The "Portpool" area of Chester is the reach of the River Dee downstream from the Roodee to the where "Finchett's Gutter" (the downstream end of Flookersbrook) empties into the Dee. It stretches inland as far as the Watertower at the northwest corner of the City Walls. The River Dee once washed almost against the City Walls between the Watergate and the Watertower, but silting has resulted in the movement of the river's bed away from the walls. Indeed, the Watertower, built between 1323 and 1325, once stood in the river itself, but some 400 years later, by the date of the Lavaux Map (1745) the river's course had shifted significantly. The Watertower is now some 150 meters from the River. The area is somewhat off the "beaten track" for tourists, but there are a number of historic features worth noting.
As well as this guide there is another excellent one at Chester's Old Port.
- 1 Context
- 2 The Port of Chester
- 3 Features of Interest
- 3.1 The Dee Railway Bridge
- 3.2 Gas & Electricity
- 3.3 The Workhouse
- 3.4 Old Crane Bank
- 3.5 New Crane Bank
- 3.6 Motorcycles and Crosville
- 3.7 The Canal
- 3.8 Tilston's Yard
- 3.9 Wilcox Point
- 3.10 The Cop
- 3.11 The Cheese Stage
- 3.12 The Gutter
- 4 Sources and Links
Chester has developed in different directions at various phases of it's history. Early growth from the Roman Core was within the limits of the present City Walls, followed by growth along Foregate Street. Later growth was influenced by transport links. The development of ports on the Wirral caused some growth northwards. The next phase was the the development of the Old Port area and the Canal and Boatyard area. With the coming of the railways Chester expanded northwards.
The Port of Chester
The natural and extensive anchorage which once existed on the site of the Roodee may well have influenced the Roman choice to build a fort here and it is possible that a flotilla of the "Classis Britannica" was stationed here. One of Chester's Roman tombstones on display at the Grosvenor Museum is that of a newly promoted centurion who "naufragio perit" (perished in a shipwreck). In case the body was recovered, there is a space on the tombstone for the words "Lies Here" to be inserted - but they were never added. A sandstone "quay" at the Roodee is often identified as part of the "Roman docks" although this is now thought to be a later Roman defensive structure, with the actual dock being a wooden platform at then end of a large pier-like structure extending from the "quay" out across the tidal mudflats that then occupied the site of the present day racecourse. Iron-sheathed oak piles, discovered in the late nineteenth century close to the present riverbank, suggest the existence of a substantial timber jetty. This jetty was discovered in 1886 on the site of the municipal gasworks. Here the remains of a timber wharf or jetty was found during the excavation for a new gas holder at a depth of about 6m belowground level. They were inserted into boulder clay, overlain by a stony deposit and sealed by river silts. The nature of this construction and the associated artefacts clearly suggest it was of early Roman date.
Anglo-Saxon sources imply that naval forces were stationed here in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It has been suggested that during the Dark Ages the main harbour at Chester may have been above the present weir at The Groves. From Norman times an important anchorage developed to the south of Chester Castle and explains the location of the medieval Shipgate. As silting continued (and ships drew more draught) the harbour moved progressively downriver. The most upriver remains of docks, in Chester itself, can now be seen at New Crane Bank below the boardwalk installed in the 2000's. John McGahey's "View of Chester from a Balloon" shows the Old Port c.1855. The Old Port has been linked to the Groves by the Riverside Promenade Heritage Trail.
The history of the canalisation of the Dee can be found on the page describing the history of Chester as a port. Heading downriver, the Dee makes a sharp turn south-west at Wilcox Point between the Canal and Boatyard and the eventual pouring into the Dee of Flookersbrook. Two further turns bring the Dee to its north-western course, arrow-straight down the "New Cut" towards Connah's Quay.
The entries for the City of Chester in the Domesday Book give an indication of shipping movements into the port:
- "If ships arrived at the City port or left port without the King's permission, the King and the Earl had 40s. from each manin the ships. If a ship arrived against the King's peace and despite his prohibition, the King and the Earl had both the ship itself and its crew, together with everything in it. But if it came with the King's peace and permission, those in it sold what they had without interference. But when it left the King and the Earl had 4d. from each cargo; if the King's reeve instructed those who had marten-skins not to sellto anyone until they were first shown to him and he made his purchase, whoever did not observe this instruction was fined 40s."
By the 1230s Chester was a prosperous trading centre with a market of regional importance, two fairs, and a port. In 1241, when Henry III was encamped at Rhuddlan, 3 tuns of wine and various 'wooden works', were carried to him by water from Chester. Its economy continued to expand, stimulated by royal interest and its role as a supply centre for "royal enterprise" in Wales (mostly invasion and occupation), which more than compensated for the resultant temporary interruptions to the Welsh trade. Lead and victuals were carried by water from Chester to Deganwy in 1246. The port and its anchorages, which extended from Portpool at the edge of the liberty along the western shore of Wirral to Redbank in Thurstaston, were the focus of longshore trade with north Wales, involving not only fish, timber, bark, and coal, but also slate and millstones from as far afield as Ogwen (Caern.) and Anglesey. Hemingway (Vol II, page 301) records the following as regards the port of Chester:
- That the Dee was navigable for vessels of great burden from the sea up to Chester in very ancient times is beyond all doubt and it is equally certain that early in the 14th century the navigation had been materially impeded by the shifting of the sands. The first notice we have of the latter circumstance is contained in letters patent of Richard II who releaseth to the citizens £73 10s 8d parcel of the £100 for the fee farm reserved by the charter of Edward I which the city was in arrears in which also is assigned as the reason of this indulgence the ruinous estate of the city and of the haven. Henry VI in confirming all the former charters of the city recites what great concourse in times past as well by strangers as others has been made with merchandise into this city by reason of the goodness of the port thereof and also what great trading for victuals into and out of Wales to the great profit of the city and then shows how the same port of Chester was lamentably decayed by reason of the abundance of sands which had choaked the creek and for these considerations released to the city £10 of the fee farm reserved by Edward I.
In 1282, during his campaigns in Wales, Edward I issued an order to the warden of the Cinque Ports:
- "to cause to be chosen by the counsel of the barons of those ports as shall seem most expedient ten or twelve good and strong carpenters, discreet and skilled in making barges and punts, whom he shall cause to take the road to Chester with their tools."
These carpenters were instructed to make:
- "two good and new barges, each being thirty-two oared, which ...shall ... be manned with strong and able men, and shall ...come thus manned to the King with the said barons andtheir service to Wales".
Some goods did better than others, the tonnage of cheese carried, mainly to London, doubled between 1664 and 1676 and exceeded 1,000 tons in 1683 before dwindling rapidly because of French cheese-piracy after 1689. Towards the end of the 18th century and even more so in the opening decade of the 19th, the market for foodstuffs in the expanding industrial centers of south Lancashire and north Staffordshire had a significant influence on the Cheshire cheese farmers. The cheese of south-east Cheshire could be conveyed more easily and cheaply by canal or road to the towns of the Potteries. When supply shifted from London to these nearby markets, farmers began not only to produce a faster ripening cheese than that they had produced for the London trade (which had been shipped through Chester), but also to sell their cheese after a shorter storage period. Farmers also turned to supply of fresh milk, potatoes and other vegetables for the Liverpool and Manchester markets. All these factors contributed to diminish the cheese trade through the port of Chester.
The low tide route of the River Dee ran from the Irish Sea to Chester along the bank below Parkgate, Burton, Shotwick and Blacon. This channel was prone to silting so that ships trying to get to the then port of Chester often ran aground because of the lack of water depth. Proposals to build a new channel, date as far back as 1485. Even the Romans experienced difficulties and looked to Neston and Meols, on the Wirral, to off load cargo into smaller boats to get to Chester. Further proposals were made in1684 and then in 1732 John Markay wrote a report stating that unless something positive was done, ships would soon be unable to get to Chester. An act (6 Geo. II. C. 30, R. A. 13th Jane, 1734) entitled, 'An Act to recover and preserve the Navigation of the River Dee, in the county palatine of Chester,' made Nathaniel Kinderley, his heirs and assigns, appointed undertakers of the navigation, and authorized them to make the river navigable to Wilcox Point, with 16 feet water in moderate spring tides. A major construction programme began to divert the course of the river. Known as the "New Cut", the diversion redirected the Dee through an artificial channel some 10 miles long from the city towards Connah's Quay, and took the river five miles south of its original course. The work was planned and undertaken by engineers from the Netherlands and paid for by local merchants and Chester Corporation. In 1737, the "New Cut" was opened and the whole of the works completed before the 25th of March, 1740. The New Cut meant that subsequently large tracts of land could be reclaimed - part of this area is now known as Sealand, where a large retail park and trading estate currently exist. The diversion failed to solve the problem of the Dee silting up.
