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The History of the Preston Docks

We take a look back at when Preston Docks were first built, the reasons behind it and how they have developed over the years.

From pioneering innovative shipping techniques and becoming Europe’s largest single dock, to the transformation into a luxurious marina and residential hot spot, Preston Docks have been through a lot over the years.

Let’s take a look at some poignant moments in their history…

The Preston Docks Are Born

Before Preston Docks were built, ships came to the city to shelter and unload at a natural basin and man made wharves, located at the confluence of the river Ribble and the Moorbrook.

preston dock
Source: Preston Digital Archive – 1910

But, the rapid expansion of industry in the industrial revolution and the need for heavy import on the doorstep of Preston’s manufacturing and distribution service industries, led to the building of a major dock.

First, the river Ribble was diverted in 1893, to allow for the dock to be dug out and built by the Borough of Preston. Workmen dug a whole new channel for the river, lined it with stone, then diverted it down a new route before remodelling the old riverbed as the dock.

The dock foundation stone was laid in 1885 by Queen Victoria’s first son, Albert Edward the Prince of Wales. One of the basins was also named after him, the Albert Edward basin is 3,000ft long by 600ft wide and was the largest single dock in Europe.

It was completed and opened in 1892 by Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Victoria’s second son.

However, not everyone in Preston was happy about the dock opening. The owners of Preston’s cotton mills opposed the dock venture and formed the political party ‘The Party of Caution’, to contest local elections and stop the spending of public money on building the dock.

aerial image of Preston dock
Source: Preston Digital Archive – Preston Dock Aerial Image 1966

The main reason for this opposition was the fear that the dock, and the industries it would attract, would provide an abundance of employment for the people of Preston and hence drive up the cost of labour.

However, times were changing and the dock proved to be a huge success for Preston.

The First Ships Visit

The company EH Booth & Co Ltd chartered the first ship to visit the docks, a company with links to the current Booths grocers, which is still based in Preston.

The Preston Docks provided a place to import cotton, timber, coal, china clay, wood pulp, fruit and oil. Plus, the continuous change in ship technology provided one of the big industries at Preston Dock; shipbreaking.

As the docks developed in the first half of the 20th century, warehouses were built and a railway line was installed to connect the dock to the rest of the country.

docks railway
Source: Preston Digital Archive – 1965

After the Second World War, the dock pioneered roll-on roll-off ferries, with a service bringing lorries from Larne, in Northern Ireland. This partly led partly to the dock’s most successful period as a working port, from 1960-1972.

The concept was taken from the ‘Tank Landing Ships’ used on D-Day in the Second World War.

The installation utilised a section of the “Mulberry Harbour” assembled in Normandy for landing our troops and supplies. The Ro-Ro ferry idea pioneered at Preston ultimately led to containerisation and sea cargo transport as we know it today.

Preston Dock Plan
Source: Preston Digital Archive – Preston Dock Plan

The Decline of the Docks

The decline of the dock’s traditional role came with a series of strikes in the 1970s. As the size of ships began to increase, the dredging of the river Ribble started to become ineffective and the channel was too shallow for the newer, bigger ships to navigate.

Dredging became too expensive and the dock officially ceased to be a working port on 31 October 1981, by an Act of Parliament.

Preston Docks
Source: Preston Digital Archive

It looked like the history of Preston Docks was over.

However, today the docks have been transformed into a commercial and leisure hub, drawing in a whole new form of industry and employment.

Preston Dock Today

Preston docks
Source: Shutterstock

The railway is used today for commercial freight and steam excursions from the Ribble Steam Railway museum. A minimum of three freight trains each week, often comprising 12 tankers carrying 74 tonnes each of bitumen, are brought into the Total UK distillery on Chain Caul Way.

The area has also become part of the tourist, leisure and residential offer of the city.

Since its closure as a port, the Preston Docks are one of the prime residential areas in Preston

The flats on the docks are one of the most desirable areas to live in Preston and many thriving shops are based here. The basin itself has now been turned into a luxury marina, drawing in tourists and boating clubs.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our brief history of the Preston Docks, if you’d like to visit this great city we’ve got loads of amazing guides that will help you explore all the best bits. Don’t forget to keep checking our website for updates on the grand opening of The Shankly Hotel in Preston.