Commonhall Street

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"Commonhall Lane" as shown on the Lavaux Map of 1745.

Roman Commonhall Street

The granaries of Roman Chester were located near the Roman harbour gate, suggesting that the bulk of the grain arrived by river. Nowadays this is a site found between Watergate Street and Commonhall Street, bounded to the west by Weaver Street and to the east by Old Hall Place (this includes what was once the site of the offices of the Chester Chronicle). Bulk shipments of food, especially grain, had to be shipped by water wherever possible, given that the cost of overland transport, (at least according to the transport tariffs cited in Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices) would quickly become unsustainable for such large quantities of cargo. The payload capacity of most Roman freighter-ships of the period was in the range of 10,000–20,000 modii (70–140 tons). Excavations in 1954-56 and 1988 show that the three granaries were built of stone, with 3ft thick walls, and each had a ground area of about 50m by 15m, comprising a typical pattern with a series of close-set longitudinal sleeper-walls possibly supporting a stone-slab floor away from damp.

The wall of the Commonhall partly survives in the base of this warehouse wall. It is possible that this stonework was robbed out from the granaries of Roman Chester which stood nearby.

The Commonhall

The first common hall was probably built shortly before 1250, the last year in which the guild merchant met in the selds. It certainly existed by 1337, when it lay behind the selds, west of Bridge Street and just south of Moothall or Commonhall Lane, itself in existence as a thoroughfare by the 1290s. Later a second means of access from Bridge Street was provided a little further south by Pierpoint Lane, which may have become the main approach.

Almost certainly the common hall was built as a meeting place for the guild merchant under the presidency of the mayor. Later, perhaps only after 1300 when the mayor became chief judicial officer, it seems also to have housed the principal civic court, the portmote, and to have become known as the moot hall. In 1394 the assize of wine and in the mid 15th century full sessions of the portmote and mayoral inquests were held there. It also became the location of civic assemblies: in 1398, for example, the city treasurers presented their accounts there, and by 1506, and probably long before, it was where civic elections were held. It was later remembered as the setting for 'the pleas of the city, and the courts thereof, and meetings of the mayor and his brethren'. Described as the 'common hall of pleas' in the early 16th century, it was then a modest two-storeyed building, of which the principal chamber on the upper floor was c. 24 ft. long and 18 ft. wide.

Detailing on the bollards in the narrow passage between Commonhall Street and upper Bridge Street.

A common hall continued in use on the site until c. 1510, when the building was converted into a chapel for the newly founded fraternity and hospital of St. Ursula. The hospital was founded under a licence granted in 1510 to the executors of Roger Smith (will proved 1508), with six almshouses and the chapel. It may already have lapsed before its formal dissolution in 1547, when the chapel reverted to the corporation and was sold to the mayor-elect. Failing nomination by the mayor, the almspeople were to be appointed by the prioress of St. Mary's nunnery. The endowment provided £8 a year as stipends. The hospital survived the dissolution of the chantries in 1547 as almshouses. These almshouses continued until the 1870s

By 1592 the common hall had become the meeting house of the Smiths and Cutlers' company, in whose possession it remained until 1778. It served as a nonconformist chapel from 1768, was converted into a dwelling house in 1806, and was demolished in 1874.

Writing in the 1830's, Hemingway listed the area around Commonhall Street with his usual snobbishness:

  • "the environs of Frodsham Street, Love Street, Steam Mill Street, Watergate Street, Northgate Street, Commonhall Street, Cuppin Street, Pepper Street, and Lower Bridge Street were all of inferior grade"

The School

The Commonhall as illustrated in JAAHS. This accurate in that it agrees with the Lavaux Map and shows the correct detail of buildings on Bridge Street in the distance - with the projecting portion of "The Grotto" pub. However it does not agree with the theory that the base of the warehouse wall is a relic of the commonhall.

The majority of members of Chester city council opposed the formation of a school board under the 1870 Education Act, chiefly on grounds of expense. The chief proponents of a school board were the nonconformists, led by the (Unitarian) Revd. J. K. Montgomery, secretary of the British Schools Association, who considered that non-denominational schools should be provided from the rates for 'the poorest class of children belonging to all denominations, and those unconnected with any'. The managers of several Anglican schools offered to extend their premises without calling on the rates, but money was still needed to accommodate more infants at the Victoria Road British school and in a proposed new British school to be held in the former chapel in Commonhall Street. By 1874 the voluntary rate had produced only £1,018, most of which was distributed to the British schools. That to some extent satisfied nonconformist opinion, but the Commonhall Street school, which opened in 1875, was forced to close in 1876 through lack of funds.

