The racecourse at Chester lies just outside the City Walls. Hughes writes of it:
- "Well here we are on a beautiful meadow eighty four acres in extent clad in Nature's own mantle of brightest green and bearing the euphonious name of the ROODEYE. This splendid pasture now so cheerful to look upon has not always worn the same gay aspect In ages past and gone when the Saxon and the Norman held sway over the land when colossal Liverpool was but a simple fishing hamlet the infant commerce of England was borne along the surging billows of the Dee up to the very Walls of Chester. In those days the spacious lawn before us was covered with water at every tide save only a bank or eye land near the centre which being surmounted by a plain sub stantial stone cross acquired the name of the ROODEYE or the Island of the Cross."
Chester Racecourse, also known as the Roodee is officially recognised by Guinness World Records as the "oldest racecourse still in operation". Horse racing in Chester dates back to the early sixteenth century, with 1539 cited as the year racing began, although some sources give a date of 1512 for the first races in Chester. It is also thought to be the smallest racecourse of significance in England at 1 mile and 1 furlong (1.8 km) long. As a result, runners are veering left-handed for almost the entirety of their journey – even contests over the minimum 5f trip being on the turn for close to 60% of the distance. Some respite from the bends does arrive in the shape of the 2f home straight. A low draw in the stalls to place runner and rider against the inside rail is an advantage over all distances. Extremely strong in 5f and 5½f events, this bias does still exist over middle distances. Whatever the trip, runners drawn on the outside are up against it, and the bigger the size of the field, the bigger this disadvantage becomes. Unless able to get a real flier from the stalls, high drawn runners will be faced with the option of having to sit and suffer behind a wall of runners or being trapped out wide and covering additional distance.
Approaching the outskirts of Chester the valley of the Dee narrows somewhat and will reach its narrowest between the two major bends at Chester. This poses something of a problem - just why does the river Dee flow through Chester and not flow further west through Rosset and Broughton? Looking at the steepness of the banks of the river between a little way upriver of the Suspension Bridge and the Grosvenor Bridge it is clear that the river has almost had to cut a gorge out of the sandstone between the Earls Eye and the Roodee. If this gorge were blocked by a dam where the Grosvenor Bridge is (and just as tall), then the Dee would back-up to flood the Earls Eye, narrow at Heronbridge then form a broad lake back to Holt and a second lake back to Worthenbury and Bangor on Dee. However the waters would not eventually pour over the dam, as they would find a route to the estuary and hence to the sea through Lavister and Lower Kinnerton along the English/Welsh border before they climbed high enough.
One possible solution is that the "gorge" between Chester and Handbridge is another glacial spillway, similar to the "Backford Gap" behind Chester Zoo. It is even possible, though unlikely, that this spillway is a continuation of the Backford spillway and that the "River Dee" at Chester, which would have been the Mersey, actually once flowed in the opposite direction until it managed to cut through previous high ground between Blacon Point and Chester Golf Club at Wilcoxons Point.
Whatever the reason for the existence of the Chester gorge, its end towards the Roodee was the upper limit of the River Dee estuary prior to the canalization of the river and the reclamation of much land. It is not known for certain how close to the Watergate that the tide flowed, but when the Watertower was built in 1323-25 it stood in the River Dee. In c. 1195 it was still covered by every tide. A century later it may have been normally dry: by 1284–5 there was a way from the nunnery across crofts to the Eye (meaning the Little Roodee), and in December 1288, a month when the river may well have been high, citizens were practising archery on the Roodee.
Pigot, suggests that the water of the Dee could come up to the Watergate shortly before 1715:
- "The serjeant of this gate was bound to execute the Mayor's processes on the River Dee. The present beautiful arch was erected in the room of the old gate way in l788-9 the expense being defrayed out of the Murage Duties. On the west side the gateway but now illegible from the street without the aid ofa glass is the following inscription: I N THE XXIX YEAR or THE REIGN OF GEO. III IN THE MARYOLTY OF JOHN HALLWOOD AND JOHN LEIGH ESQUIRES THIS GATE WAS ERECTED - THOMAS COTGREAVE EDWARD BURROWS MURENGERS". The view from this gate way is very pleasing on the right is a regularly built street called Crane street. Little more than a century ago the sea at high water overflowed all the ground which the houses now occupy washing up to the Watergate. The Roodee also is represented to have been so much covered by the tide that the cross seemed to stand in the water and from this circumstance the name probably originated which has ever since been applied to the ground reclaimed from the water."
