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Eastgate part I

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Eastgate part II



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Feastgate in the 1920soregate and Eastgate Streets lay on the line of Watling Street, the Saxon name for the great Roman road which commenced at Dover, passed through London and crossed the country to enter the fortress of Deva at the now-vanished South Gate and leave by the Eastgate, the Porta Principalis Sinistra, on its way to Manchester and York.

(Of particular interest to students of Chester is a chapter in Thomas Codrington's 1903 Roman Roads in Britain dealing with ancient Watling Street, which you may read here)

Right: an evocative view of the City Wall and Eastgate Clock in the 1920s

Eastgate Street and its continuation beyond the Cross, Watergate Street, lie approximately on the line of the main thoroughfare of Roman Deva, the Via Principalis (Chester, incidentally, is the only city in Britain where the main streets are signposted in both English and Latin).

From where we stand, the street extends 220 yards to the Cross and the square tower of St. Peter's Chuch, the site of the southern side of the great Principia, or Roman headquarters building and on again the same distance- the tall spire of Holy Trinity Church in Watergate Street marks the site of the vanished West Gate, or Porta Principalis Dextra. This shows at a glance the extent of the fortress across its narrower side- about 440 yards.

Could the Saxon founders of Holy Trinity have utilised a ruined Roman gatehouse adjoining the West Gate of the fortress? A very similar situation existed in what is now the middle of the busy junction of Bridge Street and Grosvenor Street, where for centuries there stood a church dedicated to St. Bridget, which was founded around the year 797 by King Offa on the site of the vanished Roman South Gate, or Porta Praetoria.

Some mighty column bases from the vanished Principia were discovered when the old Shoemaker's Row in Northgate Street was rebuilt and have been preserved. You can inspect them (well worth the effort)- albeit through an inappropriate mass of merchandise, in the basement of what was until recently a clothes shop.

From the Cross, the ancient meeting place of the principal streets of Chester, a right turn will take you back to our starting place, the Northgate, a left takes you down Bridge Street to the River Dee and the Bridgegate while continuing strait on into Watergate Street will eventually bring us to the Watergate. On either side, you can see the openings of the remarkable covered galleries known as The Rows, an architectural feature unique to Chester. There are numerous theories as to their view of eastgate streetorigins, for example, that they evolved from the structures that came to be erected, one row above another, on the sloping piles of rubble that lined the main streets in the centuries following the departure of the Legions and the destruction of the buildings within their great fortress. Go here to read Joseph Hemingway's lengthy description of the Rows, written 170 years ago, in 1836 but still entirely recognisable today.

Left: Eastgate Street. When the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, visited Chester in 1869 to open the Town Hall, he exclaimed as he seated himself in the Mayor's open carriage, and looked at this view towards the High Cross from the Grosvenor Hotel, " What a glorious picture! "What a beautiful skyline!"

"Chester is a town of balconies. The first impression I received of it was a town whose inhabitants spend a great portion of their lives leaning over old oak galleries, smoking and chatting and watching life go by below them in the streets.
The Rows are simply long, covered arcades formed by running a highway through the first stories of a street of old buildings. You mount from the roadway to the Rows on frequent flights of stone steps and find yourself in the strangest shopping streets in England. Here are the best shops hidden away in the darkness of these ancient arcades, and it is possible to shop dry-shod in the worst weather.
There is a peculiar charm about these Rows. They are not typically medieval, because there is no record of any other street of this kind in the Middle Ages, yet they impart a singular impression of medievalism: through the oak beams which support the galleries you see black-and-white half-timbered houses on the opposite side of the street, with another Row cut through their first floors, on whose balconies people are leaning and talking and regarding the flow of life.
The main streets of Chester give you the impression that a huge galleon has come to anchor there with easy, leisurely passengers leaning on the deck rails"
H. V. Morton: In Search of England 1924

old eastgateYou can read more of Mr Morton's impressions of Chester here

The Eastgate
The present Eastgate was designed by one Mr Hayden and erected in 1769 at the expense of Richard, Lord Grosvenor. It comprises a plain stone archway with small posterns on either side for pedestrian access. On the outside of the gate are the arms of the Grosvenors and the inscription:

"ERECTED AT THE EXPENCE OF RICHARD LORD GROSVENOR A:D: MDCCLXIX"

On the west side are displayed the city arms and,

"THIS GATE BEGUN A.D. MDCCLXVIII JOHN KELSALL ESQr. MAYOR. FINISHED A.D. MDCCLXIX CHA. BOSWELL ESQr. MAYOR"

It replaced a great medieval structure formerly occupying the site, "A goodly great gate, of an antient fair building, with a tower upon it, containing many fair rooms within".

