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The Leadworks in 2014, awaiting redevelopment.

Roman Lead


Early evidence for "industry" in Chester points to leather, lead 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. Some examples of lead plumbing can be found in the Grosvenor Museum.

Not only did the Romans use lead for plumbing, but they used lead acetate ("sugar of lead") which they called "sapa", to sweeten wine, and richer segments of the population could consume as much as two liters a day. This may well have produced the traditional physiological effects of lead poisoning: organ failure, infertility and dementia, and it has been suggested this helped facilitate the fall of their empire. The end of the Romans was not the end of "sugar of lead": Pope Clement II died in 1047, and a 1959 examination of his remains indicated lead poisoning. That Pope liked his wine, especially those from his native Germany which were sweetened in the ancient Roman manner.

In recent years evidence of even earlier mining has come to light with the discovery of a possibly prehistoric pestle and mortar, found underground in the Minera mines, and a hammerstone on the south-west side of Ruabon Mountain, at World’s End.

"Modern" Lead

Decidedly dodgy-looking ladders and steps inside the lead-shot tower at Chester.

Following the departure of the Romans lead had been mined at Minera since at least the 13thC (when Edward I recruited miners from Minera to work in Devon). In the medieval period, lead was needed for roofing castles and churches. During the fiftheenth century, following the revolt of Owain Glyndŵr, the mines fell into disuse, and mining was at a low ebb for two centuries. However, a lead mine was discovered on property forming part of the Owen Jones bequest to the City Guilds around 1744. Lead prospecting was promoted by Alderman Richardson of Chester. Between 1761 and 1781 the city companies had received nearly £13,000 in royalties.

Leadworks typically produce both sheet lead and compounds of lead.

  • White lead is the chemical compound 2PbCO3·Pb(OH)2, a complex chemical compound, containing both a carbonate and a hydroxide portion. White lead occurs naturally as a mineral, in which context it is known as hydrocerussite, a hydrate of cerussite. It was formerly used as an ingredient for lead paint and a cosmetic called Venetian Ceruse. Its opaque quality and the satiny smooth mixture it made with driable oils made a good pigment. In the eighteenth century, white lead paints were routinely used to repaint the hulls and floors of Royal Navy vessels, to waterpoof the timbers and limit infestation by "teredo navalis" worms. However, it tended to cause lead poisoning, and its use has been banned in most countries. The production process involves the reaction of lead with acetic acid (in earlier days, vinegar).
  • Red Lead is the chemical compound Pb3O4, or 2 PbO·PbO2 (Lead(II,IV) oxide), also called minium or triplumbic tetroxide, is a bright red or orange crystalline or amorphous pigment. Red lead is used in the manufacture of lead glass and rust-proof primer paints (now mostly banned due to toxicity). The combination of minium and linen fibres was also used for plumbing (now replaced with PTFE tape). Lead(II,IV) oxide is prepared by "calcination" of lead(II) oxide (also called litharge) in air at about 450 to 480 °C.

The Walkers

In 1778 Samuel Walker (1715-1782), in partnership with Richard Fishwick and Archer Ward of Hull, began a white lead manufacturing business at Elswick, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Samuel was the second son of Joseph and Ann, was only 13 when his father died. He qualified himself for keeping a School at Grenoside, until 1746, where he taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. In addition, Samuel supplemented his living by land surveying, and making sun dials.

Samuel Walker provided most of the capital for the leadworks, while his partners contributed business and practical expertise. This enterprise was extended, producing not only white and red lead but also lead shot and pipes. Rising prices for lead encouraged many others to enter this trade about this time. In 1802 Samuel Walker Parker joined the lead partnership, which then became known as "Walker, Parker and Co".

A later member of the family, Sir Edward Samuel Walker (1799-1874), educated at Rugby and St. John's College Cambridge, was a partner in the "Lead House" of Walker, Parker & Co., Chester, managing their factory there and at Baglit. He was Mayor of Chester in 1838, being knighted while in office, in 1841 and 1848. He was also JP for Chester and Cheshire. The leadworks at various times traded under names reflecting its shifting ownership between various combinations of Walkers and Parkers, and in the 1850's there was a noted law-suit in the US (Pollen v. Le Roy) in which the dubious argument hinged on whether lead marked "Walker and Parker" needed to be paid for if ordered from "Walker, Parker and Walker".

Sources and Links

Shot Tower

Signage at the leadworks indicates the hazardous working environment.

William Watts of Bristol (originally listed in his tax returns as a plumber) took out a patent (number 1347, filed 10th December 1782, granted on March 28th, 1782) for his new technique for making lead shot, a process:

  • "for making smallshot perfectly globular in form and without dimples, notches and imperfections which other shot hereto manufactured usually have on their surface".

