Industrial Revolution

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Traditional Industry in Chester

Early evidence for "industry" in Chester points to leather (see: Tanning), lead (see: Leadworks) and linen as significant commodities traded here. Remains from Roman Chester include lead ingots, one being inscribed IMP•VESP•AVGV•T•IMP•III (the word DECEANGI appears on the side, pointing to a source in North Wales) which means it can be dated to AD74.

During the 13th and 14th century, Chester was the largest and busiest port in the north-west, trading with ports throughout the British Isles and Europe. Chester claimed that it "lived by trade". The economy of the medieval town was indeed based on Chester's position as a port, but it was also a market with an extensive hinterland, a place of craft manufacture, and a centre for servicing the needs of the abbey, several other religious houses, and the palatine administration and garrison at Chester Castle. Much corn was also grown in the neighbourhood until the concentration on dairying in the later 19th century, and the Dee corn mills, powered by penning up the river at the causeway above the Old Dee Bridge, were large and profitable. They acquired national renown through the opening words of Isaac Bickerstaffe's comic song, Miller of Dee, written for a traditional tune in 1762: There was a jolly miller once, lived on the river Dee.

Chester Castle. Hemingway (1831) describes this as a "portion of the walls may be taken as the least pleasant, or rather as the most disagreeable in the whole circuit, not only because of the narrowness and darkness of walking path, but on account of the offensive stench arising from some pyroligneous acid works betwixt the river and the workshops of skinners; who from immemorial have carried on their trade on this spot." The factory was closed shortly afterwards and replaced by an extension of the jail.

In medieval Chester the main industry was leather. There were skinners, tanners, glovers, shoemakers and saddlers in profusion. Local landmarks include "Shoemakers Row" and the "Gloverstone". As well as leather from dairy farming pelts and skins were imported on a huge scale. Both tanned and raw hides were sent from Ireland to Chester, together with tallow used in waterproofing, but skins were considerably more numerous. In 1525-6, for example, Chester received some 2,200 hides, over 13,000 lambskins, 10,200 sheepskins, 2,300 badger pelts, 1,100 calfskins, 640 marten and otter skins, 300 fox skins, 90 goatskins, and 50 hart skins. Alum and oil, used by Glovers and Tawyers to prepare light leathers, also came from Ireland. Prices for skins in the luxury market rose fast between 1500 and 1550, marten tripling in price and otter quadrupling, and Irish skins were sold in London after preparation in Chester. In 1536 Chester was brought into the national customs system for leather and in 1537-8 customs duties were paid on 10,681 tanned hides in five Spanish and five Chester ships. Figures for later years ranged from 700 to 1,600 hides, with Spanish merchants exporting the larger share. The privileges of the various trades and their asssociated guilds were jealously guarded (see: "Charters") - in 1433, the Mayor and Sheriffs of Chester were ordered to find and punish all ‘foreigners’ who used the trade of skinner and shoemaker within the liberties of Chester.

As usual (see: Charters) Chester did everything to hang onto its monopolies even outside of the City. During the reign of Elizabeth central government treated Liverpool as part of a large customs district which included the ports of North Wales, and had its centre at Chester. Orders of various sorts were frequently transmitted to the Mayor of Liverpool through the Mayor of Chester. At times Liverpool and Chester were treated as a single port, or Liverpool was actually catalogued with Chester and 'Ilbrye' as one of the ports of Cheshire. This supported a claim on the part of Chester to superiority over Liverpool as the Mayor of Chester was viceadmiral of Lancashire and Cheshire and Chester claimed (in 1565) that Liverpool was only "a creek within its port" such that all ships entering the Mersey should pay dues through Chester.

In the 18th century, Chester traded in raw hide with the Americas and even sent slave ships to Africa. Grain and wine were also major imports. Until the start of the 14th Century, the ancient city walls provided adequate defence to the port (the navigable River used to extend as far as Watergate). Silting of the River Dee had become a serious problem, leading to a loss of maritime trade to rival ports such as Liverpool. In response, the River Dee Company was formed and the Old Port area was developed as a new port for the City. A cut was formed which allowed easier navigation and led to the construction of Crane Wharf. Improvements to the river Weaver after 1730 served to channel trade from central Cheshire away from Chester to the Mersey, and the Trent and Mersey Canal Act of 1766 threatened to strengthen still further the dominance of Liverpool over the Dee. By the late 18th Century the port further waned, and focus shifted to linking it with the canal network, resulting in the construction of the Dee basin and Tower Wharf. Chester Canal became known as "England's first unsuccessful canal", after its failure to bring heavy industry to Chester.

2009 saw the closure of "Shuttleworths" in Bridge Street.

Other niche industries included clay-pipes, clocks and gloves.

A gloved wooden hand still hangs in Eastgate Street, largely ignored by the passing crowds
  • Chester was the centre for a once flourishing clay tobacco-pipe industry. The earliest clay tobacco-pipe kiln ever found in Britain has been discovered in Chester. Clay pipes were used to smoke tobacco until cigarettes became fashionable during WW1. The site of the Roman Gardens was previously occupied by a clay tobacco-pipe factory which was in production from at least 1781 until 1917. The foundations of a brick building have been found alongside the City Walls which runs to the east of the Gardens. Chester's pipes were exported in great quantities. Pipe-makers often stamped their names or initials on the pipes. Clay tobacco-pipe fragments have been found with the marks of three pipe-makers known to have worked from the Gardens site: Joseph Fitzgerald (c 1814-1840), John Jones (c 1818-1869) and William Boynton (1871-1917).
  • Clocks were produced in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century, by a group of skilled clockmakers who settled in the Gloverstone area. (see: [1] for further sources.). See also "The Gloverstone Clockmakers of Chester" by Steve and Darlah Thomas.
  • From 1463 to 1826, there was almost a complete exclusion of imported gloves in England (opulent and elegant continental gloves offered rich profits to smugglers). Perth, Dundee, Yeovil, Woodstock, Worcester, Limerick and Chester became famous for "gloving" during the Middle Ages. In Chester evidence of tanning pits dating back to Saxon times and in the middle ages large numbers of peaople were involved in the manufacture of leather and leather goods. The light leather trade was based around Lower Bridge Street, although "Glover's Row" (1426) was located on the south side of Eastgate Street, close to the junction with Upper Bridge Street, and was later the site of the "Crown and Glove" (the sign survives).

