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Northgate part I

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Northgate Part II



Northgate III

Welcome to the second part of our exploration of Chester's Northgate Quarter

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A brief introduction to Chester / 2

The Northgate / 2 / 3
The North Wall
The Phoenix Tower
The Kaleyard Gate
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The Eastgate
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The Newgate & Wolfgate
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St. John's Church
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River Dee & Grosvenor Park
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The Castle
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The Grosvenor Bridge
The Roodee
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The Watergate
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The Infirmary
The Watertower
Tower Wharf
St. Martin's Gate
The Bridge of Sighs
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Chester's visitors through time
The Rows of Chester
The Chester Gallery
Old Maps & Aerial Photos
Old photos of Chester & Liverpool
Vanished Chester Pubs / 2
Chester Cinemas
The Old Port / 2
The Chester Canal / 2 / 3
The Royalty Theatre
Chris Langford Gallery
Mystery Plays Gallery
Chester Anagrams!
MickleTrafford Railway Stroll
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Psnowy town hall 1917rominent in Chester's Market Square, and seen here in a photograph taken on a snowy day in 1917, is the Town Hall, which was built in 1864-9 in an interpretation of the Gothic style of the late 13th century by William Henry Lynn (1829-1915) of Belfast, to replace the 17th century Exchange which stood in the middle of the square before burning down in 1862.

Lynn had been apprenticed to the architect Charles Lanyon in Belfast in 1846, serving as clerk of works on Lanyon's Queen's College and County Court House. In 1854 he was taken into partnership by Lanyon and remained with him until 1872 when the firm was dissolved and Lynn set up practice on his own. He was a prolific designer with an eclectic taste and a scholarly interest in historic styles, at first mainly medieval but later also classical.

Referring back briefly to the old Exchange, you can see some fine engravings of it- and also a very early photograph by Henry Fox Talbot- here. And here are some contemporary photographs of the grand Victorian replacement we are to discuss now.
The design of the new building came about as the result of a competition which specified that the new Town Hall should be "substantial and economical rather than ornamental... and costing no more than £16,000".
Its design was inspired by the beautiful medieval Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium. Finished in 1304, this was the most impressive commercial building of medieval northern Europe and leading example for the Flemish profane building style. During the First World War, it was completely destroyed, with the exception of the lower portion of the belfry and a few pieces of wall on the west wing, but was later lovingly rebuilt in its original form.

Lynn, seemingly ignoring the Corporation's request for an 'economical' building, incorporated all manner of fancy Gothic features into his design and utilised two types of local sandstone, pink and grey.

Construction was considerably delayed when the stonemasons, for a variety of reasons, fell out with the management, resulting in their going on strike for nine months. Nontheless, the new Town Hall was eventually opened, amid great pomp and ceremony in October 1869 by the Prince of Wales- the future King Edward VII.

opening of town hallPreparations for the royal visit were discussed at great length by the Corporation and, aware that the nation's eyes would be upon them, it was agreed that no cost was to be spared to make the event a success. Roads were dug up to lay gas pipes to provide the necessary extra illumination- the Prince was due to arrive as dusk fell- and three large viewing galleries with room for 2,500 spectators were erected in the Market Square. To preserve public order, an additional 500 police and 22 detectives were hired and fireworks for a grand display at the Roodee, Chester's ancient racecourse, were ordered. Houses and shops throughout the city were repainted and the Eastgate railings were painted bright blue tipped with gold.

Upon arrival at Chester Station, the Prince was met by Earl Grosvenor and the Prime Minister, William Gladstone. The party travelled by coach from there, passing en route under a grand ceremonial arch which had been constructed on City Road (itself laid out only five years earlier) in half-timbered 'Chester' style, to his accomodation at the Grosvenor Hotel in Eastgate Street.

On the following afternoon, to the acclamation of the assembled crowds, the Prince officially opened the Town Hall and this was followed by a grand dejeuner and a ball in the evening, attended by the great and good of the city and county.

chester town hallThe following day, the Cheshire Observer observed that "the city may now lay aside its toys, take down the bunting, remove the barriers and arches and once more return to its ordinary, everyday life".

The event attracted national press coverage; the engraving on the left, showing the crowds before the great new building, appeared soon after the event in the Illustrated London News. The visitor, looking upon the same location today, would note no noticeable change to the Town Hall itself but would note the addition of The Forum, a mediocre jumble of modern structures to the left of the picture- a site at the time occupied by the venerable White Lion Inn and a number of other hostelries and later the ornate- and still much missed- Market Hall.

town hall medal 1The cost of building the Town Hall somewhat overran the original budget of £16,000- eventually costing almost £50,000- around two and a half million pounds in today's money.

On the left we see both faces of the commemorative medal that was issued at the time and given to all involved in the building and opening of the Town Hall. (Thanks to Keith Hobbs for the loan of this interesting piece of Chester history).

