for the maritime industry reported in 1979: ‘Preston council plan to develop the 190-acre site as an industrial and residential estate but the worsening economic situation has led many to view the success of this with scepticism’.

When the port closed, a significant link with the outside world ended. Preston became largely land-locked. Could you imagine if Preston closed its links to the motorway tomorrow? Imagine if Preston opened an airport. These things can transform cities.

An era ended, but as anyone who visits the docks today knows, a new one had begun.

In 1981 it looked like the history of Preston docks was over. Since then, however, the docks has been radically redeveloped – so with the end of one history, a whole new history began. Since its closure as a port, the docks has been turned into a residential, commercial and office area. The flats on the docks are one of the prime areas to live in Preston and many thriving stores are based here. The basin itself has now been turned into a marina.

Preston Past & Present.

There is an e-zine online featuring more about Preston Dock – http://bit.ly/1aiZJyf