The Dominicans were established in Chester by 1237 or 1238 when the appearance of the Grey Friars alarmed their patron, Alexander Stavensby, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. So vehement was his reaction to the prospect of the two orders competing for alms that he has been thought responsible for establishing the Dominicans in Chester, although there is no definite evidence and it is equally possible that they came there under the patronage of Ranulph III, earl of Chester. Other sources suggest there is evidence that Henry III founded the friary and that it was under royal patronage. The earliest documentary reference to Blackfriars as a street, dates to the mid-fourteenth century and describes a laneway separating the Black friars precinct from that of St Mary's nunnery to the south. Pigot writes:
- "The Blackfriars stood on the west side of the north end of Nicholas street where now is a curious ancient mansion chiefly composed of carved wood and with the date 1591 still visible; this formerly belonged to the Stanley family and was their town residence."
The friary occupied c. 5½ acres bounded by Watergate Street to the north, Nicholas Street then known as Black Friars to the east, Walls' Lane or Ardene Lane (now Black Friars) to the south, and the City Walls now Nuns Road to the west. The precinct was bisected by an alley (probably that now known as Greyfriars) leading from the east gate to the west gate. The discovery of human remains indicates that the graveyard, and possibly the church, lay in the south-west section of the site. It is generally believed that no traces of the buildings remain, but there are a few boundary walls in the area that are founded on rather more massive stonework which may be a relic of the friary. During the excavation of a continuous trench along the Nuns Road to repair a gas main in 2006, a small east - west aligned section of a medieval wall was recorded at the intersection of Nun's Road and Blackfriars. Although the precise nature of this wall was not determined, the excavators suggested it could have been part of a precinct wall between the Benedictine Nunnery and the Dominican Friary. Alternately, it may have been part of the medieval town's defensive circuit or part of an independent defensive structure.
Before the arrival of the friars, there was a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas on the site; there are known references to a chaplain of St Nicholas, who witnessed several documents during the 1220s, and it is reasonable to assume that the friars used the chapel before their church was constructed, and then adopted the dedication for their house. Some time after its founding, St Werburgh’s and St John’s (who between them controlled all burial rights in the city), agreed to take two-thirds of the revenue of people wishing to be buried in the Black friars precinct.
They secured their own Water Supply in 1276, after receiving permission to build a pipeline from the spring at Boughton. Naturally, there is extensive documentary evidence that provides an impression of the success and growth of the friary: in 1274, Edward I ordered the Justice of Chester to continue a payment of 40d a week to the Black friars and these 'ancient alms' of 8 13s 4d continued into the reign of Henry VII. Palmer suggests that payment began by Henry III from foundation of Friary (above). In 1291, they received 100s from Queen Eleanor's executors, and the Black Prince made grants of alms in 1353 and in 1358 to all three friaries in Chester.
In 1361, the precinct appears to have expanded, as they were licensed to acquire the plot of land next to their garden, perhaps for extension of certain precinct buildings. Certain buildings were still lacking in 1467 when ten new plots were bequeathed towards their cost and some rebuilding was undertaken during the last years of the community. In 1384, the friars were granted the privilege of grinding corn and malt free of toll at the king's mills for ten years and in 1395 this privilege was granted in perpetuity. The Dominicans do not appear to have been as locally popular as the other two mendicant orders; for example, between 1400 and 1540 they are mentioned only in 25 out of 53 local wills. The house generally well ordered, but in the mid-fifteenth century the Dominicans were involved with Carmelites in riots and in 1454 accused of attacking servant of the Abbot of Chester. At the time of the Dissolution, it does not appear to have been large: the house was the smallest of those at Chester in 1538, with only five members. Previously, in the fourteenth century, it was said that there were 38 friars but this is thought to have been an exaggeration.
In the years before the Dissolution, the friars made long leases of gardens, orchards and tenements surrounding the house. The Dissolution inventory lists their possessions, and mentions site of church, with alley, site of old hall, dormitory, two cloisters, chapter house and frater, and mentions many houses, cottages, gardens and orchards. In 1543 the conventual buildings were leased to Thomas Smith of Chester for a period of 21 years, and in 1561, the site came into the possession of the Dutton family.
In 1745 the principal houses on the site were those of Mr. Smith in the south-west corner, and Sir Richard Brooke on the Watergate Street frontage west of Stanley Palace. Between lay extensive gardens reached by a lane perhaps on the line of the medieval alley. Smith's house, later known as Grey Friars House, survives, a low two-storeyed building dating largely from the late 17th century but incorporating timber framing perhaps of the 16th (discussed further on the Greyfriars page). Brooke's house was entirely replaced by Watergate House, built in 1820 by Thomas Harrison for Henry Potts.
The rim of a bone spectacle frame was found on the site of the Dominican Friary in Chester. It is one of only a few examples excavated in this country and was perhaps imported from the Low Countries either directly or via London, alternatively a spectacle maker was recorded working in London in the mid-fifteenth century. Age related long sightedness would have presented a serious problem for literate clerics at a time when spectacles were not widely available.
From Nicholas Street Blackfriars does not look particularly interesting in terms of architecture (it begins with "Unionist Buildings" on one side and the somewhat cheerless Nicholas house on the other, but it gets better towards Nuns Road. On the right are some relatively modern houses which occupy the site of a former "training ground", the final one of which is constructed with a pseudo-hacienda style architecture and perhaps looks quite out of place in Chester. While to the left are some small, neat town-houses, the first of which bears the badge of the North Staffordshire Regiment (1881–1959) over the front door. In 1959, as part of a defence review, the North Staffordshire Regiment, by now reduced to only a single regular battalion, was amalgamated with the South Staffordshire Regiment to form the Staffordshire Regiment (Prince of Wales's) which was, in 2006, amalgamated with the Cheshire Regiment and the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment (29th/45th Foot) to form the Mercian Regiment.
Row of 5 small town houses. Mid C19. Brown brick in Flemish bond to the front; grey slate roofs with ridge parallel with the street.
Two cottages. c1840. Brown brick in Flemish bond to the front with grey slate roof having ridge parallel with the street. 2 storeys, each cottage having one bay. Painted plinth; round-arched painted stone or imitation stone doorcases with radial-bar fanlights.
This Town House dates from c1855. It was converted to flats in the late C20 with some alterations to the front and an extention was built against to rear. Lined render on brick; hipped grey slate roof. 2 storeys with symmetrical Italianate double-front to west, formerly the entrance front to Nuns Road. Former central doorway glazed, with overlight and landing window above modified. The English bond brown brick garden wall to Nun's Road, the south side of the garden and abutting the house is stone-capped; the wall, which is of sandstone in the lower courses facing Blackfriars, north, is older than the house and is mentioned in Hanshall (1817) at which time the house on this site was occupied by Edward Ommanney Wrench (once owner of the Dee Mills). Wrench was also a Lt. Colonel in the Royal Chester Regiment of the Local Militia and there is a large memorial to him in Chester Cathedral.