A Fletcher family has been prominent in Cheshire since the 16th century and probably from an earlier date. John Fletcher purchased the Chester Chronicle in 1783 and it stayed with his family until the 1960's. Another John Fletcher was described as chief engineer for the Chester canal in the early 1800's. They have been confused as their lives overlapped, but are not the same person. Both were relatively young men when they made the choice to plunge into new professions for which they apparently had no experience.
Chester in the 1780's
The 1780's marked the end of the First British Empire in the Americas and the start of the Second British Empire in the far east. The 1780's were a period widely considered as transitional between the "Age of Enlightenment" and the Industrial Revolution, the 1780s saw the inception of modern philosophy, where the abolishment of monarchies became popular along with the implementation of democracy. With the rise on astronomical, technological, and political discoveries and innovations such as Uranus, cast iron on structures, republicanism and hot air balloons, the 1780s kick-started a rapid global industrialization movement, leaving behind the world's predominantly agrarian customs in the past.
Chester of the early 1780's would have had parts which would be recognisable to the modern inhabitant. The four main streets had existed since Roman times, and many of them housed coaching inns, although the travel time to London was had only just come down to a record 22 hurs and 45 minutes. Much of the Norman castle remained although Thomas Harrison's comprehensive rebuild of the medieval Chester Castle into a new symbol of power in the form of the new Courts and jail had not yet started. The medieval Eastgate (1769) and more recently the Bridgegate (1781) had been replaced - both with much celebration and with the stamp of the current governing elites, the Watergate would follow in 1788 as it was runinous. Thomas Baldwin would make his balloon ascent from Chester in 1785. Charles Dickens was to sum up the spirit of the age in his Tale of Two Cities:
- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.."
The Peace of Paris of 1783 was the set of treaties that ended the American Revolutionary War. On 3 September 1783, representatives of King George III of Great Britain signed a treaty in Paris with representatives of the United States of America—commonly known as the Treaty of Paris (1783)—and two treaties at Versailles with representatives of King Louis XVI of France and King Charles III of Spain—commonly known as the Treaties of Versailles (1783). The treaty dictated that the British would lose their Thirteen Colonies and also marked the end of the First British Empire. The United States gained more than it expected, thanks to the award of western territory. The other Allies had mixed-to-poor results. France got its revenge over Britain after its defeat in the Seven Years' War, but its material gains were minor (Tobago, Senegal and small territories in India) and its financial losses huge. It was already in financial trouble and its borrowing to pay for the war used up all its credit, created the financial disasters that marked the 1780s, and would contribute to the French Revolution.
Herbert Hughes 1975 account of the history of the Chester Chronicle credits John Fletcher of the newspaper with a career in canal engineering which appears to have sprung from a confusion between the two John Fletchers. The newspaper proprietor is said to have built the Ellesmere Port to Chester canal and given Thomas Telford a good deal of advice on the construction of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. The basis for this appears to be some notes written in a copy of a guidebook to Chester by an otherwise unidentified visitor to the city. The guidebook is Hanshall's "The Stranger in Chester", published in 1816. See the links below for more details.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Britain was an increasingly stable and prosperous country with an expanding empire, technological progress in industry and agriculture and burgeoning trade and commerce. A new upper middle class consisting of merchants, traders, entrepreneurs and bankers was rapidly emerging - educated, literate and increasingly willing to attempt to enter the political discussion and participate in the governance of the country. The media expanded: a public library and a theatre opened in Chester in 1773. As well as the exchange of information there were improvements in physical communication: Celia Fiennes had been a rare tourist in 1698, but the next few years saw the re-opening of the Dee (1737), improvements to roads and the coming of the canals.