According to a legend (of which there are many versions), William Watts, while watching the rain fall, possibly in a dream, noticed that the raindrops formed perfect spheres as they fell. Watt's patented technique, was to allow molten lead, to which the deadly poison arsenic had been added, to be poured from the top of a tower, passing through a griddle to separate it into pellets before landing in a wooden vat of water below. During the fall, the pellets became spherical, and the various sizes obtained could be graded using sieves. Whatever, the truth, Watts' shot was very regular and smooth, unlike the lead shot produced by a moulding process, which had a ridge where the mould parted. This led King George II to remark of it:

  • "I wish all the men in my army were so regular like this shot"

A Leadworks was initially established by the Chester Canal (by "Walkers, Maltby and Company") in the 1780's and its shot tower, dating from 1799 was used for making lead shot for the Napoleonic Wars. It is the oldest remaining shot tower in the UK. The Cheese Lane Tower in Bristol, a reinforced concrete tower, was constructed in 1969 to replace Watts' original shot tower in Redcliffe, which was demolished in 1968.

The circular red-brick tower at Chester is 168 feet (41.2m) tall and 30 feet (9.1m) in diameter at the base tapering to 20 feet (6m) at the top, with small arched windows. It remains to this day the tallest structure in Chester (the Cathedral is a little shorter at 127 feet (39m)). A lift shaft dating from 1971 remains attached to the exterior. The interior retains a rickety spiral staircase/ladder. The Cheshire Sheaf of May 1878 published the following from from Bryan Johnson of King Street, indicating the presence of a second shot-tower in Commonhall Street:

The antimony oxide plant at the Leadworks.
  • "As my father was manager of these works for many years, and as I was born in the house now occupied by Mr. A.O. Walker at the works, I maybe allowed to say a few words on the subject. My father came to Chester in the year 1800, and found the Shot Tower just commenced upon, the foundations being built, and he superintended the completion of the Shot Tower as well as the other buildings. He continued manager to Messrs. Walker, Parker, and Co., until Sir Edward Walker came to reside in Chester, about 1830. I think I have heard that when Messrs. Walker, Parker, and Co., first thought of establishing works in Chester they had almost decided upon Edgar's Field, Handbridge, as the locality; but, as the "Ellesmere and Chester Canal" was just at that time nearly ready to be opened, the present site was considered to be the best. There was, as will be remembered by some, a Shot Tower and Lead Works in Commonhall Street; but these were not, so far as I understand, so old-established as Messrs. Walker's works".

By 1812, the leadworks is known to have also included pipe-drawing machines and a rolling mill for producing lead sheet. According to some (perhaps unlikely) reports the top of the tower could sway considerably in high winds, sometimes causing the falling lead to miss the tank of water at the bottom.

Sources and Links

  • Chester Walls on the shot tower and leadworks (many photographs);

A Missing Racehorse?

Judy Egerton's book, "British sporting and animal paintings 1655-1867" (London, 1978) is quoted on the Chester Walls site as:

  • “Euphrates, a chestnut colt by Quiz out of Persepolis, was bred by Lord Rous and foaled in 1816. He won numerous races and, after several changes of ownership, was purchased by John Mytton, squire of Halston near Shrewsbury, a famous and eccentric sportsman, for whom he continued to win trophies, including the Gold Cup at Lichfield in 1825- a victory commemorated in this painting [by my ancestor, William Webb]. He continued to race until he was thirteen years old. By then Mytton was heavily in debt... everything was sold except Euphrates. Mytton entrusted him to a friend, requesting that the horse should be shot rather than end his career by being "put to the drudgery of drawing a coach, or any other ignoble purpose". He was duly shot in June 1832 and a memorial over his grave near the Shot Tower at Chester Lead Works commemorates his achievements" (page 235).

The same information turns up on "Grave Matters", which records:

  • Euphrates (c. 1816-1832; buried near the Shot Tower, Chester Leadworks)

"Mad Jack" Mytton was certainly an eccentric (see the reference below). He inherited vast wealth at the age of two, was sent to Westminster School, (he was expelled after one year for fighting a master) at the school), then sent to Harrow School (he was also expelled after three terms). He was then educated by a disparate series of private tutors whom he tormented with practical jokes that included leaving a horse in one tutor's bedroom. Despite having achieved nothing academically, Jack was granted entry to the University of Cambridge, to which took 2,000 bottles of port to sustain himself during his studies. In 1819, aged 23, he entertained ambitions of standing for Parliament, as a Tory. He secured his seat, encouraging his constituents to vote for him by offering them £10 notes and through spending £10,000 (over a million today) and became MP for Shrewsbury. He found political debate boring and thus attended parliament only once, for just 30 minutes.