The engraving entitled "The South West Prospect of the City of Chester 1728" shows the Watertower already high and dry and the river far from the Watergate, with houses built at what is now "Crane Wharf". The Lavaux Map of Chester from 1745 shows "salt grass" between the City Walls and the river, and what is possibly an old wharf adjacent the Watergate. The first phase of work before 1710 to improve the Dee navigation entailed moving the course of the river between the Watergate and the Watertower 300 metres to the west and building a new wharf. Samuel Taylor, who held corporation leases of both the northern end of the Roodee and the "Saltgrass", built a new walled road from his existing warehouse outside the Watergate, which was now no longer on the river bank, to the new wharf. In 1708 he was given a permanent grant of the land over which the road was built but gave up everything to the south. Although flooding in 1720 destroyed the new wharf and probably Taylor's road, the renewal of navigation works in the 1730s allowed both to be restored and thus permanently closed off the Roodee on the north. Indeed thereafter the name "Saltgrass" was applied to what had formerly been the northern part of the Roodee, north of the Watergate and the wharf.
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 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.
There as been much discussion about the so-called "Roman Quay", which extends for a considerable distance long the edge of the Roodee under the medieaval walls. Opposing theories have stated that Roman ships would tie-up along this "quay" for unloading, or that the "quay" is actually a defensive structure and the water depth over much of the Roodee would not have been sufficient, except perhaps at some high tides, for shipping to approach the "quay". Excavations for the construction of a gasworks (since demolished) revealed what could be interpreted as the far end of a pier, leading to the suggestion that this pier would be used for loading/unloading.
Many Roman relics have been found between what would have been the western wall of the fortress and the line of the "Roman Quay". It is clear that this was a populated area and it is known to have contained a large baths complex which was used both the the military and the civilian population. This has led to the theory that the "Roman Quay" was either the base of a defensive structure, or the retaining wall for an area where the land had be raised and leveled for building purposes (in which case it would also function as a "flood defence").
It has been proposed that Roman Chester was initially intended as a pricipally naval base, supported by the fact that the initial occupants were the marines (from the Ravenna navy) of Legio II. Other factors lend further support to the idea. First, the legionary depot at Wroxeter appears to have remained in commission, though perhaps merely under care-and-maintenance. Wroxeter was sufficiently well situated for campaigns in the Marches, central and north Wales, and probably southern Brigantia to make the relocation of a legionary depot to Chester merely to control the Ordovices and Brigantes unnecessary. Chester indeed may not have been well placed for campaigns in north Wales, since a direct overland route was made difficult by marshlands to its southwest. Moreover it was located somewhat away from the existing main roads leading north on the west side of the Pennines.
The Roodee is a mixture of the Norse and Saxon languages and means The Island of the Cross.
Rood is an archaic word for pole, from Old English rōd 'pole', specifically 'cross', from Proto-Germanic *rodo, cognate to Old Saxon rōda, Old High German ruoda 'rod'. Rood was originally the only Old English word for the "instrument of Jesus Christ's death". The words crúc and in the North cros (from either Old Irish or Old Norse) appeared by late Old English; crucifix is first recorded in English in the "Ancrene Wisse" of about 1225. More precisely, the Rood or Holyrood was the "True Cross", a fragment of which supposedly made its way to St Johns.
Eye derives from the Old English ēg, meaning a place at "the island or well-watered land, or dry ground in marsh".
Each of the Braun and Hogenberg map and the John Speed map show a cross standing on the Roodee (near to the horse in B&H) - although maps do disagree about its exact location. The cross was at one time removed and lay beneath the City Walls for many years. It was re-erected in its "original" position 1855 and is now Grade II* listed. The listing records: This is a base and part shaft of a stone cross. It is traditionally believed to be Saxon, but more probably a boundary stone, C13th, of land belonging to St Mary's Priory (which is no longer standing) which stood between Chester Castle and the Roodee. Nowadays the base of a cross can still be seen, and this is associated with one (or more) local legends. Thomas Hughes describes the legend thus:
- Once upon a time you must not ask when the Christians of Hawarden a few miles down the river were in a sad strait for lack of rain. Now it so happened that in the church of that place there stood an image of the Virgin Mary called Holy Rood. To her shrine then repaired the faithful and fearful of all classes to pray for rain. Among the rest Lady Trawst the wife of the governor of Hawarden prayed so heartily and so long that the image grown desperate we suppose fell down upon the lady and killed her. Mad with rage at this answer to their prayers a jury of the inhabitants was summoned and the Holy Rood summarily convicted of wilful murder and other heinous sins. Fearful however of the consequences if they executed the offender the jury determined to lay her upon the beach at low water whence the next tide carried her away to the spot where she was found under the Walls of Chester. The citizens held a post mortem examination and seeing that she was Holy Rood decided on burying her where she was found and erected over her a simple stone cross which tradition says once bore an inscription to the following effect: The Jews their God did crucify / The Hardeners theirs did drown / Because their wants she'd not supply / And she lies under this cold stone.
