For a stranger to Chester, the opportunity to explore the streets and buildings of such an ancient city, with its near two millennia of continuous occupation, must promise much to the first time visitor. The presence of the city’s almost intact circuit of defensive walls, its many early churches, world famous shopping Rows and its overtly historical character, all suggest a city that has its foundations in earlier times and with a few exceptions one that is totally bereft of the ugly utilitarian architecture, common in most modern English city’s. However, it is precisely because of its great age, that the city has in fact been constantly subjected to regular periods of development, destruction and renovation throughout its history, a process that continues to reshape the precincts of the former Roman fortress even through to the present day.
Starting with the impressive sandstone buildings of the Romans, Chester has successively been inhabited by the dwellings and structures of the post-Roman Britons, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. Later still, there were those of the medieval subjects of the Plantagenet kings, the inhabitants of Tudor Chester, then the Stuarts, the Georgians, Victorians; and finally, those of the modern age, with all of these periods and their people’s adding their distinctive character to the city that stands today.
Following the restoration of British rule in the late 4th or early 5th centuries most of the land is thought to have returned to the ownership of the individual monarchs or tribal leaders who held power within their own particular regions and that would certainly have included the inner precincts of the former Roman fortress at Chester. Although large scale reuse of this land is thought to have been impossible, given the presence of the many still standing larger Roman buildings which may or may not have been reoccupied, the smaller, less robust structures, such as the rows of legionary barracks, storerooms and workshops were speculated to have been swept away, so that the site could then be used for other more peaceful purposes, such as settlement and agricultural.
However, for hundreds of years the vitally important sea port of Chester was reported to have been fought over and successively occupied by the Britons of Wales and the newly emerging Anglo Saxon peoples who had first settled in Britain during the 5th century. These ongoing disputes, which ultimately would have prevented long term settlement of the land, both inside and outside of the fortress’ defensive walls was only thought to have finally been resolved in the 7th century, around the time that Aethelred, the king of Mercia was said to have ordered the construction of the first Anglo Saxon church of St John the Baptist at Chester around 689 AD.
Where definitive evidence of Anglo Saxon habitation has been found, both inside and outside of the fortress’ defences, it suggests a relatively modest level of occupation and cultivation. A small number of sites have been discovered, all of which indicate isolated pockets of ploughed land and meagre buildings constructed with simple timbers and covered with thatched roofs. One of these sites, located behind the modern western frontages of today’s Lower Bridge Street and close to the river, suggested that there had been limited use of the land, followed by a period of abandonment and then a further period of use.
Typically, Anglo Saxon lands of the time, especially those in a settlement and bordering its earlier Roman streets or roads would have been portioned out into long individual strips, approximately ten metres wide and 30 metres deep, which would have ran backwards from the main thoroughfare. As a major regional sea port, trade centre and stopping-off point for those travelling between the north and south of Britain, Chester with its already well established Roman street plan was entirely different from the numbers of new settlements, which were beginning to spring up elsewhere during the same period and which often allowed for an entirely different street layout.
It has been suggested that where these early individual plots were occupied by merchants, tradesmen and manufacturers, then their street frontages would have contained the stalls and booths from which they sold their wares. Initially, these would have been simple timber built structures that could be secured at night and behind which the merchant and his family would have lived. His workshops, stores and animals would have been housed at the rear of the property, possibly separated from the living area by wooden or wattle and daub hurdles, with yet another part of the site given over to food production or possibly fuel storage.
Records suggest that many of the substantial buildings built, employed and then subsequently abandoned by the Roman’s were later “robbed out” by successive generations of British or Anglo Saxon inhabitants of Chester, no doubt to be used in the construction of the extended city defences, or the foundations of the city’s newly arriving religious houses, with only the most formidable architectural elements left in place for future generations to find. The western and southern walls of the former Roman fortress were both thought to have become victims of this largely medieval practice, having become obsolete following the Anglo Saxon extension of the city’s defences in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. A similar fate was thought to have befallen the Roman Principia and Praetorium buildings, both of which stood at the centre of the military fortress, in the area of the modern day Town Hall and its indoor market. The little of these two impressive structures that does remain in situ is mainly buried beneath later Anglo Saxon churches, or has been swept away entirely during the modern day redevelopment of the area.