When the building was planned, the question of adding a clock arose and a fine example actually considered, which had originally been intended for Woolwich Arsenal. The mighty mechanism was described as "more powerful than Big Ben" but would require one hour's winding each and every day. In the face of the rapidly over-running budget, the costs of purchase, installation and maintainance of the clock were considered extravagences too many and the idea was scrapped. Space for a future installation was, however, provided in the Town Hall's 160 foot tower and the clock we see today was commissioned as recently as 1979 and installed in 1980 to commemorate Chester's 1900th anniversary. It is curious to note that only three clock faces look out from the four-sided tower- the west side, facing towards neighbouring Wales, has none, giving rise to a cynical local saying that "Chester people wouldn't give the time of day to the Welsh"!

town hall medal 2The City Council meet in a grand chamber on the first floor which had to be rebuilt by the prolific local architect Thomas Lockwood (possibly best remembered as the designer of the Grosvenor Museum and the much-photographed ornate buildings at the Cross) - after a disastrous fire which completely destroyed it in 1897. Today, as well as the affairs of local government, the Town Hall is used for concerts, receptions, exhibitions and the like- and you can even get married here! The ornate interior is well worth viewing.

founding of town hall 1863A major programme of restoration was embarked upon in early Summer 2008 and, for many months, the exterior was shrouded in a great mass of scaffolding. The stonework was cleaned and pointed and guttering and roofs repaired, and, now the scaffolding has been removed, this handsome building is looking better than it has done in years.

Two stunning panoramic movies of the interior of Chester Town Hall may, along with much else, be seen at the excellent Chester 360°.

Right: a rare image of the laying of the Town Hall foundation stone in October 1865.

Chester's main police station was situated on the Town Hall's ground floor until 1967, when its replacement was opened on a prime site opposite the Castle. (This huge and unsightly structure was thankfully demolished in 2006- you can see some pictures and learn a little about it in our chapter about the Roodee). The old police station's cells still exist, however; in April 1966, the infamous moors murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were held here before facing trial at the Chester Assizes in the Castle. Whether connected or not, some have claimed to have felt an 'evil presence' about the old cells; lights are said to switch on and off for no reasson and a mysterious 'figure in brown' has occassionally be seen wandering about...

Since Chester Police relocated to their new HQ, out of the city centre in Blacon, (the County police moved too, to a new HQ in Winsford) a small station has been re-established in its original location, accessible from the Princess Street side of the Town Hall.

Odeon cinema, ChesterAt the north end of the square stands the handsome 1936 Art Deco Odeon Cinema by Harry Weedon- one of numerous provincial 'picture palaces' designed by him. Most Odeons of the period were faced with ceramic tiles, but, in keeping with the surrounding architecture, a more traditional red brick facing was used on just two, here in Chester and at its sister house, which it closely resembles, in the lovely city of York. The upstairs foyer housed an interesting display of Roman and medieval artifacts discovered during its construction.

A few years ago, the owners of this, the very last of our once-numerous city centre picture palaces, declared it to be no longer profitable and- to the distress of Chester's people, sold it to a developer. Unlike York, where their Odeon was rapidly acquired by their council and re-opened as a cinema- the new owners declared their intention in converting ours into a nightclub of all things. By a couple of years later, October 2009- and despite the continuing demand of local people for the building to be re-opened, nothing had been achieved, save for our councillors' wise decision to refuse permission for the nightclub and its subsequent dropping by the owners and the addition of some jolly posters advertising 'Petal Power: Chester in Bloom', 'The Northgate Quarter' and suchlike ironies being stuck onto its decaying facade.

restored odeonEventually, in September 2011, the building was finally re-acquired by the local authority and soon after it was announced that it will indeed become the home of Chester's new theatre. Whether there will also be room for a cinema as well is currently unknown.

On the right we see one of the 'artist's impressions' of the completed project that appeared in the ages of the local press around this time. On the far right is the 18th century Folliot House and the space between it and the Odeon proper, currently occupied by a mundane bookmaker's premises, has been replaced by a large glass structure.

In the 1990s and the coming of pedestrianisation to most of Chester city centre, there was a spirited debate regarding Northgate Street, which was not at that time pedestrianised despite many people believing it should have been. Two decades later with the advent of the One City Plan for Chester's future development, the debate has reared its head once again and the majority of the area's traders and residents have joined together to demand that this lovely and historic thoroughfare should also enjoy the numerous, proven benefits of being traffic-free. Despite traffic and other authorities unsurprisingly claiming that such would be impossible, the above illustration clearly shows people relaxing in what appears to be a pleasant, car-free plaza! So who knows. Watch this space for news...

Find out more of our splendid and much-missed Odeon and of its future in our History of the Cinema in Chester.

On the right we see a rare photograph of the 18th century Northgate House which was demolished to make way for the Odeon. It once offered lodging to the judges presiding over the Chester Assizes at the Castle. It may be seen again in several old pictures of Chester's former town hall, The Exchange..

northgate houseAcross Northgate Street from the Odeon, the ground floors of the buildings between the Little Abbey Gateway (see below) and the Northgate are all converted into shops but, looking up (which few people do), it is evident that the southern range were once gracious Georgian mansions housing affluent families. The spout head on the one nearest to the gateway bears the date 1749. Another, nearer to the gate- and the location of the author's studio and gallery, The Handel's Court Gallery, says 1799.