Sources and Links

The Irish Linen Trade

Chester's fairs retained their wholesaling functions much longer than other fairs in Cheshire market towns (such as at Macclesfield and Stockport). The February fair in Chester was a normal livestock fair, while the Midsummer and Michaelmas fairs bot lasted about two weeks. In October, hops came from Worcestershire, Kent and Sussex for sale in hop warehouses off Foregate Street behind the Blossoms and Hop-Pole Inns. Trade was in "Manufactures" rather thsn simply in agricultural products. For example after 1718 Abraham Darby's company dealt in iron pots and kettles. The opening of the Union Hall (1809) and the Commercial Hall (1815) by Lunt marks a shift from dealing at fairs held in the streets to shops. But by the early 1800's there was already a shift from shopkeepers flocking to Chester to stock-up. Instead, "commercial travellers" would go round taking orders and retailers would deal increasingly with manufacturers.

By far the greatest share of trade at the fairs came to be linen. The linen trade had developed through Chester in the late 17thCentury. By 1700 it reached 61,400 yards of imports (about 40 miles) and by the 1780's the trade reached its maximum of some five and a half million yards (over 3,000 miles) was imported. Much of this was due to the sea-routes between Dublin and Chester being dangerous due to piracy in the war years 1778-83. The first Linenhall had opened off Northgate Street in the 1740's, and a second, much larger Linenhall opened in 1778. However trade fell off equally quickly as English merchants becan to deal directly with the Irish, the Belfast-Liverpool route grew in importance over the Dublin-Chester route, cotton became cheaper and the River Dee continued to silt. By the 1830's the Linen trade was all but dead and even at it's peak the trade could not have done more than enrich a few rather rather than provide any lasting industry.

Chester and the Industrial Revolution

Broader Context

The "Industrial Revolution" was the emergence of improved manufacturing processes during the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. Developments included, among others:

  • the canal network: (see: Canal and Boatyard) which allowed raw-materials and finished goods to be moved to and from specialised manufacturing locations;
  • hand production methods being replaced by the increased use of machines, including the development of machine tools. Mechanised cotton spinning powered by steam or water increased the output of a worker by a factor of about 1000. The power loom increased the output of a worker by a factor of over 40. The cotton gin increased productivity of removing seed from cotton by a factor of 50. Gains in productivity also occurred in spinning and weaving of the Chester "staples" wool and linen, but they were not as great as in cotton.
  • new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes;
  • improved efficiency of water power;
  • the increasing use of steam power: following it's introduction the efficiency of steam engines increased so that they used between one-fifth and one-tenth as much fuel. Steam allowed the development and expansion of railways (see: Chester Station), leading to a Railway "Mania" humourously recollected in the "Hunting of the Snark" (..They threatened its life with a railway share..);
  • the change from wood and other (mostly renewable) bio-fuels to coal: for a given amount of heat, coal required much less labour to mine than cutting wood, and coal was more abundant than wood.
  • Urbanisation, as workers moved from agriculture to better-paid factory work.

Cast Iron

Cast iron was a known form of iron at the time of the Industrial Revolution and had previously been used to make weaponry, such as cannon and cannon-balls as well as other heat-resistant articles. Cast iron was traditionally prepared using a mixture of charcoal, iron ore and limestone. The heat supplied by the charcoal reduces the ore to the metal and the impurities are removed by the limestone to form a "slag". With the growth of the Royal Navy from Henry VIII onwards, more cast iron was needed than could be supplied using traditional sources of charcoal (the Sussex Weald and Forest of Dean), and the problem was made worse by the consumption of suitable (slow-growing) hardwood in building and the construction of Naval vessels - the Industrial Revolution and the Royal Navy cost Britain much of its natural woodland. Today, with just under 12% of land under woodland cover, the UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe.

Coke, made from coal, was the only available solution. Only some forms of coke were suitable: it must support the burden of the furnace charge without crumbling and at Coakbrookdale, Abraham Darby found a suitable source of coke (Shropshire 'clod coal' - as well as local iron-ore and limestone) and built his original furnace in 1707. Darby was granted a patent by Queen Anne for the novel process of casting iron using sand, as opposed to loam or clay (the actual inventor, a welshman named John Thomas, is largely unremembered but appears to have been well-rewarded by Darby). The introduction of the patent (380) reads as follows:


Darby used his iron for the production of pots ("Dutch Ovens" - at the time supplied from the Netherlands), pans, firebacks and other hardware for hearths. The first commercial steam-engines became available around 1712, and by 1781 James Watt patented a steam engine that produced continuous rotative motion using a cast iron cylinder. The stationary steam engine was a key component of the Industrial Revolution, allowing factories to locate where water power was unavailable, while the level of power available from the self-propelled steam engine facillitated the development of the railways.

In Chester

The Dee Mills in in the mid 19thC. The Bridgegate can be seen in the background.

By 1700 Chester was on the verge of losing its dominance as a regional economic hub, as nearby towns, especially the industrial and mill towns in south Lancashire and around Telford began to specialize in trade or manufacturing. The reopening of the River Dee in 1737 did not halt Chester's decline as a port. In 1701 Chester shipowners had 25 vessels, and in the early 1710s the total tonnage, no more than 3,400, was less than half that owned at Liverpool where the worlds first enclosed commercial dock was built 1709-1715. By the 1730s it had fallen to around 1,650 tons (a tenth of Liverpool's total) and in the late 1750s Chester's 1,000-1,400 tons was scarcely a twentieth of Liverpool's fleet. Efforts were made to improve the Dee by dredging a "new cut" in the estuary and cutting the canal, but the decline of traditional industry and trade continued.