This old Eastgate was a massive affair of high quality masonry of a cream-coloured sandstone, which must have contrasted strikingly with the red stone which was the norm in the city. It comprised a single pointed arch supporting a great high square battlement of stone with octagonal corner turrets, arrowslits and crenellations. There were small flanking towers. The tower above it was known as the Harre (Harry) Tower.

In 1586, the Harre Tower was let to the Joiner's Company at a yearly rental of 6s. 8d.

We are unsure as to when exactly this great structure was erected but it does bear striking similarities to Caernarfon Castle and it is recorded that, in 1270, Henry III acquired land at the East Gate from one Agnes de Novo Castello (New Castle) which was confirmed in a writ of 1307. So a construction date sometime in the early 14th century seems likely.

This medieval gate in turn replaced the original Roman entrance, while incorporating much of that structure within it. Drawings exist recording the demolition of the medieval gate, clearly showing the twin barrel-vaulted arches of the Roman entrance, 14 feet high and 20 feet apart, complete with guard houses on each side. Mounted between the arches was a sculpted image of a centurion, or perhaps of Mars, the Roman god of war, arrayed in armour and holding a shield in one hand and a spear in the other. Whoever it actually represented, this image must have been a welcome sight to generations of tired Roman infantrymen approaching the end of a long march.

Distinguished 18th century travel writer and naturalist Thomas Pennant, alluding to the old gate, wrote
"I remember the demolition of the ancient structure, and on taking down the more modern case of Norman masonry the Roman appeared, full in view. It consisted of two arches, formed of vast stones, fronting the Eastgate Street and Forest Street - the pillar between them dividing the street exactly in two".

eastgate in 1820(The name of Forest Street, incidentally- now Foregate Street- had, as is commonly claimed, nothing to do with it being the road to the forests that once thrived beyond the city but was a corruption of 'Fore-East Street'- the street before the Eastgate.)

In 1910, Chester historian Frank Simpson commented
"What a pity it was ever to have removed the ancient Eastgate at all. What a beautiful relic of Norman times would have now remained if the road had been diverted on either side of it!"

Right: the Eastgate as it appeared in 1820, viewed from outside the City Walls.

Writing in 1858, the excellent Thomas Hughes expressed it rather more strongly: "Handsome and commodious as is the present Eastgate- on every score but that of convenience, it is immeasurably inferior to its predecessor. Could we but look upon the structure as it existed only a hundred years ago, with its beautiful Gothic archway, flanked by two massive octagonal towers, four stories in height, supporting the gate itself and the rooms above- could we but resuscitate the time-worn battlements of that "ancient of days", we should wonder at and pity the spurious taste that decreed its fall. "Oh but", we may be told, "the present gate is a public improvement". A plague upon such improvements, say we! We would vastly have preferred, and so would every lover of the antique, whether citizen or stranger, to have retained the old gate in its integrity, altered, had need been, to meet the growing wants of the times, rather than have thus consigned it to the ruthless hands of the destroyer. Oh! Ye spirits of the valiant dead- you who lost your lives defending this gate against Cromwell, why did ye not rise up from your graves and arrest the mad course of that "age of improvement?"

Tragically, that which had miraculously survived for around sixteen hundred years was thoughtlessly done away with in a matter of days. All that now survives is a section of wall which probably belonged to one of the guard chambers preserved in the cellar of no. 48 Eastgate Street.

The 'Honorable Incorporation'
As you look at the Eastgate from within the wall, on the left-hand side, immediately next to the gate is a narrow passageway. At the end of this, in what is now the premises of a bank, formerly existed a public house called the King's Arms Kitchen, also known as Mother Hall's. You may just see its sign on the left of the Eastgate in the photograph below, which was taken about 1900.

kings arms kitchenIn the 18th and 19th centuries, it housed a society going by the splendid name of The Honorable Incorporation of the King's Arm's Kitchen. This came about as the result of an order by King Charles II that the custom of electing the mayor and his officers was to end. Sir Thomas Grosvenor was appointed as mayor, thus spawning an oligarchy between Eaton Hall (the Grosvenor residence) and Chester Corporation that would last until the Election Reform Act of 1832. The city's people were, unsurprisingy, increasingly unhappy with this imposition of an unelected mayor and Corporation, and one evening around the year 1770, a group of tradesmen met in a room in this pub and decided to form a City Assembly of their own, which was organised (a wonderful idea) as a complete shadow assembly, a satirical imitation of the Corporation, with its own elected mayor, recorder, town clerk, sheriffs, aldermen and common councilmen. They even had a replica of the mayor's sword and mace made for them. Their meeting room was fitted with beautiful, diamond shaped oak panels (said to have been fashioned from old pew doors from St John’s Church), plush seating and a grand mayoral throne. On either side of the fireplace were cupboards for the storing of 'churchwardens'- long clay pipes which each member marked with his own monogram. An oil painting of the Royal Arms- the Lion & the Unicorn- was presented by Mr Clowes, a heraldic painter and inscribed “This picture is the property of the Incorporated Society of the King’s Arms Kitchen”.