The increasing popularity and influence of newspapers became problematic to the government of the day as well as a source of income. The first bill in parliament advocating a tax on newspapers was proposed in 1711. The duty eventually imposed in 1712 was a halfpenny on papers of half a sheet or less and a penny on newspapers that ranged from half a sheet to a single sheet in size. Jonathan Swift expressed in his Journal to Stella on 7 August 1712, doubt in the ability of "The Spectator" to hold out against the tax. This doubt was proved justified in December 1712 by its discontinuance. However, some of the existing journals continued production and their numbers soon increased. Part of this increase was attributed to corruption and political connections of its owners. Later, toward the middle of the same century, the provisions and the penalties of the Stamp Act were made more stringent, yet the number of newspapers continued to rise. In 1753 the total number of copies of newspapers sold yearly in Britain amounted to 7,411,757. In 1760 it had risen to 9,464,790 and in 1767 to 11,300,980. In 1776 the number of newspapers published in London alone had increased to 53.
The "Chester Weekly Journal" is the earliest known of any Chester newspaper. The first issue of this little paper probably appeared early in May, 1721. The publisher was William Cooke. At that time local news was considered mere gossip which everyone was supposed to know, so the Journal contains no local news beyond the prices of corn on the previous Saturday in Chester. The Whig Chester Chronicle was begun by the printer John Poole in 1775 and at first struggled to survive, changing its day of publication several times before settling on Friday in 1776. It's great rival was the Chester Courant. The Chester Courant first appeared as "Adamses Chester Weekly Courant", in 1730, at which time, according to Hemingway, the Chester Weekly Journal had ceased to exist. In fact, Cooke was evidently forced out of business by the rival title.
During the later 1770's and early 80's the war in America was a backdrop to Poole's Chronicle. Fortunes fluctuated until a decisive battle was fought at Yorktown and the British forces under Cornwallis surrendered. Poole's Chronicle was a liberal paper by comparison to Monk's Tory Courant. It supported the "independents" who opposed the vested power blocks of the Grosvenors and the Corporation. The Corporation was the tool of the Guilds and connived with the Guilds' misapplication of the Owen Jones charity, who by the 1780s were dividing the proceeds indiscriminately among their members, whether poor or rich, as each guild came round in rotation. In 1782, the total dividend for that year, shared out among the 22 members of the Barber Surgeons Company, was £10,260. Admission to the guilds was closely regulated, some choosing to admit new members at inflated premiums, others to exclude new guildsmen as their own turn for the "bonanza" approached every quarter-century. While the Corporation was strongly in favour of the intended canal to Nantwich and beyond, it was a heavy investor through the Owen Jones charity in the company's shares, thus risking the funds of the charity rather than its own.
By the early 1780's the Chronicle was in financial difficulties.
Newspapers in 1783
The Chronicle was rescued in 1783 by John Fletcher (d. 1835), whose long life, business acumen, and growing political influence in Chester ensured its continuance. Fletcher had purchased the paper after the proprietors published the following notice:
- "8th August, 1783. The Editor of this paper begs leave to inform, the public that finding the printing of it to be a losing concern, on several accounts, is determined to discontinue the publication of it from this day. He esteems himself much obliged for the kind indulgence and favours shown to him by the public, and shall ever retain a grateful sense of the obligation. All persons who have any demands on this Printing Office, are requested to send in their accounts, in order that they may be immediately discharged; and those who stand indebted to it, in any sums of money, are desired to pay the same to Mr. Charles Hamilton, Attorney at Law in Chester, who is authorised to settle all accounts."
However when the next publishing day came round, the Chronicle appeared as if nothing had happened, though under different auspices, as will be gathered from the following announcement:
- "15th August, 1783. John Fletcher having purchased of the late Proprietors of this Paper the Stock of their Office, will, in compliance with the requests of his Friends, continue to publish and circulate it as heretofore and execute any orders in the Printing or Copper-plate Branches in the most correct, neat and expeditious manner, and on terms to merit the continuance of the favours of the generous Public. The heavy imposts on Advertisements, Stamps, and paper will, he hopes, be sufficient plea for requesting payment for Advertise- ments at the time of insertion."
Fletcher immediately took advantage of the opposition paper in which to advertise the continuation of the Chronicle. On the first page of his ledger, which is still existing, he made the following entry:
- "This being our first publication, we are necessitated to advertise the continuation (which the former proprietors had declined) in Mr. Monk's paper, and to encourage the distribution by a treat in ale, and to send to Liverpool for stamps for the publication, which altogether increased our weekly expenses. Mr. Monk was so elated with the prospect of our discontinuation that this day was intended for a festival to his men in triumph of his victory, but which was rendered a Day of Gloominess and Dejection by the re-publication."