Hemingway tells a slightly different version
- "In this conjecture respecting the origin of this stone cross there seems to be a good deal of probability but the reader is left to decide whether the following relation of its history be entitled to the same degree of credibility it is given by Mr Willet in his History of Hawarden Parish who says it is a correct translation from an old Saxon MS Whether true or otherwise and without another preparatory word here it is produced In the sixth year of the reign of Conan ap Ellis ap Anarawd King of Gwynith or North Wales which was about ad 946 there was in the Christian Temple at a place called Harden in the kingdom of North Wales a Rood loft in which was placed an image of the Virgin Mary with a very large cross which was in the hands of the image called Holy Rood about this time there happened a very hot and dry summer so dry that there was not grass for the cattle upon which most of the inhabitants went and prayed to the image or Holy Rood that it would cause it to rain but to no purpose Amongst the rest the Lady Trawst whose husband's name was Sytsylht a nobleman and Governor of Harden Castle went to pray to the said Holy Rood and she praying earnestly and long the image or Holy Rood fell down upon her head and killed her upon which a great uproar was raised and it was concluded and resolved upon to try the said image for the murder of the said Lady Trawst and a jury was summoned for the purpose whose names were as follow viz...."
Willet also tells us that Lady Trawst was the sister of Prince Conan ap Ellis, something which seems to be lost in later versions.
- A curious tale is associated with the Roodee, the present racecourse. In the tenth century there was a drought, and Lady Trawst, wife of the Governor of Hawarden, went to pray for rain to a statue of Our Lady. Her prayers were answered, for a terrific thunderstorm broke out, and loosened the statue, which fell on her and killed her. The statue was solemnly tried by jury and condemned to be hanged for murder. The executioners were faced with a difficulty, for a statue cannot, in the nature of things, be hanged, and burning a sacred image was a sacrilege to which no one felt inclined. It was therefore decided to drown it. It was bound to a cross and left on the banks of the Dee. The tide carried it to Chester and deposited it beneath the Walls, where it was found and carried with great respect to St. John’s Church. Such a statue did exist in St. John’s at the time of the Reformation, though it may not have been the same one. It was thrown down as a relic of popery and converted into a whipping-block for unruly scholars. Finally, it was burnt.
The Hawarden Visitors' Hand-Book (1890) by William Henry Gladstone (1840-1891) gives the story of the jury trial and the explanation of the above Chester cross. The "Sixth year of the reign of Conan" is apparently 804 AD, but it is not clear who "Conan" is. The Welsh Annals record nothing of these events for 804:
- AD 804 Arthen king of Ceredigiawn Rhydderch king of Dyved and Cadell king of Teyrnllwg now called Powys died.
But do mention a "Cynan" in 810:
- AD 810 The moon darkened on Xmas Day and the Saxons burnt Menevia and Deganwy burnt by wild fire and the prodigious mortality among the cattle through the whole island of Britain and the kingdom of Mona and the kingdom of Dyved impoverished on account of the war between Hywel Vychan and his brother Cynan in which Hywel conquered Mona.
So what to make of all this?:
- If the legend is true, then this is the first recorded case of a jury being used in a court in the UK.
- Hawarden may have been the site of a hill-fort or other fortification (Trueman's Hill), so the reference to Hawarden Castle is not necessarily an anachronism. The 1848 Topographical Dictionary of Wales by Samuel Lewis (publisher) states Hawarden is of remote antiquity and was called "Pennard Halawg," or more properly "Pen-y-Llwch", the headland above the lake. The hill forts such as the huge remains next to the medieval Hawarden Castle and Trueman's Hill motte were it records locally believed to date to the time of fortifications against incursions of the Cornavii tribe and the Romans.
- Sytsylht, his wife Lady Trawst and her (possible) brother Cynan do seem to have been real people. The law of Deodand actually provided that "Deodand" is a thing forfeited or given to God, specifically, in law, an object or instrument which becomes forfeit because it has caused a person's death.
- "Holy Rood" means true cross - i.e. one of those miraculous relics which appeared in profusion in the Dark Ages and later. Evidently whatever was thrown into the River Dee could be carried upstream for some distance. Does this suggest that it was made of wood? It is possible to assume that it was not the statue which fell on the unfortunate Lady, but merely an associated cross.
- Other local legends state that St Johns used to have a fragment of the "True Cross", which was much venerated, especially by the Welsh. According to "The Gentleman's Magazine" (May 1825 - see page 394):
- Archdeacon Rogers gives a curious account of a wooden image formerly preserved here. It appears a statue of the Virgin was set up in the Castle of Hawarden in Flintshire about six miles from Chester which owing to the negligence of the artist fell down on the head of Lady Trawst the Governor's wife and killed her. An inquest was impanelled and the Jury condemned the image to be thrown into the River Dee. Sentence was accordingly executed and the tide washed it up to Chester and left it on that fine meadow called Rood eye on the race course. It was taken down from thence with great solemnly to St John's Church where it was long an object of pious adoration but the Reformation intervened and this sacred relic of superstition which had been so much honoured was converted into a block for the Master of the Grammar School to flog his refractory scholars upon and was subsequently burnt.