In the late 18th and early 19th century Chester was not a propitious place in which to establish new industries. It was not on a coalfield, and water power was restricted to the weir on the Dee, which was affected by the tide. The hinterland was mainly rural and was poorly served by transport. There seems also to have been a lack of enterprise on the part of Cestrians, and the residual power of the city guilds may have restrained development. It was observed in 1814 that:

  • "corporate privileges are not often calculated to foster commerce, and in this city, although we mark the infancy of several manufactures, few arrive at maturity" (Wardle and Bentham's Commercial Guide, 1814).

The influence of the guilds did not ebb as quickly as in other towns, due mainly to their subvention by the Owen Jones charity. Their final decay came about in part because of restrictions on membership imposed in order to maximize existing members' benefits from the charity, but their authority was destroyed finally in 1825 when an unsuccessful case was brought against a tanner for trading when not a freeman.

A map showing Chester in 1825. Apart from the Leadworks and the area around the canal and boatyard there is comparatuvely little industial development

A Leadworks was established by the canal in 1799; its shot tower, which was used for making lead shot for the Napoleonic Wars, is the oldest remaining shot tower in the UK. However, at the end of the 18th century, industrialisation of the Lancashire and Manchester mill towns saw Cheshire farms abandoned as workers sought a better living in the industrial towns. These lands were absorbed into bigger estates culminating in 98% of Cheshire land belonging to only 26% of the population. Other developments moved the center of industry away from Chester itself. The completion of the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1777 and innovations such as the Anderton Boat Lift, allowed Cheshire cheese and salt to become major county exports - but not through Chester. The silk industry was developing in Macclesfield, triggered by Charles Roe building a watermill in Macclesfield in 1744. The railways came through Cheshire in the 1830s. The Grand Junction Railway designed by George Stephenson and Joseph Locke, opened for business on 4 July 1837, running for 82 miles (132 km) from Birmingham through Wolverhampton, Stafford, Crewe, Hartford and Warrington, then via the pre-existing Warrington and Newton Railway to join the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The GJR established its chief engineering works at Crewe, moving there from Edge Hill, in Liverpool. In 1874, industrialist John Brunner and chemist Ludwig Mond founded Brunner Mond in Winnington near Northwich and started manufacturing soda ash (to meet the burgeoning demand for alkali in the soap, textile, and glass industries) by the Solvay Process using Cheshire's salt deposits as a main raw material.

The area around Egerton Street (from the 1901 OS map) contained several iron and brass foundries as well as other engineering works.

By the 1830's traditional manufacturing trades, including the making of clay-pipes, clocks and gloves were in serious decline, if not entirely extinct. Ship-building was entering a terminal phase and rope-making barely survived. Both of the two cotton mills had closed by the 1820's, so one of the leading industries of the Industrial Revolution had failed to establish itself in Chester. While in the 18thC. the City Fair's had been dominated by linen (the trade peaked in the 1760's), by 1830 the trade was dead. The reasons for the collapse of the linen trade center around the decline in the Chester/Dublin trade route, as its ends moved from Dublin to Belfast and Chester to Liverpool, as well as the substitution of cheaper cotton for linen. In the impoverished economy, areas away from the glamour of Eastgate Street and upper Bridge Street became progressively more decayed. Stanley Palace became "a decayed mansion", while Gamul House was divided into tenements. The polarisation of rich and poor was noted at the time - Hemingway thought that there were few places in the country where the gentry formed such a high proportion of the population and he was pleased that the lack of factories meant the absence of "the crowda of the lowest rabble they engender". George Lee Fenwick commented:

  • "..for a long time [Chester] lay almost motionless upon the great tidal wave of progress which was sweeping past, but at length a movement became apparent, and even ancient Chester.. ..could no longer withstand the onward rush of events. The turning point dates from the accession of Queen Victoria." (A History of the Ancient City of Chester, 1896)
A map showing the railways around Chester in 1904

By 1840 Chester's older and wider trade connexions had withered and it had been forced into a diminished role servicing the local region. Modest new industries had appeared in the leadworks, steam milling, and ironfounding, but the heavy reliance on providing services for the hinterland implied a dependence on its fortunes and the need for improved transport connexions. From 1840 the railways provided the means by which that could be achieved.

The plans for a Chester and Holyhead Railway were prepared and canvassed between 1838 and 1842, almost scuppered in 1843, and eventually given Royal Assent on 4 July 1844. The route chosen was George Stephenson's proposal through Chester, despite the complications this entailed through "gaps" which needed to be bridged at the Menai Straight and Conwy estuary. The resident engineer in Chester was William Moorsom. The project had significant political overtones. Ireland was then an integral part of Britain but suffering greatly from crop blight and the exactions of absentee landlords. Moreover, there was little coal to support industry. A glance at the 1872 OS Map shows that Chester has barely outgrown its City Walls by this time, but that the railways had definitely arrived. Some have gone so far as to claim that Chester can be regarded as a "railway town", but one in which the railway diversified and strengthened a faltering local economy rather than creating a town from scratch, as at Crewe. There were 311 men, working on the railways in Chester in 1851 and the number had risen to 499 people by 1861 (including five women). That has been estimated at just over 5% of the male labour force. By 1861 the London and North Western and Great Western Railways were the two biggest employers in the city - 100 porters at Chester General station alone and at least 76 railway labourers in the city. The majority, both skilled and unskilled, seem to have come from an existing national pool of labour and had been born outside either Chester or Cheshire, but these (relatively poorly paid) migrant workers added new spending power to the Chester economy.

In Chester the number of male manufacturing workers remained almost static between 1871 and 1911, but there was a great change in the work they did. The proportion employed in the traditional and handicraft sector dropped from 61% to 43% with the most dramatic fall in shoemaking. The footwear trade became more concentrated in specialist towns like Stafford, Northampton, and Leicester, and mechanized factory production progressively eliminated traditional hand-work. Although Chester's population doubled between 1841 and 1911, its social character changed little. The city was polarized between a middle- and upper-class population whose income came from land, agriculture, trade, and, increasingly, inherited wealth, and a working class employed in declining manufactures or in unskilled and casual jobs in the service sector. The distinctive economic base meant that Chester lacked both a significant class of industrial capitalists and a sizeable skilled working class employed in modern industries. For some employers, recruitment beyond the city may have been a necessity, given the limited skills of the local workforce. Most of the skilled engineers at the Hydraulic Engineering Co. in 1881 had been recruited from firms outside Chester. Labourers, on the other hand, were predominantly local in origin.

