Although now separated by the city’s inner ring road system, Dee House was primarily identified with Little St John Street in the city, which is now marked by the modern day Lumley Place. Since 1929 the property has found itself at the centre of a huge local controversy, standing as it does on the southern, as yet uncovered half of Chester’s Roman amphitheatre. Dee House itself is thought to date from the middle of the 18th century, having been built for James Comberbach, a wealthy merchant and Mayor of Chester, reportedly by the architect Thomas Harrison.
The house was further extended in the 1740’s; giving an L-shaped look to the property and it was reported to have been owned by the same family until 1860 when it was sold to the Anglican Church. Four years later the building was acquired by the Companions of Jesus who established a convent school on the site and added an east wing to the house, which included a chapel. This work was said to have been carried out by the Liverpool architect Edmund Kirkby, who was also responsible for the nearby St Werburgh RC Church on Grosvenor Park Road. Kirkby was a Liverpool based architect who was said to have worked with the noted Cheshire architect John Douglas prior to establishing his own practice. He and his two sons were reported to have worked extensively in the Liverpool area and in the wider northwest region of England.
Dee House’s chapel was built between 1867-9 and the property’s west wing was rebuilt around 1900. The Ursuline Order from Crewe took over the school in 1925 and it was during preparations for a new south wing in 1929, that the remains of the amphitheatre were first rediscovered. The convent school finally closed during the 1970’s and the building has since been used as a corporate headquarters, but in recent years has stood empty and idle whilst its long term future is decided.
During the years that Dee House was owned by the Comberbach estate, a number of private tenants were thought to have occupied the property, including two sisters by the name of Massey and the much more notable George John Chamberlain. This particular gentleman seems to have been a figure of some local notoriety, although as to exactly why he had some sort of infamous reputation isn’t entirely clear. Reportedly a member of a fairly prominent local family who originated in the outlying suburb of Saughall, they seem to have gained much of their local status through marriage and were reported to have had held Hope Hall, as well as extensive properties rights in Tranmere. Chamberlain himself is also reputed to have been involved with the development of the port town of Birkenhead on the Wirral peninsula. Following his death in around 1860, Dee House was said to have passed into the possession of the Reverend James Brown, which perhaps marks the point where the property came into the ownership of the Anglican Church.
Representing one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the city, Chester’s as yet only partially excavated Roman Amphitheatre is thought to have first been built during the first century of legionary occupation at the fortress and was said to have been completely constructed in stone by the year AD 80. Rediscovered purely by accident in 1929, by a workman who was investigating the cellars of the now extinct St John’s House, the presence of huge cut sandstone blocks below this later building finally alerted both the local and national authorities to the archaeological treasure, that but for a stroke of luck may well have been destroyed by a new road scheme associated with the 1930’s New Gate which was being considered by the then city council.
Apart from being the centre of civic entertainment and the site of gladiatorial competition, such buildings were often used as “Ludi” or weapons training areas, where new recruits would receive instruction on the latest fighting techniques, as well as learning how to fight as a combined unit when facing a common enemy. Often, these classes or training sessions were reported to have been led by one or more of the gladiators who fought in such arenas, as they were quite rightly regarded as being the leading “experts” in such martial matters.
The general layout and construction of such amphitheatres was of an oval space enclosed by both an inner and outer wall, commonly built of timber or stone. The inner wall which could often be up to 3 ft thick and 12 ft high was said to have surrounded the central compound, providing a barrier between the spectator and those that were participating on the arena floor. The outer wall of the amphitheatre could measure up to 9 ft thick and 35 ft high, with the intervening and angled space filled with row upon row of seats or benches for the thousands of potential spectators to sit on, whilst they watched the events unfold before them.
Lying on a generally north south alignment, the amphitheatre at Chester was thought to be around 315 ft in length and approximately 286 ft wide, with the arena floor alone measuring some 190 ft by 160 ft. At both the north and south ends of the arena, were the main entrances which led to the centre of the amphitheatre, with the northern entry reportedly consisting of a sloping passageway which had a central drain running through its middle and the entry protected by formidable wooden gates. As the southern half of the amphitheatre remains unexcavated through to the present day, it is surmised that the south entrance to the arena would have mirrored its northern counterpart, a conclusion that can only be amended if and when the amphitheatre is ever fully disclosed to the modern world.
Along the east and west sides of the arena, a series of entrances were thought to have existed, providing access to the rows of public seating provided for the local population, rather like the modern stadiums people inhabit today, but on a much more basic level. Additionally, the main entrances on both of these sides were thought to have been uncovered, unlike the far more symbolically important north and south gateways, which were the only two entrances which led to the arena floor itself. During excavations which took place in the early 1960’s evidence of the earlier timber amphitheatre was also discovered which suggested that this earlier arena had in fact only been able to accommodate half of the 8000 capacity of the later stone built arena.
The same archaeological program of 1960/1 also uncovered the altar dedicated to the Roman deity “Nemesis” on the west side of the northern entrance and reportedly housed within a shrine ostensibly called a “Nemeseum”. The shrine was thought to have been placed there for easy access by the gladiators who would pray to Nemesis, the God of Revenge, for guidance and perhaps good fortune in their forthcoming battles. This historic altar was later removed to the Grosvenor Museum for conservation and for its protection.
On the eastern side of the arena, a small chamber was discovered which archaeologists speculated to be a “holding room” for the gladiators and other participants who were due to take part in events within the amphitheatre. A number of such chambers were thought to have been located around the edges of the arena floor at the time that it was being employed by the resident legionary force.
The floor of the amphitheatre was reported to have been cut deep into the natural sandstone bedrock taking its level to below that of the surrounding ground, explaining the slope from the northern gateway and essentially creating a bowl-like structure. There is also some evidence to suggest that both the central drain, running through the centre of the arena on a north to south alignment and a second drain, abutting the curved inner wall of the amphitheatre were both cut even deeper into the native red stone and the filled in with crushed rock and stone, allowing water to flow through them, yet at the same time preventing the drains from becoming a tripping hazard or littered with floating debris. Initial investigations of the floor area in 1960/1 also indicated that sometime around the end of the 3rd century the arena floor had in fact been resurfaced, a conclusion substantiated by the fact that below this later level there was evidence of the amphitheatre having fallen into an extended period of disuse, due to the presence of a layer of detritus which lay between the first and third century floors.
Above this secondary arena surface, there was some evidence to suggest that following the final abandonment of the fortress sometime in the 4th century, the amphitheatre had been used for a variety of purposes by the local population, including as a cess pit. There was also some indication that the site had been employed in the post Roman period as a site of generally low level civil occupation, which was speculated to include a number of basic huts and cottages which had been established outside of the city’s defensive walls. It was possibly as a result of this later occupation, as well as the successive centuries of temporary use and abandonment, that eventually caused the impressive amphitheatre to become lost and forgotten over time, until its accidental rediscovery in 1929.
The most notable victim of the modern excavation of the northern half of the amphitheatre was St John’s House, an 18th century property with extensive gardens that was completely demolished to fully reveal the buried Roman antiquity. Previously land that had been in the possession of St John’s church, by 1750 the house was reported to have been occupied by a prominent local resident called Thomas Slaughter, who was granted the house and its lands by Sir William Young and Walter Warburton in the same year. Slaughter and his wife were thought to have occupied the property for an extended period, as the couple were still resident there right up until 1790, the year that Thomas finally departed this life.
Following the Slaughter’s occupation of St John’s House, the property was then thought to have come into the possession of a gentleman called Meadows Frost; and it was said to have remained in that family’s possession until its acquisition by the authorities in the 20th century, when it was purchased with monies raised by public subscription.