In the course of time, the serious, satirical point of the King's Arms Kitchen was largely lost and it degenerated into a drinking and gambling club. The regulars, however, did not forget the old rules and regulations, such as that which declared that if a stranger sat in the mayor's chair, it was his duty to buy drinks for all present. During the Second World War, many an American GI was invited to sit in the mayor's chair!

The fittings of the room (illustrated above) where this worthy institution met, complete with wood panelling upon which was inscribed the succession of member's names, was preserved when the pub closed in 1978, and was transferred to the Grosvenor Museum, where they were imaginitively incorporated into the decor of the museum's teashop, and may still be seen there today. Go here to find out much more, and read the fascinating reminiscences of an anonymous 19th century 'frequenter'...

eastgate street coachOn the right of the Eastgate in this old photograph you can see Huxley's Vaults, a public house and wine merchant established here in 1783 and surviving until the 1960s. For unknown reasons (possibly fortunately) Huxley's was also fondly known by its habituees as Dirty Dick's. It was later owned by the Northgate Brewery and only had a six-day licence, being closed on Sundays. The brewery had converted the upper parts of the pub for living accomodation before the war and this then bore the distinguished address of 'Number 11, City Walls'. After the sad demise of the pub, the Leeds Building Society, and later the Halifax, took over the premises and later it housed a moble phone shop but today it is occupied by Milton's jewellers and pawnbrokers. There is a mystery about the Grade II listed building- if you stand outside the Grosvenor Hotel and look up you can see a brass porthole in the side wall. Legend had it that an old sea captain had it put in many years earlier to remind him of his days at sea...
(For much more about the vanished watering holes of Chester go here.)

The coach is pulling away from the Chester Grosvenor Hotel, the site of which was originally occupied by The Golden Talbot, advertised in the long-defunct Adam's Weekly Courant of 17th September 1751 as
"that ancient and well-accustomed inn which is now fitted up in the neatest manner and held by Thomas Hickman (late agent to the Hon. Colonel Lee deceas'd) where all gentlemen, ladies and others who shall be pleased to make use of the said house may depend on the best accomodations and most civil usage".

The old Talbot was demolished and on its site rose The Royal Hotel (illustrated right) which was built in 1784 by one John Crewe, who, together with a Mr Barnston stood for Parliament as Whigs against Mr Thomas Grosvenor and Mr Richard Wilbraham Bootle who, as Tories, supported William Pitt. The two seats had been Grosvenor family 'perks' for decades, and the city council were hand-in-glove with them.
After ten days of campaigning, the parties were neck-and-neck, until money won the day- Mr Crewe, described as being of 'only moderate fortune,' spent £10,000 on bribes, but the Grosvenors spent £20,000 and the Tories were in.

(However, eight years later, the Chester Directory for 1792 shows John Crewe and Sir Robert Salisbury Cotton as representatives for the county, while Thomas Grosvenor Esq. and the Right Hon. Lord Belgrave as members for the city)

The antagonism between the Grosvenors and city fathers on one hand and their opponents on the other went on for a further 30 years, but, despite rulings against them in the House of Lords, the Tory stranglehold over the city's affairs continued until the reform act of 1832.
The Royal Hotel was the opposition's social centre, with news and coffee rooms and an elegant assembly room for balls and concerts. Earl Grosvenor, however, had the last laugh. He bought the building and in 1863, had it totally demolished, and replaced by the much larger building we see today- and named it after his family.

A century later, the Grosvenor Hotel was considered a cosy and unpretentious, if rather dowdy place, but it contained the city's only large ballroom apart from that in the Town Hall, so perforce all the balls (Hunt, Farmer's, Conservative and League of Pity amongst them) were held there. With the increasing prosperity of the city, the hotel underwent a programme of upgrading and refurbishment, adding many modern conveniences but losing much of its old-world charm.
Author, broadcaster and all-round character Gyles Brandreth, who served as Chester's Member of Parliament from 1991-97, referred to the Grosvenor in his wonderfully readable volume of diaries, Breaking the Code thus, "owned by the Duke of Westminster who, I imagine, is about the only person who can actually afford to stay there: it's very lush and very pricey".