He paid 4s. for his advertisement in the Courant, Mr. Monk's paper; the cash given to the carriers to drink" (the "treat in ale") amounted to 3s. The "coach express" for taking the papers into Lancashire that week was 2s. 2d., and the weekly rent of the entire establishment was 5s. 8d. There was at that time a tax imposed upon newspaper advertisements, and the amount paid in that week was 35s "duty on 14 advertisements." During the 18th and early 19th centuries, stamp duties had been extended to cover newspapers, pamphlets, lottery tickets, apprentices' indentures, advertisements, playing cards, dice, hats, gloves, patent medicines, perfumes, insurance policies, gold and silver plate, hair powder and armorial bearings. Fletcher's income for his first week's issue consisted of £7 and a half-penny from the sale of the papers, and just over £5 7s from advertisements and printing orders a total income of £12 7s 6d.; while the cost of printing 775 copies of the Chronicle amounted to £5 18s. 9d.
The "Commercial Intelligencer" sub-title disappeared and was replaced with "General Advertiser", with all advertising strictly paid for up-front to avoid debts. Fletcher had no background in either newspapers or print trades. He appears to have been a schhoolmster living in Princess Street (then Parson's Lane) before buying the newspaper and nothing is known about his education. Just where he got the finance from to take over the Chronicle has never become clear.
1784 saw the first election that had occurred since the Chronicle had been established. Elections in Chester were riotous affairs, with the 1104 or so Freemen who had the vote (from a population of some 15,000) enjoying the benefits of virtually unlimited free drink in the weeks leading up to what was generally recognised to be a vote which was largely bought. The Grosvenor "investment" in the election of 1784 consisted of 1187 barrels of ale, 3756 gallons of rum and brandy, 4600 bottles of gin and 27,624 bottles of wine.
In 1784 when Richard, 1st Baron Grosvenor, was made an earl, the independents unsuccessfully put up John Crewe of Bolsworth against the sitting Members, Thomas Grosvenor, the earl’s brother, and Richard Wilbraham Bootle, a Lancashire landowner, both of them former participants in the abortive St. Albans Tavern venture who were now supporting William Pitt the Younger. For the next six years the independents, led by Ralph Eddowes, a merchant, fought a legal battle to try to establish their right under the city’s original charter, to participate in the election of members of the corporation. Although they obtained a favourable decision in the Lords early in 1790 (Journal of the HOL, 31 Geo III), they were financially exhausted and in too much disarray to enforce the ruling, which the corporation simply ignored. Eddowes, on whom most of the cost had fallen, gave up the struggle in disgust and later went to live in America.
Fletcher's opposition to the Corporation was to lead them to exact revenge. On the 19th November, 1785, he was sentenced by the Court of King's Bench to six months' imprisonment in the King's Bench Prison and a fine of £50 for publishing an article, which was held to be a libel against Robert Townsend, Recorder of Chester. This concerned the conduct of the Recorder's election, a long-standing issue in Chester - the only thing which Fletcher did wrong was apparently to ask the recorder to justify his unelected position when the Charter appeared to require election and approval by the Crown.
Following his imprisonment Fletcher evidently decided that editing the Chronicle himself was not something he wished to continue. He therefore appointed an editor, whose successors were to include Hanshall and Hemingway.
Late in 1816, John Fletcher printed The Stranger in Chester, written by J. H. Hanshall, the second editor of The Chester Chronicle. In 1831, Fletcher printed the important History of Chester, written by Joseph Hemingway, later editor of the Chronicle.
