There is evidence of Iron Age activity in Handbridge but the first known settlement was built by the Romans around 74 AD, shortly after the fortress of Deva. Handbridge was built on a large sandstone outcrop and the site was used as a stone quarry until the end of the fourth century, excavating stone to build the City Walls and buildings of Roman Chester. From this era remains the carved Minerva Shrine (now in Edgar's Field).
The most curious series of archaeological finds in Handbridge come from the garden of a house once occupied by Robert Newstead of the Grosvenor Museum from 1909 until his death in 1946. For many years it was believed that these finds (which included many unusual items) came from elsewhere in Chester and had been deposited on the site by Newstead. However, it was eventually concluded that Handbridge did have its own extensive archaeology including human remains, imported pottery from a range of periods, metalwork and glass jewelry. Despite this, some finds can definitely be associated with Newstead, as they are marked in his handwritng!
The Archibalds (see links below) put forward the hypothesis that the "high staus" remains at Handbridge posssibly indicate the presence of an ecclesiastical settlement, possibly even based around a basilican church with mosaic floors, painted plaster and glass windows. The early seventeenth century historian of Chester, William Webb, referring to ruins in Handbridge, drops a hint that there was a substantial settlement: "some suppose it was once the city itself". Many theroies might arise from this - for example that Handbridge was where the church possibly associated with a synod in c.600 was located and that this church was somehow involved in the Battle of Chester c.616 but there is, at present, little or no hard evidence to support any of these theories.
The late or immediate post-Roman remains strongly indicate the presence of glass-working on the site, which appears to have included the manufacture of beads. Other evidence suggests that pewter working on the site was maintained for many hundreds of years. Iron smelting appears to have been practised close by during this phase, since the construction of the time employed substantial quantities of iron slag. Nails have also been found. It is known that there was a substantial Roman settlement at Heronbridge and the situation at Handbridge may have been somewhat similar to that along the Roman road to Boughton with a combination of characteristic Roman roadside graves and an industrial and civillian settlement outside of the legionary fortress.
Professor Newstead of the Grosvenor Museum investigated his own garden in Handbridge providing what was considered as evidence of Roman occupation. While Newstead was not an archaeologist by training, but a widely-read biologist, it seems odd that later researchers considered that he would have such poor judgement that he would contaminate a known site with discarded materials from elsewhere. Of course, the fact that the Romans were active in Handbridge is evident from the quarrying associated with the Minerva Shrine and the presence of a Roman road. As is often the case, Roman cremation burials have been found on either side of the road. Edgar's Field is the find-site of a terracotta figurine of Cautopates, one of the legendary assistants of Mithras. When the foundations of St Mary's Church were being prepared in 1885, Roman glass and pottery fragments were found in a context which suggests industrial activity ratherr than burials. There was also some more substantial material including a pila from a hypocaust, suggesting a property occupied by someone of reasonable means. Many Roman coins have been discovered in the area. Roman "rubble" deposits at the site of the "Newstead" excavation can be difficult to interpret give the potential for disturbance of the site by later building operations. Some of the material may also have been brought from elsewhere and used as filling material for walls or leveling material for the ground.
There is some slight evidence that the Vikings (in the form of Hiberno-Norse migrants) settled in Handbridge, based on names with a possible Norse origin. Edgar's Field was at one time "Ketill's Croft" and also in Handbridge is "Grymesdichw Haye" - Grimr's ditch. Handbridge traditionally measured land in Carucates named for the "carruca" heavy plough that began to appear in England in the 9th century, introduced by the Vikings. Elsewhere in Chester land was measured in more standard Anglo-Saxon "hides". The Domesday Survey records the three ancient manors of Overleigh, Netherleigh and Royal Handbridge, but records land in Carucates.
It is possible that "Devil's Ditch" in Handbridge is what is commonly referred to as a "linear earthwork", but very little is known about it other than it being marked on early OS maps. Elsewhere it Britain there are other "Devil's Ditches" and "Devil's Dykes". In many cases Devil’s Dyke or Ditch is a post-medieval name: as so often, a supernatural provenance is ascribed to a monument, landform or structure whose original purpose is lost in the past. Thus the ditch could be a drain, a defensive earthwork from the time of the Viking/Hiberno-Norse occupation of Handbridge or even some remnant of Civil War defences.
According to a popular legend the site was regularly pillaged by the Welsh of what is now the neighbouring county of Flintshire, who frequently burnt down the suburb, leading to the Welsh name for Handbridge, Treboeth, meaning "burnt town" or "hot town". Its English name appears to be derived from the Old English for bridge (bruge) at a rock (hane). Given that many of the industries associated with the locale seem to have involved fire (pottery kilns, smithing, iron-making, glass-making) it is possible that not all the fire, ashes and smoke of the "hot town" was due to Welsh invaders. Indeed, "Treboeth" in Swansea appears to be named for the local copper-smelting industry. Fragments of pottery from various periods seem to suggest that there was a considerable foreign trade in some way associated with Handbridge.