Industry in Chester

Boots and Shoes

As the footwear trade became more concentrated in specialist towns like Stafford, Northampton, and Leicester, mechanized factory production progressively eliminated hand-work, so shoemaking as domestic outwork declined in Chester. Attempts were made to move to factory production there, notably by William Collinson and his various partners. He traded from premises in Watergate Street from the mid 1840s, and later opened a shop in Eastgate Street. Between 1864 and 1866 he also started a large new factory at the canal bridge on City Road, housing 'vast amounts of machinery' and employing 250 hands who turned out 2,000-3,000 pairs of boots a week. Collinson did not, however, stay in manufacturing. Around 1875 the factory was taken over by Alfred Bostock & Co., a Stafford shoe firm, but by 1892 Bostocks had left and the premises were occupied by a rope and twine manufacturer. Another member of the same Stafford family, Edwin Bostock, opened a small shoe factory in King Street in the 1860s, but it closed between 1902 and 1906. Factory production of footwear failed to establish itself in Chester, and by 1911 the number of shoemakers had dropped to a third of the 1871 level.

Milling and Snuff

The weir at Chester provided power for a range of industry, some of which later converted to use steam power.

The Tobacco Works, before it was demolished and replaced by the "ugly pink flats" on the Handbridge side of the weir.
The Dee Mills in 1867, looking downriver. The map also shows the Recorder's Steps and Edgar's Cave.
The Dee Mills

(Some more information on the Dee Mills)

Some surviving Roman millstones suggest that water-power mills possibly existed in Roman Chester. Otherwise, there is no evidence for milling until the late 11th century, but probably, given its position at the centre of a relatively extensive arable area and the presence of water power on the River Dee, the city had its own corn mills from an early date. The corn mills were located at the Chester end of the weir or causeway just west of the Old Dee Bridge, just outside the Bridgegate on the site of the former hydroelectric generating station. From the earliest times the corn mills were exceptionally valuable. In 1237 they were leased for the enormous sum of £100, half the earl's revenue from the entire city and over twenty times that for most other mills of the period.

The "fulling" mills were located in Handbridge at the eastern end of the causeway. Fulling (or tucking or walking - "waulking" in Scotland) is a step in woolen clothmaking which involves the cleansing of cloth to eliminate oils, dirt, and other impurities, and making it thicker. The worker who does the job is a "fuller", "tucker", or "walker" amd this leads to the synonymous names. The Welsh word for a fulling mill is "pandy", which appears in many place-names. Fulling involves two processes, scouring and milling. Originally, fulling was carried out by pounding the woolen cloth with the fuller's feet, or hands, or a club. From the medieval period, however, fulling was carried out in a water mill. There appear to have been mills on the site by the mid 12th century, since the tithes of a mill 'beyond the bridge' were bestowed on Chester abbey in a grant probably falsely attributed to Earl Richard of Avranches (1101–20) but more likely issuing from Ranulph De Gernon (1129–53).

Felt hatting became important in the city from about the middle of the 16th century, when hats first became a popular item of clothing. This may co-incide with one stage of the Medieval Cold Period. 135 feltmakers were admitted to the freedom of the city over the following century. By 1750 however, restrictive practices operated by the city guilds encouraged artisans to leave the city in search of greater freedom and profit elsewhere at a time when the industry was expanding (due in part to the invention of "carroting" - a process based on the use of mercury).

The Dee Mill, the Bridgegate and the Old Dee Bridge. The Dee Mill burnt down several times and was demolished (in 1910) after a final fire in 1895.

In 1725, two mills on the Handbridge side were sold to George Scott, a paper maker. Scott, who had been based at the site since c. 1705, was also lessee of the third mill, which had been sold to the waterworks company. By 1745 he was operating two paper mills and a mill for grinding various materials: the dye logwood, tobacco, and snuff. By 1757 one of the mills had been acquired by Edward Wrench to grind snuff, while the two in Scott's ownership ground snuff and logwood.

The Scott family's interest was acquired c. 1805 by Robert Topham, a skinner, and Joseph Evans, a needlemaker, and in 1828 Topham also bought the Wrenches' mill, together with the Dee fishery. By then Topham's property comprised snuff and tobacco mills, leased to a tobacco manufacturer, skinners' workshops, and some dwellings.

Evans's share of a mill, used to make needles until his bankruptcy in 1833, was sold in 1845 to Thomas Nicholls, a tobacco maker. The Nichollses continued to operate on the site throughout the later 19th century, and in 1895 bought the rest of the property from the Tophams. By 1911 the mills, which had passed to the duke of Westminster, were acquired by H. E. E. Peel and Sir Henry Robertson, owners of important fisheries on the Dee. The tobacco factory remained in operation until 1954, when it closed and the site was acquired by the city. The buildings were demolished in the mid 1960s and replaced by housing, but the mill leat survived and a waterwheel was restored by Chester Civic Trust in 1988–9.

The Dee Mills just before demolition.

The customs which had obtained in the corn mills (on the Bridgegate side) 'since beyond the memory of man' were carefully recorded in 1353–4, perhaps because of complaints in 1351, by the citizens, of new levies by the millers. All the inhabitants of the city had to grind their corn in the mills and surrender a sixteenth of the grain as toll. The abbot and monks of Chester, the abbot of Dieulacres (Staffs.), Sir Peter Thornton as heir of Peter the clerk, and two other named individuals were exempt from paying the toll. In 1588 alderman Edmund Gamull, later mayor, paid £600 in advance to renew the lease on the corm mills at the reduced rent of £100. In 1601 Gamul undertook to supply water and power to John Tyrer's new waterworks, in return for an agreement to deny water to any who infringed his milling monopoly. Shortly afterwards, in the same year, his mills were seriously damaged when the weir collapsed as recorded in a:

Chester's Water Supply over the years.
  • Copie of a Letter from Hugh Glaseour Mayor & the Aldermen of Chester to the Lords of the Privy Councill dated 29 December 1602 advertising that a Breach above 20 yards broad & 18 foot deep had been made in the middle of the Cawsey the last yeare by the Violence of the Waters whereby the going of Dee Milnes was stopped and all whose living depended on them in a fair way to be ruined And that Mr Edmund Gamull Fermor of the Corn Milles there had out of his own purse expended above £500 in repairing the said Cawsey but that it would require above £400 more to finish the same

In 1607 some of the citizens, abetted by neighbouring gentry, proposed to demolish the weir to improve the tidal scour of the river, thereby ruining the corn and fulling mills and the waterworks. Gamul was among those instrumental in ensuring that the Privy Council quashed the orders that a breach be made in the causeway. In 1632 Tyrer sold his interest in the waterworks to a consortium headed by Sir Randle Mainwaring, but a dispute with Francis Gamul led to Gamul's cutting off the water supply. In this instance the privy council decided against Gamul that he must allow the water supply to continue. Soon afterwards the supply was interrupted when the causeway was damaged and the water tower destroyed during the siege of Chester.

By the 1650s the millers' monopoly had been broken and their income was correspondingly reduced; in 1654, although the leaseholders paid £179 in rent, the profits were allegedly only £44. By then Gamul was dead and the mills were vested in his five coheiresses. The husband of one having purchased two other shares, the resulting three fifths, after passing to the Westons and the Shaws, were sold in 1743 to Edward Wrench, who acquired a fourth share in 1753 and bought out the reserved rent due to the Cottons in 1776. The mills burned down in 1789, but were rebuilt and extended soon afterwards by the Wrench family. They were advertised for sale in 1807, but evidently remained unsold, for in 1808 the Wrench family purchased the fifth and final share. After further destruction by fire in 1847, the corn mills were worked by Alderman William Johnson, who installed rolling machinery. In 1885 Johnson acquired a share in the mills from the Wrench family. In April 1895, the Dee Mills, were purchased by Chester Corporation, only to sustain serious damage a month later in the last of a long series of fires, after which they were closed. The buildings were used for storage until they were demolished in 1910. A (presently disused) Hydroelectric Plant was built on the site of the Corn Mills in 1913 with 3 turbines, which by 1948 were generating up to 40% of Chester’s power.

The Steam Mill
Frost's Steam Mill in 2014. The present building dates from the 1820's and has since been converted into offices. The earlier Mill was the site of the first operational Boulton and Watt rotative steam-engine in 1786.

The building prominently marked "Steam Mill" beside the Canal was built over the original mill, which was the first steam-driven commercial flour mill using Boulton and Watt’s rotative engine in 1786 and predates the often-quoted Albion Flour Mills in London by three months - while work at the Albion Mill had started earlier, the Chester engine was the first to be completed. The Albion Mill in London was later gutted by fire, but the shell of the building was the inspiration for William Blake‘s "dark satanic mills".

James Watt had started his work on steam engines in 1763 when he had repaired a model of a Newcomen Steam Engine at Glasgow University. By 1769 he had developed the separate condenser which made his engine far more efficient and cheaper than the Newcomen Engine. A Boulton and Watt engine had an efficiency 3-4 times that of a Newcomen Engine in terms of coal used, and a manufacturer who had one installed paid a licence fee based on the difference in coal consumed. Boulton was the son of Matthew Boulton senior a manufacturer of buckles and metal "toys" and Christiana Piers. One of four children of parents formerly of Chester (with its shoe-buckle industry).

The Steam Mill with the "Miln" Livery, probably about 1914. Note the canalside cottages to the left.

This Steam Mill was built for Samuel Walker, George Walker and Hugh Ley, Chester Corn and Flour Merchants, on a site that was formerly meadowland. Samuel Walker and his partners were prominent business-men in Chester and saw the opportunity of using new technology on a greenfield site alongside this then ten year old canal. Unfortunately, they did not make a profit and sold out to J A & J Frost in 1819, who built the present building along-side the canal in the 1820s. The Frost family came to Chester in 1818 and took over the Dee Mills, which were destroyed by fire in 1819 prompting a move to the steam mill. They developed the site and replaced the original steam engine in 1827. The Frost family continued to expand the use of the site until 1938 when it passed to the seed merchant David Miln. There is an on-going debate as to whether the two Samuel Walkers (Steam-Mill and Leadworks) were one and the same person. The Walkers who operated the Iron and Lead works were certainly a powerful family who had working relations with the Boulton and Watt Company, but at this time there is no direct evidence linking the Steam Mill with the Iron Works.

Further steam mills included the Milton Street (Cestrian) Mill, built in the 1850's - now the "Mill Hotel" and the Albion Mill in 1868/9. The water powered Dee Mills were further undermined by these newcomers, but plodded on for a few more years.

Seeds and Plants

In the 19th century Chester became a centre for market gardening, plant nurseries, and seed merchants. As early as 1837 Chester market gardens were supplying Liverpool, and the coming of the railways allowed some Chester firms to expand greatly. The trade increased in importance right up to 1914 and maintained its position until the 1930s. The city's location at the geographical centre of the British Isles, together with its good rail connexions and mild climate, made it an ideal place to serve the national market.

The deep blue areas on this map are the various nurseries around Chester.

The Dickson family, established in Chester by 1820, was pre-eminent in the trade. Cousins Francis R. Dickson and James Dickson came down from Perth by stage-coach in the early 1800s. The Dicksons were already (since 1728) well established as seed and nursery-men in Scotland, and may have originally come to Chester when Mr Potts of Hoole Hall ordered a vast number of trees for his estates in Wales. F. & A. Dickson operating at Upton nurseries and James Dickson & Sons at Newton. The two enterprises separated in 1853 and merged again in 1880s, when the grounds under cultivation extended to over 400 acres. It was one of the largest businesses of its type in the country. By the late 19th century the firm supplied all types of bedding plants and trees, together with farm and garden seeds, garden tools, and agricultural implements, and undertook commissions to design gardens for country houses. Dickson was an important supporter of William Billington and is listed as a subscriber in Billington's: "A Series of Facts, Hints, Observations, and Experiments on the different Modes of raising young Plantations of Oaks, &c". The main gates of the nursery were on Brook Lane with the drive (now Dicksons Drive) - a cobbled road heading north towards Upton with ornate gardens and features such as pools and an alpine rockery. The whole area is now a housing estate.

