Preston Dock was constructed in late Victorian times. Now converted into Preston Marina, there are still historical artefacts around from its days as a dock, if you know where to look.
Despite the fact that Preston is some 16 miles from the sea, the River Ribble is a wide estuary and boats have been travelling up and down it for hundreds of years. The first record of it being dredged to improve passage occurs back in the 16th Century. By the 1800s, successive Ribble Navigations Companies were formed to help make the river more manageable for shipping. This included straightening the river, bringing its channels together into a single course, reclaiming land and keeping it deep enough to be navigable. In 1825, the New Quays were constructed at the bottom of Marsh Lane, and later renamed the Victoria Quays. Their problem was that, with the river being tidal, boats could only get in and out of the quays at certain times. The answer was to build a large dock with a set of locks to control the water level, which Preston Council set about doing.
Construction began in 1884 and there was an enormous amount of work that had to be done. The river was moved away from its original line which followed today’s Strand Road, and a new dock basin was created. To do this, four million cubic yards of soil were dug from the 40 acre site. The walls of the dock are 40 feet deep, 3000 feet long and 600 feet wide. The initial cost of half a million pounds was soon exceeded and the council needed a second half a million. This meant a very long mortgage had to be taken out, one that would not be paid off for over 60 years.
The dock is named after Queen Victoria’s son, Albert Edward (the future King Edward VII), who opened it in 1892. At the time it was the largest single dock in Europe and probably the world, taking a month to fill before it could be used for the first time.
The SS Lady Louise was the first ship to unload its freight onto the dock and was chartered by the Lancashire firm EH Booth and Co Ltd (best known now as Booths supermarkets). Although only four vessels used the dock in its initial year, just eight years later that number had leapt to 170. The main cargo imported was timber, china clay, coal, oil, petrol, cotton, wheat, fruit (especially bananas) and Irish cattle.
In 1936 new dock offices opened on Watery Lane and are well worth a look today. Built in the Art Deco style, they feature a square central clock tower. Close inspection of their elaborate entrance door handles shows the ship prows, with the Preston lamb adorning them. Two years later the dock railway was added to the site and parts of this are still in existence.
During the second world war Preston Dock was taken over by the military. It was used as a marshalling post for the Normandy landings, and had to be closed twice because of mines. Just after the war a three times a week ferry service was introduced, sailing to Larne. This was the first ever roll on, roll off ferry. The first boat used was a former tank landing ship named the SS Empire Cedric. A section of Mulberry Harbour from the D-Day landings was used to facilitate the service.
Trade increased throughout the 1950s so much so that the payment for the port was no longer charged on Preston residents’ rates bills. Huge amounts of fruit were being imported from the Winward and Leeward Islands – in one year the entire citrus crop from Dominica and St Lucia came through the port. By the 1960s the port was at its peak, with two and a half million tons of trade. Unfortunately the boom times did not last and by the 1970s the dock was starting to flounder. Almost half of the income generated was being spent on dredging the Ribble to allow the increasingly large ships through. Trade began to fall away and Preston lost the china clay, banana, coal and coke imports. The Larne ferry also ceased to run.
In 1981 Preston Dock was closed with a great number of job losses, not only those employed there, but also the local companies that relied on their trade. However, within the decade plans were made to redevelop the derelict land. First, the polluted water and land had to be dealt with before rebuilding could occur. The site was renamed Riversway (as it sits over the original line of the Ribble) and new infrastructure was put in place. Over the next couple of decades a huge amount of work was done. The lock gates were repositioned to stop flooding from storms and a boatyard with chandlery facilities was constructed. A new canal was dug along the course of Savick Brook to connect the Ribble to the Lancaster Canal, and a new railway line was laid down by the banks of the river. A dock Control Centre was installed close to a swing bridge that allows passage of vehicles, trains and boats at the entrance channel.
Many homes were constructed around the site, with the old Shed No. 3 converted into the Victoria Mansions apartments. There has been a large amount of shopping development too, with the Morrisons Supermarket retaining the dock lighthouse.
At both the Pedders Way and Portway entrances to Riversway are two boat buoys. In 1896 they were originally moored in the Penfield Channel – the point where the Ribble meets the Irish Sea (off the coast of St Annes). To navigate an unfamiliar estuary is a difficult skill, so ships coming in would moor up and wait to be led in under supervision of a local pilot who knew the waters intimately. To give them their full names, they are Nelson Safe Water Mooring and Landfall buoys. Each had a bell that was activated by the movement of the waves and had lights powered by acetylene gas. In 1931, they were fitted with compressed carbon dioxide apparatus, which enabled the bells to be rung every half a minute. This meant that they would sound even in calm, foggy weather. In recent years they have been cleaned, had damage from salt corrosion repaired and then repainted by T Harrison Ltd. However, they could now do with a new coat of paint!
For a guide to see the sites, see our planned route below in the Access section below.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018
There is free unlimited daily parking at two car parks:
Maritime Way Car Park (off Navigation Way). This is very close to the modern Control Centre, swingbridge and crane.
Lockside Road Car Park (off Chain Caul Way) by the Bullnose Lock. This is a little further out from the site, but a short walk on the Guild Wheel trail will get you to the Control Centre. The Bullnose Lock is worth a look too.
Start at the Control Centre, swingbridge and crane. Head up the left hand side of the dock area passing the Beach Hut café. You can walk from here to Morrisons where the lighthouse is. The two Nelson buoys are at the Pedders Way entrance and the Portsway entrance. The original Dock Office Art Deco building on Watery Lane is also at the Portsway entrance- don’t forget to have a close up look at the door handles! There are also various smaller buoys dotted around the site. Take care on the roads when you are walking to see the Nelson Buoys. The roads around them are busy and although there are pavements, much of the area has been developed for traffic with walking being a secondary concern.
A History of Preston, David Hunt (2009), Carnegie
The Wharncliffe Companion to Preston : An A to Z of Local History, David Hunt (2005) Wharncliffe Books
Preston in 50 Buildings, Keith Johnson (2016), Amberley
Port of Preston History to 1981, Preston City Council undated pdf document available at prestondocks.co.uk/Compilation%20of%20Histories%20of%20the%20Docks.pdf