Far humbler perhaps, but no less interesting, is a business premises situated just across the road from the Grosvenor Hotel. Following a sign to the city walls immediately next to the Eastgate leads the visitor to a flight of steps, tucked beneath which is the smallest shop in Chester- possibly in the entire country. Formerly the premises of a wool trader, around the year 1895 it became a gentlemen's hairdressers (three customers and the place was packed!)- and stayed that way for 108 years, until November 2003 when its last owner, long-serving traditional barber Bernie Philips retired. A busy sandwich bar now trades from there. Our photograph shows the still-unaltered rear of the premises.

• Some stunning panoramic movies of Eastgate Street may, along with much else, be seen at the excellent Chester 360°.

So, having re-mounted these steps to the city walls and lingered awhile to watch the bustling crowds beneath, we shall now press on towards the Newgate...

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 11

  • chester guided walks1509 Henry VII died, his second son ascended the throne as Henry VIII (1491-1547) and married Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his elder brother Arthur. Arthur was the eldest son of Henry and Elizabeth of York. He was born on 20 September 1486, barely a year after the pivotal Battle of Bosworth Field, and died on 2 April 1502. Arthur was named after the mythical King Arthur- Henry VII was Welsh and the legend was popular in medieval England. He was titled Prince of Wales when he was 3 years old. Negotiations for his marriage to Katharine of Aragon, daughter of the famous Ferdinand and Isabella, began in 1488. The terms were settled in 1500 and the couple were married in London on 14 November 1501. They journeyed to Ludlow Castle, the traditional seat of the Prince of Wales, and established a small court. However, Arthur died suddenly on 2 April 1502, possibly of tuberculosis. William ap John was fined three-halfpence for being a "peeping Tom"
  • 1510 An order is made that "none shall attend priest's offerings, first mass, gospel ales or Welsh weddings, within this city, under a penalty of ten shillings".
  • 1515 A fight took place "betwixte the citizens of Chester and divers Waylshe men at Saint Warburghe Lane ende but lytill hurt done, for the Waylesmen fledde".
  • 1517 Great visitation of Bubonic Plague; grass grew a foot high at the High Cross and other streets in the city. Many, it was said, died "whilst opening their windows." A silence descended upon the city, relieved only by the cry of the watchmen calling "bring out your dead" as they went their rounds with the Dead Carts. Before the plague bore down upon the city, many citzens claimed they witnessed a fiery halo of light in the heavens above.
  • 1519 Hernán Cortéz enters Tenochtitlan, capital of Mexico, and is received by Montezuma II, the Aztec ruler. Coffee comes to Europe for the first time.
  • 1523 Roger Ledsham, keeper of the Great Gate of the Abbey of St.Werburgh was drowned in the 'horse-pole' (a pond formerly situated in present-day Abbey Square)
  • 1524 Turkeys from South America first eaten at the English court. Thomas Highfield becomes twenty fifth Abbot of St. Werburgh's (-1527)
  • 1526 The Abbey cloisters were rebuilt.
  • 1527 Thomas Marshall becomes twenty sixth Abbot of St. Werburgh's until 1529, when he is succeeded by the penultimate abbot, John Birchenshawe (-1538)
  • 1530 King Henry VIII recognised as Supreme Head of the Church of England.
  • 1531 The 'great comet' (later to be known as Halley's Comet) arouses a wave of superstitious fears throughout Europe
  • 1533 Henry secretly marries Anne Boleyn (1501-1536) and is excommunicated by the Pope. The Mayor of Chester, Henry Gee, ordered that "no manner person or persons go abroade in this citie mumming in any place within the said citie, their fayses being coveryd or disgysed (because) many dysordered persons have used themselves rayther all the day after idellie in vyse and wantoness then given themselves to holy contemplation and prayre the same sacryt holye and prynsepaul feast." He also ordered that ale, beer and wine were not to be sold after 9pm on any day or after Divine Service on Sundays. The reforming Mayor Gee also had much to say regarding the activities of Chester's citizens on the Roodee.
  • 1535 Sir Thomas Moore, having refused the oath of the king's supremacy, is tried for treason and executed.
  • 1536 Catherine of Aragon died. Queen Anne Boleyn beheaded at the Tower of London. Henry marries Jane Seymour.
  • 1537 Chester's religious houses were suppressed on the order of the Mayor, Ffoulk Dutton. At the dissolution there were 10 White Friars, 7 Grey Friars, 5 Black Friars and 14 ladies at St. Mary's Nunnery. Water was first brought from Boughton to the Bridgegate by lead pipes. Jane Seymour dies in childbirth; her son, the future King Edward VI, was created Earl of Chester at his birth.
  • 1538 Thomas Clarke becomes twenty eigth and final Abbot of St. Werburgh's (-1540)

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