By 1771 the people of Chester, fearing that the construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal would divert even more trade away from their city to Liverpool, announced in the Press that they would be applying to build a canal between Middlewich, on the Trent and Mersey, and Chester. The River Dee Company had recently spent £80,000 on improvements to the river, but without a connection to the growing canal network, there was little future for the river or the Port of Chester. In 1772 New Crane Wharf on the River Dee, with its large warehouses and Harbour Master's house, was completed. The connection between the canal and the River Dee was opened in 1776.
The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) saw major economic changes in Chester and had some effect on the port. Outbreaks of disorder caused by high bread prices spread throughout Britain. Wheat yields in 1795 were extremely low, due to bad weather as well as the war. There had also been a poor harvest in 1794, followed by an extremely cold winter, which stopped farmers from working on the land. The spring of 1795 again produced bad weather, so that supplies to the markets were reduced and there were riots in Chester. The war against revolutionary France had so disrupted European and Atlantic trade that it prevented the import of sufficient grain to make up the shortfall. What followed was a full-blown crisis, as food prices soared. Some areas seemed on the brink of famine. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had helped prop up the ailing ship-building industry of Chester, but peace brought a major economic slump.
The port declined so drastically that by 1840 Chester's wharves were of little importance. The related activity of ropemaking survived throughout the 19th century, but only 42 men worked in the trade in 1831, and the important ropewalk of Jonathan Whittle and Sons closed in 1834.
Chester was not only a port but a noted centre for ship building. Thirty ships were owned at Chester in 1672, and at least 25 (totalling 1,925 tons) in 1701, though not all were locally built. The industry seems to have expanded during the 1690s, when the company of Drawers of Dee complained that a new shipyard would encroach on the ground where they hung their fishing nets. The number of roperies on the Roodee had also grown by the 1690s. In Lysons "Magna Britannia" (1810) is written:
- There are now more ships built at Chester than at Liverpool, they being in great estimation among the merchants at that and other principal sea ports of England and Scotland as particularly well founded and in the mariner's phrase "sea-worthy".
Shipbuilding was an industry of some importance to the economy of the River Dee in the eighteenth century. The estuary of the Dee and the river at Chester had two advantages as a shipbuilding centre. Firstly, there were plentiful supplies of oak timber, at least in the early years of the eighteenth century; and, secondly, there were sheltered beaches and creeks with easy communications thereto, which enabled shipbuilding to be carried on cheaply. Other advantages became apparent later, and included a nearby iron industry (capable of supplying iron bolts, knees, anchors and chains) and rope- and sail-making concerns. Timber supplies became a problem later in the century, since a good deal of local timber was sent to the shipyards of London and the outports. Whitehaven shipbuilders, for example, customarily obtained timber from Flintshire and Cheshire, but fears were being expressed in the 1760s that supplies would soon become exhausted. The principal shipbuilders at Chester in the late eighteenth century were Joseph and John Troughton, and Peter Jackson, who built their vessels on the banks of the River Dee in the "Old Port" area. The earliest reference of shipbuilding on the Roodee, so far found, is of some concern being expressed by the city fathers at the practices of Alderman George Mainwaring who was building in the early 1680s. By 1745, a gentleman named Hinks was building HMS Swan for the Admiralty.
Hanshall, second Editor of the Chronicle, provides a contemporary picture of the Crane boat-yards about 1816, which shows how things were already changing. While Chester's shipbuilding was still on the increase, with wood being brought down the Dee from Wales, Liverpool is just beginning to pass Chester in total tonnage built:
- "Beyond the Watergate are Crane-street, Back Crane-street, and Paradise Row, the whole of which lead to the wharfs on the river. For a number of years Chester has carried on a considerable business in shipbuilding. Within the last ten years the trade has wonderfully increased, and even now it is not unusual to see ten or a dozen vessels on the stocks at a time. In fact, there are nearly as many ships built in Chester as in Liverpool, and the former have always a decided preference from the merchants. Indeed, Chester lies particularly convenient for the trade, as by the approximation of the Dee, timber is every season floated down from the almost exhaustless woods of Wales, at a trifling expense and without the least risk. The principal shipwright in Chester is Mr. Cortney, but Mr. Troughton’s is the oldest establishment. There were lately nearly 250 hands employed in the business, two-thirds of whom were in Mr. Cortney's yard, but the trade is at present flat. Six vessels of war have been built by him, and within the last two years (1814-15) two corvettes and two sloops of war, The Cyrus, The Mersey, The Eden, and The Levant, from twenty to thirty guns each. The firm of Mulvey and Co., formerly of Frodsham, have established a yard near the Crane."
Between 1814 and 1826 as many as 133 vessels were built and registered at Chester, with an average size of 126 tons. Only one shipyard was in operation by 1831, and although it built some large vessels the staple product from 1820 to 1850 was Mersey flats. In 1816 Courtney published an advert in the local press (Chester Chronicle, 8th November) in which he expressly refers to depression of the trade. In April 1817 he submitted a petition "wishing to surrender his lease of timberyard on foreland of Roodee because of the depressed state of his trade". The fortunes of shipbuilding in Chester was not helped by a major fire at Courney's yard. According to the New Monthly Magazine of 1st July 1817:
- "On June 10th, a fire broke out in the shipyard of Mr Courtney, Chester, and spread with such rapidity as to occasion considerable loss before it could be subdued."
The Lancaster Gazette for Saturday 14th June 1817 goes into greater detail:
- "A dreadful fire broke out in the ship-yard of Mr. Cortney in Chester on Tuesday se'nnight. It began in the smithy and adjacent buildings, and no exertion could prevent the flames from spreading over the whole of the east side of the yard. The saw-pit, huts, tool-room, moulding-rooms, &c. soon presented one great mass of fire. It was at mid-day, and in about two hours all this valuable property was destroyed. The loss which Mr Cortney has sustained by this calamity is great: he has carried on with high respectability one of the largest ship-building establishments in that part of England; and gave employment to a great number of hands."
The fire appears to have spelt doom for the Courtney shipyard. As noted above he had been struggling for some time and a clear proof of how difficult things had become is found in an advert placed in the Chester Cronicle on the 8th November 1816 where he offers boatyard facilities at what appear to be vastly reduced rates and offers to extend credit to owners. One can only assume that the fire would have occurred when he was building vessels on credit and therefor that the loss would have been magnified considerably.
Courtney, for a ship-builder appears to have died (1821) in relative poverty, although his last ship, the 400 ton "Liverpool" was launched on 31st May 1821 after his death. The name of the ship is ironic given the fate of the Port of Chester in the face of the enormous growth of Liverpool as a shipbuilding and harbour city. William Cortney, "late of the City and Diocese of Chester, Ship Builder, deceased" died intestate, and two years after his death his widow Elizabeth as administratrix was bound over on 4th November 1823, under a penalty of £200 payable to the Bishop of Chester, to provide letters of administration within a year. The document of administration is endorsed by hand on the reverse:
- "The eleventh day of November 1823. The within named Elizabeth Cortney took the usual oath of an Administratrix in common form, and she also made oath that the Personal Estate and Effects of the Intestate within the Diocese of Chester were under the value of One Hundred Pounds."
The largest ship constructed at Chester was the 1367 (or 1340) ton (later converted to a barque of 1401 ton) Gitana (the name is Spanish for "Gypsy Girl") which was built in 1861 by Nathaniel Cox at the Roodee Iron Shipbuilding Company for Charles Moore and co possibly on behalf of his sometime partner Robert Carlyle. She was initially registered in London then sold to Edward Bates and re-registered in Liverpool. Around 1880 she was sold to R. W. leyland and Co. Liverpool. The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has an oil painting of her (BHC3363) by Richard Ball Spencer off Dover in 1872, full-rigged and flying both her code number and a white house flag, and calling for a pilot. She foundered off Cape Horn, 23 April 1896, when taking a cargo of nitrate from Iquique (Chile) to Hamburg. The ship and others built at Chester are mentioned in the testimonials published in The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality of 26th October 1861. These seem to indicate that the shipyard was already was already stuggling and in need of funding.