Archdeacon Rogers actually lived in Chester (he died 1595) also gave a description of the Chester Mystery Plays and is normally considered a reliable source, also we have here another mention of the floggings which Ms Hole refers to.
From the late 13th century the most significant relic in Chester was the Holy Rood at St Johns, a silver-gilt crucifix supposedly containing wood from the True Cross. Its origins are uncertain. Some sources state it was brought from the East by Ranulf de Blondeville, who was on Crusade in 1219-20. On the other hand it may have been associated with the cult of King Harold (see:Hermitage), boosted in 1332 by the discovery within the church of his alleged remains, still fragrant and clad in leather hose, golden spurs, and crown. Harold's links with the cult of the Holy Rood and in particular with the miracle-working crucifix of Waltham (Essex), perhaps suggested the introduction of an analogous devotion into Chester. What is possibly happening here is that two or more legends are being mixed-up.
The Chester Racecourse site was home to the famous and bloody Goteddsday football match which nowadays might be called "no-rules football" (the only rule being that murder and manslaughter were banned). The game had ancient origins. In the 9th century, the Welsh monk named Nennius recorded:
- "the field of Ælecti, in the district of Glevesing, where a party of boys were playing at ball" (The History of the Britons (Latin: Historia Brittonum))
In 1147, a charter in Normandy recorded payment for “seven balloons of the greatest dimension”, probably relating to games of La Soule. In Chester it has been described as follows:
- "upon Goteddsday (Shrove Tuesday) at the Crosse upon the Rood Dee, before the Mayor of the Cittie did offer unto the company of Drapers an homage, a ball of leather, called a footeball, of the value of 3s 4d, which was played for by the Shoemakers and Saddlers to bring it to the house of the Mayor or either of the Sherriffs. Much harm was done, some having their bodies bruised and crushed, some their armes, heads, legges"
The Middle Ages saw a rise in popularity of games played annually at Shrovetide (before Lent) throughout England. These archaic forms of football, typically classified as mob football, would be played in many towns and villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would clash in a heaving mass of people struggling to drag, for example, an inflated pig's bladder by any means possible to markers at each end of a town. By some accounts, in some such events any means could be used to move the ball towards the goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter or murder. Sometimes instead of markers, the teams would attempt to kick the bladder into the balcony of the opponents' church. A legend that these games in England evolved from a more ancient and bloody ritual of "kicking the Dane's head" is unlikely to be true. The "goalposts" in these games may be some distance apart and usually consisted of some object against which the "ball" needed to be held. The tradition in Chester was that one of the "goals" was the cross on the Roodee and the other was Mayor Gee's home.
Tradition states that Mayor Henry Gee, who was himself a draper, decided that this violent pastime should be replaced by a horse-race. The story that the terms "gee-gee" and "gee-up!" as applied to horses is derived from Gee's name is a myth - it was in use long before he was born. It is also worth noting that despite ordering the first known pair of football boots, Henry VIII of England attempted a ban in 1540, and Gee may have been prompted by this. The game still survives as Royal Shrovetide Football in the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire. .
As mentioned in Chamber's Book of days, Easter Monday saw the Sheriffs’ annual archery contest and breakfast feast, known as the Calves Head Feast or Sheriffs Breakfast. The contest, first held in 1511, survived attempts to suppress it in 1599-1600 and continued to be celebrated until at least 1642. At the Roodee on Easter Monday each sheriff picked a team to compete in an archery competition and after the contest the teams processed through the streets to the Common Hall where both teams of archers and the city elite breakfasted on bacon and calves’ head.
In 1441 there was a fight on the Roodee between gaolers from Chester Castle and from Northgate. This was either a fight between two gaolers called Rockly and Rooley or a massive punch up amongst all the employees of the two establishments.
The tradition of British horse racing dates back to the days of the Roman Empire, when Roman Soldiers invading the isle organised the first tournaments on horseback around 200 AD. The first officially recorded horse racing in the United Kingdom however is dated 1174, during the reign of Henry II, and is said to have taken place in London suburb Smithfield during a horse fair. It is often said that the first recorded prize given to the winner of a modern horse race, a hand painted wooden bowl (some versions say a wooden spoon, others a wooden ball decorated with flowers), was presented to the winner of a horse race at a Chester fair in 1512. York can claim the earliest race meeting, having an annual race established some years befor 1530, although the venue moved to a new site in 1731.
The area over which the races took place has changed over the years. Some races have started "at the Castle gate" and races sometimes went as far as the Watertower
The original race, run on Shrove Tuesday (February 9th) 1540 for a silver bell given by the Saddlers' company, was devised by Mayor Henry Gee as an element in his reform of civic celebrations. Gee was Mayor for two terms: 1534-1534 and 1539-1540. In his first term, Henry Gee was determined to change how the local government operated. It was evidently run only intermittently in the 17th century, but was still taking place in 1705. A brief look at his career illustrates how the administration of Chester developed in the years following the "Great Charter". Gee is believed to have been from Manchester, having been born around 1475. On Henry’s brass monument in Holy Trinity in Chester there is a plaque that commemorates him:
- "Here under lyeth the body of Henry Gee twoo tymes mayer of this cetye of Chester whyche decessyd the vith day of September an. Dui. MV XLV on who is soulle Jhu hve mercy."