Opposite the Town Hall may be observed a great, weathered sandstone archway giving access to the elegant Abbey Square. This is the 14th century Abbey Gateway with once gave access to the precincts of Chester Abbey but now to the elegant Abbey Square, which was developed here, "in the London fashion" in the 18th century. learn more about the Gateway and Abbey Square here. Visit also our gallery of pictures of the Gateways.

Across from these, and a little further along the square is the elaborately-moulded terracotta and red brick facade of Chester Library which moved here from its now-demolished original home in St. John Street. It had been built in 1913 to a design by the Scottish architect Philip H Lockwood for the Westminster Coach and Motor Car Works, serving as a coachbuilders and motor showroom. From 1973-79 it housed a lively arts centre, 'The Chester Arts & Recreation Trust'. When the building was converted to house the library, which was built in 1981-4, retaining the original facade, a replacement for the arts centre was promised but never materialised and, three decades later, studio and gallery facilities are still sorely needed by Chester's community of creative artists.

You may be interested in these pictures of the changing face of the Chester Market Hall and this traffic-free view of the square as it appeared at the start of the 20th century...

In April 1998, we heard the first of a city council plan to "Improve the layout and appearance of Town Hall Square and its surroundings" and three years later, during the Summer of 2001, news started to appear in earnest about their radical redevelopment proposals in partnership with a company called London & Amsterdam Developments for the entire area between here and the Inner Ring Road.

Information about the so-called Northgate Development Proposals and their sponsors ING having grown considerably, we have now given them their own pages here (which is sorely in need of an update! Enough to say that, as of this update of November 2011, nothing has been built and the land has been laid out as a temporary park).

One much-discussed change that has taken place in Northgate Street, however, was the addition, in March 2001, of a contra-flow cycle lane running from the Odeon to the Northgate in order to allow cyclists to exit the city centre against the flow of one-way traffic in a northerly direction.
Upon introduction, the scheme produced a storm of criticism from local motorists, traders, councillors and even the police, who declared that the lane would prove an obstruction to delivery vehicles and actually be dangerous to those cyclists foolish enough to use it. The police claimed it posed "an unacceptably high risk" and one councillor, Neil Fitton, branded it "irresponsible" and feared cyclists would be forced into the path of oncoming traffic.
The road is currently used by around 4,000 vehicles per day, mostly slow-moving but including a number of large delivery vehicles.
Only time will tell. This writer uses the lane often and encounters no problems at all. The lane is hardly attractive but seems well planned and allows ample room for all responsible users of the street. The scheme was evaluated over its first 12 months but has now become a permament feature of the old Via Decumana..

A brief history of the Bluecoat (updated August 2014)
the bluecoat schoolBack atop the Northgate and standing with our backs to the city, across the spectacular canal cutting we see on our left the Bluecoat School, the first charity school built outside London by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.(The SPCK still exists today of course, and until recently maintained a bookshop in nearby St. Werburgh Street).

Architectural critic and author Nikolas Pevsner was rather unkind about the building: "It has all the usual ingredients, but somehow the composition seems lame".
We find it difficult to agree with him, and here is a photograph of the Bluecoat looking gorgeous in the Winter sunshine. It is interesting to compare it with the very similar Bluecoat building in Liverpool, which now serves as an excellent arts centre- sadly an unknown concept here in Chester.

Behind the Bluecoat, and reached by way of its main entrance, are a charming group of almshouses built around a central courtyard- of which more later. They were also rebuilt in 1854, but are historically linked to a much older institution that formerly stood here, the Hospital of St John the Baptist, the Sigillum Hospitalis Sancti Iohannus Baptiste Cestrie, founded around the year 1190 by Randal Blundeville, Earl of Chester and Richmond and Duke of Brittany.
He gave the site in free alms and free of all services except the reception and care of the poor and ordered that the brothers of the hospital who travelled through Cheshire preaching and collecting alms should be honourably treated. The Earl's grant was made to the Virgin and All Saints but within a few years the hospital had acquired its dedication to St. John the Baptist and was usually known as the Hospital of St. John without the North Gate.

In the 13th century the hospital community, apart from the poor and the sick, evidently consisted of a prior, brethren, and lay servants living under religious rule.
Around 1240 the brethren were given permission to build a chapel "beyond the Foregate" (actually the Northgate) and within the precincts of the hospital, known as St. John Without the Northgate or Little St. John to distinguish it from St. John's Church located outside the SE corner of the city walls close to the Roman amphitheatre.