Fletcher's obituary read:
- "Born of humble, but reputable parents, at Halton, in this county, he was the architect of his own fortune, and rose, by the force of his genius and talent alone, to considerable eminence among scientific men, and to the distinguished honour of having twice filled the office of Chief Magistrate of this City. The history of his life is curious and instructive, and furnishes an important practical lesson of the value of Temperance, Prudence, persevering Industry, unsullied Probity, and uncompromising Integrity, in all his relations and Social Life. At present, while the grave has yet to close upon his mortal remains, it will suffice to say, that, in him, his servants of every degree and those who were in any way dependant upon him, have lost a liberal and considerate Master; his fellow citizens, an upright and intelligent Magistrate; the cause of Public and Private Charity, a Munificent Benefactor; and the Community among whom he lived, a kind-hearted and benevolent Man."
The other John Fletcher (d. 1820) was a Chester-based contractor, timber merchant and entrepreneur, described by Thomas Telford as an "able mathematician and mechanic".
John Fletcher was active in the period 1794-1819. Fletcher was involved in the construction of the canal system which was to link Ellesmere with what would eventually be named Ellesmere Port. This was a series of waterways with a complex history which made significant use of the Chester Canal over part of its length. The general intention was to provide a navigable inland connection between the Severn at Shrewsbury and the Mersey at Liverpool, but early development of the canal indicates a degree of indecision over the route to be taken. The canal was first promoted at the time of the peak of Canal Mania, so initially ample funds were available from shareholders. However the shareholding structures of the early canals were based on a precarious system - shareholders need not have the funds to purchase the full share, but only needed enough to fund a deposit, in the knowledge that the rest of the share price could be called upon at a later date. This would mean that in some cases people invested monies that they did not actually have.
The Chester Canal
The first navigation to travel in the direction of Shrewsbury was the Chester Canal, which was made to barge width and terminated at Nantwich. Samuel Weston, it's "engineer", is believed to have come from Cheshire, possibly near Runcorn. He was appointed engineer on the Chester Canal in 1772 after previous experience as a "staff-holder and leveller" for James Brindley and later as a canal contractor. He worked on the survey of the Chester Canal in 1769, which failed to get parliamentary sanction. When a new canal scheme was proposed in March 1770, Weston was appointed as surveyor of a canal from Boughton to Middlewich at 10/6 a day (52.5p). That canal would have joined the River Dee near Barrel Well Hill, i.e. above the weir at the Old Dee Bridge and was expected to have cost (according to Weston's estimate) £32,395. In September 1770 plans were changed so that the canal would circle around the north of the city and join the Dee at the bend on the New Cut, where a series of sluices drained land recovered by from the Dee Estuary. This plan also failed to get approval. The third attempt, with a different route between Tilsone and Wardle and a branch to Nantwich was successful and Weston was appointed engineer at £20 a year, with his son as clerk.The early days of the canal were somewhat chaotic as the initial engineer, Samuel Weston left the project and was replaced by Thomas Morris. He had previous experience building the extension of the Bridgewater Canal to Runcorn. Under his direction, the canal opened from Chester to Huxley Aqueduct on 16 January 1775, and to Beeston in June. Morris was sacked in September, to be replaced by Josiah Clowes. He too was sacked, and was followed by Moon, who had previously acted as assistant to Morris. The canal was completed under the direction of Joseph Taylor.
The principal intended terminus had been Middlewich, but the Trent and Mersey Canal were unco-operative about a junction at Middlewich and the navigation was made only as far as Nantwich when the canal was opened in 1779. Flats were the staple mode of conveyance for the Dee, Mersey and Weaver, and those of the correct dimensions could also travel along the canal. Once the river lock had been negotiated and the basin passed, the canal was then entered by a straight ascent of five locks. From there was steady climb through the Cheshire countryside to Nantwich. Part of it was closed in 1787, when Beeston staircase locks collapsed, and there was no money to fund repairs.
Ellesmere Canal Before Telford
John Duncombe (d. 1810), engineer, of Oswestry made the first survey of a proposed route in 1791. This linked Netherpool (later Ellesmere Port) on the Mersey with the Chester Canal at Chester, and then from that waterway to Overton and then Shrewsbury. From Overton, a branch was to be made towards Ruabon and Llangollen with a diverging branch to Bersham. Another branch was to be made to Llanymynech. Duncombe was chosen for this role as he was acknowledged as a capable and intelligent engineer. He took the various levels required for the survey.