Sources and Links


The leadworks in the 1970's.

In the late 19thC. the leadworks at Chester continued to specialize in white lead production, which by 1890 took up over half the operational site. The production of lead shot also remained important, and Chester benefited from the decline of the firm's Bagillt works as the increasing import of overseas lead undercut ore produced, smelted, and refined in north Wales. The transfer of lead milling to Chester was completed in 1909, and shortly before the First World War the decision was taken to open a new lead refining plant. Finally, in 1929 the smelter was moved from Bagillt to Chester and the north Wales works closed completely. The production of acetic acid for the white lead process was closed down before 1900 because synthetic acid could be bought in more cheaply.

The (very) small park which commemorates the Leadworks is someway down the canal to the west.

In the 1880s the Walkers Parker partnership was destroyed by an acrimonious dispute between two of the partners, one of whom was manager of the Chester works. In 1889 the new limited company of Walkers, Parker & Co. bought out the partners' assets and took over the Chester works. This transfer came at a time when trading conditions in the lead industry were difficult, and the new concern's financial performance was poor throughout the 1890s. Parts of the site were sold to improve the financial position - it has been said in one local history that the Queen Hotel and some terrace houses were built on this land, although the Queen Hotal was known to have opened on the 21st April 1860. Employment grew only slowly between 1880 and 1914 before expanding dramatically during the First World War. In 1921 red lead smelting and refining was taking place at the leadworks, the largest supplier being the Bagillt Works which Chester had purchased in 1830. In 1899 a fire broke out at the lead works which was described as “great damage, magnificent spectacle”. Due to misunderstanding and maladministration it took two hours for the private fire brigade to arrive. After this incident it was decided that such an essential service should be run by the City council (see: Fire Station).

Walkers, Parker and Company, became part of Associated Lead Manufacturers in 1924, with the latter in turn later becoming part of the Calder Group. As well a producing lead and lead compounds the site also produced antimony oxide, the main application for which was as a flame retardant helping to form less flammable plastics and foams. Such flame retardants are found in electrical apparatus, textiles, leather, and coatings. The factory was upgraded with improved office and laboratory facilities and amenities for staff, such as, showers. By 1975 it was a self-sufficient, fully integrated lead works. Over time the situation changed; the works was very close to residential areas and the city centre, difficult access for large vehicles, concern over environmental issues, duplication across sites and high land values brought about a planned closure for 1982. There was a reprieve for special products which continued to be produced until 2001 when production was moved to Sealand Road.

When the leadworks closed in 2001, the shot-tower had been in use up to that time. Many of the remaining buildings of the leadworks, with the exception of the shot tower, were demolished around 2004 to make way for urban regeneration of the canal-side area. A (very) small park by the canal close to the former site was opened in May 2006. The park contains a sculpture in stainless steel and blue glass which commemorates Chester's lead industry; 'Spheres of Reflection' by Edd Snell was inspired by lead drops impacting on the surface of water.


The proposed development at the Leadworks. The cladding of the building is, in keeping with the "heavy metal" theme, zinc.

At the end of 2007, Property Regeneration Group was granted planning permission and announced that redevelopment of the site was underway. The scheme was to comprise 33 one- and two-bedroom apartments — including an element of ‘affordable housing’ — together with 27,000 sq ft of commercial space for offices, bars and restaurants and other purposes. Most of the remaining buildings around the tower were to be demolished and the tower itself would figure as the main entrance to the upper floor flats in a four-storey extension. In mid-2008, advising engineers for the project, Chester-based consultancy Gifford stated that they themselves would move into new offices in the complex once construction work was finished. At the time, work was scheduled for completion in the autumn of 2009. In November 2008 planning permission was granted for revisions to the proposals in which changes had been made to suit the requirements of the principal potential commercial occupier. The level of affordable housing was also reduced from the original seven dwellings down to four. Property Regeneration went into administration in 2009.

In July 2011 new plans were announced by Liverpool-based Neptune Developments. These again featured housing, bars and restaurants and shops, but also include a heritage aspect and a new bridge over the canal, linking the complex with the Waitrose supermarket nearby. Planning approval for redevelopment of the site was eventually granted in October 2012, but not without considerable debate and outcry. CWaC councillor for Boughton, Cllr David Robinson said:

  • "Once consent is given and it is built we will have to live with this every single day. It has been described to me as something like a prison scene from the Italian Job and over the past week someone asked me if it was a car park being built."

As of late 2015, construction work is yet to start. In December 2015 a fire broke out at the shot-tower, believed to be caused by an electrical fault connected with the "O2" mobile phone antennae.

Sources and Links