old engraving of BluecoatThe extensive privileges given to the hospital by Ranulph III were a potential cause of conflict and early in its history arrangements were made to protect the interests of the existing churches in Chester. It was agreed between the brethren of the hospital and the Abbot of Chester Abbey that all servants of the hospital wearing secular clothes, apart from the gardener, the porter (claviger), the Prior's groom, and the woman who attended the sick, were to pay tithes and offerings to the mother church of St. Werburgh, as were those staying in the hospital and wearing secular clothes. Any servants engaging in trade were also to pay tithes and offerings to the mother church. Strangers and travellers, however, were allowed to receive the Sacraments and make offerings at the hospital church. A similar agreement concerning burial rights was reached in the early 13th century with the Abbot and Convent of St. Werburgh's and the Dean of St. John's. The brethren of the hospital were allowed to have a graveyard to bury the poor who died there and also men and women in confraternity with the hospital who had worn its habit in good health and for at least eight days.
Besides granting the site of the hospital and taking it under his special protection, Ranulph Ill agreed to maintain three beds for the poor and infirm at the rate of one penny a day in alms for each pauper; these alms of £4 11s a year were continued by the Crown after 1237 and were still being paid in the 16th century.

By the early 14th century the hospital had endowments worth £33 4s 10p a year. Members of the leading families of Chester made gifts to the hospital. However, much of the property lying outside Chester was alienated in return for small rent charges, doubtless for reasons of convenience. An inquiry in 1316 found that this short sighted policy had been carried out by successive priors and, in 1311 the master, William de Bache, was said to "have so impoverished the hospital as to impair its work of mercy and hospitality" and was removed from office.

A succession of inquisitions held between 1311 and 1341 revealed that the administration of the hospital had undergone a transformation similar to that of other hospitals at the period and was controlled by a master rather than a prior and chapter of brethren. Three chaplains celebrated there daily- two in the church and one in the hospital before the feeble and infirm inmates.

almshouses behind Bluecaot SchoolThe hospital was to take in as many poor and sick as possible but thirteen beds were to be kept ready for the housing of "thirteen poore and sillie citizens, whereof each shall have for daily allowance a loaf of bread, a dish of pottage, half a gallon of competent ale and a piece of fish or flesh, as the day shall require".
In 1316 the hospital was unwisely transferred to the guardianship of Birkenhead Priory, which impoverished by the cost of providing hospitality to travellers crossing the River Mersey to Liverpool. The priory took over the responsibility of maintaining the services and almsgiving of the hospital on inadequate and diminished resources and the annual revenues of the hospital declined.

Right: some of the almshouses still in use behind the old Bluecoat School

Then, in June 1341 the Black Prince took the hospital with its estates into his own hands and an inquiry was ordered into its government. Before the inquiry was held the custody of the hospital, which was reported to be "burdened with heavy charges and suffering from misrule", was given to a royal clerk.  The inquiry found that the church, chapel, and hospital buildings were not adequately roofed and that two large houses had collapsed from age and lack of repair.

stratford windowIn the later Middle Ages most of the masters must have been non-resident with livings and official duties elsewhere and it became the practice of such masters to appoint chaplains to administer the hospital for them. In 1414 Henry V confirmed the privileges of the hospital: its tenants enjoyed freedom from jury service and suit of court in the city and county and freedom from local tolls and taxes. Nevertheless, the hospital remained impoverished and was exempted from taxation in the later 15th century.

There were complaints from the city authorities in the 1520s that, in the absence of the master, the hospital's constitution was not being properly observed and, in particular, "foreign people" were being given places.

Left: Bishop Stratford and the Bluecoat in a stained glass window in the cloisters of Chester Cathedral

The role of the hospital in housing the infirm poor of the city of Chester doubtless saved it from dissolution under the Henry VIII's Act of 1547 and the commissioners who visited Chester in May 1553 to list church goods found "nothing worth selling".
In the latter half of the 16th century many of the hospital's lands were leased out for very long periods by a succession of unscrupulous masters and in 1601 a commission was appointed to visit and reform the hospital. They found that the master, Richard Young, had not visited the hospital for over three years as he had been imprisoned for debt in Chester Castle. He was immediately removed from the office of master.

In February 1644 all the stone buildings of the hospital and chapel and the surrounding wall were demolished so as not to provide cover to the Parliamentary forces then besieging the city. No trace is left of the original hospital church or other buildings and nothing, sadly, is known of their appearance.
But for the Civil War- and allowing for the philistinism of modern developers- Chester would doubtless today be blessed with considerably more ancient buildings outside the Walls, as may be plainly seen by the melancholy account written after the siege by Randle Holme III.

bluecoat hospital doorIn June 1658 Oliver Cromwell granted the site and the lands of the hospital and the office of keeper or warden to the town corporation. The mayor was to act as warden and use the revenues to relieve the poor and rebuild the hospital. At the Restoration the corporation petitioned the Crown for the continuation of the arrangement to relieve the increasingly numerous poor in the city but the wardenship was granted for life to Colonel Roger Whitley who is said to have rebuilt the hospital. In 1685 the corporation secured the reversion of the wardenship with all the hospital lands but, although Whitley died in 1697, the corporation did not obtain the hospital seal and records until 1703.