Other Religious Groups

Despite being a cathedral city and a magnet for the region's Anglican establishment, Chester was fertile ground for religious nonconformity from the later 18th century. The growing strength of dissenters was not much due to continuity with earlier traditions. Old Dissent had largely withered away by 1750, leaving only small groups of Baptists and Quakers besides the larger Matthew Henry congregation. The last was riven by doctrinal factionalism and in the 1760s. When the Presbyterians split from the Unitarians after Matthew Henry's departure one of the two parts met in the former common hall while the Unitarians met in the chapel in the perhaps unfortunately-named Trinity Street.

In 1776 a room for public services by Methodists was opened in Commonhall Street for those who found the Octagon Chapel too far away. George Walker, the first Steward of the St John Street Chapel, wrote of:

  • “the engagement of a large room in Commonhall Lane, formerly used as a chapel by the Anabaptists, in which Sunday preaching was had at 2 o’clock to a congregation of about two hundred hearers who completely filled the place. In addition to which service, several of the Classes were set there, and preaching was also had there on Wednesday evenings at seven o’clock.”

There was some dissension between the Commonhall Street congregation and the Octagon, and in 1793 the District Meeting forbade Methodist local preachers to preach in Commonhall Street. In 1794 the Commonhall Street congregation separated themselves more decisively from the Octagon, by building their own chapel in Trinity Street.

There was a Mount Zion chapel in Commonhall Street, which in 1842 severed its links with the Calvinistic Methodists and adopted the principles of Congregationalism. There was a Commonhall Street Independent church in 1772 (which later moved to Queen Street).

The Salvation Army opened a barracks in Commonhall Street in 1889, but in 1896 was temporarily based at the Union Hall in Foregate Street. It returned to Commonhall Street in 1899. First Spiritualist Church registered the former Salvation Army barracks in Commonhall Street for services in 1908, putting up a new church in the same street in 1956. It was still there in 2018.

The other Leadworks

As well as the better-known Walker's leadworks, there was a further leadworks owned by John Mellor in Commonhall Lane as it then was. Perhaps the shot-tower in Commonhall Street can be seen in the background of the engraving of the summer-house, located in the region of Bollands Court off Whitefriars, where Matthew Henry (see Trinity Street) is said to have studied.

The north side of Commonhall Street (2018). It is being slowly upgraded from a somewhat distressed "backland" to an "artisan quarter". The houses by the last car on the left are by Lockwood and the narrow passage to Bridge Street is on the extreme right.

Buildings

A pair of cottages by Lockwood in Commonhall Street.

Numbers 26 and 28

A pair of cottages, 1889, by T. M. Lockwood, for staff of Browns of Chester department store, probably at the expense of Charles Brown. Flemish bond brown brick with moulded hard red brick dressings; red clay tile roof. 2 storeys. Plinth and moulded upper storey band. Each cottage has a framed and boarded door, part glazed, and a mullioned casement of 3 arched metal 3-pane lights in the lower storey; the door of No.26 is angled, at the corner with Old Hall Place, the upper storey providing a triangular canopy on timber brackets; the upper storey of each cottage has a timber oriel of three 8-pane lights under a timber-framed dormer gable; a shaped brick central ridge chimney. The gable-end of No.26 to Old Hall Place has a mullioned window of two 3-pane metal lights to each storey.

Warehouse (free standing)

Late C19 warehouse, with some probably late medieval walling said to be a remnant of the former City Common Hall. Probably the best example of a detached city-centre warehouse in Chester. The listing for this building states that this item is of special interest for the remains of the Common Hall which are said to form the base of one wall.

Sandstone, brown brick; grey slate roof. Ridge running north-south. 4 storeys, 5 windows. The west plinth, or adjoining wall against the warehouse, is approx 1.25m high and projects approx 0.40m, of coursed red sandstone, extending north in poorer condition as the flush plinth of the yard wall. It appears to be the only remaining part of the former Common Hall. The rest of the warehouse is in irregular bond brick. The west side originally had 2 loading openings, one with framed and boarded double doors, a framed and boarded pedestrian door and a window. The north and south ends have altered openings, the latter originally having a C20 external steel fire escape, now removed. The west side has blank first and second storeys and altered windows to the third and fourth storeys. Original openings have segmental arches of 2 header courses, except the fourth storey which has timber lintels.

One issue with the "Commonhall Theory" is that the Lavaux Map shows the Commonhall as standing directly on Commonhall Street and having a different alignment to that of the wall. Also, an illustration of the building which was reproduced in the Chester Journal of the Architectural, Archaeological and Historical Society also shows the building (as alms houses) standing somewhat further to the north than the remaining wall and extending east-west along Commonhall Street.

Sources and links