Shipyards at the Roodee and Crane Bank were in operation until 1869, but shipbuilding did not return to the Roodee after the 1869 closure. There is some suggestion that Troughton's yard at the Roodee closed after falling clinker from a passing train started a fire in 1845. William Roberts shipyard, building both working boats and pleasure craft operated on the Dee under Chester Castle until around 1906 when it moved to the Canal and Boatyard. The Shropshire Union Canal Company built narrowboats and Mersey flats at Tower Wharf until 1913.
In 1921 Tower Wharf was leased by Harry Taylor when the Shropshire Union Railway & Canal Company ceased carrying. Prior to 1921, Taylors had a yard on the Dee Basin alongside South View Road. The Dee Basin Slipways were established by Joseph Harry Taylor about 1913. Initially, Taylors operated the Graving Dock, and one of the 90 ft bays - the other half was operated by a Mr Horne, Canal Carrier of Cambrian Road. They also worked out of what was known as "Dandy's Shed". Dandy's Shed was removed when the North Basin was excavated. Taylor’s became very well known to the post-war pleasure boat fraternity as the builders of a well-respected range of elegant mahogany canal cruisers in the 1950s and ‘60s. Much of their other work was maintaining river cruisers and fishing boats from the Dee. The Taylor family owned and ran the yard until 1972. Bithells Boats then took over the yard for two years before David Jones leased the proprty in 1974. In 2005 there was disappointment over the failure of a Lottery bid which would have restored the yard. It had been supported by waterway enthusiasts including Mr Taylor’s grandson Geoff Taylor, who lives in nearby Cambrian View. Some of the older photographs on this page are reproductions of the informative signage used along the canal and are from Mr Taylor's collection. Taylor's Boatyard still operates under that name, although the Taylor family no-longer have a share in the business.
Slavery and Piracy
The only deep-sea trade from Chester appears to be with Newfoundland, otherwise oceanic commerce was at best spasmodic. There had been early commercial relationships between Chester and Newfoundland, and Chester shipping was employed in this trade as early as 1530. One Chester vessel was in the trade in 1700, carrying her stock-fish cargo to Cadiz for discharge;" and later in the eighteenth century, perhaps as a consequence of John Rogers establishing a Newfoundland Company in the 1770s, trade was intensified. Most vessels sailed on a triangular route, as, for example, did the Nimrod, William Ash master, which arrived at Chester in 1774 from Barcelona, Alicante and Malaga, laden with raisins, nuts, olive-oil, corkwood, Spanish wine, olives, almonds and anchovies. She had previously left Chester for Newfoundland, and from thence had sailed to Barcelona with fish "British taken and cured". After discharging her fish cargo at Barcelona she took on board her appetising freight, consigned to John Rogers, the Chester merchant who had organised the Newfoundland Company. Not all the vessels in the trade to Newfoundland, however, were exclusively owned in Chester, nor was it invariably the custom to register vessels at the British port. The Dee, although described as "of Chester", was officially registered at St. Johns, Newfoundland in October 1782, and was owned jointly by Robert Roberts of St. Johns and William Thomas, a Chester merchant.
A few Chester vessels engaged in the slave trade. Gomer Williams quotes the reports of two slave-ship masters who, in March 1757, witnessed the destruction of the Black Prince, of Chester, commanded by Captain William Creevey (of Liverpool), putative father of the celebrated diarist Thomas Creevey. The Black Prince, together with some Liverpool slavers, was attacked by two French men-of-war whilst at anchor at Melimba Roads, off the coast of Africa, in March 1757. Creevey, in the Black Prince, appears to have offered spirited resistance to the French attack, but was forced to run his vessel ashore, and on the following day the French burnt her. Creevey, helped by the Africans, was able to make his way home by way of Rotterdam. This had not been the first Chester venture into the slave trade. The snow Saint George was commissioned for a slaving voyage when, in 1750, an Admiralty pass was obtained for her voyage from Chester to Africa and America: she carried eight guns, had a crew of 29, measured 90 tons burthen, and was commanded by Joseph Seaman. Another vessel employed in slaving in the 1770s was the Juno, of Chester, a ship of 120 tons, having four guns and 25 men in 1773 (but carrying eight guns and 30 men in 1775), commanded by Thomas Eagles. A third vessel was the True Blue, of Chester, a snow of 90 tons, six guns and 25 men, commanded by Thomas Pountney, fitted out to sail from the River Dee in March 1773. But Chester's participation in slaving was negligible compared with the activity at Liverpool and Bristol.
There were few Chester privateers, although the Empress of Russia is perhaps worthy of note, since she must have been one of the largest vessels fitted out in the River Dee. Her letter of marque, granted in August 1779, gave as her master William Briggs, her crew as 100 (although her Admiralty pass issued in July recorded the number of crew as 120), and she was armed with 24 guns and two swivels; she was of 300 tons burthen.
Features of Interest
A good way to explore the Portpool area involves a walk along the riverbank path from the Roodee down towards Crane Bank and on towards "The Cop". The city end of the path can be picked-up near Chester Castle. As noted elsewhere in this article parts of the path may be gated-off on race days. Only some of historic features are visible today and the list of sources and links below gives details of those which have been revealed by archaeological and historical research.
As well as this guide there are a few pages on Steve Howe's excellent "Chester's Old Port" which go into much detail as regards conservation controversies about the historic landscape and architecture.
The Dee Railway Bridge
In late 1846, the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway, later to become part of the Great Western Railway, first carried traffic. From Saltney Junction, access was gained to Chester via the Chester & Holyhead Railway. This latter line was carried over the River Dee, in the same place where it crosses today, by three 98-foot spans of cast-iron girders resting on stone piers. Both the bridge and the line had been designed by the great railway engineer, Robert Stephenson. The design was not unlike that of the Tay Bridge, which collapsed some thirty years later. Robert Stephenson was the son of George, of Rocket fame, who was often called the ‘father’ of the railways. Although a span of some 80 m (250 ft) was called for, Stephenson’s bridge had just two stone piers because of concerns about the foundations in the river bed; these were linked by a construction of cast-iron girders on which oak joists were laid that supported the twin tracks.
One thing which immediately strikes the visitor is that the railway bridge is much lower than the Grosvenor Bridge just a short distance upstream. The Dee railway bridge dates from 1846, while the Grosvenor Bridge was completed in 1833. Nothing could tell more clearly of the decline of "tall ships" plying their way to Chester over that 13 year period. When the Grosvenor Bridge was built it was the longest existing single-span stone arch road bridge in the world – at 200 feet across and 60 feet high, a record it held for thirty years. It is still the longest single masonry arch in the UK and number 19 in the world. There may however be other reasons why the Grosvenor Bridge was built on such a spectacular a scale: perhaps an urge on the part of the Grosvenors to have an impressive bridge at the end of their driveway leading to the racecourse.
The River Dee bridge first opened to local freight traffic on 4 November 1846, following its examination and approval by an inspector from the government’s Board of Trade. Additional details emerging from the newspapers and inquest following the disaster revealed that painters working on the structure had observed large deflections of several inches in the girders shortly after this examination. However, neither Stephenson nor his staff seemed to have been informed of the discovery. Just before the bridge was opened to the public, a small fracture was detected near the joint between two girders. Stephenson was made aware of this and deduced it was the result of a casting defect. Piles were placed to temporarily support the faulty girder and a new section was cast as a replacement.
On 24 May 1847, the driver of the 18:15 Chester-Ruabon train noticed something was amiss as his train, crossing the span of the bridge closest to Saltney, began to vibrate strongly. The train had left Chester Station and consisted of one first-class carriage, two second class carriages, and a luggage-van; but it is stated that there were not more than two dozen passengers.
The driver boldly opened his throttle to clear the bridge and no sooner had he reached the bank than the bridge collapsed into the Dee, carrying away his unfortunate fireman, who was dashed against the stonework of the bridge and killed. The death toll included a guard, two coachmen and a few passengers (sources vary). Sixteen people (sources again vary) were badly injured, which is surprising considering that the whole train, except the engine, fell into the swirling waters of the tidal River Dee.
Curiously, Stephenson himself had inspected the bridge for safety earlier on the very same day. He had noted that hot coals falling from passing trains could possibly set the wooden parts of the bridge structure alight and had ordered that the bridge deck be covered with tons of track ballast to prevent the oak beams supporting the track from catching fire. Undoubtedly, this massive loading of the structure with crushed stone contributed to the disaster. The ballast was laid in the afternoon, an operation completed just before the ill-fated train left Chester station at 6.15 pm. Many locals saw the accident and rushed to the aid of survivors. A number of observers provided accident inspectors with eyewitness accounts.