In 1717 fine new buildings were erected on the site including the Bluecoat Charity School facing Northgate Street. The public subscription towards its erection had actually commenced some years earlier, in 1700 under the auspices of  Dr. Nicholas Stratford, who was Bishop of Chester 1689-1707. He had been dead for ten years when the the school was eventually built. The 25 boys attending the school as boarders were clothed in blue and educated at the expense of the charity and 120 others, known as Green Caps were taught there as day-scholars.
A new chapel was built in the southern wing- closest to the Northgate- commemorated today by the little cross and bell which still exist on its roof.

One surprising aspect of the training of the young men at the Bluecoat School is discussed in the following extract from a letter from a Mr. Samuel Derrick, Master of the Ceremonies at Bath, "to the Right Hon. Lord Southwell, Chester, July 17,1760”...
“Your worship is so well acquainted with the city of Chester, that it would be ridiculous in me to give you any account; yet in this ancient city, there is an article, my lord, which you will permit me to mention, as it may probably have escaped your notice: it is a charity-school absolutely appropriated io the education of jockeys.
The truth of the matter is this: there is a charity-school without the North- gate, well-endowed, having a large fund, intended by the donor to be laid out in putting the children here educated, at a certain age, to trades. Some years ago it was usual to bind them out to the tradesmen and artificers of Chester; and consequently, when out of their time they were admitted freemen, and had a right to vote in the election of members to represent the town in Parliament; but it having often happened that many of them were too honest, or too obstinate, to receive directions in that material point from any superior but their own consciences, the practice of making them saucy rebellious tradesmen has been discontinued, and they are put out to horse-hirers and jockeys, not free of the city. This account I had from an old ill-natured fellow, who hates all mankind, and fattens on scandal, sarcasm, and ridicule”.

bluecoat boy
Around the same time that the school was founded, to its rear were raised six single storeyed almshouses. The almswomen, or "chapel-yard widows", were supported from the revenues of the hospital lands but the bulk of the considerable income of the hospital was diverted by the corporation for other purposes. Indeed, in 1835 it came to light that the corporation had grossly mismanaged the property- only £85 of the annual income of £600 was applied to the purposes of the hospital- including the repair of the buildings, the stipend of a chaplain, and small allowances to the inmates. An action alleging misappropriation of funds was brought against the corporation in Chancery.

In 1836 the Lord Chancellor ordered the appointment of a body of independent trustees to administer the hospital estates, a move which the corporation opposed until 1848. The almshouses have since that time been administered by trustees under successive schemes of management. A scheme of 1891, still in operation in 1926, provided for the support in the almshouses, with the assistance of a chaplain and a beadle, of thirteen poor of either sex and over 50 years of age who had been reduced by misfortune from better circumstances. The numbers and qualifications were thus similar to those found in the 14th century.

The Chester Infirmary was founded here during the second half of the eighteenth century at a time that saw a new era on many signs of social conscience and philanthropic ventures in its contribution to the poor. The infirmary was founded as a charitable institution for the treatment of the sick poor, largely owing to a bequest of £300 from Dr Stratford in 1753. It was housed in an unoccupied part of the upper floor of the Blue Coat School. At a meeting in June 1755, it was decided that part of the school should be fitted up on a temporary basis until the completion of a fine new building on the other side of the city close to the Roodee (a building that survives to this day, albeit converted into luxury apartments). The infirmary was support by subscriptions and donations. The first patient was one William Thomson of St. Mary's Parish, who was admitted with a wounded hand on November 11th 1755.

bluecoat derelictThe Bluecoat School was restored and the almshouses rebuilt in 1854, at which time various Roman roof tiles and bronze articles were found. The recently-repainted figure of a Bluecoat boy visible in a niche on the front of the building (illustrated above) was also added at this time. The model for this statue was one John Coppack, who was 14 years old at the time. After leaving the Bluecoat School, he went to work for the Shropshire Union Canal Company, lived in Garden Lane (just round the corner)- and became the father of 14 children!

The school finally closed in 1949 and rather fell into decline, as the old photograph on the right shows; missing its railings and with its windows broken. Since when the buildings have been used for a variety of purposes, such as retail and office premises, adult education and a youth club. In September 1996, it became the new home of the history department of the University of Chester. Various lecture rooms were created from the former dormitories and headmaster's study, the old chapel became the reception area and the former schoolroom was used by the city's archaeologists. In early 2003, the Bluecoat's basement was converted to house a new employment and 'enterprise' centre.

In April 2006, a brand new almshouse- the first to be built since the mid-19th century- was opened in the square behind the Bluecoat. Watched by its first tenant, Mary Pritchard, the formal opening of the new one-bedroom self-contained property was carried out by the Lord Mayor and the Chairman of the body that today administers the almshouses, the Chester Municipal Charities.

All of these enterprises eventually moved out and the building sat unused until early 2014, when a radical programme of restoration took place to prepare it to become The Bluecoat Centre for Charities and Voluntary Organisations. Chester Municipal Charities already owned the northern wing but they purchased the rest from the Bluecoat Foundation to prepare a place for such worthy causes as the Citizen's Advice Bureau and Chester Community Action, both of whom had been occupying cramped officed in the once-grand Folliott House, further down Northgate Street. The new Bluecoat Centre will provide a much-need 'one-stop shop' for advice services in the city as well as providing training suites and meeting rooms available for hire to groups not based in the building.

bridge of sighsOpposite the Bluecoat formerly stood a Bridewell or House of Correction where 'petty' crimes were punished by confinement and hard labour. It seems also to have served as a sort of workhouse; in 1685, Ann Mynshull left in her will "rents for the maintainance of poor freemen's children at work in a house called the House of Correction standinge neare unto the Northgate".

