Chester Imp

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The "Chester Imp" is far less well-known than the "Lincoln Imp", but the trail of relatively minor chaos associated with it has some amusing twists and turns.

"Imp" on the Pied Bull at the corner of King Street. One of a set created by the sculptor Eoghan Bridge and dotted around Chester. Nothing to do with "Infernal Fire" innsurance.
The original "Imp" at the cathedral as mentioned in guidebooks for centuries

Mysterious Imps

The orignal imp is at the Cathedral and fairly hard to see at first, but can be located in the nave windows west of the screen. The tale of his origin recounts that a monk was walking along the upper gallery and saw the Devil looking in the window. The monk was rather worried about this but the Abbot told him to put up a carving of the Devil in chains, so that he would know what would happen to him if he dared to return. A carving of an "Imp" can also be found at Lincoln although the legend there is slightly different, with a pair of imps supposedly causing all manner of chaos before being petrified - including twisting the spire of St. Mary’s Church in Chesterfield.

The use of the figure is extremely widespread across both England and Scotland. The imp usually appears with cloven feet and with one leg raised to rest upon the other knee and both hands are gripping the leg that is on the knee. It has a hairy body and open mouth displaying sharp teeth and has ears like those of a cow. As well as the three well-known imps at Chester, Lincoln and St James’s Church in Grimsby, similar Imps can be seen in the masonry of buildings across northern England and Scotland. Other prominent examples include St Mary’s church in Beverley, East Yorkshire, St. Vigean’s church in Arbroath, Scotland and wooden carvings of the creatures in Stirling Castle. It is hard to imagine that the maker of each image was aware of the Lincoln or Chester example. It must therefore be speculated that the form is a widespread image predating its use at Lincoln, and simply an everyday deity in the same mode as the "Green Man" or the "Three Hares". Strange and grotesque figures, ranging from devils and demons to cats (which were associated with evil), serpents and other classic monsters, or half man/half animal figures, were incredibly common in 13th century church architecture.

In the 18th century the Chester Imp was a fairly popular door-knocker design. Many such knockers survive and they can still be bought today either as genuine antiques or as reproductions. The imp also featured on Victorian teaspoons and crumpet-toasting forks. Its popularity may have been connected with the Lincoln Imp: a Lincoln City Sheriff presented a tiepin with the Imp on to the Prince of Wales (future Edward VII) whose horse Minoru won the 1909 Derby when Edward was wearing the pin. When asked what had brought him luck, he said it was the Lincoln Imp, and thus sales rocketed. Chester's imp may have enjoyed a similar Edwardian success through the racing link.

The "Daily Mirror"'s editor did try to stop publication...

Impish Nonsense

The trail of "chaos" left by the Chester Imp is relatively recent. Newspapers suggested in 2015 that the imp was only discovered at that time, by use of a drone, which is complete nonsense. The imp is clearly visible from the nave and has been pointed out to visitors for centuries. Despite this an attempt was made to gain publicity by reference to the imp - with unlikely tales being propagated by a local business development organisation: that only now were "Historians" labelling the mystery carving as "The Chester Imp". Perhaps supernatural influence can be named as the cause of the confusion at the Daily Mirror, where the editor apparently tried to stop the publication of the story by writing "Do not use" on the copy, which was duly printed as part of the journalists name. Some of the errors in the story should have been obvious as the dating given would place the origins of the imp in around 1015, and when the Normans started work on the Abbey in about 1092 this part of the building would not have existed. The date of the nave in the Cathedral and the clerestory where the imp is found is probably late 15th Century.

Equally unlikely are stories that the drone crashed or that the images taken were corrupted by infernal influence. Other "fun" propogated by the imp has involved misleading a well-known local writer that he is a "fire insurance mark" (and appearing as such on the cover of her book on Chester) and, a further appearance in the 2019 "Scrooge McDuck" cartoon "The 87 Cent Solution" - a perhaps somewhat inappropriate reference to Sherlock Holmes and his habit of injecting a 7% solution of cocaine as mentioned in "The Sign of Four". One "paranormal site" places all manner of medieval catastrophies as being caused by the imp:

  • "Apparently, during the late medieval period, Chester and its God-fearing inhabitants were plagued by regular visitations by the Devil. The creature was spotted all over the city’s confines, striking fear into the heart of the local population. Often, sightings would be followed by some considerable misfortune. Local inhabitants would find their crops withered and their live stock dead. Apparently, the sightings continued for a period of eight years."

There appears to be no evidence at all that this supposed "local legend" about Satan enjoying frequent tourist trips to Chester existed prior to its publication by the website.

The Imp Trail

Chester has what was breifly known as the "Chester Imp Trail" which seems to have been associated with a relatively short-lived ornamental glass shop which was located on Bridge Street. Only some of these survive and are shown in the gallery below. The imps were made in 2013 by the glass artist Eoghan Bridge and put up by slealth in a "Banksy" style operation - well before the Imp's supposed "discovery" as reported in the Daily Mirror. The glass shop provided a map and leaflet about the "Chester Imp Trail", showing a much larger number of "imps" of which only a few survived. The fate of the rest is unknown, some may have been removed by occupants. The surviving imps do not form a very interesting trail, with two in Castle Street and the other three in (or close to) the section of Northgate Street between the Town Hall and Northgate: although there are five, they do not even form a recognisable pentagram.

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