1902 Encyclopedia > Chester, West Cheshire, England

Chester, West Cheshire, England

CHESTER, an ancient city of England in West Cheshire, the capital of the county, situated on the river Dee, 20 miles from the open sea, 16 miles S.E. of Liverpool, and 179 miles N.W. of London by rail. The city is divided into four principal blocks by the four principal streets—North-gate Street, Eastgate Street, Bridge Street, and Watergate Street, which radiate at right angles from the Cross, and terminate in the four gates. These four streets exhibit in what are called " the Rows " a characteristic feature of the city. Their origin is a mystery, and has given rise to much controversy and speculation. In Eastgate Street, Bridge Street, and Watergate Street, the Rows exist on each side of the street throughout the greater part of their length, and may be described as continuous galleries open to the street, over and under which the houses lining the streets project, and which are formed as it were out of the front first-floor of the houses, approached by flights of steps from the roadway. The Rows are flagged or boarded under foot and ceiled above, thus forming a covered way, standing

Plan of Chester.

in the same relation to the shops, which are at their back, as the foot pavement does in other towns. In Northgate Street, on the other hand, the Row on the west side is formed as it were out of the ground floor of the houses, having cellars beneath, while on the east side the Row is formed at the same elevation as in the other three principal streets. In these streets are several examples of the old timbered houses of the 17th century, and some good specimens of modern imitations of them,—all combining to give a picturesque and foreign character to the town. There is also a chamber with stone groined roof of the 14th century in the basement of a house in Eastgate Street, and another of a similar character in Watergate Street. A mortuary chapel of the early part of the 13th century exists in the basement of a house in Bridge Street.

Chester is the only city in England that still possesses its walls perfect in their entire circuit of two miles. The gateways have all been rebuilt within the last hundred years,—the north and east gates on the site of the Roman gates. The Grosvenor Bridge, a single span of stone 200 feet in length, the largest, save one over the Danube, it is believed, in Europe, carries the road to Wrexham and Shrewsbury over the Dee on the south-west, while the old bridge of seven arches is interesting on account of its antiquity and picturesque appearance. The city possesses but few public buildings besides the cathedral and the churches. The castle, with the ex-ception of " Caesar's Tower," and a round tower with adjacent buildings in the upper ward, was taken down towards the end of the last century, and replaced by a gateway, a bar-racks, a county hall, a jail, and assize courts,—all buildings of pure classic architecture after the design of Thomas Harrison, a local architect, who was also the architect of the Grosvenor Bridge. In Northgate Street stands the town hall, a handsome stone building of Continental-Gothic design, which replaced the old Exchange, burnt down in 1862. The market-place, a little to the south of it, was opened to the public in 1863. Near the north-west angle of the city walls is the infirmary, founded in 1761, capable of holding 100 beds, and furnished with a fever ward in a detached building to the east of it. The savings-bank is a pretty Gothic structure in Grosvenor Street, erected in 1853. The Grosvenor Hotel, rebuilt by its owner, the late marquis of Westminster, is a handsome building near the east gate, the upper stories being timbered in accordance with the style of the old houses in the city. Besides these may be mentioned the general post-office, designed after the Elizabethan style, the custom-house, the free library, the music hall, and the training college. Among the most interesting of the ancient houses are Derby House, bearing the date 1591, Bishop Lloyd's House, and God's Providence House in Watergate Street, and the Bear and Billet in Lower Bridge Street; the three last bear dates in the 17th century. The Natural Science Society, founded by Canon Kingsley, and the Archaeologi-cal Society have their lecture-rooms and museums at the Old Albion in Lower Bridge Street.

Besides the Benedictine Abbey of St Werburgh, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Carmelites had houses in Chester, and the sites of the first and last are still commemorated in the names of Grey Friars and White Friars; St John's, without the walls, was a collegiate church, with a dean, seven prebendaries, and four vicars. Chester was for a time in the diocese of Lichfield and Coventry, but in 1075, Peter, then bishop, restored the seat of the see to Chester, and made St John's his cathedral; his successor, however, removed the seat back to Coventry, and in 1541 Henry VIII. erected Chester into an independent see, and the abbey church of St Werburgh into the cathedral of the diocese. He richly endowed the cathedral, and constituted in it a dean and six prebendaries, now reduced to four, who are styled canons. The King's School for public education was founded by the same patron, and in it the king provided that 24 poor scholars should be taught free of charge. The school has now, however, been remodelled, and placed under a board of governors by the Endowed Schools Com-missioners. Within the walls are the parish churches of St Oswald, founded about 1093 ; St Peter, founded before the Conquest; St Michael, probably founded before 1118 ; St Bridget, founded prior to 1224 ; the Holy and Undivided Trinity, founded in or before the 12th century; St Mary, founded probably in the 12th. century ; St Martin, founded prior to 1250; and St Olave, founded prior to the 12th century. The two last-named parishes are amalgamated with St Bridget and St Michael respectively. In the suburbs are St John's, St Paul in Boughton, Christ Church in Newton, All Saints in Hoole, and St Thomas. Among the Nonconformist places of worship, which represent all the principal denominations, may be mentioned the Unitarian Chapel in Crook Lane, built originally by the followers of Matthew Henry, one of the ej ected ministers. For the recrea-tion of the inhabitants provision is made by the New Gros-venor Park, presented to the town in 1867 by the marquis of Westminster, and the Boodee, a level tract at the base of the city walls appropriated as a race course.