Crossing the canal between the Bluecoat and the wall of the former toll house outside the Northgate, you can see a dangerous-looking stone footbridge- illustrated here- known as the Bridge of Sighs. This was built by Joseph Turner (who was also the architect of the Bridgegate and the Watergate) in July 1793 for the sum of £20 in order to prevent the many, often successful, attempts to rescue condemned prisoners in the Northgate Gaol when they crossed the canal cutting to the chapel of Little St. John and the 'apartment made for prisoners' to receive the last rites of the church before their execution.

For a while after the cutting was made, these services were held within the gaol itself, but when the over-fastidious chaplain protested at having to hold services there, it was another factor that brought about the erection of the the bridge. That it would also serve as a buttress to hold apart the sides of the deep cutting doubtless made the money easier to raise.

painting of bridge od sighsAs may be seen in this artist's impression of the bridge when it was in use, it was formerly equiped with iron railings on either side to prevent suicidal escape attempts into the deep chasm below. These, in common with many of those throughout the Kingdom- including the author's home- were taken away to be recycled into munitions during both World Wars.

Though the chapel and the dreadful prison are long gone, the Bridge of Sighs remains- despite the city authorities ordering its removal in 1821- accessible now only to the pigeons, a source of great fascination for visitors to this day.


The long, low building on the left of our photograph- (and seen again below) to which the bridge attaches but, curiously, allows no access, is today a private residence but once served as a school- reader Charles Jones wrote to tell us that it was run by a Miss Smith and that his mother Dorothy, born in 1919, had studied there. Before that, it served as a toll house from where monies were collected from those entering the town to conduct business and attend the fairs and markets. These tolls, known as murage, were used specifically for the upkeep of the City Walls.

The tale is told that once, a farmer coming in from the countryside with a great load of hay, refused to pay the demanded money and so the toll collector attempted to remove the bridle from his horse in lieu of payment. His rough handling of the beast caused it to rear up and bolt down Northgate Street, shedding the load, scattering people and causing all manner of damage. It is said that the collecting of tolls ceased from this time. On the left we see a rare survivor, one of the tickets issued by the toll collector at the 'Northgate Machine', one Mr Pate, in 1824.

toll ticket• We will be further discussing both the murage of the past and recent concern over the present condition of Chester's venerable walls when we shortly reach our North Wall chapter..

Standing upon the Northgate, looking away from the town, on our right is a large and ornate Victorian pub, the Bull & Stirrup, whose interesting name recollects the presence of the Cattle Market formerly situated on the nearby, curiously-named Gorse Stacks, and also the 'stirrup cup' - or 'one for the road'- doubtless frequently enjoyed by the market's customers before departing for their farms. Directly opposite this is Canal Street which, if followed, would take you downhill to the Shropshire Union Canal and the fascinating area around Tower Wharf, which we will be visiting later in our stroll.

Looking ahead, we see at the further end of Upper Northgate Street another large public house, the George & Dragon (illustrated below) at which point the road divides- the right branch to Eastham and Liverpool and the left to Chester's ancient outlying harbours at Neston, Dawpool, Parkgate and Meols on the Wirral Peninsula.
Meols is of particular antiquity, trading as it did for centuries before the arrival of the Legions. It still exists today as a pleasant residential suburb but the venerable seaport is long lost beneath the waves.

This road junction certainly existed in Roman times- and probably much earlier- and, as with the other main routes leading to their fortress, the rough-hewn memorial stones of a Roman cemetery for centuries occupied each side of the road. northgate tollhouse Later, the site of the modern pub was occupied by a church dedicated to St. Thomas Becket, shown on Daniel King's plan of Chester c.1620. It was converted into a private house by Richard Dutton, who was Mayor in 1627, and was afterwards known as Jolly's Hall. In 1645, during the Civil War, it shared the fate of most of the other buildings standing outside the City Walls, being either burned by the besiegers or demolished by the townspeople themselves so as not to afford shelter to Parliamentary snipers. It is mentioned by Randle Holme III in his moving description of the devastation inflicted upon the city at that time:
"Without the Northgate, from the said gate to the last house, Mr. Duttons (Jollye's Hall), all burned and consumed to the ground, with all the lanes to the same, with the Chappelle of Little St. John, not to be found..."

Right: standing on top of the Northgate, we see the curious little house where tolls were once collected upon goods entering the city. Behind it, the Bridge of Sighs may jst be seen crossing the deep chasm in which the Shropshire Union Canal flows. On the right may be seen the Bluecoat with its almshouses standing behind. Photographed by the author in 2008.

