In our sanitised, bleached, painted and plastic homes and towns it takes a big leap to visualise Victorian living conditions.
Who better to provide those details than Charles Dickens.
In January 1854 Dickens visited Preston during a cotton workers’ strike. He decided to educate readers about the working conditions in the northern industrial towns, and, using Preston and Manchester as his inspiration, he created a fictional place called Coketown. He called the book “Hard Times”, and the novel first appeared in a weekly serialised form between April and August 1854. His descriptions of ‘Coketown’ provide valuable insights into what Victorian Preston must have looked and smelled and felt like.
As you read these extracts and view the accompanying images keep in mind that these were the streets Heber C.Kimball, Joseph Fielding, Brigham Young, Willard Richards, Isaac Russell, Orson Hyde, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Parley P. Pratt and many, many more walked and preached upon.
“It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it: but, as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys , out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled.
It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and a vast pile of buildings full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.
It contained several large streets all very alike one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counter part of the last and next.” (Dickens,p.18)
In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death (Dickens, p.49)
…the factories looming heavy in the black wet night – their tall chimneys rising up into the air competing Towers of Babel. (Dickens, P. 63)
A sunny midsummer day. There was such a thing sometimes, even in Coketown. Seen from a distance in such weather, Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun’s rays. You only knew the town was there, because you knew there could have been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town. A blur of soot and smoke… (Dickens, p.85)
The streets were hot and dusty on the summer day…
Stokers emerged from low underground doorways into factory yards, and sat on steps, and posts, and palings, wiping their swarthy visages, and contemplating coals. The whole town seemed to be frying in oil. There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere. The steam-engines shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with it, the mills throughout their many stories ooze and trickled it. The atmosphere of those Fairy palaces was like the breath of the simoon: and their inhabitants wasting with heat, toiled languidly in the desert. But no temperature made the melancholy mad elephants more mad or more sane. Their wearisome heads went up and down at the same rate, in hot weather and cold, wet weather and dry, fair weather and foul. The measured motion of their shadows on the walls, was the substitute ~Coketown had to show for the shadows of rustling woods; while, for the summer hum of insects, it could offer, all the year round, from the dawn of Monday to the night of Saturday, the whirr of shafts and wheels. (Dickens, p.86)
Down upon the river that was black and thick with dye, some Coketown boys who were at large – a rare sight here – rowed a crazy boat, which made a spumous track upon the water as it jogged along, while every dip of an oar stirred up vile smells. (Dickens, p.86)
“Will you allow me to ask you if it’s always as black as this?” The Visitor to Mrs Sparsit, (Dickens, P. 93)
Look how we live, and where we live, an in wha numbers, an by what chances, and wi’ what sameness; and look how the mills is awlus a goin, and how they never works us no nigher to ony dis’ant object – ceptin awlus, Death. (Dickens, P.115)
And yes… I have copied that last extract correctly. Dickens was trying to capture the Lancashire accent of one of the workers. His words and the above images record a scene which has been wiped away from modern view.
In our next journey through the cotton world of Preston we meet the Cotton Lords whose quest for profit squeezed the life out of their workers.