The brave driver, whose name was Clayton, had just seen his fireman slain, but not only drove his train to Saltney to summon help, yet then recrossed the bridge on the other track to warn oncoming traffic. Stephenson's bridge design was condemned by the inspector of railways as being too weak and generally unsound. The Official Inquiry (one of the first formal inquiries into a structural failure) stated:
- "The train passed safely over the first and centre openings or arches, and the engine appears to have reached the middle of the third opening, or within about 50 feet of the end of the bridge before the driver felt any sinking. When he did feel it, he states, that he instantly put on his full steam, and by the momentum succeeded in clearing the bridge with his engine, and dragging the tender up with him. The stoker who was upon the tender was thrown off upon the land, and killed. The carriages, with all the passengers, were precipitated into the river, a depth of 36 feet to the surface of the water, which, at the time of the accident, was about 10 feet deep in the middle. The tender, having got off the line, was dragged up, rubbing hard against the parapet wall at the end of the bridge, as is evident from the stone-work of the wall being much disturbed; and was left standing upright at about 50 feet from the water's edge, and three feet off the rails; the engine having broken away from it, and proceeded with the driver (the only individual that escaped) to the next station."
The coroner’s inquest of the River Dee bridge collapse, complete with jury, expert testimony and eyewitnesses, appears remarkably modern in its form and conduct. Evidence was collected, firsthand reports recorded and drawings from the ‘crime’ scene prepared. However, the absence of a clear or agreed upon charge (manslaughter, professional negligence, human error?) makes the subject and purpose of the proceedings uncertain and its verdict questionable by modern standards of evidence and proof.
The investigation was one of the first major inquiries conducted by the newly-formed Railway Inspectorate. The lead investigator was Captain Lintorn Simmons of the Royal Engineers, and his report suggested that repeated flexing of the girder weakened it substantially. He examined the broken parts of the main girder, and confirmed that it had broken in two places, with the first break occurring at the centre. He tested the remaining girders by driving a locomotive across them, and found that they deflected by several inches under the moving load. His conclusion was that the design was basically flawed, and that the wrought iron trusses fixed to the girders did not reinforce the girders at all. The same conclusion was reached by the jury at the inquest. Stephenson's design had depended on the wrought iron trusses to strengthen the final structures, but they were anchored on the cast iron girders themselves, and so deformed with any strain on the bridge.
The following article comparing the Dee Bridge Disaster and the Tay Bridge Disaster appeared in the "Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser and Cheshire Shropshire and North Wales Register" on the 17th January 1880:
- THE DEE RAILWAY BRIDGE DISASTER: Since the breaking down of the girder bridge over the river Dee, at Chester, thirty-three years ago, no railway calamity has occurred in this country of so appalling a nature as that which took place at the bridge over the Tay, near Dundee, on the night of Sunday, the 28th of Decem- ber, 1879. In magnitude, indeed, as well as, at present, in the circumstances of mystery and gloom in which the recent disaster is enveloped, the fall of the Dee viaduct is not to be compared with that of the Scottish structure. We were present at the inquest on the former occasion, and can never forget the intense excitement of those present in the court, an excitement which communicated itself in an unwonted manner, not only to the legal gentlemen concerned in the conduct of the case, but to the coroner, the magistrates, and the witnesses into the bargain. On that occasion, Major-General Pasley, one of the bravest officers who ever illustrated the distinguished corps for which he did so much, a man who made a plaything of death, trembled, turned pale, and became almost speechless under examination; so sorely did he feel the responsibility of having, some few months before, reported favorably as to the construction of the bridge. But the span of the Dee Bridge was only 108 feet. The girders which crossed that river were each formed of cast iron, in three pieces, bolted together, and trussed by wrought iron tension rods. The design was provided, under the sanction of Mr Robert Stephenson, by an engineer who was unique in his power of dealing with figures, but whose want of geometric sense, which is nurtured and invigorated by an early acquaintance with Euclid, was in this case unhappily illustrated. It was our opinion at the time, and one which has been rather confirmed than weakened by the reflections of a third of a century, that these truss rods were so disposed as to weaken, rather than to strengthen, the girders. The resistance to their strain was in the same direction as the resistance of the breaking weight. It came out on the evidence, with singular clearness, that the additional weight of a few inches thick of gravel which had been spread on the platform of the bridge, on the morning of the accident, had brought the insistent load so near the sustaining power of the bridge, that the weight and jar of the first train that went over the loaded structure were fatal. In our railway bridges and other building we have been apt to give full and proper attention, especially since the Dee Bridge fracture, to the question of breaking load and its due margin. We are taking for graated - and no doubt in so doing are ouly rendering common justice to the designers and constructors of the bridge - that the idea of the breaking down of the girder under the sheer weight of the train, as an efficient cause, is one that may be at once dismisssd from the mind. The structure is spoken of as remarkable for lightness and airy grace. But we have every confidence that neither the Scottish engineer nor the inspecting officer of the Board of Trade wolld have allowed themselves to make so closo an approach to the margin of safety as far as breaking weight was concerned. The additional surface exposed by the train to the wind, which has been compared by a naval observer to the hoisting of a sail of a vessel, may have added just that degree of resistance which passed the margin of the holding-down power of the structure. In case of a fracture under the weight of the train, the girder may be expected to be found very nearly under its original site. In case of an overturning of the structure by the wind, a sensible movement to the leeward may be anticipated.
Nowadays, it is possible to cross the river at this point by a footbridge (this has steep steps at either end) and L. T. C. Rolt (d.1974 - writer of "Red for Danger: A History of Railway Accidents and Railway Safety" (1955)) first gained his interest in trains while 'spotting' them from the trembling wooden footbridge as they passed on the far more sturdy replacement of the original bridge. Rolt was born in Chester and there is a commemorative plaque for him on the bridge by the canal dry dock.
Gas & Electricity
In 1851, the Roodee Gas Company (using an engineer from Birkenhead gasworks, Samual Highfield) built a gas works on land to the west of the railway viaduct (first used in 1846), which amalgamated with the Chester Gas Light Company (of Cuppin Street) in 1856 to form the Chester United Gas Co. The land upon which the gasworks was built had formerly been home to a paper factory (owned by George Harrison in 1829) and an iron foundry from the 1790's to the 1840's. John Davies operated a block and tackle manufacturing business here in 1864.
The Roodee gas works were rebuilt in 1880 and a series of Acts of Parliament extended the area of supply to surrounding villages. Despite the switch-over to electric lighting in the city from 1905 onwards the gasworks continued to operate, supplying the domestic market until 1966 when the gasworks closed, after pipelines had been laid to connect west Cheshire with Lancashire, north Wales, and the works at Ellesmere Port. The gasworks was slightly damaged by bombing in WW2, and on 28th November 1940 and 1st January 1941 bombs hit the gasworks causing slight damage. Other bombing raids hit the Roodee, possibly in one of several attempts to hit the gasworks, or the railway bridge (which was the main route into north Wales). Of the six civilian deaths in Chester from bombing one was Elizabeth Moore (aged 66) who was killed at home at 9 Crane Bank (later Kitchen Street/Crane Street), next to the gasworks during the January 1941 attack.
Historical maps from this period also show the Electric Light Building on Crane Street, designed by I. Matthews Jones and built in 1896 for the Chester Corporation. This building has local historical importance – being associated with a pioneering municipal undertaking to provide electrification to local farms. Parts of the facade frontage of it survive. Three steam-driven generators provided direct current, saving reserve power to batteries. After consulting with the famous physicist, Lord Kelvin, the station was opened under Prof. Kennedy, and later run by the city electrical engineers F. Thursfield (until 1904) and S. E Britton (until 1946). Electricity was in heavy demand so that the station was soon enlarged and, in 1913, linked to the new hydro-electric power station by the Old Dee Bridge. By 1923 Queensferry Power Station took over electric supply with converters at this station. The front of the building was saved by the Canal Basin Forum and the people of Chester in 1999. It was renovated by George Wimpey North West Limited.