However, at least part of it must have survived, as the 1795 Chester Directory mentions the old church "being used as a barn". Later still, the site was occupied by John Fletcher's large mansion, "Surmounted by a glass cupola, forming an excellent observatory."
Our photograph shows the fine, timber and brick-built George and Dragon, newly built by the Birkenhead Brewery Company in the 1930s, but it looks much the same today and is well worth examining, being rich with decorative carvings, leaded lights and heavy oak doors.

With such a colourful history, it is not surprising that this is yet another Chester pub with a reputation for being haunted. The etherial occupant is known to the staff as 'George' (a name shared in common with many of Chester's pub ghosts) and one of them told us he commonly made his presence known at the end of the night when they were cleaning up- "He really hates the vacuum cleaner!"

'George' may actually have been around for quite some time, as legend has it that it is the ghost of a Roman soldier who paces the pub. We may ask why he should eternally revisit this particular spot? Chester was, of course, a fortress town filled once with such men, but the site of the George & Dragon is outside the Porta Decumana, or North Gate and was utilised as a burial ground. As the practical Romans, not wishing to waste space within the fortress, always laid their dead to rest outside the defensive walls, this upper part of Parkgate Road would once have been lined with elaborate memorials to depated citizens and servicemen.

Our particular Roman soldier is said to have fallen in love with a beautiful Welsh girl. While he should have been on sentry duty at the Decumana Gate, he was in the habit of slipping off beyond the walls to meet his love. This young lady was not what she seemed however, and one night, while she kept the sentry occupied, a raiding party led by her brothers gained entry into the garrison, massacring many of its complement of soldiers who were sleeping in their beds.

The hapless soldier would have certainly been executed after such dereliction of duty. For this transgression of the strict Roman code of honour and obedience there would have been no mercy. The unfortunate man perhaps even took his own life out of remorse, and his ghost is now said to pass backwards and forwards through the walls of the George & Dragon, never seen, only heard, forever pacing, to this day. As an honourable burial would not have been afforded him, perhaps the soldier seeks his rest at the site of the former cemetery. Could he be seeking his murdered comrades to ask their forgiveness? Whatever the reason for his wanderings, he remains "the lost legionary".

(Until the 1960s, across town on the corner of Frodsham Street and Foregate Street stood for centuries the Bear's Paw Inn. Today, the site is occupied by a utilitarian structure which houses a branch of H. Samuels jewellers. Conversing with the staff recently, we were fascinated to discover that they were all familiar with a ghost of their own- also familiarly known as George, doubtless a long-standing habituee of the long-vanished pub, who just didn't want to go home at closing time!)

Of the inns of Northgate Street it was once said that "they are as common as blackberries". We will be visiting some of them in our next chapter and here is a list of the many, many other Chester pubs that have sadly ceased to be over the years...

Of more recent times, the view beyond the Northgate has been considerably altered by the construction of the Fountains Roundabout as part of the 1960s Inner Ring Road scheme. This was described by the press at the time of its opening in 1967 as "Chester's most notable non-place"- it was laid out with attractive lawns, flowerbeds and fountains, but allowed no safe pedestrian access. The eminent architectural critic Nikolas Pesvenor commented, "The roundabout with its well-intentioned fountain destroys the street continuity, and indeed the town scale".

travelodge 2010Even worse, to cross the busy Ring Road, one is forced to burrow under it via a series of unpleasant subways. Many local people felt that, after thirty years, this sorry piece of town planning was long overdue for improvement and, in fact, a couple of these subways have already been filled in and replaced with Pelican crossings.

We often hear it said by Chester's current crop of planners and politicians that follies of this sort are a thing of the past, that lessons have been learned and that much more care is now taken when considering the nature of new architecture in our ancient and beautiful city. That said, let us finally draw your attention to this brand new addition to the landscape of Upper Northgate Street- a 160-bed Travelodge hotel, a vast, ugly and deeply inappropriate structure that, since emerging from its scaffolding in the Summer of 2011 has been soundly panned by Chester's shocked residents and visitors, few of whom (planners and politicians aside) had entertained the slightest suspicion that such a monstrosity was to be foisted upon their fair city, not a mention of it having been made in the local press or elsewhere. And who can blame them. What a ghastly blot.

The architects, Manchester-based Stephenson-Bell, wrote of their brief (for client Rufus Estates) on their website- make of it what you will- "The site is an important ‘gateway’ to the northern entrance to the historic city, which demands a powerful design that is simultaneously sensitive to the historic neighbours. A limited material palette of black brick, render and glass is proposed as a modern interpretation of the ‘wattle and daub’ facades that typify many of Chester’s historic buildings".

travelodge 2You couldn't make it up.