During the Anglo Saxon occupation of Chester, from the late 7th century through to the 11th century, when the city finally fell to the Norman forces of Duke William, Chester’s inner precincts were thought to have been far more sparsely populated than they are today. Large sections of this inner ground was thought to have been given over to both industrial and agricultural purposes, including the city’s famed leather industries and the individual share-croppers that were reported to have been granted land in return for protecting the city from its many potential enemies. Once again, in the area of today’s Lower Bridge Street, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of later Anglo Saxon occupation and activity, notably the discovery of sunken tanning pits which were thought to have been used by the city’s leather tanners who occupied this section of the city, but were then displaced by the forces of William the Conqueror who arrived in the second half of the 11th century. It is perhaps worth noting that such discoveries are always likely to be fairly fragmentary, given that much of Chester’s inner city fabric remains occupied by historic buildings and their even earlier substructures, some of which can have timbers and beams dating from the 13th century.
The advent of the Norman occupation of Chester is said to have witnessed the arrival of much larger scale buildings, particularly the religious houses which settled in the city with the approval and under the protection of the Earls of Chester, who were first appointed by William the Conqueror in around 1070. It was during the following 167 year period that a series of new stone-built structures were raised in the city, including the numerous Churches, Convents, Chapel’s and of course the great Halls of the noble lords who attended the Earl at Chester. Today, very few if any of these grand buildings survive above street level and those that do have been modified or restructured to meet later housing styles, tastes or needs and much of what does remain, is often hidden behind much later building structures.
As time passed, construction techniques improved and as the merchant classes became more successful and of course wealthier, their early booths and stalls would have given way to much more substantial multi-layered buildings which occupied a greater part of the individual plot. First formally recorded in around 1331, it is thought that the elevated shopping Rows in Chester have actually been in existence from the middle of the 13th century. Their construction was thought to have been brought about by the accumulation of debris and rubbish left by earlier periods of occupation, most notably by the Roman’s and their large military buildings, which caused a height differential between street level and the land which lay beyond the main thoroughfares. As a consequence, supporting under-crofts or cellars were built to provide a level platform on which to build the first floor stores and medieval halls, where the merchants could conduct their business and accommodate their families.
The raised buildings themselves were reported to be similar in style to their ground level contemporaries, being large covered halls which incorporated a first floor shop front, that sat directly beneath the private chambers or solar which accommodated the owner and his family. To the rear of the shop front and often as high as both shop and private chamber was the main hall of the property where the family ate their meals and entertained their visitors, as well as being used to accommodate a number of their staff or servants during the night. Before the advent of the brick built chimney in the 15th or 16th centuries, most of these halls would have had a central hearth, standing on a substantial earthen or sandstone floor that reduced the likelihood of fire which occasionally got out of control and engulfed the timber building that surrounded it. Once brick and stone built fireplaces became more readily available and commonplace, they tended to be located at a central point of the property or at the rear gable end of the building, their construction helping to reduce the potential for accidental blazes.
The street level under-crofts or cellars which underpinned these elevated halls generally had sandstone walls or stone-built arches which supported the great weight of the rooms constructed above them, often with massive timbers helping to carry the immense loads. This newly created space would often have been used as a shop, storeroom or workshop, but was not always owned by the same person who lived above. A number of the 13th and 14th century under-crofts that continue to exist in Chester today, were undoubtedly formed in this manner; and most are of such good quality and construction, that they were obviously undertaken on behalf the very wealthiest individuals who could afford the extremely high cost of building them. Bearing that in mind, it seems likely that most, if not all, such under-crofts would have been covered by great medieval halls or houses which is not always the case in modern day Chester, suggesting that a good number of these grand properties have been subsequently destroyed or demolished in later times. These same cellars are also commonly associated with Chester’s vital and vibrant medieval sea port, where exotic spices, foreign wines and continental fabrics were first landed in England, before being stored in the rock cut or stone built under-crofts which sat below the specific merchant’s property.
