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Preston began as a village. It was called Priest's tun, which means priest's farm or estate. In the 12th century it grew into a town. This was partly because it of its position. Firstly Preston is on a river. In those days it was much cheaper to transport goods by water than by land so goods could be easily transported to and from Preston. Preston was also the first place inland where the river could be bridged so a great deal of traffic passed through the area. Preston was also on the main road from northern to southern England. Many people passed through the town and spend money there.
In 1179 Preston was given a charter. (A charter was a document giving the townspeople certain rights). Preston may have had about 1,500 inhabitants and about half a dozen streets. It would seem very small to us but towns were very small in those days. By the standards of the time Preston was a fair sized market town.
Though Preston was too small to have stone walls it did have stone gates, where tolls could be charged on goods entering the town.
By the 12th century Preston had a weekly market. From the 13th century Preston had a fair as well as a market. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a period of several days. People would come from all over Lancashire to buy and sell at a Preston fair.
In the Middle Ages there was a leper hospital just outside Preston. It was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene.
About 1260 the Franciscan friars arrived in Preston. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach and to help the poor and the sick. Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of their grey habits.
Furthermore by the 14th century there was a grammar school in Preston.
In 1539 Henry VIII closed the friary. Despite the religious changes of the 16th century most of the people of Preston remained staunch Catholics.
Tudor Preston was a flourishing town. The main industry in Preston was textiles. Both linen and wool were made in Preston.
Like all towns at that time Preston suffered from outbreaks of plague. A particularly severe outbreak occurred in 1631. But each time it struck the population soon recovered.
In 1642 came the civil war between king and parliament. The people of Preston steadfastly supported the king. But in February 1643 parliamentary troops attacked Preston and quickly captured it. The mayor was killed. However the royalists recaptured Preston in March 1643. They did not hold it for long. In April 1643 the royalists were forced to withdraw from Preston and the surrounding area. The civil war ended in 1646 and the King was captured. In 1648 a Scottish army tried to restore him to his throne. They marched into Lancashire but they were met by an English army east of Preston and they were routed.
In the late 17th century Preston probably had a population of about 3,000 and from 1699 the streets of Preston were lit by oil lamps.
At the end of the 17th century the travel writer Celia Fiennes described Preston a very good market town. She was impressed by the range of goods on sale on market day and commented on the 'pretty church'.
In the early 18th century a writer said Preston was: 'A pretty town with an abundance of gentry in it, commonly called Proud Preston'.
In 1688 James II was deposed as king of England and Scotland but in 1715 a Scottish army attempted to put his son, James III back on the throne. The Scottish army marched into Preston. Many of the townspeople were sympathetic as James II was a Catholic and Preston was a stronghold of Catholicism. Some townspeople joined his army.
However an English army soon marched to Preston. The defenders erected barricades and dug trenches. The first English attack on Preston was driven back. The English then set fire to the outskirts of Preston but, fortunately for the defenders, the wind was blowing away from the centre of the town and the flames did not spread.
Then English reinforcements arrived from the East and English soldiers completely surrounded the town. Realising their position was hopeless the Scots surrendered. They were held prisoner in the church and were fed on bread and water at the expense of the townspeople. Furthermore 12 people were executed for treason at Preston.
The Scots returned in 1745 and they marched as far as Derby but they then turned back. This time no battle took place in Preston.
In the 18th century Preston continued to trade with Europe. Hemp, timber and iron were imported from the Baltic region. Preston also traded with the West Indies. Some ships from Preston took part in the slave trade. For centuries wool and linen were woven in Preston. However by the late 18th century they had given way to cotton. The first cotton mill in Preston opened in 1771. Some cotton was made in mills but there were also hand loom weavers, who made cotton cloth in their own homes.
In the mid-18th century a writer said that Preston: 'may for its beauty and largeness compare with most cities. For the politeness of the inhabitants none can excel. Here is a handsome church and a town hall where the corporation meets for business and the gentlemen and ladies for balls and assemblies. Here is likewise a spacious marketplace in the midst of which stands a fine obelisk. The streets are neatly paved and the houses well built of brick and slates. The town being a great thoroughfare (i.e. a stopping place on the main road to Scotland), there are a good many inns for the travellers. This town has a pretty good trade for linen yarn, cloth, cotton etc.'
Another writer, of the same period, said that Preston: 'Lives chiefly by its being a great thoroughfare and by many families of middling fortune living in it'.
From 1771 stagecoaches ran from Preston to Wigan and Warrington. In 1792 a canal was built to Lancaster.
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