Old maps also contribute to the general puzzle of Handbridge. The Braun and Hogenberg map of 1581 has some kind of structure shown in Edgar's Field which merits a label as "ruin of the house of the count of Chester". Interesting that this is the only feature, apart from some street names, which merits an actual label on the map, possibly indicating that it was a well-known location and considered of some importance. Edgar's field is also the traditional location for the start of Edgar the Pacific's famous cruise on the River Dee, and said by some to be the location of Edgar's "palace". It could be that ruins located here might have been interpreted in different ways by different authors.
Handbridge played a part in the Civil War. It was burnt down by Easter of 1645, but also appears to have been burnt in November 1643 as a defensive measure and this, rather than the Welsh, may also be a reason for the name of "Treboeth". A defensive fortification was built near the south end of the Old Dee Bridge and was commanded late in the siege by a Lieutenant-Colonel John Robinson (at times the governor of Holt Castle. It's exact location is not known.
Sir Thomas Smith and his son claimed that he had an estate in Handbridge and Claverton worth £100p.a. "before the troubles". The papers state:
- "...his houses in Chester for which he had compounded, many of them were either pulled down or burnt, and were yielding no rents nor would they until they were repaired –he considered his rents were lowered by these damages £35 a year."
In 1650, church surveys showed that 65% of sites in Handbridge were vacant spaces, evidence of severe damage that had not yet been rectified.
Before the Victorian era the suburb itself was considered a poor area, with one contemporary commentator, Joseph Hemingway, describing the area as:
- "almost exclusively inhabited by the lower orders"
Handbridge was once proposed as a canal terminus. The Llangollen canal was intended to link the River Mersey at Netherpool (now known as Ellesmere Port) with the River Severn at Shrewsbury. Various routes were proposed including one which linked Chester and Llangollen via a range of possible courses which gave an outlet for the industrial concerns of Wrexham.
The population were primarily industrial workers who worked in the many factories that surrounded Chester, including the Dee Mills, and in the neighbouring area of Saltney. Cobbled Greenway Street is the traditional home of Chester's fishing community. Once known as Sty or Stile Lane, its current name is maybe after Joseph Greenway who rented the salmon cage (a piece of equipment for catching salmon) in the 1840s. The river below the weir was an important fishery up to the 20th century. At one time the riverside here would have had fishing nets hung out to dry.
The development of Queen's Park changed the nature of Handbridge. The Suspension Bridge was originally built in 1852 at the instigation of Enoch Gerrard, Esq., the "projector and proprietor" of Queen's Park, the developing suburb south of the River Dee. The imposing red sandstone tower and spire in Handbridge belong to Chester's St Mary-Without-the-Walls. This church was built in 1887 at the expense of the 1st Duke of Westminster. When opened it replaced St Mary on the Hill as the parish church.
In Handbridge village the predominant form is one of typical simple Georgian or Victorian terraces: brick, two storey, traditionally pitched slate roofs. This is enlivened by landmark buildings (especially those listed) such as the Mill Street vernacular-revival style shops which are a rare example of the black-and white style in this area. Where new development appears, this is usually in a pastiche Georgian style. Eaton Road provides an interesting sampler of several distinct architectural eras and styles. The series of large three-storey semi-detached houses and townhouses on the western side provide well detailed and consistent groups (in turn, travelling southward) of Arts & Crafts, Early Victorian neo-Georgian and Italianate styles, all well detailed and with good consistency between buildings. This road also includes Victorian two-storey cottages on the eastern side (Grade II listed) and South View: a good Italianate two-storey terrace positioned as a mews off the street at its northern end.
The work of several important Chester architects is represented in Handbridge. The Rectory, hall and buildings at St Mary's Church are by Grayson and Ould, probably at expense of the Duke of Westminster. St Mary itself (1885-7) is by F. B. Wade again at the expense of the first Duke of Westminster. The porch was added by P. H. Lockwood in 1914. The sexton's collage is from 1887 and by John Douglas. Opposite the church the Working Men's Institute, later a youth club, dates from 1895 and is by T. M. Lockwood.
1-19 Handbridge (also known as 2-8 Mill Street and 1, Queens Park) is a range of 12 shops by Greenwood, the "city engineer" dating from c.1925. It is an example of the late Vernacular Revival style which is characteristic of the "Mock Tudor" fashion at the time
- Edgar's Field;
- Minerva Shrine;
- Old Dee Bridge;
- Dee Mills;
- Industrial Revolution;
- Queen's Park;
- Civil War;
- Suspension Bridge;
Sources and Links
- Handbridge on Wikipedia;
- Chester Churches in Handbridge;
- Handbridge Life: Local website;
- POINTERS TOWARDS THE STRUCTURE OF AGRICULTURE IN HANDBRIDGE AND CLAVERTON PRIOR TO PARLIAMENTARY ENCLOSURE
- Treboeth - the burnt town: archaeology in Handbridge;