Rather than the extensive single terrace of elevated shops that we know today, the early versions of these raised walkways were thought to have been separated by intersecting banks and ditches which marked the boundary of each individual plot of land. In some cases these gaps later developed into the passageways and city thoroughfares which were later added into the medieval street plan, but in most cases were simply absorbed into the adjoining buildings as they were subsequently rebuilt over time. The very presence of these early boundary markers might in fact account for the inevitable emergence of the interlinked elevated rows for which Chester has become world renowned, with neighbouring merchants linking their adjoining properties by way of wooden planks or timber bridges, thus saving their clients from having to climb individual stairwell’s to each and every property that they wished to visit. Today’s Leen Lane, Godstall Lane and Feathers Lane are perhaps remnants of these early property boundaries, which have subsequently developed into narrow thoroughfares that have been added into the city’s ancient fabric. Early records also suggest that both Leen Lane and its neighbour, Godstall Lane, both of which now exist at an elevated position on the north side of Eastgate Street, in fact began their lives as narrow, street level passageways that ran northward on a steep incline towards the churchyard of St Oswald’s within Chester’s Norman Abbey precincts.
On the western flank of modern day Bridge Street, at its junction with White Friars, there is a stone façade comprised of three arches, which today proclaims a date of 1274, although it is known to have been refaced and renovated since that time. Nevertheless, given its stated construction date and the original materials employed, both of which would be contemporary with many of the city’s stone built under-crofts, clearly this was the site of an important building erected by an extremely wealthy and influential person within the city; and perhaps suggests what a large number of Chester’s 13th century buildings might well have looked like in the 13th and 14th centuries. However, this particular buildings close proximity to the former sites of St Bridget’s Church and the city’s Carmelite Friary, which were both said to have been in existence during the property’s stated construction period, might equally suggest that the façade owes as much to a religious connection, as it does to a more secular one.
An additional feature of these elevated shops and first floor town houses were the street level covered arcades which were undoubtedly a greater feature in early Chester than they are today. Thought to have started off as weight supporting beams for the piers or overhangs which formed part of the city’s medieval buildings they inadvertently became a covered walkway for those that were walking along or working at street level. Later still, such porches and arcades were added to buildings, not as a necessary support, but purely as an architectural feature which might add to the comfort and experience of the shoppers that visited the individual business premises, rather like the Sedan Chair porches which were added to the houses of some of the city’s most wealthy inhabitants during the 18th century. At a time when most of Chester’s main shopping streets were thought to have been little better than open sewers, it was commonplace for all sorts of effluent to be cast out of the upper storey shops and apartments and it was perhaps gratifying for the shopper in the city centre to have both covered rows and arcades to shelter beneath, rather than risk being drenched by something unspeakably vile. It also seems apparent that over time Chester’s main shopping streets became much narrower and more crowded as both buildings and store fronts continued to encroach further forward into the main thoroughfares, leaving little room for the hawkers and shoppers who were all jostling for the same limited space. Even up till the late 18th and early 19th centuries most of Chester’s main shopping streets, but more notably the city’s High Cross and Market Square, were known to have been much more cramped and far narrower than their present day counterparts, simply because of the levels of unregulated encroachment by the city’s various business communities.