During 1792, William Turner, architect and engineer of Whitchurch (who is not the same person as Joseph Turner of Chester), suggested an alternative scheme known as the Eastern Canal. This second scheme also started at Netherpool but then utilised a section of the Chester Canal as far as Newton and then passed Broxton, Penley, Cockshutt and Albrighton to meet the Severn on the east side of Shrewsbury. Turner also suggested branches from Dymock Mill to Whitchurch, from Welshampton through Hordley to Llanymynech and from Penley to Ruabon, where the canal split into two. The Ruabon branch division had a northern line to serve Bersham and a western line to Llangollen and Valle Crucis.
Opposing teams of promoters initially tried to pursue two separate concerns and the two route options (Eastern and Western) for the canal that was intended to link the Severn at Shrewsbury with the Mersey; they eventually came together as one venture. That was the Ellesmere Canal. The need for an experienced canal engineer led to the appointment of William Jessop to supervise the project. He recommended the western route, but the parliamentary application that was submitted during September 1792 had alterations to the course that was originally surveyed. Jessop’s route involved some ambitious engineering projects. As part of the rebranding of Britain's industrial waterways as leisure destinations, the surviving central section of the Ellesmere Canal is now called the Llangollen Canal; even though historically its builders had no intention of sending boat traffic to Llangollen. The branch, from which the waterway now takes its name, was primarily a water feeder from the River Dee above the village.
When Jessop was consulting engineer to the Ellesmere Canal Company, in 1793, the company appointed the relatively unknown Thomas Telford as resident engineer. Telford had no previous experience as a designer of canals, but with Jessop's advice and guidance, Telford made a success of the project. Jessop supported Telford, even when the Company thought that the latter's designs for aqueducts were too ambitious.
Fletcher first appears in 1794 when, at the request of Thomas Telford, he surveyed the proposed course of the canal from Pontcysyllte to Chester. He was to go on to construct much of the Ellesmere Canal from the following year onwards: the Wirral Line (with Samuel Weston), Maesbury to Llanymynech, Lower Hordley to Weston Lullingfields, the Ffrwd Branch (with Whittle), and Grindley Brook to Hurleston (with John Simpson). The total value of these contracts was well over £80,000. He also supplied work boats, deals for scaffolding, quicksets for hedges and other items.
John Simpson (1755-1815) was a stonemason from Stenhouse in Midlothian, who came to Shrewsbury in 1790 to supervise restoration work at St Chad's. He tendered for one of Telfords bridges at Chirk in 1793 and Telford was apparently very pleased with his work (describing him as "a little treasure of tallents an integrity"). Simpson built many canal bridges and worked on both the Pontcvysyllte aqueduct and that at Chirk.
The first part of the Ellesmere Canal to be constructed and opened was the part from Chester to the Mersey, which was completed during the Autumn of 1795. It led to the reorganisation of the canal arrangements at Chester and the removal of the bottom two locks in the five lock flight there. The new plan involved a junction with the original Chester Canal between the second and third lock, and a new flight of locks from the Ellesmere Canal down to the Dee Basin. All boats passing between the Dee and the Chester Canal now passed along a section of the Ellesmere Canal. At the same time the route was established for the main Ellesmere Canal. The intention was to continue the Ellesmere Navigation across the River Dee and then on to Trevor via Wrexham and Ruabon, then crossing both the Dee and Ceiriog headed towards Shrewsbury with branches towards Ellesmere and the copper mines at Llanymynech. Today the Llanymynech canal is known as the Montgomery Canal, and the section through Llanymynech is isolated, with an 800 metres (2,600 ft) section being navigable to boats. To the north to Pant the canal is dry; to the south the canal is isolated by lowered bridges.
But such is the nature of canal affairs, that often what is planned, is rarely finished as intended. Like the Chester Canal before them, who hoped for a share in the developing pottery trade through a canal to Middlewich, the Ellesmere Canal also found that the industrial area around Wrexham and Ruabon was outside the reach of making a canal. Terrain there was a principal obstacle, although the wishes of certain wealthy landowners created other barriers.