The idea of a tram service from the station to the town centre was promoted in 1877 by T. Lloyd, manager of the Liverpool tramways. A private limited company was formed under an Act of 1878 and laid standard-gauge tracks from the station to Saltney via City Road, Foregate Street, Eastgate Street, Bridge Street, Grosvenor Street, Grosvenor Road, and Hough Green, with a depot near the station. Lloyd was the first manager, and horse-drawn services started in 1879. The company also ran horse buses to Bache, Christleton, and Hoole. The Act permitted Chester corporation to buy the undertaking after 21 years, and the city made plans to do so after it opened the electricity generating plant in 1896. Under an Act of 1901 the corporation bought the tramway company, electrified the system, and relaid the tracks at a gauge of 3ft. 6in. Horse buses were used while the work was under way but the corporation then disposed of them. Electric tram services from the High Cross to Saltney in one direction and the Chester Station in the other began in 1903, and were extended eastwards in 1906 as far as the city boundary in Tarvin and Christleton roads. The old tramway company's manager appointed in 1885, John Gardner, served the corporation in the same capacity until 1915. By the early 1920s the tracks needed replacing and although the trams ran at a profit, carrying 2 million passengers a year at the start of the decade and 4 million by the end, they were not recouping any of the capital outlay. The council replaced the tracks between the castle and Saltney in 1921 but accepted a report of 1928 that the cost of overhauling the whole system was too great and that it ought to abandon trams in favour of motor buses. A ballot of ratepayers supported the change, and the last tram ran in 1930.
There were several Herbal Breweries in the area. Herbal beers have been brewed for centuries, but non-alcoholic versions were promoted in the Victorian era by the temperance movement attempting to combat the excessive consumption of gin and beer by the working classes. Varieties such as dandelion and burdock and ginger beer survived, and the addition of fruit flavours to aerated mineral water produced lemonade, orangeade, raspberryade etc. Soda water manufacturers were also into this market and from the early 1900s with the advent of mass glass bottle production, firms in Chester included Laycocks in Linenhall Street, and the Dee and Cestrian Mineral Water Companies. These firms combined in 1938 to become Dee, Cestrian & Laycocks opening a bottling plant at the Portland Works on Station Road in 1945. The company was wound up in 1968.
In October 1691, the churchwardens of St Olave's parish requested the lease of land on which to build 'conveniencys' in order to set the poor to work. Following the Workhouse Test Act of 1723, several separate parish workhouses were set up in Chester. St Johns opened one in 1724, and there was one in Handbridge by 1730. Another existed in St Oswald's parish and, in 1751, Chester Cathedral opened its own poor-house. Eventually it was decided to combine all these into one facility for which all the parishes would contribute.
Construction of the Chester Workhouse or "House of Industry" was started on Kitchen Street in 1757. The following year work began on a "four square rectangular brick building round a courtyard, at the north west extremity of the Roodee". 200 poor were admitted immediately. Conditions were harsh: the Guardians had the power "to search for paupers, who were to be relieved entirely within the workhouse". They could be employed within it or hired out and pauper children could be apprenticed. The mothers of bastard children could be whipped and humiliated by wearing a badge.
Tragedy struck ten years later – at 2am on 24th February 1767, a disastrous fire broke out at the Roodee workhouse used for spinning cotton. The building, which then housed 200 children in addition to the adults, was totally destroyed. The fatalities included sixty children, twelve men and five women — seventy-seven in all. A report in the London Chronicle recounted the horrifying scenes of inmates running naked from the building, while others jumped from windows and the roof. A party of thirty men was employed to dig out the bones and dead bodies but without success — it was assumed that they had all burnt to ashes.
Conditions in the workhouse, even after rebuilding were still not good. A report recorded:
- "The Poor-house is situated near the river, the lodging and other rooms large and well aired; 15 or 16 beds in a room, made of chaff or straw, and much infested with bugs. No small apartments for married people. The Poor in the house at presentare chiefly aged persons and children. Old women spin flax and pick oakum. Children at 10 years of age are sent as apprentices to Manchester and other places. About 11 deaths annually in the house." (1797 Survey of the Poor in England).
The annual numbers of inmates rose from 2,724 in 1810-11 to to 7,011 in 1817-18. This is a huge number given that by 1801, including the suburbs, the entire population of Chester had grown to 16,095, was 17,344 by 1811 and 21,516 by 1821. It is unlikely that one third of the population of Chester were paupers, so it must be assumed that there is a hidden factor in the numbers. This could be multiple admissions of the same people or the arrival in Chester of paupers from outside whose home parish offered no relief, especially after harvests and in winter. There was also the effect of the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and the econimic downturn which followed. Because of the city’s vulnerability to migrants, the guardians and parish officials gave close attention to settlement and removal. Before 1846, the Act allowed parish overseers to remove paupers born elsewhere to their birth parish as soon as they applied for poor relief, but the legality of the removal had to be approved by a court of law.
The House of Industry was extended in 1819 by the addition of a block for "pauper lunatics" (a term no-longer in use) on the west side of the building. This cost about £700 and averaged around twenty-two inmates. A school for 50 infant paupers was added in 1823 at a cost of £523. In 1821, a warm bath was installed in the main house. There was no workhouse hospital until the workhouse smallpox epidemic of 1841 encouraged the Guardians to convert the workhouse asylum into a hospital in 1842, and also to apply the 1840 Vaccination Extension Act, contracting with ten medical practitioners to offer free voluntary smallpox vaccination. The newly converted workhouse hospital admitted "infectious paupers", but did not have any separate receiving wards for isolation prior to medical inspection. The quiet "feeble-minded paupers" now mixed freely with other inmates, but the "violent troublesome lunatics" were sent to the Cheshire county Asylum. After the 1845 Lunacy Act, the workhouse was subject to inspection by the lunacy commissioners who regularly commented on the lack of medical supervision, the unsuitable accommodation, the lack of hygiene and the poor bedding.
The local newspapers carried regular reports of trouble from the inmates – fighting, turning up drunk, or refusing to work. Hemingway in 1831 wrote of the Chester Workhouse at the Roodee in glowing terms:
- "There are few places in the kingdom where the comforts of the poor are so efficiently provided for, as in this institution. The board of guardians meet every Thursday, when each individual case of the out-poor is brought before them; and when each inmate of the house is at liberty to state his complaint, if he have any to prefer. The internal management is truly excellent, and exhibits an example that may be advantageously followed by any work-house in the nation. The food of the inmates is good and nutritious; their treatment, gentle and humane, while an appearance of cleanliness and an air of comparative comfort are prominently discoverable throughout the whole of the little community. For 20 years, Mr. Jarvis has had the superintendence and management of the house affairs, and it is to his humanity and unceasing attentions, with those of Mrs. Jarvis, who is matron of the house, that is to be attributed this excellent state of its internal government."
However, despite Hemingways seemingly idyllic description, the workhouse was not above reproach: in 1858 a Doctor Bedford challenged the Board of Guardians with various complaints including the fact that as it was sited next to the Gas Works and on the river bank the building was often shrouded in fog and the terrible fumes from the Works enveloped the area. They laughed at his concerns, talked over him and generally ignored his worries. The Cheshire Observer took up the fight and lambasted the Guardians as having “at least one skeleton in the cupboard” as they had discovered that the "casual poor" – both men and women – slept on bareboards, without a fire, clothing or straw, huddled together under a thin sheet in even the worst winter weather. The newspaper also highlighted the fact that children were crammed together, the sick sleeping next to the more robust and that conditions weren’t much better for the longer term inmates. As a result of this crusade a Poor Law Inspector visited and reported the institution as providing "inadequate care". However conditions would have to get even worse before improvements were made. Details of the various arguments over the management of the Roodee workhouse can be found in the links and references cited below.
In 1873 a new Union Workhouse was founded in Hoole and by 1878 the Roodee premises had been taken over by "The Davies Confectionery", making jam and preserved fruit. Before 1890 the building was sold to Williams Preserves. In 1908 the building was destroyed by fire and the 1910 ordinance survey shows the site as vacant. The gasworks then expanded onto a portion of the site.
Old Crane Bank
During the 19th century and early part of the 20th, there were numerous inns and taverns around the Crane Wharf area supplying the needs of those working at the port and the sailors who visited it. Nearest to the dock was The Flint & Bagillt Boathouse, also known as The Flint Boathouse Inn. Further details of pubs in the area can be found on the Old Pubs of Chester site. The boatmen frequently over-indulged: on November 13, 1869 at the Chester City Police Court:
- "James Jones, boatman, Staffordshire, was charged by PC Rowe with being drunk and incapable in the Slate Yard, at the end of Crane Street. Ordered to contribute 2s 6d to the poor box.".