The next great period of change in land ownership came during the 16th century, following the nationwide Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII during the 1540’s, which saw the great Norman Abbey’s, Churches and Monasteries stripped of their historic status and authority, their often substantial financial assets and their generally extensive property holdings. Chester’s 500 year old Norman Abbey was far more fortunate than a number of the city’s other religious houses however, being re-founded as the Cathedral of Christ and The Blessed Virgin, although in a much more reduced and far poorer state. This was a better fate though, than that which faced the Franciscan, Dominican and Carmelite Friars and the Benedictine Nuns of St Mary’s in Chester, all of whom were dispossessed of their houses and properties by the Crown. Within the modern day city the lands which had previously been owned by these religious communities included the area to the west of the city stretching from the River Dee northward to the city walls, incorporating today’s Grey Friars, Black Friars, Nuns Road, Stanley Place, City Walls Road and Linenhall Place. The Carmelite’s former home had included much of the area now enclosed by Grosvenor Street in the south, Watergate Street to the north, Bridge Street to the east and Nicholas Street to the west. Having seized the lands of the city’s religious orders, the King and his agents, were then reported to have either granted or sold the properties to members of the local aristocracy, leased them to local merchants and landowners or simply put them in the hands of the corporation who subsequently sold them or rented them out to raise local revenues.
Prior to the 17th century and the highly divisive and destructive English Civil War in which Chester played such a pivotal role, much of the centre of the city would have been occupied by large numbers of great medieval buildings, commonly owned by the landed Royalist family’s of the age or the more successful city merchants. In complete contrast to these ornate and wealthy buildings however, the city would also have played host to large swathes of poor quality housing, specifically built to accommodate the many traders, labourers and workmen who made their living within the city walls, serving Chester’s thriving mercantile community or their more aristocratic neighbours.
In fact, many of the city’s current landmark buildings that continually draw admiration from both resident and visitor alike, are in fact, simply modern day facsimiles for much earlier structures which had been systematically removed during periods of redevelopment or which were known to have been destroyed during military engagements, particularly during the 17th century when the city was besieged by the forces of the English Parliament. Many ancient Chester houses were deliberately demolished by the Royalist defenders of the city, in order to prevent them providing cover or sustenance for their enemies who lay outside the historic battlements; and many more within the walls were thought to have been destroyed by Parliamentary cannon fire, which was employed to undermine the defensive will of Chester’s Royalist garrison, by essentially destroying the city around their ears.
An incalculable amount of damage was done to the city’s historic buildings and civic infrastructure during the period September 1645 to February 1646, when the city was subjected to regular bombardment and a very close siege, instigated by the Parliamentary commander Sir William Brereton, who owned property in the city. Eastgate Street and Watergate Street were both said to have been particularly hard hit by the Parliamentary cannon fire and most of the outlying properties in Northgate Street, Foregate Street and the outlying suburb of Handbridge were reported to have been deliberately razed from the ground by the Royalist defenders of the city, thus preventing them being used by the Parliamentarians as firing points or as accommodations.
Apart from the city’s circuit of defensive walls, its great Norman Abbey, its collection of ancient churches and Chester’s then still hidden Roman amphitheatre; very little has remained untouched by this notable military confrontation, or the subsequent 300 years of relative peace and diminishing national importance, which has seen the former fortress deliberately shift its civic identity from that of ancient military base and international trading port, to one of regional tourist attraction and retail shopping centre. Consequently, much of Chester’s modern day architecture owes much more to the noted architects of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, rather than to any of those now forgotten and generally obscure medieval builders who preceded them.
Much of Chester’s medieval architecture was thought to have been swept away over the period of 250 years, beginning in the reign of Henry VIII and finishing in the Georgian period, when fairly large scale redevelopments were taking place throughout the city. Although extensive building work took place during the late 18th century, much of this was on land that 200 years earlier had been owned by the city’s medieval religious centres and therefore had little impact on the look of central Chester and its historic main streets. Where rebuilding did take place, architects, builders and local authorities tried to ensure that earlier styles were replicated where possible and where frontages had to be replaced or altered, then the inner timbers of the property, often dating from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries were retained where possible. Few relatively complete buildings from these periods continue to stand in the city today though, save for the Blue Bell Inn and the previously noted Three Arches, although a large number of 13th, 14th and 15th cellars or under-crofts continue to underpin today’s modern buildings.