By profession Gee was a draper. He was sheriff of Chester in 1527-28 with Thomas Hall, under Thomas Smythe, then Mayor. Gee had been churchwarden at Holy Trinity in 1532 and had even then illustrated his pechant for record-keeping by making lists of church property.
Gee's Puritanism was of a fairly early type. Originally, "Puritan" was a pejorative term characterizing certain Protestant groups as extremist. Thomas Fuller, in his Church History, only dates the first use of the word to 1564. Archbishop Matthew Parker (6 August 1504 – 17 May 1575) used it and "precisian" with a sense similar to the modern "stickler". Although Gee's will includes some language which has a Puritan cast it is posssible that his characterisation as a Puritan comes more from his personal approach rather than any recieved teaching. It would only be a generation later that Chester, in particular St Peter would become associated with iconoclastic Puritanism.
Gee's reforms of the administration of Chester actually met with little success. He attempted to act against unlawful gaming, drink, and excessive celebrations on Christmas Day. He banned pigs running loose in the streets and set prices for ale. He introduced regulations concerning women’s proper dress and parties accompanying childbirth and churching. His regulations for the dress of women included that single women were forbidden to wear a cap and all women were forbidden to wear "any hatt of blacke or other Coloure" except when riding, or if they were ill.
He proposed to list and licence legitimate beggars by ward, and required "persones beyng hole & myghtie in body & able to laboure" to present themselves at the High Cross for work each day. He required all children aged six to attend school:
- "For asmocheas ... Idlenes is the rote of all vice ... euery chylde or chyldryn being of the age of vj yeres or aboue vpon euery wourkeday shalbe set to the schoule to learne ther belefe & other deuocions prayers & learning or els to sum other good and uertuus laboure craft or occupacyon."
He even forbade women aged between 14 and 40 to serve ale, invoking the need to preserve the city’s good reputation in order to attract visitors and claiming that women in bars led to:
- "prouocacions of wantonrys braules frays & other inconueyents" (provocation of wantonry, brawls, affrays and other inconvenience)
Gee's pronouncements are often seen as amusing. In 1533 Gee, ordered that:
- "No manner person or persons go abroade in this citie mumming in any place within the said citie, their fayses being coveryd or disgysed (because) many dysordered persons have used themselves rayther all the day after idellie in vyse and wantoness then given themselves to holy contemplation and prayre the same sacryt holye and prynsepaul feast."
It has been suggested that Gee's apparent dislike of mummers was parodied by Terry Pratchet where one of his fictional rulers has a particular dislike of mime-artists. Some of Gee's changes can be seen as an effort to help the poor following the Dissolution. While the abbey was not known for its charity, the nuns of Chester had done considerable charitable work and/or aided the poor with hand-outs. Fear of social unrest resulting from this loss of charity may have been the impetus for the mayoral ordinance for the regulation of the distribution of alms which bears no precise date but must have been drawn up in his second term.
One of the changes he tried to make was to prevent mayoral nomination of aldermen. Gee also reformed the way the elections were carried out, so that the elections had to be carried out at the assembly meetings. Similarly he tried to get rid of incompetent or unqualified people in civic roles. From this it can be inferred that by Gee's time a lot of the appointees to the Assemby and its officers were made by a closed club rather than any wider democratic process.
The first Assembly minute book was begun on the initiative of the list-obsessed Gee during his second mayoralty, 1539-40. It seems to have been intended as a reference book, for the first folios contain copies of earlier records, for example a list of mayors and sheriffs from 1326; a description of the city boundaries and streets; a list of officers’ fees; and a list of Corporation property. Assembly orders dating from c.1453 are also copied in and it is not until c.1570 that decisions taken at Assembly meetings begin to be recorded on a systematic basis.
Gee's lasting contribution to Chester was the establishment of horse racing on the Roodee. This (and a foot race) replaced a local variant of "mob football" (see: Chamber's Book of days) Henry Gee has therefore become something of a mythical figure partly because he introduced Assembly records which cast him in a very clear light to future historians, partly because many of his "reforms" seem amusing or radical and partly because he can be painted as a socially progressive prototype Puritan who springs into action at the very time that the monasteries are being dissolved. Overall, his reputation and historical importance may be largely a product of his association with the establishment of horse-racing in Chester. He died of the "Sweating Sickness" (see: Pandemic) in 1545.