The abovementioned inn was also the scene of inquests, on 6th May 1871:
- Mr Tatlock, the deputy coroner, held an inquest on Tuesday at the Flint Boat House, Crane Bank, on the body of a male child found early the same day by a boatman named William Morris, at the Hoole Lane Locks. The child was found rolled up in a piece of lilac, and a copy of the Chester Chronicle of the 3rd of December, 1870. Although the body was in an advanced state of decomposition, the water had not penetrated the paper quite through. A verdict of “Found drowned” was returned.
New Crane Bank
The long warehouse, (in 2020 sea cadet corps premises), forms a block with a dwelling (No.7) and 3 cottages. This former warehouse, approximately 40 x 8m in plan, dates from the 1750s or 1760s, with the north end rebuilt in the 19th Cent after a fire. The cottages are somewhat later than the former warehouse. All are in brown brick in irregular bond, with grey slate roofs. The former warehouse is on three storeys with the rebuilt north-west end slightly taller than the C18 work; the cottages are 2-storeys.
The north-east front of the warehouse has altered first-storey openings; two 3-storey bays of loading doors, with heavy timber lintels to the second storey and framed and boarded double doors of original type to second storey of south-east bay and third storey of north-west bay, under hipped slated canopies projecting from the roof, formerly with hoisting gear; cambered brick heads to unaltered window and door openings; the second and third storey each has a 3-pane fixed-light window south-east of the south-east loading doors, 2 between the south-east and north-west loading doors and 3 north-west of the north-west doors. The canted north-west corner has altered single loading doors; 2 ridge chimneys. The north-west end of the warehouse has altered openings to a 3-storey bank of former loading doors to the river.
The north-east front of the 3 cottages have altered doors; a boarded coal-chute between Nos 1 and 3 and a blocked opening to No.5; Nos 1 and 3 have one window, No.5 two windows, all 12-pane horizontal-sliding sashes; a diminishing ridge chimney of brick between Nos 1 and 3; plain rendered brick ridge chimney to No.5.
From 18th Nov 1942 there exists a "Contract and conditions of sale between Chester Corporation and the Central Electricity Board of land at Crane Bank together with the Crane Tobacco Factory then in the occupation of Imperial of Tobacco Company Ltd. and the cottage No. 6 Old Crane Bank then in the occupation of A.H. Powell, containing 919 square yards". This would seem to imply that the warehouse was a tobacco factory. From ZC82C we can see that this was purchased in 1898 and 1910 from Edward Dixon and others named and John Meadows Frost and William Henry Denson, respectively. A part of the land sold to the Central Electricity Board in 1942 is still occupied with switch-gear and a pylon. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Chester vessels played some part in the tobacco trade from Virginia and Maryland, probably supporting the snuff manufacture at the Dee Mills. Chester was one of the ports which ceased to have any direct interest in tobacco, but early in the eighteenth century some local vessels had been active, notably the Providence, 100 tons, built at Wexford in 1696, which took European goods from Chester to Rappahannock in 1701, returning to Chester with 196 hogs-heads of tobacco. The Exchange, of 90 tons, built at Parkgate in 1701, which made two voyages to James River in 1702 and 1703, was another, but she discharged her cargo of tobacco at London, and sailed on her return to James River in ballast. Another vessel, the Griffin's Head, of Chester, of 100 tons, built at Chester in 1700, took European goods from Chester to James River in 1702, and returned to Chester in the same year with 256 hogsheads and one chest of tobacco.
In 2003, as part of repair and flood defence work in the Old Port area of Chester, three small trenches were excavated with the specific aim of finding the remains of three cranes. Remains associated with two crane bases were found. Remains of the third crane were not located, but an archaeological horizon comprising a sandstone and cobbled surface was encountered within the third trench. This suggested the survival of further riverside features in this area of the Old Port.
Motorcycles and Crosville
C. Edmund and Co. Crane Bank, Chester, produced motorcycles from 1911 (or perhaps earlier, according to some sources the brand existed from 1907) to 1926. Charles Edmund used various types of engines in his machines, these included JAP, MAG, Barr & Stroud, Blackburne, Green, Villiers and Fafnir. This early postwar machine has the 2 ¾ HP JAP engine with bore and stroke dimensions of 70×76 mm, Best and Lloyd drip feed lubrication and Enfield two speed gear. There was an alternative model with 2 speed Burman gearbox and chain cum belt transmission.
The Edmund’s most interesting feature probably is its unusual sprung sub frame. The weight of the rider is supported by two long leaf-springs that stretch from under the saddle to the rear carrier stays. Short coil springs fitted to the bottom of the stays act as shock absorbers. The top frame tube, which is pivoted at the steering head-stock, moves vertically with the saddle and footrests are fixed to the extended saddle pillar which passes through the seat tube. Some models also had an innovative front suspension where the forks could pivot against a leaf-spring.
Production had to be interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, but in 1919 it was picked up again with two new models, one with a 293cc JAP engine with a Burman two-speed gearbox and a chain-cum-belt drive and one with a 293cc -Union two-stroke engine with an Enfield two-speed gearbox and full chain drive. In 1921 the two-stroke disappeared from the market and a new model was introduced with a 348cc Blackburne side valve engine. In 1922 there was a model with a 545cc Blackburne engine that was only produced that year, as well as a model with the 348cc Barr & Stroud slide engine. In 1923, the existing models remained in production, but the company ran into financial difficulties. However, after a reorganization, production continued with the Blackburne, JAP and Barr & Stroud models, which were not modified in the years that followed. In 1926 only models with 348cc Blackburne side and overhead valve engines were available, but it was the last year of production.
Near to the location of the motorcycle works (possibly using part of the same site) were the workshops of the Crosville Motor Company. In 1906, George (always referred to as Crosland) bought two cars and a chassis, built by French company Morane, at the same time renting a warehouse in Chester, with the idea of assembling and selling the French designed cars. George had started in business making electrical goods but moved on to tyres and golfballs, as both used similar polymer technology. It soon became apparent that much more capital was needed for the motor business and various people were persuaded to invest in the new company, including his French associate, Georges de Ville. The new company, Crosville Motor Company Limited, was incorporated on the 27th October 1906, the name being an amalgam of Crosland and de Ville, although the car making activities ceased in 1908 and the company thereafter confined its activity to agency work and repairs. In 1909 the horse bus service between Kelsall and Chester was replaced by a motorbus and the then office manager, Jack Morris, suggested to George that the Crosville Motor Company should consider providing a bus service between Chester and Ellesmere Port on account of the indirect rail link. George’s son Edward, who had been appointed General Manager of the Company in June 1909, bought a Herald charabanc at auction in Swansea. Although the early years of operation were not successful, by 1913 the Company was making a small profit. By 1929 Crosville had consolidated an operating area covering the Wirral and parts of Lancashire, Cheshire and Flintshire. In February 1929, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company approached Crosville and, following discussions, made an offer of almost £400,000 to purchase the Company outright.
Despite being effectively owned by the railways the company continued to operate under the Crosville brand.
At the side of the upper basin of the Wharf is a building which appears to have a roof but no walls. This is actually a covered dry-dock for narrow-boats and can accommodate two boats at once, allowing the hulls of the boats to be maintained. The dry dock at Tower Wharf (known as the "Graving Dock") is believed to date from 1798, potentially making it the oldest surviving example of its kind on the canal system. Although Pevsner assigns a date of 1798 to the Graving Dock, it is believed that it dates to the mid-C19 (it is not depicted on an historic map dating to 1833, but is depicted on the tithe map of 1847). The Graving Dock, which can accommodate a single wide beam boat placed centrally (a 14-foot "Mersey Flat") or two narrowboats side by side, has a brick floor and brick lower walls, with large sandstone blocks forming the upper parts of the side walls and the curved end walls. A pair of lock gates are situated at the north end of the dock, whilst at the south end is a flight of twelve brick steps with stone treads that lead down onto the dock floor, which incorporates a brick drainage channel that runs around the edge. Timber bearers for the boats are located on the floor, and set to the south-west corner of the dock is a steel shutter leading to a sluiceway.