The original charter which the city received from Earl Banulph was confirmed, and the privileges extended, by many subsequent charters granted by different sovereigns and princes. Of these the most important were that of Edward I., which granted the office of coroner, defined and extended the jurisdiction of the courts of civil and criminal jurisdiction, and granted freedom from toll, &c, to the citizens throughout his dominions; that of Edward, the Black Prince, which defined and particularized the boundaries of the city, giving it a circuit of 12 or 14 miles, and granted jurisdiction of the river Dee to the mayor and citizens from a spot then and still called " Iron Bridge " above the city, to a point near Hoylake at the mouth of the river; and lastly, the charter of Henry VII., which ordained that the corporation should consist of a mayor, 24 aldermen, and 40 common councilmen, to be elected annually, created the office of recorder, regulated and gave exclusive jurisdiction to the mayor's and sheriff's courts, empowered the mayor to have his sword of state carried (in the absence of the king and his heirs) before all others with point upwards, and finally erected the city into a county by itself with a separate commission of the peace. The corporation thus constituted continued till the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act, under which the govern-ment of the city is now vested in the mayor, 10 aldermen, and 30 councilmen. The recorder is now a barrister appointed by the Crown. He is the judge of the local courts, called the Portmote (originally the mayor's court), the Pentice (originally held before the two sheriffs in a building now pulled down, called the Pentice), and the Passage Courts now fallen into disuse. He also presides at the city court of quarter sessions, which now alone retains a limited criminal jurisdiction, which once the city courts possessed even to the infliction of capital punishment.

The population of the municipal (as distinguished from the parliamentary) borough was, according to the census of 1861, 31,110, and in 1871, 35,257 (16,910 males and 18,347 females). The area of the municipal borough is 3437 acres, and that of the parliamentary, which includes parts of Hoole, Saltney, Great Boughton, and Newtown, 3455 acres, containing a population in 1871 of 38,390, and returning two members to parliament. The trade of the town is nominally represented by 23 guilds. Within the walls there is no extensive manufacture carried on, save that of shoes and boots for exportation and the wholesale home trade, and furniture and upholstery. In the suburbs shot and white and sheet lead are very largely manufactured, and flour of superior quality is produced. There are also several iron foundries, and the more humble manufacture of pipe-making has been carried on from a remote period. As a port there can be little doubt that Chester was at one time of importance, but the silting up of the channel of the Dee affected its commerce injuriously as early as the 15th century, and now the shipping trade is inconsiderable.

The history of Chester reaches back to very early times. Higden ascribes the foundation of the town to a very remote period; but the Welsh name by which it was even in Higden's day and is still known—Caerlleon Vawr or Caerlleon ar Dyfyrdwy, which means the "great camp or station of the legion on Dee,"—points to a Roman origin. It is the Deva of the Roman Itineraries, and from its position at the head of the then most important estuary on this part of the coast, and at a point where several Roman roads con-verged, it must soon have risen in prosperity and importance. The dignity of a Roman colonia has been claimed for it by some writers, but there is no certain evidence on which such a claim can be grounded. The pick and spade, however, have revealed numerous proofs that it was "no mean city." Among numerous altars from time to time exhumed is one of rare occurrence with a Greek inscription, and dedicated by Hermogenes, a physician. Of the latest discoveries the most remarkable was made in pulling down the Feathers Hotel on the east side of Bridge Street, when the remains of a fine basilica were brought to light, having a row of seven Corinthian pillars on either side once supporting its roof, and a series of apartments on its south side,—probably in connection with baths,—floored with tesselated and herring-bone tile pavements, and warmed by an exten-sive hypocaust, a portion of which is still to be seen underneath some adjoining houses.

The town was walled, and in form was rectangular and equilateral or nearly so, but was not co-extensive with the present city. The four principal streets followed generally the line of the present streets running north and south and east and west, crossing each other in the centre of the town. The southern wall of the town, running from a point near the distance chair in the race-course, past St Bridget's rectory eastwards, cut across the present city, about the top of Lower Bridge Street, just below St Michael's Church, and joined the wall on the eastern side somewhere a little to the north of what are now called "The Wishing Steps," and there was probably a tower at each angle of the wall. A Roman arch, however, still existing and impinging upon the Keep or '' Caesar's " Tower in the Castle, and also another arch (now removed), incorporated into the walls near the old bridge, and called '' The Ship Gate," attest the existence of some outwork overhanging the river for the protection probably of the trajectus by which the Roman roads to the south and west, emerging from the town by the southern gate, crossed at a point just below. The renowned XXth Legion was stationed here from an early period of the Roman occupa-tion to as late as the third century.

