The Decline and Fall of Winckley Square

For the greater part of the 18th century, Preston had been an agricultural town and also the legal centre for the County of Lancaster; a town of broad streets and fine houses. But, in 1791, when Mr. John Horrocks came to Preston, all that changed. In thirteen years he created, more or less single-handed, a cotton industry in Preston.

By the year 1804 he was dead, aged only thirty-six, but the cotton industry grew and grew, and not very far away from Winckley Square were the crowded courts where the workers lived in squalor; where midden steads and open cess-pools were the order of the day. So it was not surprising that, in 1807, Mr. Cross should note the general trend and be determined to keep Winckley Square a place apart. Winckley Square was the most exclusive residential area in early nineteenth-century Preston, and remained so until the 1860s and '70s. It was carefully regulated [see The Regulation of Winckley Square] to contain neither disagreeable work nor undertaking. The interior of Winckley Square was to be laid out as a pleasure ground, and the residents were to have keys of the general entrance gates.

In his “History of Preston”, dated 1857, Hardwick said of Winckley Square, “In point and extent and picturesque beauty, this provincial ‘rus in urbe’ might successfully compete with many in the metropolis”.

Winckley Square a century ago was essentially the residential centre of the gentry of Preston. After their departure, the square gradually deteriorated. On the 9th March 1933, the Lancashire Evening Post commented, “Winckley Square, like most of its London prototypes, is no longer an exclusive residential centre for wealthy and fashionable citizens. Most of the dwellings are occupied as offices by lawyers, accountants, land, estate and insurance agencies, and as chambers of companies of many varieties. The central gardens are still as quiet and secluded a bird sanctuary as ever, though no longer as carefully attended. Winckley Square is not yet quite a common thoroughfare, and still retains much of its dignity and quietness”.

Winckley Square reached its nadir during the Second World War when a water tank for Civil Defence purposes and air raid shelters appeared amid the trees. Even the railings were removed to help the war effort.

On the 21st July 1950, an article appeared in the Preston Herald, written by historian J. H. Spencer. It was entitled “The Decline and Fall of Winckley Square” and is quoted from below.

“We live in an impatient and revolutionary age and whenever I pass through Winckley Square I invariably stand for a few moments and survey it from the north side. Here you are on the top of a slight incline and from this vantage point can judge its restful beauty and its old-world charm. For it is an oasis of temporary relaxation from the adjacent busy streets of our modern world.

From the present condition of this square one might think that we are so much concerned with the grandiose town planning schemes of the future that we have forgotten this beauty spot on our own doorstep, inherited from a previous generation. Its appearance today is one of pitiful neglect; it dumbly appeals to you and will do so more insistently as time passes.

In these summer days, untrimmed bushes, and a miniature forest of towering trees with here and there a few rhododendron blooms bravely asserting themselves”.

In 1951 a number of agreements were signed between the landowners and Preston Borough Council which effectively placed the responsibility for the maintenance of the landscaped area in the hands of the local authority. Eventually Winckley Square was declared a public open space and the Parks Department turned it from a tangle of undergrowth and decaying trees into a very pleasant old corner; a reminder of the town's antiquity.

In 1957, however, Preston's growing traffic problem caused eyes to turn to the square as a convenient means of taking vehicles from the main streets. It was packed solidly, every day, with businessmen's cars; herring-bone parking was suggested, and there was the awful theory, supported by the Mayor, of all people, that the contour of the grassed area would lend itself to a two-floor car park at the upper end and gardens at the lower end!

So much feeling was generated by these proposals that, happily for us, they came to nought. Indeed, in 1985, our civic authorities again took action to restore the square to its former glory. Many shrubs were planted, some mature trees, found to be dead, were chopped down and replaced by young ones; others were drastically pruned to improve the vistas. The railings were at last replaced and the setting of the Peel Statue improved.

Winckley Square is now designated a Conservation Area, all buildings therein being subjected to the requirements of such an area. I think William Cross would have approved of such action.

His central area does indeed ‘lie forever open and unbuilt upon' and the civic authorities are now taking as much trouble as he and his wife Ellen took to preserve the special quality of Winckley Square, for which we are truly thankful!

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