Perhaps because of its historic character and a failure to redevelop anything other than the main streets of the city, by the middle of the 19th century, Chester was reported to have had over 150 housing “courts” within the city, all of which were typically poor quality, high density units, which were little better than medieval “hovels”. Often centred round small plots of land that had been formally owned by Chester’s dissolved religious houses, many of these buildings were said to have been raised by unscrupulous builders and landlords eager to make money from the very poorest inhabitants of the city. The worst of these “courts” were thought to be located at the rear of the city’s famous shopping streets, out of sight of the visiting tourists and shoppers, but close enough to be a nuisance and health hazard for Chester’s relatively affluent traders, shopkeepers and property owners.
The worst of this housing was said to be at the rear of the city’s Watergate Street, Lower Bridge Street, Shoemaker’s Row and adjoining Commonhall, Castle, Goss, Crook and Trinity Streets, all of which lay just behind the main street frontages which played host to the thousands of tourists and visitors to the city. At the rear of the finely constructed buildings of Watergate Street stood Posnett’s Court and Chapel Court, the latter being associated with a Baptist Chapel that had been established there in 1806, but which in a little over a century had been demolished to make way for the photographic laboratories of Will R Rose. In the same area of the city and being equally dire and perilous was Cathcart’s Square, which had previously been known as Herbert’s Yard, before becoming Herbert’s Court and finally Cathcart’s Square. Although any further construction of such housing courts were reported to have been prohibited under the terms of the 1845 Improvement Act, those that did remain in the city, along with other later equally poor high density housing, continued to be one of the less favourable features of the city right through to the first half of the 20th century.
Standing above the site of much earlier Roman archaeology, including the much discussed and as yet still unidentified “elliptical building” discovered during the 1960’s excavation of the Market Hall site, this area of slum housing stretched from Watergate Street in the south to Princess Street in the north and was bounded by St Martin’s Way and Northgate Street to the west and east respectively. Many of these courts were generally constructed around former stables, yards, industrial buildings and back gardens which had existed for hundreds of years and which were often completely unsuitable for domestic occupation. Despite this, local landlords and builders simply converted older standing properties or raised rudimentary brick and slate, up and down terraces, piped in communal water sources, laid down basic drainage and then rented their improvised housing to the city’s most needy and poorest inhabitants.
Although the streets to the rear of Chester’s impressive Town Hall and Market Hall were said to have played host to the largest area of slum housing within the city, equally poor housing was reported to have existed throughout the wider area. Shepherd’s Court near Newgate Street and Victoria Buildings off Lower Bridge Street, were just two further examples of these “courts”, where a back to back, two up and two down terraced cottage could cost its tenants up to ten shillings per week, a substantial amount for a poorly paid manual worker. Gough’s Court was located just off Upper Northgate Street, Parke’s Court was situated near Love Street, whilst Davies’ Court, which was sited off Steam Mill Street was renowned for being infested with rats, no doubt caused by the great amounts of cereal crops being transported and stored along the length of the city’s canal system.
Fortunately though, over the past 50 years or so many of these poor quality courts and tenements have been consigned to history, demolished as part of the wider modernisation of the city centre, with their former and future tenants being re-housed in the then newly built suburban housing estates of Newton, Blacon, Handbridge and Saltney. However, along with the welcomed demise of these sites, Chester was also thought to have lost a large number of archaeological treasures, most notably those that were destroyed during the construction of the city’s inner ring road system, as well as the accompanying Forum and Grosvenor Shopping Centre developments.
The purpose of this book is to try and investigate the development of Chester, in terms of the city’s historic streets and landmark buildings, as well as identifying the individual masons, builders and architects who are responsible for creating the city that stands today.