- "There were besides these scripture dramas, others of a profane character which were acted occasionally on special occasions. The Shepherd's Play was acted in St John's church yard in 1515; in 1529 the play of Robert Cicell was performed at the High Cross; on the Sunday after Midsummer day 1563, the "History of Eneas and queen Dido" was played on the Rood eye, set out by one William Crofton, gentleman, and one Mr Mann, Master of Arts. In l577, the "Shepherd's Play" was performed before the Earl of Derby at the High cross, and other triumphs on the Rood eye. And in 1589, a play was performed at the High cross, called the story of "Kinge Ebranke with all his sonnes."
There is speculation as to whether Queen Dido was a mere entertainment or whether it had some deeper political significance.
As well as entertainment the Roodee was an important source of income for the Assembly as for most of the year it was used as grazing land. Payments for grazing animals on the Roodee were 10/- a head and brought in about £30 a year around 1600. Fees for haymaking and grazing on the Roodee together with fees paid by entrants to the freedom between them contributed over half of the income of the Assembly. The mayor and treasurers made the arrangements for the "ley" (summer grazing) and were recompensed with an entitlement to 'horse grass', evidently the right to graze one horse for free. The rector of Holy Trinity parish also had horse grass, perhaps originally in lieu of tithes. A keeper of the Roodee, employed by the Assembly, was housed probably from 1607 in the rooms under the Pentice on the Roodee.
St Georges Day, 1610
Before the Reformation, England's patron saint was Saint Edward the Confessor. Edward the Confessor was the only king of England to be canonized by the pope, but he was part of a tradition of (uncanonised) Anglo-Saxon royal saints, such as Eadburh of Winchester, a daughter of Edward the Elder, Edith of Wilton, a daughter of Edgar the Peaceful, and the boy-king Edward the Martyr. With his proneness to fits of rage and his love of hunting, Edward the Confessor is regarded by most historians as an unlikely saint, and his canonisation as political, although some argue that his cult started so early that it must have had something credible to build on. After 1066, there was a subdued cult of Edward as a saint, possibly discouraged by the early Norman abbots of Westminster, which gradually increased in the early 12th century. Osbert of Clare, the prior of Westminster Abbey, then started to campaign for Edward's canonisation, aiming to increase the wealth and power of the Abbey. By 1138, he had converted the Vita Ædwardi Regis, the life of Edward commissioned by his widow, into a conventional saint's life. He seized on an ambiguous passage which might have meant that their marriage was chaste, perhaps to give the idea that Edith's childlessness was not her fault, to claim that Edward had been celibate. In 1139, Osbert went to Rome to petition for Edward's canonisation with the support of King Stephen, but he lacked the full support of the English hierarchy and Stephen had quarrelled with the church, so Pope Innocent II postponed a decision, declaring that Osbert lacked sufficient testimonials of Edward's holiness. In 1159, there was a disputed election to the papacy, and Henry II's support helped to secure the recognition of Pope Alexander III. In 1160, a new abbot of Westminster, Laurence, seized the opportunity to renew Edward's claim. This time, it had the full support of the king and the English hierarchy, and a grateful Pope Alexander III issued the bull of canonisation on 7 February 1161.
Saint George had become a popular saint during the crusades as a warrior saint, as opposed to the national saint. In 1188, according to various 13th century chroniclers, Henry II of England and Philip II of France agreed to go on a crusade to Jerusalem, it was agreed that the two kings would wear respectively a white and a red cross, later, according to a Victorian tradition Richard the Lionheart adopted both the flag and the patron saint of Genoa for his crusade. Edward III made Saint George even more popular by using his flag for the Order of the Garter in the 1300s. King Henry VII commissioned John Cabot to sail to Newfoundland "under our flags, banners and ensigns". That was the first use of George's banner in the Royal Navy. Saint George's Day was considered a "double major feast" since 1415, but later, despite the king saint still being honoured, especially given his royal role, Saint George rose to a primary position when the cult of saints was altered, this also appears in the revised Book of Common Prayer of 1552. The use of Saint George's flag became widespread during the late Tudor era.
In 1610 the new race on St. George's Day (23 April) was inaugurated by Robert Amery, who gave two silver bells, returnable each year, as prizes. The winner and second also divided the stake money of 20s. a horse between them in the proportions 2:1. Rev Robert Rogers (Archdeacon at Chester) recorded:
- "In AD 1609, Mr William Lester, mercer, beinge mayor of Chester, one Mr Robert Amerye, ironmonger, sometime sherife of Chester (ad 1608) he, with the assente of the mayor and cittie, at his own coste chiefly as I conceive caused three silver cupps or bells of good value to be made the whiche saide silver cuppes were upon St George's daye for ever to be thus disposed: - all gentlemen that woulde bringe their horses to the Rood dee that daye and there rune that horse which with spede did over rune the reste shoulde have the beste cuppe..."