After the departure of the Romans, Chester appears to have been possessed in turn by Britons, Saxons, and Danes ; in 894 it was found a deserted city by the Danes, who then took possession, and were in turn starved out by a besieging Saxon army. Earl Ethelred restored it in 908, extending its walls so as to embrace the castle. After the defeat of the Danes by Edmund in 942, Chester for a time enjoyed comparative repose. Athelstan revived its mint; Edgar received homage of his vassals there ; and Harold's queen found a home there after the battle of Hastings. Mercia had up to this time been governed by its earl. Beyond Chester lay the still hos-tile Welsh, for the reduction of whom the place afforded an important basis of operations, this led to the establishment after the Conquest of theNorman earldom of Chester, which was first granted to Gher-bod, a noble Fleming. After him Hugh Lupus, the nephew of the Conqueror, was invested as earl of Chester, with sovereign or pala-tinate authority over the tract of country now represented by the county of Cheshire, and the coast-line of Flintshire, as far as Rhuddlan, with Chester as the seat of his Government. In the castle, built, or at least reconstructed by Earl Hugh, the earl assembled his court or council; and here too sat the exchequer and other courts. Earl Hugh was the founder of the Benedictine Abbey of St Werburgh, which he richly endowed. It was dur-ing the rule of these Norman earls that Chester received at the hands of Earl Ranulph I. its first charter, and took rank as a city, but the language of this charter indicates that Chester already possessed some municipal privileges. Under this charter were established local courts of civil and criminal jurisdiction, which were the germs of the Portmote, Pentice, and Passage Courts. On the death of Earl John in 1287, Henry III. seized the earldom and it has ever since been an apanage of the Crown. The county, however, retained its palatinate character, and Chester still con-tinued to be the seat of its jurisdiction. Though no longer the metropolis of an almost independent dominion, Chester still, as the capital of the palatinate and the key to North Wales, yet un-subdued, ranked high among the cities of the west of England, was often honoured by royal visits, and was the object of attack and defence during the many civil wars. In 1256 she narrowly escaped the fury of Llewelyn, who, we are told, carried fire and sword to her very gates. Edward I. visited the city on several occasions ; in 1276 he summoned Llewelyn to do him homage here, and the next year he marched through with a powerful army to Rhuddlan. In 1300 his son Edward, the first English Prince of Wales, here received the final submission of the Welsh to the sovereignty of England. Hither Henry of Lancaster led his captive sovereign, Richard II., from Flint Castle, and imprisoned him in a tower over the outer gateway of the Castle. In 1459 aueen Margaret visited the city, and Henry the VII., accompanied by his queen and mother in 1494. In 1507, 1517, and 1550, Chester shared with other places the visitation of the sweating sickness, which carried off many of its inhabitants. It was also so severely scourged by the plague, 1602 to 1605, that the city fairs were suspended, and the court of exchequer removed to Tarvin, and the assizes to Nant- wich. In 1647-48 this epidemic for the last time raged with a terrible fatality; from June 22 to April 20 it is said that 2099 persons perished of the plague in the several city parishes. But of all the events in the history of Chester, there is none so memorable as the protracted siege which the city endured in its loyalty to Charles I. The king, having hoisted his standard at Nottingham, arrived at Chester in the autumn of 1642, where he was enthusias- tically received. The sacrifices made by the citizens for the royal cause were great. In 1644, the pecuniary levies upon them amounted to as much as £200 every fortnight. The siege began in July 1643, and in the autumn of 1645 the assailants, despairing of taking it by assault, converted the siege into a blockade. In 1646-7 the citizens were in such extremities as to he in want of the commonest necessaries of life. It was only after a tenth sum- mons that, on February 3, 1646, they at last agreed to the articles of surrender, by which the garrison were allowed to march out with all the honours of war, the safety of the persons and property of the citizens with liberty to trade was secured, and the sanctity of the sacred edifices and their title deeds preserved. In 1659 Sir George Booth and a large party of the citizens seized the garrison for Charles II., then still an exile, but they were afterwards re- pulsed in an action fought near Winnington bridge, by Lambert, the Parbamentary general. In 1660 the joy felt by the citizens at the Restoration, was expressed by the magnificent reception accorded to the learned Dr Brian Walton, the new bishop of Chester, on his coming to take possession of his see. The spirit of the inhabitants evinced, however, a change in 1683, when the presence of the duke of Monmouth was the cause of a tumultuous mob, who, after committing other acts of violence, forced the cathedral doors, destroyed most of the painted glass, demolished the font, and did other damage there. James II. visited the city in 1687, and his successor, William III., in 1690. Coming to more modern times, the city accorded a hearty and brilliant welcome to the Prince of Wales on the 14th October 1869, when he honoured them with his presence to open the new Town Hall. (W. W. F.)

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