Opposite the Water Tower, where a newish development of apartments can now be found, the canal tow-path was made in part of the gravestones of those who had lived and died on the water. These stones and any stories they could have told are now gone. The canal was linked directly to the River Dee by a tidal basin. In 1801 the lock was constructed so that craft in the basin could remain afloat when the River Dee was at low tide. The basin was partly filled in around 1950, burying over thirty often part or fully submerged boats which had been laid-up and abandonned here. It is now known as "Earl's Port" after the name of one of the submerged and buried boats - Earl. The modern lock at the riverward end of the Earl's Port dates from the 1960's and was constructed at the same time that a swing bridge between the location of the lock and the River Dee was replaced with a permanent concrete bridge. Slightly to the east of the Earl's Port is a old row of small terraced houses: the first "Social Housing" (Council Houses) as such to be built in Chester (1904), although Chester had a history of "Almshouses" going back centuries. "Roberts Terrace" was built in 1904 and is close to where, according to Hemingway cabins outside the city were erected by the Corporation in 1602-5 and 1647-8 for the plague-stricken. According to one local tradition the doors of Roberts Terrace are painted black because the site was used for "plague-pits". Mutlow and Stockdale's map of Chester from 1795 shows a building near this location which may have been the "lazaretto" of the port of Chester.
The locks on the Dee Branch do not have by-washes, so excess water simply pours over the tops of the gates. In the early 19th Century the canal company did not like the loss of water from the canal system that use of the river lock caused, as well as the loss of income from boats not using the "main line" so they imposed a higher toll for those boats which used the Dee Branch. In 1827, traders from Chester actually refused to use the Dee Branch for six months in protest (which got them nowhere). While boats were often left to sit and rot in the Dee Branch as the canal declined, it was still used, with some of the last traffic being steel-carrying barges taking cargo from the John Summers steelworks at Shotton to the "Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company" at Ellesmere Port. The Tidal Lock was also used by riverboats going to Taylor's boatyard for maintenance work and having their bottom's scraped in the Graving Dock.
Currently the Dee Branch Canal bottom lock is not operational due to the ruinous state of the lock gates, the presence of "stop boards" and silting, so it is not possible to take a boat between the River Dee and the canal. If boats couls access the Dee then they can pass the weir at the Old Dee Bridge by a lock built-into the weir and travel upstream for a considerable distance. Walking out onto the riverfront at this point one can see the "Old Port" (Crane Wharf) upstream and just downstream Wilcox point where the River Dee turns into the "New Cut", a "canalised" section of the river which runs as far as Connah's Quay through land reclaimed from the Dee estuary. The "Dee Coastal Path" follows the river downstream and starts just a little way below the Tidal Lock, where Flookersbrook (that rose near Chemistry Lock at the start of the Canalside walk) finally empties into the Dee.
Tilston’s Yard (SJ 3982 6655) lay adjacent to the River Dee and was bounded to the east by New Crane Street, to the south by the Dee Lock and to the north by a recreational ground incorporating the upstanding remains of the (stone) Cop. The site and neighbouring boatyard and dock activity form part of the early post-medieval development of the city and the relatively short lived renaissance in seafaring trade and industry. There is little to see on the site at present, which is now occupied by recently built flats. The business of the boat-building appears to occur within the later development of the site, whilst the earliest history of the site is centred on the construction and development of the Cop and the inlet to the Chester Canal basin. In addition, dispersed within this development are periods of industrial stagnation and decline, when the site was used as a dump. The earliest artifacts found include ship’s nails, and may indicate that informal boat repairs and off-loading of small craft were undertaken here during low tides. The river flood defences were quite sophisticated, with sandstone blocks backed with a clay membrane along the shoreline and a cop comprising an earth bank with some vestige of a sandstone casing and a clay capping membrane. Unbonded sandstone blocks at the river's bank possibly formed a breakwater to prevent damage to the flood defences. Archaeology showed that the the flood defences had been maintained consistently for many years
Dee Conservancy is the formal name given to a defined area for which Environment Agency Wales is the conservancy, harbour and local lighthouse authority. This area includes the River Dee and its estuary, extending from Wilcox Point downstream of the weir at Chester, seawards to an imaginary line linking the Point of Ayr on the Welsh coast to Hilbre Point on the Wirral peninsular.
The River Dee company was originally engaged to maintain a depth of 16 feet at Wilcox point. Even after amendments to the enabling acts in 1743, the canalised section of the Dee was supposed to maintain at Wilcox Point fifteen feet of water depth. Even this reduced promise for the depth of the navigation was never achieved. The best depth being under fourteen feet six inches of water. This meant that large laden vessels could make use of the port of Chester only on the highest spring tides. Also a vessel of 220 tons could only reach Chester on two tides, the first being taken at the flood as far as Fflint, would be spent there and the vessel would have to wait for a second tide to reach Chester. A guage or standard was required by the 1743 act to measure the depth of the water, but this mysteriously disappeared making it an arguable point over whether the legaly required depth was being maintained.
In 2013 there was an incredibly rare visitor to Wilcox point when a dolphin (common dolphin) appeared in the water. The aquatic mammal (not as the local papers reported "large fish") did not seem injured or particularly confused, but did require some assistance when it got beached on a sandbank at low tide. Initially nicknamed "Dave" by the rescue team but later called "Davina" after it emerged that it was a female, the dolphin was put on to a stretcher and transported by lifeboat to the open waters of the North Rhyl Flats where she was released.
The Dee Bore
In most tidal rivers the change from ebb to flood is gradual: the ebb current downstream slows, there is a period of slack water, then slowly the flood tide starts flowing upstream. In a few rivers, the behaviour is remarkably different and the onset of the flood tide is marked by a distinct, sometimes very vigorous wave – a "bore". Of the one hundred or so rivers around the world known to produce bores, around a fifth of these are in the United Kingdom. This is a consequence of high tidal ranges occurring in several locations around the British Isles – three rivers with notable bores are the Severn, Dee and Mersey. The Dee Bore may be seen at the old road bridge at Queensferry about two hours before High Water Liverpool (HWL). The bore develops in the estuary below Queensferry and travels at about 10mph. It arrives at the Saltney Ferry footbridge about one and a half hours before HWL and then takes a further half-hour to arrive, somewhat reduced, at Chester. For the formation of the bore one needs a 9.5+ metre tide at Liverpool, little fresh water coming down the River Dee and a little bit of luck. Such tides occur around midday and midnight and on full and new moons. Sometimes the bore can be disappointing. However, given the right conditions, a surprisingly large wave can arrive at Wilcox point. If such a wave approaches and you are standing on the boardwalk it is possible to get very, very wet as the water can, or rare occassions, shoot upwards behind the boardwalk, guaranteeing a complete soaking for anyone standing on it.
Even without the bore the tides on the Dee change rather abruptly, with the tide rising over two or three hours and then falling over the next nine hours.
It has been suggested that the earthwork known as "The Cop" marks the site of a Viking encampment. One reason for this may be the name "Kop", supposedly being an ancient term for a bank of earth or related to the Old Dutch "kapen" (“to seize, to hijack” - as in "Hurry-up Harry or the Coppers will nab us"). This actually seems unlikely. The Old English "copp" (“top, summit, head”) is related to the colloquial name or term for a number of single tier terraces and stands at sports stadiums, particularly in the United Kingdom. The first recorded reference to a sports terrace as "Kop" related to Woolwich Arsenal's Manor Ground in 1904. A local newsman likened the silhouette of fans standing on a newly raised bank of earth to soldiers standing atop the hill at the Battle of Spion Kop (1900). Two years later in 1906, Liverpool Echo sports editor Ernest Edwards noted of a new open-air embankment at Anfield: "This huge wall of earth has been termed 'Spion Kop', and no doubt this apt name will always be used in future in referring to this spot".
However the term "cop" was in use in Chester at least as early as 1804. "A glossary of words used in the dialect of Cheshire" (1877) defines it as a "hedge bank" and claims it is based on the Anglo-Saxon "Kopp" (meaning cup). The counterpart of a lease dated 12th May 1804 between the Mayor of Chester and shipbuilder William Cortney (ZCHD/9/74) relates to a:
- "Piece of land as it is fenced and railed and used as a timber yard, late part of the foreland of the Roodee, adjoining the original timber yard of 2 extending in breadth from the bank of the River Dee to the Cop and in length from the original timber yard 70 yards. Also plot of land adjoining it 70 yards in length from the bottom of the Roodee Cop to the River Dee. [Cortney is to] to repair drain and floodgate and make a good fence at least 8 feet high not to cross Roodee except by the highway in front of Paradise Row by the present poor house"
Clearly, this mention of "cop" as an earth bank predates the use of the term in sports stands. Hanshall writing in 1816 notes that in 1710: "The Roodee inclosed with a cop", and in 1720: "Part of the Roodee cop. being washed down, was rebuilt, and faced with stone." Later writers copied Hanshall's statement indicating that they understood it in the same terms. On Saturday 26th February 1853, a severe storm struck the Liverpool and North Wales area. As well as extensive damage on land, there was huge damage to shipping. Since the wind was northerly and reached force 11, many vessels were driven ashore from their moorings or anchorage. Some were sunk. Lives were at risk. The following account focusses on the River Dee and is taken from the Chester Courant and the North Wales Chronicle:
- "THE LATE STORM: CHESTER. Those parts of Chester which are adjacent to the river were inundated. The tenants of the alms-houses in Crane Street were, we understand, obliged to be removed in boats. At the Sluice House, the water rushed over the cheese stage, filled a garden which is laid out in a hollow behind the house, and rose about a foot in the lower rooms. Crane-street and Paradise Row were impassible, and the Roodee cop was an ineffectual barrier to the advance of the waters. The Roodee was considerably flooded, and the water froze in a very short time. The fields on the side of the river between the city and Saltney were laid under water, and much damage was caused where grain has been sown, or the land been prepared by ploughing. At Saltney a good deal of injury was sustained by the shipping being driven on the beach."