The race was held on the same day as a pageant "Chester's Triumph in Honour of her Prince". This play, written in honor of the new Prince of Wales and hence Earl of Chester in 1610, is a raucous and bawdy celebration of the English monarchy, with its colorful characters, witty dialogue, and lively action. For more on the performance see: "Chamber's Book of days" The new prince was Henry Frederick the eldest son and heir apparent of James VI and I, King of England and Scotland; and his wife Anne of Denmark. Henry died from typhoid fever in 1612 at the age of 18, during the celebrations that led up to his sister Elizabeth's wedding. Prince Henry's death was widely regarded as a tragedy for the nation. According to Charles Carlton, "Few heirs to the English throne have been as widely and deeply mourned as Prince Henry."
The city took control of the event in 1612. In 1623 the mayor, John Brereton, increased the prize to a cup worth £8 and altered the course (from what form is not known) by moving the start north of the Watertower and fixing the distance as five laps of the Roodee, at least five miles in total. A "starting stone", 4 yd. from the Watertower, was still apparently identifiable as a landmark in 1746 even though it was disused by then.
Easter Tuesday, 1640
In 1640 a further race was started on Easter Tuesday. The prize, given by the city sheriffs, was a piece of silver plate worth £13 6s. 8d. In 1706 the Shrovetide and St. George's Day races were moved to Easter Tuesday, but two years later all the racing was concentrated at a meeting on St. George's Day, and the rules under which they were run were codified and confirmed. The principal race was the City Plate, supported by both the corporation and the guilds. Each owner could enter one horse carrying 10 stone. The race started at 14:30 and was apparently run round a right-handed circuit marked out by poles over three heats of three laps each (about three miles), with up to 30 minutes allowed for rubbing down the horses between heats. The prize went to the first horse to win two heats. Any which finished more than 120 yd. behind the winner of a heat did not run again. If three different horses won the heats they ran off in a fourth heat.
The corporation long remained intimately involved. In 1694 it reaffirmed an old rule by ordering that horses entered for the races were to be stabled in the city for eight days beforehand (reduced to six days in 1708): the rule served to bring trade into Chester for a few extra days, and also made cheating more difficult because the horses were under supervision for longer.
The racecourse, extended towards the river in 1709, assumed more or less its modern shape after the canalization of the Dee in the 1730s, when a new timber yard stretching from the Watergate to the river restricted racing to the area south of the Watergate. 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. 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"
The course, changed to a left-handed circuit, as it has remained, was marked by posts and had starting and distance chairs. The corporation viewed the races from a building near the Watergate called the Pentice on the Roodee, perhaps dating from 1607, and others watched on foot or horseback, or from the city walls, which overlooked the finish. In 1742 the Assembly required that individuals who wanted to erect booths, tents, or 'standings' against the walls had to seek its special permission first. New 'chairs', presumably to mark the start and finish and perhaps the 120-yd. distance, were approved by the Assembly in 1714.
Race Week, 1752
Race week was moved to the first full week in May after the calendar reform in 1752, allegedly because the mayor, a draper, hoped to sell more summer dresses in warmer weather. The programme of racing grew steadily in the later 18th century, a fourth day being added in 1751 and a fifth in 1758, with additional meetings held in 1739, 1744, 1754–5, and 1774–81.
In 1769–70 the Assembly built bigger starting and distance chairs, added a balcony to the Pentice, and gave permission for Bennett Williams of Flint to build a small private grandstand against the city wall. In 1760 the Assembly had paid a carpenter, Richard Ledsham, for drawing plans for a grandstand but it is not clear that it was built. In 1777 it decided to charge the owners of carriages 1s. to bring them on the Roodee during the races. By 1789 the course had been enlarged to make full use of the available ground and there were separate starting chairs for four-yearolds and older horses on the river side, the distance and finishing chairs remaining below the City Walls.
By 1817, the vast crowds attracted to the annual Chester races made it economically viable to build the first grandstand. This proved to be an unqualified success, as the tight nature of the track enabled race goers to watch and enjoy every facet of the racing action.
It is often said that Chester was the site of the first modern grandstand, but this is not true. Chester's grandstand was preceeded by that of York. Racing commenced on the present site of York Racecourse, the Knavesmire, in 1731. By the end of the decade, York's August race week was the annual highlight of the city’s social calendar. Visitors swarmed to the course, and racegoers of all social classes jostled shoulder to shoulder as they vied to glimpse the action of the track. On December 7, 1753, the York Corporation authorised the building of a grandstand on the Knavesmire. Its opening, three years later, was a momentous episode in the history of sports architecture. This was not merely York’s first grandstand; neither was it simply the first grandstand at a Thoroughbred racecourse; it was – in the modern sense of the word – the first grandstand anywhere in the world. Designed by local architect John Carr, it was an elegant, classical building, two storeys tall with a rooftop viewing platform. On the ground floor, a rusticated arcade led to a hall; above, a reception room extended the length and breadth of the building. From there, racegoers could socialise and watch the races, either from its large arched windows or from the stepped balcony that encircled the first floor.