"Mr. Dickson" used to drive his trap to Chester Station every morning at 6 a.m., except Christmas Day and Sundays, to fetch the letters, of which there would be 800 - 1,000. In time the nurseries had their own special post bag and postman. At its height in the latter half of the 19thCent, the business employed many hundred - most of whom are believed to have lived in the Newton area. The Newton part of the nursery show grounds was very resplendent at its height - probably aligned with the strong national interest in horticulture and the plant exporers. The whole nursery area was reputedly never short of water with springs and brooks draining from the Upton Heath area. Dicksons appear to have managed these water sources with culverts taking them under the various lanes Many of the greenhouses (especially on the west side of the drive had their own wells. The "Guide to Chester" in 1892 has an extensive description of the work of Dicksons Ltd., at Chester and their branches in North Wales:

  • Dicksons, Limited, Nurserymen and Seedsmen to the Queen and to the Prince of Wales, Chester: Dicksons of Chester, are well known to all connected with floriculture, horticulture, and agriculture. They are by special appointment, nurserymen and seedsmen to H.M. the Queen and H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, and besides the extensive grounds, the largest in the county, at Chester, they have branches in Newtown, Montgomeryshire; Dolgelly, Merionethshire; and Pwllheli, Carnarvonshire ... Their extensive nurseries at Chester are situated within ten minutes walk of the Railway Station. It is one of the largest businesses of the kind to be found in the whole of the United Kingdom, the grounds under cultivation exceeding four hundred acres in extent.
An advert for Hunters from 1931.

The business appears to have got into financial difficulties in the early 20th century with them selling off ground - Newton Park on the 1908 OS survey - and attempts to sell land in Upton. By the 1920s much of their land readily accessible and suitable for housing development had been sold and the nurseries closed in 1933. Stanton House - to the west of Upton Park - the former home of the Dicksons - was derelict by the 1930s. Finally. the Chester shop closed in 1936.

Other large nurseries were operated by Samuel Dobie and John Kirk in the Vicars Cross area, F. W. Dutton at Queen's Park, McHattie & Co. at Overleigh, and Alexander McLean at Upton. In 1883 James Hunter established a farm seed business in Chester, attracted to the city solely by its location. Hunter was a leading advocate of the need for scientific testing of seeds and his firm was the first to offer a guarantee of purity, genuineness, and germination rate. Operating from premises in Foregate Street, by 1913 it had become one of the leading farm seed suppliers in the country. In 1911 at least 413 people living in the city, together with an unknown number from outside, worked in nurseries or related businesses, double the number in 1861. Hunter's branched out into the provision of grass airstrips for relatively early aviation. Hunters laid out properly levelled and seeded grass landing areas over much of Britain. Among airfields to be "Hunterised" became the Great West Aerodrome, later far better known as Heathrow. In the 1930s the Great West Aerodrome was thought to have the smoothest landing surface in Britain.

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The Lion from the Lion Brewery is all that remains of it.


In 1487, the town's constables recorded that there were five "brewers" outside the Northgate, two in Handbridge and twenty one in the area outside the Eastgate. Brewing was mostly an in-house affair and had probably been so since the Dark Ages. Weak beer ("small beer") was the staple drink of the entire population, being much safer than water. Thomas Hughes wrote:

  • "The Anglo-Saxons had their eala-hus (ale house), win-hus (wine house) and cumen-hus (inn) but there are no records of their whereabouts".

Hughes may not be entirely right as the origin of the name "Cuppin Street" may have origins in it being a drinking ("cupping") venue. In-house brewing was occasionaly hazardous as the City records list several fatalaties. In 1682 it was recorded that:

  • "Mary Ambrose, spinster, fell into a brewing pan and was scalded to death." (QCI/14/27 Sept 4th 1682)

The Chester Directory for the year 1792 recorded around 140 inns. By 1858, numbers had increased considerably and Thomas Hughes lists three dozen in Northgate Street alone. Of course, Northgate street was home to the market square and the major coaching inns, both of which had provided plentiful custom for years.

Brewing almost disappeared from Chester in the late 19th century. By 1909 only one concern was left. The decline was due to the elimination of public-house breweries and the concentration of ownership among the commercial brewery companies. In 1871 there were 13 breweries in Chester, of which seven appear to have been pub breweries. All the latter had ceased operation by 1892. Of the commercial breweries, the three biggest were Edward Russell Seller & Co. in Foregate Street, the Lion Brewery in Pepper Street, and the Chester Northgate Brewery. The Seller family continued in ownership until the 1880s, but in 1889 the concern was sold to the Albion Brewery Co. of Wigan and the brewery closed shortly afterwards. Between 1871 and 1892 the Lion Brewery passed through at least four hands before being acquired by Thomas Montgomery. His business was incorporated as the Chester Lion Brewery Co. Ltd. in 1896, but was taken over by Bent's Brewery of Liverpool in 1902. The brewery was closed soon afterwards. The Northgate Brewery was the only Chester brewery to survive beyond 1914. By 1891 the company owned 21 tied houses in Chester and numerous others within a radius of 15 miles from the city. Brewing at Northgate ceased in 1969 and the brewery was demolished in 1971.

Two fragments of Chester’s brewing industry have also survived. The sandstone wellhead (c1760) from the Chester Northgate Brewery on Northgate Street has found its way to the University of Liverpool’s Ness Botanic Gardens at Neston, where it serves as a substantial part of a rockery. Brewing ceased on the Northgate Street site in 1969 and the buildings were demolished in 1971. The Chester Lion Brewery, Pepper Street, was demolished in 1969 and a multistorey car park built on the site. An artificial stone figure of a lion, perhaps dating from the 1840s, was saved by the Chester Civic Trust and mounted on top of the 70 feet high concrete lift shaft of the car park in 1971, where it remains.

Brewing has returned to Chester with the advent of the micro-brewery. "KASH" on Brook Street has a micro-brewery and "Spitting Feathers" Brewery Tap at the historic Gamul House in Bridge Street is also supplied by a micro-brewery. The Pied Bull in Northgate Street has a micro-brewery on site - the only one (presently) within the City Walls.