The route from Tilstock Park to Nantwich (Hurleston Junction) was constructed by John Fletcher & John Simpson. Much of the building work for bridges and locks can be attributed to Simpson and his team of navvies. At Hurleston Top Lock (opened in 1805) there is a staircase of four locks that lower the canal by 34 ft 3 in to meet up with the Chester Canal. All locks are Grade II listed and the listing credits John Fletcher for their design, although John Simpson would have been responsible for the construction. In 1805 Fletcher would make a dramatic proposal to replace the staircase of three locks at Chester with one 32ft deep lock with "guillotine" gates, whilst saving water consumption through the use of eight side ponds stacked above each other.
Renting the canal
By August 1797 Fletcher proposed renting the canal from Chester to Nantwich for two years, paying £300 in the first year and £400 in the second. This would mean that he would guarantee an income for the canal company but would be able to keep any surplus. There is no record of this being discussed, but in December 1798 it was resolved:
- "That the tolls, yards, wharfs, boats, cranes, weighing machines and all other advantages arising from this concern, be advertised to be let by public auction at the Canal Office on Monday 21st January next, for five years certain, commencing 2nd February 1799, subject to conditions."
John Fletcher was one of six shareholders present at the General Meeting when it was agreed to let the canal tolls to him at an annual rent of £220. The Canal Company continued to be responsible for the maintenance, and it was Fletcher who was usually employed to carry out approved works. He was not given an entirely free hand — on surveys he was usually accompanied by Joseph Turner or Thomas Atherton, another Committee member. Fletcher would extend his lease on the canal using the argument that faults in the lock gates made navigation impossible, and his contract would eventually run until 1804, with Fkletcher having enjoyed almost a year of rent-free extensions. Even then he would get an extra year as the Company felt that it would take that long to organise a transfer of management.
The main city wharf was located just to the east of Cow Lane bridge (later named Victoria Wharf) and Fletcher was apparently based there. The king-post of the wharf crane can still be seen today. The minutes of the canal company meeting in September 1808 contain two items which may beconnected: a report stated that losses had been incurred by persons ordering work without proper authority, and Fletcher was given notice to quit the wharf, timber-yard and warehouse at Cow Lane, Chester. Somehow he managed to avaid being thrown out. In 1811 there was dispute about Fletcher’s accounts which took over a year to sort out, and he was again given notice to quit Cow Lane Wharf. Clearly there were suspicions that Fletcher was finding ways to benefit inappropriately from the canal.
How Herbert Hughes came to confuse the two John Fletcher's in his 1975 account of the history of the Chester Chronicle is not entirely clear. As mentioned above, the basis for this appears to be some notes written in a copy of a guidebook to Chester by an otherwise unidentified visitor to the city. The guidebook is Hanshall's "The Stranger in Chester", published in 1816 by Fletcher, and with this particular volume bound up with several blank leaves for his own use. Hanshall was himself an editor of the Chronicle and died of the cholera in 1833 during a national epidemic.. The notes, which are made on these blank leaves, appear to be of a visitor's meeting with Fletcher at his home and refer to his work on the canal. The writer puts it so:
- "During our tea we found Mr. Fletcher to be a most intelligent and scientific man. He had cut the present line of canal, had laid out the race course and built the grandstand and had undertook most of the public works, and made the new road from Wrexham to Llangollen and so on to Ruthin. He had also the making of the embankment to the magnificent acqueduct over the river Dee, which he strongly recommended us to see. After accompanying us through the remainder of the city and it had got quite dark, we all adjourned to the inn and the clock had struck one before we seperated; enjoying very rational and instructive conversation. ...."
It is now quite clear that it was the other Fletcher who worked on the canal, so someone is being "economical with the truth". But who ? - did the visitor make the story up or was he misled by an aging Fletcher? The story was taken as true by Charles Hand, who wrote of it in 1924 for HLSC, so it appears that Hughes also took Hand's paper as true.