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Chester was for many centuries the most important place by far in north-western England. That was largely due to its location at the crossroads of the British Isles, where routes from southern Britain led into north Wales and the Irish Sea. Chester survived as a regional capital through the Middle Ages and into the 18th century, with no rival nearer than Shrewsbury, but it dominated a much smaller region than cities such as Bristol, Exeter, Norwich, and Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as being a smaller place in absolute terms. Its hinterland was poorer than most of theirs, and its overseas trade was much more limited. The hinterland in economic terms covered the western half of Cheshire and much of north-east Wales; it was the main market for the agricultural produce of that area, to which it also supplied manufactured goods, both locally produced and imported. The sale of agricultural produce, locally manufactured goods, and imports of all kinds in Chester's markets and fairs contributed greatly to the city's prosperity from an early period into modern times. Despite the huge changes in the nature of the national economy and in the means by which goods were distributed, retailing remained of prime importance to the city at the end of the 20th century. A very large proportion of late 20th-century visitors to Chester came 'for the shops', and the city had a retail sector far larger than its own population would have warranted.
Early Fairs and Markets
One pillar of Chester's economy in the Middle Ages remained its dominance over an extensive, if relatively impoverished hinterland. Its twice-weekly market was without serious rival between north-east Wales and the Marches to the west, Derby to the east, Shrewsbury to the south, and Lancaster and perhaps beyond to the north. Marketing was concentrated in the two open spaces by St Peter's church and the abbey gate, but also spread into the main streets.
By the 13th century Chester's Midsummer fair lasted a month and the Michaelmas fair a fortnight. The significance of the Midsummer fair is attested by the citizens' largely successful struggle in the late 13th century to wrest control from the abbot of St. Werburgh's. Commodities included salt, coal, horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, sacks of wool, pelts, and copper or bronze pots and bowls. Cloth was also important.
The growing commercial importance of the fairs is suggested by arrangements made c. 1260, whereby Wymark, widow of John the tailor, divided her property with Hugh the tailor, presumably her son, and agreed to take down the wall which separated her holding from his during fair time, thus giving Hugh extra space which he presumably required at a busy time. The impact of the fairs upon the region as a whole is indicated by the fact that policing fell in part upon landholders living as far away as Crewe (in Coppenhall), and by the existence within the county of rural serjeants of passage who protected routeways to Chester during fair time.
There was perhaps a sequence of local small-scale summer fairs in the environs of Chester, linked with the main one in the city. Thus the dates of Bromborough fair, established in 1278, were timed to dovetail exactly with the opening of Chester's Midsummer fair.
The following statement is made in July 1858 by Samuel Brown, herald painter of Chester:
- The old wooden glove was suspended from the outer wall of the south spout (near Northgate street) of St. Peter's Church, Chester the origin of which was, tradition says, that when fairs were first held in Chester in July and October, the glove was hung out fourteen days before each fair, to represent the hand of friendship, and to invite the neighboring towns to send their merchandise to Chester, particularly the Irish weavers of linen, great quantities of which were disposed of at these fairs. The Corporation allowed the sexton of St. Peter's 5s. per annum for taking care of and hanging out the glove, but of late years they reduced the salary to 2s., and at last to 1s. 6d., when in 1836 Peter Catheral, the sexton, received orders to discontinue the hanging out, and was told he might do what he liked with it. Then he gave it to the then clerk, Edward Sidall, gun-maker, and in 1837 Sidall gave it to a man by the name of Joseph Huxley, an upholsterer, whose father-in-law (a Sergeant Wilkinson begged it from Huxley, his son-in-law, and in 1837 Wilkinson sent it to Liverpool. Nothing has been heard of it since. The writer of this knew all the parties well July, 1858. Samuel Brown, herald painter.
A little more can be added to this. Local folk-law holds that the Mayor refused to pay for "such a foolish old custom" and that Catheral sold it or gave it to a Mr Wilkinson who sold it for two pints of ale at "The Boot Inn". According to this version, by 27th December 1836 it passed into the hands of a Joseph Butler. After that it somehow ended up in a museum at Liverpool where it was apparently destroyed in WW2 bombing raids.
The hand was marked "HVGO COMES CESTRIA GVILDA DE CIVIT. MERCAT. MCLIX" (Hugh Earl of Chester, City Merchants Guild, 1159). Given the date the Hugh would have been Hugh de Kevelioc. However the fairs were established by Hugh of Avranches (died 1101):
- "Hugh, the first Earl of Chester, in his charter of foundation of St. Werburgh's Abbey in that city, had granted to them, who should come to Chester fair, that they should not be then apprehended for theft or any other misdemeanour, except the crime were commited during the fair. The consequence of which privilege was, that multitudes of disorderly people resorted thither."
So writers have interpreted records as reporting that the wooden hand or a glove was hung as part of a tradition dating from the time of Hugh of Avranches, but, as noted above the date on the wooden hand places it during the Earldom of a later Earl Hugh. As reported in Chambers Book of Days:
- Chester was endowed by Hugo with two yearly fairs, at Midsummer and Michaelmas, on which occasions criminals had free shelter in it for a month, as indicated by a glove hung out at St. Peter's Church,—for gloves were a manufacture at Chester. It was on these occasions that the celebrated Chester mysteries, or scriptural plays, were performed.