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Johnson and Ellington trade directory entry from around 1870

The Chester Courant, of 13 December 1803 reported:

  • IRON AND BRASS FOUNDRY. COLE, WHITTLE & CO. HAVING erected a building over Cow-lane Bridge, near Flookersbrook, where they have begun the business of Iron and Brass Founders, with Smiths' work in general, they will in future always have an assortment of Cast and Wrought Iron on the premises, ready finished, and will able to supply Ironmongers, &c, on the best terms. Castings in Iron and Brass for Machinery, with all sorts of Smiths' work, executed on the shortest notice. Every attention will be paid to the orders with which they may favoured, and executed a manner to merit continuance of them.

By 1805 The business was known as The Flookersbrook Foundry, and operated under the style of Cole, Whittle and Co until 1832, when Mr. John Johnson became sole partner. In 1844 the business passed to his sons Edward and Bryan Johnson. It was during the partnership of the two brothers that the engineering side of the business was developed, and largely took the place of the purely foundry work. In 1861 Mr. Edward Johnson retired, and the business was continued by Mr. Bryan Johnson alone. 1869 Mr. E. B. Ellington joined Mr. Bryan Johnson in partnership, and the business was continued under the style of Johnson and Ellington (see below).

A relic of Mowle & Co., on the canal bridge on City Road.

The Egerton Iron and Brass Foundry, was operated by James Mowle & Co. in 1871 and Mowle and Meacock by 1892. It was located between Crewe Street and Albert Street, but had been demolished by 1910 when Egerton Street school was built on the site. They appear to have partly specialised in lead-manufacturing equipment (they were quite close to the Leadworks) as in 1880 they provided a horizontal single-cylinder steam engine driving a lead rolling mill at Sheldon, Bush and Patent Shot Co, Bristol.


The prosperity of Chester's shops and services depended to a large extent on custom from the City itself. Demand from outside enabled it to support a larger range than its own population would have justified, but perhaps 60-65% of Chester's trade came from residents of the city and its suburbs. Conflicting economic factors applied:

  • Chester's restricted manufacturing base weakened the local service economy, since the city was deficient in both an industrial middle class and a skilled working class, two groups with significant purchasing power in the late Victorian economy.
  • Improved railway connections allowed the wealthy from Liverpool, Manchester, and other towns to choose the city as an elegant place of residence: in 1899 it was asserted that only four of 75 occupiers in Hoole Road derived their living from Chester. Chester also attracted a class living off inherited wealth and investment income, who perhaps formed 5% of the population by the Edwardian period.

Browns' monopoly had been broken in the late 19thC. by the growth of three other stores which exploited the increased spending power of the middle classes (and to a lesser extent working people):

The "courts" in Chester, were a series of tenements which filled much of the space behind the main streets. Most were demolished in the mid 20thC. This is "Crypt Court" looking north from Commonhall Street towards Watergate Row (about 1930).
  • Richard Jones's drapery business was founded in Watergate Street in the 1850s, and expanded into larger premises in Bridge Street in the 1860s. It diversified into furnishings and grew rapidly from the 1890s, and in 1900 opened a new clothing shop in Eastgate Street, by which time it was second only to Browns in importance.
  • The Chester Co-operative Society opened a grocery in Black Diamond Street in 1884, moved into the city centre in the 1890s, and by 1905 the Foregate Street premises had developed into a large department store.
  • Burrells was also a newcomer: Thomas Gaze Burrell, a Norfolk man working in London, was advised in 1877 that Chester was growing in importance as a shopping centre and would be an ideal place to start a business. He bought an existing haberdashery shop at no. 32 Foregate Street and renamed it the 'Little Wonder'. By 1890 he had opened men's, women's, and children's clothing shops and in 1899 expanded into furnishings.

The grocery trade changed greatly between 1890 and 1914. New shops were dispersed in the suburbs and the number of city-centre grocers fell. The chain stores of Liptons, Home & Colonial, Maypole, and Pegrams established branches in Chester, and their branded, packaged goods started to supplant the shop-blended and shoppacked provisions typical of the older and often more exclusive retailers. By 1910 there were c. 20 chain stores in the city, including Boots, Marks & Spencer, and Hepworths, but Chester remained a shopping centre dominated by local businesses often biased towards a wealthy and socially select clientele.

An upswing in the service economy performance after the 1890's led to even more of the City Center being rebuilt in the "Mock Tudor" style. Eastgate Street remained the heart of commerce, but developments of the ends of Bridge Street, Northgate Street and to some extent Watergate Street radiating from the High Cross as desirable locations pushed out the smaller shops. The story was different in lower Bridge Street and much of Watergate Street where buildings became subdivided and in some cases ruinous.

The distribution of listed buildings in Chester says something about which areas of the City were traditionally wealthy and which were poor (or undeveloped).

Behind the "Mock Tudor" facades of The Rows living conditions in the "Courts" remained appalling. While this "core of rottenness" became a subject of debate and these "foul and filthy dens" were seen as "the resorts of thieves, prostitutes and drunkards" (Chester Chronicle, 29th Nov 1879). Commercial pressures were to lead to the clearance of many of these inner city slums.

Relative growth of the "Service Economy"

The general rise in the standard of living which occurred during the later C.19th century led to relative growth in Chester's shops and services. That is, the proportion of people working in the service sector grew, but there was little underlying growth. Employment in shops, services, and transport almost doubled from 26 per cent of the working population in 1861 to 42 per cent in 1911, when nationally only 35 per cent of the labour force worked in service employments. While Chester had a relatively large service sector by the early 1870s, it did not grow particularly quickly before 1914, and less rapidly than in the country as a whole, growing by 58% between 1871 and 1911 compared with a national growth rate of 68%. The generally depressed period between 1873 and the 1890s seems to have hit Chester's most prestigious shop, Brown, Holmes & Co., where sales in real terms stagnated after 1870, and there were some particularly bad years, notably 1871-2 and between 1879 and 1884.

Trade directory entry for Henry Wood & Co.

