On Sunday the 24th of February 2019, I joined other members of the Preston and District Vintage Car Club for a walk around some of their town’s historic parks and buildings. We met up at Winckley Square Gardens, a small park surrounded by imposing Georgian buildings (now mostly converted from houses into offices) on a beautifully sunny – and unseasonally warm – morning. The history of the Square is well documented from its initial development by William Cross (who purchased the land from Thomas Winckley) and his wife in 1801 right up to the present day.
Originally the centre of the square was divided into one garden for each house, and the locations of some of the access gates can still be seen as irregularities in the railings around the present day public gardens. Towards the southern end of the park, an installation in the paved seating area details the names and addresses of various past residents, ranging from Mill Owners and Cotton Tycoons to Domestic Servants and Office Caretakers. I particularly liked the illustrations used to show the occupation of each individual.
Once we were all assembled we walked past more imposing houses to the larger Avenham and Miller Parks, designed by the landscape architect Edward Milner in the 1860s. The parks were built by out-of-work cotton workers, during the “cotton famine” resulting from the American Civil War, and the land on which Miller Park stands was donated by Thomas Miller, a local cotton manufacturer.
At the point where we entered the park, a long tree-lined avenue leads down past a splendid Italianate mansion, which I was told was once the home of the Booths grocery family to a sweep of steps, flanked by a pair of replica Sebastopol canons, down to a splendid viewpoint looking out over the River Ribble and the replica tramway bridge that allows walkers to cross it. Our group, however, were a little short on time, so we climbed back up the steps and strolled past the Belvedere, the Boer War Memorial and the Japanese Gardens (dating from the 1930s) to the statue of the Earl of Derby. From there, we made our way back to Winckley Square for a tour of the houses and other landmarks.
We began our walk around the square at the statue of Sir Robert Peel on the east side of the square. The statue was paid for by public subscription due to the gratitude of the people of Preston at the repeal of the Corn Laws and erected in 1852, two years after Peel’s death. Also of interest to me on this side of the street was Number 7, formerly the house of Mr James Todd, chairman of Sunbeam Cars in the 1920s. His ashes are interred in the wall of the building behind a stone inscribed, “J.T. 1863-1931.”
Continuing our walk along the north side of the square, various members of the group told stories relating to the different buildings. One house on the west side was of special interest from my point of view, being the home of Edith Rigby, a suffragette and Secretary of the Preston Branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Sadly, I was unable to return to the Square a couple of weeks later for the International Women’s Day walks organised by the Friends of Winckley Square.
Having finished our tour of the square, some of the group went off for lunch in a nearby restaurant, but I found myself a park bench in the sun, and ate my picnic there. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to join the group on their upcoming walk around the grounds of Hoghton Tower, but I hope to visit by myself in the near future. I also plan to go back to the Avenham and Miller Parks to explore more widely and look into their WWI connections as well.