After the fair was over, the hand was taken down and the "Leavelookers" would ensure that all unauthorised traders were evicted from the city so that the Guilds and Freemen could get back to their normal monopoly.
Tolls and Customs
Tolls were taken at the city's gates by the late 13th century and probably long before. In the reign of Edward II (1307-27), when they were recorded in detail, they were levied on the goods of 'foreign' merchants as they entered and left the city, the citizens themselves being exempt.
- At the Eastgate, the principal entry for landborne traffic and the only gate at which tolls could be paid in cash, there was a tariff for wool, salt, coal, timber, 'long boards', bark for tanning, turf, knives, cups, dishes, and tankards. Merchandise produced within Cheshire, including corn, malt, lead, iron, steel, and livestock, was exempt.
- At the Northgate the serjeant took toll on a wide variety of sea fish and shellfish, ale, fruit, sheep, timber, shingles, coal, firewood, and turf.
- At the Bridgegate tolls were taken on cattle brought in from Wales, fish and shellfish of various kinds, hops, nuts, firewood, turf, coal, timber, shingles, laths, bark for tanning, knives, cups, and dishes. Levies were presumably also made at the two adjacent gates, the Shipgate and the Horsegate, for which the serjeant of the Bridgegate was also responsible.
- The commodities which passed through the Watergate were similar, and included barley, various kinds of fish, coal, cups, dishes, and knives.
In the late 13th century the tolls levied at the gates were disputed. In 1290, for example, the citizens challenged the serjeant Hugh of Raby's rights at the Bridgegate, and in 1293 the serjeant of the Eastgate, Robert of Bradford, was charged with taking unauthorized customs. Others charged with taking illegal tolls included the abbot of Chester, who was extracting levies (vadia) from traffic on the road from Portpool to the Northgate, and one of the serjeants of the city, who had taken prises from dealers and fishermen bringing fish into Chester by water. The problem remained unresolved in the early 14th century, and in 1314 the keepers of all four gates were found guilty of abusing their position, in particular of taking unauthorized custom on commodities produced in the shire and from fishing boats coming to the anchorage at Portpool and to the harbour proper. Even so, in 1349 the serjeant of the Eastgate was still maintaining his right to tolls on many items declared exempt in 1314.
All that is known of the port customs between the mid 11th and late 13th century is that 'due prises' existed. By the 1270s, however, it is clear that wine was among the items on which prisage was taken. In the 1280s or early 1290s a collector was appointed, an eminent Chester merchant, and in the early 14th century the money so raised was treated as revenue of the earldom. Prisage, which was also levied on timber, bark, and coal as well as wine, was distinguished from custom, in theory levied upon alien merchants, but apparently not collected until the 1380s, presumably because alien merchants did not import wine through Chester in the earlier 14th century.
In other respects Chester's relationship to the national customs system is obscure. Although not included in the custom on wool, wool fells, and hides, inaugurated in 1275, (fn. 105) it was mentioned in the new custom of 1303, when two former mayors were appointed collectors in the city and the Welsh ports as far south as Haverfordwest (Pemb.). Despite a trickle of royal instructions thereafter, custom on wool, wool fells, and hides was levied only in that year, when local merchants paid duty amounting to just over £19 to the chamberlain of Chester. Thereafter no further payment was recorded and from 1320 the chamberlain noted that custom was not taken at Chester because the cocket seal had not been issued to the port. In 1343 the city was expressly excluded from the national customs system and closed to the export of wool. It was again excluded from collection when the custom on cloth was extended to native merchants in 1347.
Tolls were also levied by the citizens themselves. Indeed, in the later 1270s a 'custom of boats' and minor tolls were included with the revenues of the city. Such customs had probably been regulated from the mid 13th century by the guild merchant, which certainly by 1319 exacted payment from alien merchants for the sale of merchandise including herring, salmon, and eels.
Further taxes levied on merchandise by the citizens included murage and pavage for repairing the walls and paving the streets. Murage was the subject of a royal grant to the citizens from the mid 13th century, but usually there is no indication of how the money was raised. In 1279, however, the mayor and citizens were granted a three-year pavage of ½d. on every cartload of firewood or coals brought into the city. Later, the leavelookers, as the wardens of the guild merchant became known, made a fixed levy on all merchandise sold by aliens within the city whenever a murage was granted.
The "Union Hall" and Others
The "Union Hall" stood on the south side of Foregate Street. It was erected in 1809, opened in July of that year, and contained sixty single and ten double shops, exclusive of an immense warehouse in the upper floor. It was built by local builder and iron-founder Thomas Lunt, who raised a subscription to fund it and was chiefly used for the sale of Manchester and Yorkshire cloths. It was quadrangular in shape, with three stories of lock up shops or store rooms. Having the appearance of an old inn yard, it was, if anything, more patronized than the other Commercial Halls, and continued to be closely associated with the horse fairs, held at its front entrance (see the painting by Louise Rayner below) In olden times it was customary to sound a bugle on the Northgate at the opening of the October fair, it was later moved to the Cattle Market in George Street, in 1884. Merchants paid further subscriptions to sell their wares, but were not allowed to sell eleswhere or at times other than the annual fairs. Similar arrangements existed for those who sold goods at the Commercial Hall on the north side of Foregate Street and at the Linen Hall - it was very much the last of the monopolies which the Chester guilds tried to preserve under their ancient Charters.