Taking all the evidence available, the "Cop" appears to be the surviving visible part of a flood protection bank of which parts were built in the early 18th Century. The Cop around the Roodee was initially constructed between 1706 and 1710, when there appeared to be a growing concern to protect the Roodee area from flooding from the River Dee. A combination of the assembly books and Murengers’ accounts give a clear documentary account of the development of the Cop around the Roodee and extending northwards to the Old Port area as the River Dee was diverted. Prior to this diversion Chester was visited by Celia Fiennes (1698) who's description in part reads:
- The town is mostly timber buildings, the trade and Concourse of people to it is Chiefly from the jntercourse it has with Ireland- most take this passage; and also ye jntercourse wth Wales wch is parted from it and England by ye river Dee wch washes ye Castle Walls in wch they keep their Stores, but nothing fine in it. The walls and towers seemes in good repaire. At the End of ye town just by the Castle you Crosse over a very large and Long Bridge over the River Dee wch has the tyde Comes up much beyond the town; its 7 mile off yt it falls into ye sea, but its very broad below ye town, when at high tyde is like a very broad sea: there they have a little Dock and build shipps of 200 tunn, I saw some on the stocks.
The River Dee at this time had not been diverted to its present course and the Roodee was not yet enclosed by a flood defence or "cop", which is shown in the Lavaux Map, so it was probably flooded at high tide as Fiennes describes. Both the Buck Brothers and Lavaux show shipping in the Portpool area and this may be the location of the "stocks" to which Fiennes refers.
In May 1773 the Justices of the Peace and treasurers undertook a viewing of the Roodee Cop and reported on the confining of the river to preserve Chester’s workhouse and the Roodee from flooding and tides. The timing of the visit may indicate that spring tides were starting to become a problem again by this point. It could be that the trees planted on the bank had begun to slip and the silt bund was being eroded slightly, allowing more water to penetrate the defence. In 1774, Mr Troughton, the overseer of the workhouse, was instructed to raise the ground around the building to prevent tidal overflows. By 1789 a new flood defence bank to the west of the workhouse had been constructed, abutting the original line of the Cop to the south of the workhouse. In March 1796 a petition from the residents of Paradise Row and Kitchen Street claimed that they suffered damage each year from the spring tides overflowing the bank of the Roodee Cop, suggesting that the new flood defence adjacent to the workhouse and protecting Paradise Row was not working as well as it should have been.
A former air-raid shelter from World War II is also recorded at the Cop recreation ground, but the building in question appears to have been repurposed from a pre-ww1 structure shown on early OS maps.
The Cheese Stage
Up until 1875 a series of docks and jetties stood along the river bank being used to load cheeses stored in a riverside warehouse. Tragically, the site is also said to have been that of the death by drowning, the son of a man called Tyler who owned the nearby "sluice house". It is not known whether this was the same Tyler family who were otherwise concerned with the water supply of Chester. A later construction on the site was "Copfield House", a delightful building which was used as a children's home from 1971 to 1979, when it was demolished. The cheese-stage was also the off-loading point for lead (destined for the Leadworks), which the cheese ships would bring, as ballast, to Chester from North Wales.
Within the canalised section of the River Dee from Connah's Quay to Wilcox Point, thirteen large tidal sluice outfalls discharge surface water from inland watercourses adjacent to the river. When tidal conditions prevent discharge to the river, land drainage pumping stations overpump surface water trapped behind the sluices into the main river to reduce the risk of flooding to land and property within the flood plain.
When the River Dee is in flood and there is an incoming tide and wind, there is a considerable risk of flooding in the Lower Reaches. The "Finchetts Gutter Flood Storage Reservoir" covers an area of land near the northern side of the Sealand Basin, on the site of the former Blacon Marsh. Finchetts Gutter is an extension of Flookersbrook from Stone Bridge to the River Dee. The flood plan is that excess water is diverted onto the flood plain where it can be stored until the level of the River Dee falls. The small white cottage (c1800) on the A548 (Sealand Road) is believed to originally been the site of, or even a part of, the "sluice house" which controlled the flow along the gutter. The flood defences also extend northwards from the river along the line of the canal.
Small house, now office. c1800 with possibly mid C18 features. Brown brick; grey slate roof. EXTERIOR: basement and 2 storeys, the ground sloping down one storey from front to rear; double-fronted. Front to River Dee has replaced door in simple pilaster case; 16-pane flush sash with architrave to each side. Two 8-pane flush sashes to first floor. Painted stone sills and brick segmental-arched heads. The left end has a large projecting chimney, stepped in as it rises; a 12-pane flush sash to basement, a 1900s sash of 2 panes in projecting case to the ground floor and a 12-pane horizontally-sliding sash to the first floor. The left side has a small inserted recessed sash and a flush sash, both 4-pane under segmental-arched heads. The rear, oblique to Sealand Road, has framed-and-boarded basement door, simple overlight under cambered head; a C19 canted bay window of 2;4;2-panes, left; a 6-pane recessed sash, right; two 12-pane flush sashes to upper floor, which is ground floor to front; painted stone sills; some window heads segmental, some with brick coursing carried across. A small, gabled outhouse, right, has a small window between two doors.
Sources and Links
- The Port of Chester (1863): Marine Art, Gordon Frickers;
- Ships of the Chester River: (documentary)
- Chester: Can anyone tell me where is the Port;
- CHESTER HERITAGE PORT DESIGNATION DOCUMENT;
- Grosvenor Bridge
- River Dee:
- Industrial Revolution;
- Canal and Boatyard;
- Cheshire Cheese;
- "Your Chester" provides some pdf guides, including one to the Portpool area;
- Chester's 'Old Port' on "A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester";
- William Cortney, shipbuilder of Chester: a very detailed history of the Courtney yard;
- THE PORT OF CHESTER IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY;
- PALATINATE CUSTOMS ORGANIZATION IN THE PORT OF CHESTER;
- SOME ASPECTS OF THE TRADE AND SHIPPING OF THE RIVER DEE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY;
- SHIPPING AND SHIPBUILDING IN THE PORT OF CHESTER IN THE EIGHTEENTH AND EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURIES;
- A History of Sealand;
- British Tramp Shipping, 1750-1914;
- Rivers and Harbors of Great Britain: 1826;
- The early modern port of Chester: Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 82;
- The development of the waterfront on the River Dee: excavations at New Crane Wharf, Chester: Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 82;
- Archaeological investigations at Tilston's Yard, New Crane Street, Chester: Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 82;
- The River Dee, Roodee Cop and the workhouse: recent excavations: Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 82;
- Investigating crane bases at Crane Wharf, Chester: Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society 82;
- The Liverpool Nautical Research Society: Volume 54 No.1, June 2010 - article on Dee shipbuilders;
- THE MARITIME ECONOMY OF NORTH WEST ENGLAND IN THE LATER EIGHTEENTH CENTURY;
- Russian Hemp Bale Seals: from Chester and Cheshire;
- C. Edmund and Co: Motorcycle Company at the Portpool.
- Crosville and the Portpool;
The Railway Bridge
- Dee Bridge Collapse on Wikipedia;
- A detailed discussion of the disaster;
- A reprint of a paper on the disaster;
- A first hand report on the disaster;
- Peter R Lewis, Disaster on the Dee: Robert Stephenson's Nemesis of 1847, Tempus Publishing (2007) ISBN 978-0-7524-4266-2
- A review of Peter Lewis' book - contains links to further information;
- Dee Railway Bridge at "Heritage Locations";