The "Long Depression" led (in 1879) to a reduction of wages in the Chester engineering trade, and the cheese market of 1879 was described as 'the deadest for 30 years'. Chester's private banks were badly affected by the national banking crisis of 1878/9, itself a reflection of the depression. Dixon & Co. was forced into amalgamation with Parr's Bank, and although the "Chester Old Bank", Williams & Co., survived, it remained weak during the 1880s. In the run on the bank by depositors of the "North and South Wales Bank" (with an office in Eastgate Street) a then staggering one million (a fifth of the total deposits) was withdrawn in a few days following the spectacular collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank in 1878. Chester's banking sector would see nothing so bad until the global banking crisis of the early C.21st.

By 1914 Chester had three engineering firms, Hydraulic Engineering, Henry Wood, and Brookhirst, which were leaders in their fields and, together with the Leadworks, these gave the city a significant national role in manufacturing.

A "boring machine" manufactured in Chester.
  • The Hydraulic Engineering Co. was formerly the Johnson and Ellington engineering business of Edward Bayzand Ellington and Bryan Johnson before being renamed upon incorporation in 1874. Demand expanded in the late 19th century: the firm opened offices in London, Paris, and Brussels, and developed a significant export trade. Hydraulic Engineering became a large employer, with 200 workers in Chester in 1879 and between 300 and 400 by 1892. The works was expanded and modernized and as early as 1879 a new erecting shop was lighted by electricity. In 1909 the business was described in the as follows: The company's leading specialities in design and manufacture are hydraulic power generating plant for public power supplies as well as for docks and railways, and the hydraulic appliances usually worked off these plants, including coal hoists, fixed and movable cranes, hydraulic engines, capstans, machinery for working swing and bascule bridges, dock gates and sluices, wagon hoists and other lifts, etc., hydraulic machine-tools, such as punching and shearing machines, straightening and bending machines, etc., presses for various special purposes, injector fire-hydrants and hydraulically- driven pumps for water-supply and sewage. Considerable quantities of the smaller gun-mountings and other similar material have been made at the works. The number of employees is about 400. (Institution of Mechanical Engineers )

Machinery from "Hydraulic" provided lifting force at Liverpool docks, described as follows:

  • "The mains are kept charged by powerful pumping engines. There are already at work two sets of Ellington's triple compound condensing engines, of 200 indicated horse power each, made by the Hydraulic Engineering Co, of Chester. A third set is now in course of construction, and provision is made in the engine-room foundations for more as they may be required. Steam is supplied by three Lancashire boilers, 30ft. long, and 72ft. diameter, fitted with Vicars' mechanical stokers, which are driven, along with a Green economiser, by a Brotherhood three-cylinder hydraulic engine. The pressure is maintained in the mains by two accumulators, with rams 18in. diameter and 20ft. stroke, loaded to a pressure of 75lb, per square inch. These works have now been in operation for three years, and are supplying a large amount of hydraulic power for various purposes, with the most economical and satisfactory results, and the number of consumers is constantly increasing. About two hundred machines are at present being worked from the high-pressure mains, including lifts and jigger hoists in warehouses for the expeditious storage and delivery of goods, passenger lifts in hotels and office buildings, presses, motors, etc. The cost of lifting by this power is, in some cases, as low as one farthing per ton, lifted 50ft. high. The pressure water is charged for on a sliding scale, and is registered by meters fixed on the exhaust pipes of the machines, from which the water is allowed to run to waste. The power is available day and night, and on Sundays, if required."

The power house for the Liverpool Hydraulic system (dated 1856) was another work of Jessie Hartley who was responsible for many of Liverpool's maritime structures. The "Hydraulic Tower" was based on the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza Della Signoria, Florence, Italy

  • Between 1873 and 1910 Saltney's pioneer firm, Henry Wood & Co., trebled in size, due partly to the closure of works elsewhere. By 1892 the works was said to be 'the largest and most complete in the kingdom [for producing] all descriptions of chains, cables and anchors and crane chains for collieries and lifting purposes'. The firm became a limited company in 1899.
Some switchgear as manufactured in Chester, by Brookhirst.
  • Brookhirst manufactured electrical switchgear. Neither of the original partners, John A. Hirst and Percy Shelley Brook, was a Cestrian, and the firm's location in the city was due solely to Hirst's view that Chester was a better place to live than his native Manchester and would provide 'gentle and pleasing conditions' for his workers. The original premises in Northgate Street were soon outgrown and a new works was built in 1906 at Newry Park off Brook Lane. Such was the firm's success that the works had to be expanded within two years, and it was extended again in 1915 and 1917.

By the early 1950s Chester still had some oldestablished manufacturing concerns including the Leadworks and two tobacco companies. Newer, larger, and modern enterprises included Brookhirst Electrical Switchgear and two makers of metal window frames derived from Williams and Gamons Stained Glass company, Williams and Williams of the Reliance Works and Rustproof Metal Windows Ltd. of Saltney. The last three firms employed over 3,500 workers between them in 1951, the first three had only 500. In 1951 there were also based in Chester around 2,000 railwaymen and 1,000 employees at Crosville Motor Services, the regional bus company. Retail sales per head of population in the county borough were higher in 1950 than for any other town or city in the north-west. Retailers employed over 5,000 people, and retail-type services such as catering and garages another 2,000. Browns of Eastgate Street, had a staff of over 600. The proportion of the workforce engaged in local and central government administration (the latter including the Inland Revenue and the headquarters of the Army's Western Command) and banking was regarded as 'extraordinarily high': over 3,000 and 800 people respectively in 1951.

By 1971 Chester had almost 1 million square feet of shopping space, most of it in the city centre. The city was by far the most important shopping centre in the region, with three times as much retail space as Ellesmere Port (a town of similar size) and more than Birkenhead (which had twice Chester's population). Chester's retail space was on a par with much larger county towns such as Oxford and Cambridge, both of which had affluent student populations. Sales in 1971 were £640 per resident, far outstripping other towns in the region and similar towns elsewhere in England (though not by as much as in 1950). By 2014 Chester slid to 51st place in the UK retail rankings (from being in the top ten, a decade earlier).

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