Consider the words of the statesman, Prime Minister and local lad William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898)- who was born in Liverpool and lived in Hawarden- "The manufacturer [and architect] whose daily thought is to cheapen his productions, endeavouring to dispense with all that can be spared, is under much temptation to decline letting beauty stand as an item in the account of the costs of production. So the pressure of economical law tells severely upon the finer elements of trade. And yet it may be argued that, in the case of the durability and solidity of articles, that which appears cheapest at first may not be cheapest in the long run… there seems to be a way by which the law of nature arrives at its revenge upon the short-sighted lust for cheapness. We begin, say, by finding beauty expensive. We decline to pay the artists for producing it. Their employment ceases; and they disappear. Presently we find that works reduced to utter baldness do not satisfy. We have to meet a demand for embellishment of some kind. But we have starved out the race who knew the laws and modes of its production. We substitute strength for flavour, quantity for quality; and we end by producing incongruous excrescences, or even hideous malformations, at a greater cost than would have sufficed for the nourishment among us of chaste and virgin art".

And also of Canadian architect and urban planner Arthur Erickson: "Today's developer is a poor substitute for the committed entrepreneur of the last century for whom the work of architecture represented a chance to celebrate the worth of his enterprise".

Within a mere two years, the hotel was deemed a failure and the building was taken over by Chester University to serve as a student hall of residence, which contains 160 en-suite rooms and opened in late September 2013. It has been re-named Sumner Hall after Bishop of Chester John Sumner, one of the University's founders in 1839, 174 years ago. From 1848 until his death in 1862, he served as Archbishop of Canterbury.
None of which makes the place anything less of a carbuncle. Ironically, in October 2013, a proposed student housing development just across the roundabout, on the site of a vile 1960s building next door to the Northgate Church, was refused on the grounds that it was too large..

But now we'll move on to the final part of our exploration of the Northgate Street area: Inns and Brewers ...

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 2

  • c. 689 King Aethelred of Mercia founds St. John's Church
  • Werburgh (to whom the Cathedral is dedicated), daughter of Wulfhere, after "a life of pious works", died and was buried at Hanbury in Staffordshire
  • 779 Offa, who became king of Mercia in 757, becomes King of all England until his death in 796. In 782 the Anglo-Saxons established the traditional Anglo-Welsh border by erecting 'Offa's Dyke', an earthwork barrier running from the city of Chester in the north to the Bristol Channel in the south. The coming of Offa's Dyke marked the end of Anglo-Saxon annexation of Welsh territory.
  • 793 8th June: Norsemen destroy the abbey on the island of Lindisfarne- the start of the 'Viking Age' in England. "Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race... The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets".
  • c. 795 St. Bridget's Church in Lower Bridge Street was founded by King Offa. After existing for over 1000 years, it was demolished in 1825 to make way for the construction of Grosvenor Street.
  • 828 King Egbert of Wessex (reigned 802-839) captured Chester and was recognised as the overlord of the 'Seven Kingdoms of the Heptarchy'.
  • 839 Ethelwulf of Wessex (c 795-858) crowned king.
  • 840 Danish settlers found Dublin and Limerick
  • c 850 A mint established at Chester, striking silver pennies.
  • 858 King Ethelwulf dies and is succeeded by his son Ethelbert I (835-866)
  • 865 Ethelred (c 840-871), fourth son of Ethelwolf and older brother of Alfred the Great, comes to the throne of England.
  • 871 Ethelred's younger brother, Alfred the Great (849-899) becomes king of England.
  • 875 The nuns of Hanbury, terrified at the approach of the Danes, transferred the mortal remains of St. Werburgh to Chester and laid them to rest in "a churche dedicated to St. Peter & St. Paul"- the predecessor of the Cathedral.
  • 883 Egbert laid siege to Chester and caused the brazen effigies of Cadwallon ap Cadfan, King of the Britons (died 634), to be pulled down.
  • 894-5 The Danes invaded Chester- King Alfred's army arriving too late to prevent them capturing the fortress. However, by employing such tactics as destroying all the corn and cattle in the area, Alfred's men made life so miserable for the Danes that they were reduced to a diet of horse flesh- soon after relinquishing the fortress and retreating into Wales.
    Arguments have raged for years about whether the fortress had been deserted since the end of the Roman period or if its inhabitants had recently fled at the approach of the Danish Great army. There's also the possibility that the local population colluded with the Danes, letting them in, something the writer of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle preferred to pass over in silence! The archaeological evidence shows, however, that there were certainly people living in the fort before the arrival of the Danish army.
  • 897 Danish pirates returned and wintered in Chester. They carried away some of the inhabitants as slaves, and seized as many cattle and plunder as they could find.
  • 899 Alfred the Great died and was succeeded by Edward the Elder (870-934). England divided into shires.
  • 906 The church of St. John the Baptist was rebuilt this year by Earl Ethelred and his wife, Æthelflæd- the "Lady of the Mercians" and eldest daughter of Alfred. They re-dedicated the church of St. Peter and St. Paul to St. Werburgh- whose remains were buried there in 875, and transferred the old dedication to a new church in the town- still known as St. Peter's, at the High Cross. Bradshaw the monk recorded the event thus,

    And the olde church of Peter and of Paul,
    By a generall counsell of the spirituale
    With help of the Duke most principall
    Was translate to the myddes of of the sayd cite,
    Where a paresshe churche was edified truele
    In honour of the aforesayd Apostles twayne
    Which shall for ever by Grace Divine remaine.

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