Pigot writes of the Union Hall:
- "THE UNION HALL is on the south side of Foregate street; it is a convenient and regular quadrangular brick building a hundred and sixty eight feet long and ninety-two wide; with an area in its center; it was built in 1809 at the expense of the Manchester tradesmen and others attending the fairs and contains sixty single and ten double shops besides the upper story which is not divided into shops but chiefly occupied by the stalls of the Yorkshire clothiers at the four angles are convenient flights of steps communicating with every part of the building and round the upper row of shops a covered gallery supported by wooden pillars and affording a shelter from rain to the visitors of the shops below."
The First Market Hall
In 1836 the "Chester Guide" recorded:
- "The state of the markets was until very lately highly discreditable to the City of Chester. The meat market consisited of a collection of covered wooden stalls crowded together on the north of the Exchange and universally kept in a very filthy condition; and a similar nuisance on the south side of the Exchange served for a fish market, whilst vegetables, fruits and flowers were scattered in complete confusion throughout the piazza and along the front of the building. The dealers in poultry and butter displayed their commodities in Eastgate Street, occasionally shifting from the street to the rows according to the state of the weather, very much to the invonvenience of the inhabitants and passengers. But the frequent complaints of citizens have induced the corporation to accomodate the city with markets befitting this wealthy and antient town- the erection of the new markets was commenced in 1826... the fish and vegetable market is in the south side, that for butter on the east and the meat and poultry on the north. It is also intended to erect a market for potatoes nearer to the Northgate. The new markets are built of brick and roofed in and lighted from the top, and open on all sides. When finished, they will no doubt prove an ornament to the city."
Hughes (writing in 1858) is less than impressed by the Market Square of his day:
- ..we are once more in Northgate Street and may stay to give "one withering glance" at those melancholy looking buildings either side: the Fowl, Butter and Butchers Markets of the city. Hideous as specimens of architectural taste, destitute of convenience or comfort in use, furthermore heavy and cheerless to look upon these Markets have of themselves nothing to rivet the attention of the sightseer.
In 1863, a new Market Hall was built, and the "Town Hall side" of the market square used to be dominated by the baroque-revival frontage of Chester's "traditional" Market Hall. From the 1860s, ever-larger sums were borrowed for capital works. The biggest items were £11,000 in 1863 for the Market Hall, £35,000 in 1867 and 1870 for a new Town Hall after the Exchange was destroyed by fire (the balance of the cost coming from insurance), and £50,000 over the period 1873-9 for sewerage works. Even the smaller amounts spent on buying up property for extending the markets were large by earlier standards, so that by the time of the 1884 Improvement Act the council had raised a little over £120,000 in loans. Of £101,000 outstanding in 1878-9, the main source was public works loans, accounting for 46 per cent; private individuals had advanced 30 per cent, the governors of the Chester infirmary 11 per cent, and the trustees of the Owen Jones charity 10 per cent.
Chester's baroque Victorian market was replaced in 1967 by what was possibly one of the ugliest buildings ever errected in the City. The "Cheshire Sheaf" recorded:
- "The Chester Market Hall closed its doors to the public for the last time on Saturday, the 17th June, 1967, after serving generations of shoppers from a wide area for more than a century. With its architecturally heavy stone facade it was, and it looked like, a solid Victorian market place, typical of so many built throughout Britain in the nineteenth century. Affection for it was warm and widespread, and nostalgia for the friendly old haunt will remain with many Cestrians long after new shopping habits have been formed in its swagger modern successor."
The 1967 "Forum", designed by Michael Lyall Associates, comprised shops on the ground floor and council offices above. It was a clear example of 1960's "Brutalist" architecture. There was apparently an award winning alternative design which was not built due to its high cost. Somewhat ironically, construction of the Forum (which owes nothing to Roman architecture) involved the destruction of the Roman "Eliptical Building" a structure of a type which occurs nowhere else in the Roman Empire, and the location for many years of the council planning office above the site of these unique Roman remains. The development angered a lot of people, who felt the new building was not in keeping with the look of the city, but the centre has remained ever since - although part of it was demolished in 1995 to "update" it.
Chester Northgate Project
The regeneration of the Northgate shopping area was originally to be handled by ING Real Estate Developers. The firm struck a deal with the former Chester City Council in 2000, but plans were put on hold for financial reasons. In 2012 councillors voted to end the agreement and work on the project themselves. The Northgate project was once described by planners as the most ambitious redevelopment in Chester city centre for decades. Work planned for the area included building a new House of Fraser store, market hall and 60 shops between Town Hall Square and Northgate Street. However House of Fraser pulled out in 2018.