In 1817, in response to the growing interest of polite society, a public subscription raised £2,500 to build a new grandstand. Among those involved in the grandstand committee were Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn and the local newspaper proprietor John Fletcher. The city's innkeepers, who sold refreshments from tents and booths on the Roodee during the races, were opposed to it but failed to convince the corporation. The Chester grandstand, designed by Thomas Harrison, was opened in 1819 on land leased by the corporation opposite the starting post. Entered from the city walls, it allowed the wealthiest racegoers to seclude themselves from the lower orders, and was enlarged in 1829. A second subscription stand, the Dee Stand, was put up to its south by a separate company in 1840 and catered for the middle classes.
The actual appearance of Harrison's grandstand is something of a puzzle. Several depictions including that of local artist William Tasker (c.1839) show it as a long building with around ten arches at the front. The illustration from Hughes "Stranger's Guide" (1858) shows something very similar to Tasker. However an illustration from the "Illustrated London News" from 1844 which claims to have been made "on the spot" shows a quite different building, with only four archways and no sign of the conspicuous Watergate which all the other illustrations feature.
Chester Cup, 1824
The event was established in 1824, and it was originally called the Tradesmen's Cup. It was initially a limited handicap with a minimum weight of 8 st 2 lb. For a period the race was known as the Tradesmen's Plate. During this time it was open to horses aged three or older. Originally, the Stand Cup was the feature race of Chester’s May meeting, when this was the only fixture held each year on the Roodee. However, the Tradesmen’s Plate (then the Tradesmen’s Cup) quickly became the feature race of the meeting in the mid-1800’s before its name was changed to the Chester Cup in 1892. The race was renamed the Chester Trades' Cup in 1874. From this point it was often referred to as the Chester Cup, and that became its usual title in 1892. As the longest race run at Chester with the biggest field each year, the Chester Cup is the highlight of the year at the course and one of the major handicaps of the British racing calendar. Nine horses have famously won the race twice.
On Saturday March 31st 1855 a serious fire broke out at the Grandstand, but the building was not consumed as the fire was brought under control before it could destroy it beyond repair. Nevertheless, the roof had gone and all of the rooms above the groung floor had been gutted, although the outer walls survived. The architect Penson was tasked with repairs. The cause of the fire was attributed to plumbers who had been working on the lead roof.
In 1856 William Wilson, a nonconformist, was far less charitable when issuing stem words on the "demoralising influence' of racing in general and Chester Races in particular. Quoting at great length from the Bible, and pointing the way towards Hell, Mr Wilson advocated that racegoers should actually visit a Lunatic Asylum to see for themselves the fearful wrecks of humanity..."the racing victims". Turning to Chester Races, he declared:
- "...that short week has sown misery in a thousand breasts, has robbed many an inexperienced youth of his better principles, and many an unguarded female of her purity; has left many a parent to mourn over the victims of immorality, and has registered a thousand crimes for the Great Assize. Brawling, drunkenness, gambling, theft, fornication, suicide, and every vice denounced by the divine authority are invariably the results of the present racing system." he adds that "drunkenness, brawling, gambling, theft, prostitution, 'loathsome diseases', lunacy, suicide, and damnation to the city"
The attack was renewed in more measured tones in 1870–1 by the Anglican establishment, led by Dean Howson and Canon Kingsley, and in 1898 by the Evangelical Free Church Council. Canon Kingsley put forward some interesting opinions on the 'evils of betting', a means, he contended, of procuring money out if a neighbour's ignorance, stating his opinion that:
- "If you and he bet on any event, you think that your horse will win; he thinks his will, or he knows the winner. In plain English, you think that you know more about the matter and try to take advantage of his ignorance"
From 1840 there were three bodies with separate financial interests as lessees from the city: the Race Course Committee, the Grand Stand Committee, and the Dee Stand Committee. The stand proprietors were believed to make huge profits, (fn. 59) most of which they in fact ploughed back into the races as prize money. At first the council remained at arm's length, taking a closer interest from the 1880s as pressure mounted to modernize both the meeting and the course. Its Roodee committee (later called the racecourse committee), set up in 1884, sought to fend off demands that the meeting be stopped altogether, and to make new arrangements after the grandstand leases expired. In 1888 the issue was forced by the Race Course Co.'s declaration that it would not renew its lease when it expired in 1892. Negotiations among the parties directly interested, the Jockey Club, and the promoters of a new racecourse elsewhere made it clear that many wanted to turn Chester into a gate-money meeting, following the national trend among the surviving 'county' race meetings.
Admission charges at first reduced attendance to 20,000 on Cup Day 1893, but numbers soon rose again and from 1900 fully justified the description of 'gigantic throngs of humanity' clogging the streets of Chester and queueing for admission from the Roodee the full length of Watergate Street to the High Cross. New heights were reached after both world wars: 96,000 went racing on Cup Day 1920, 104,000 in 1946. The races were still thought of as 'the great Cheshire holiday' in 1951, but wider opportunities for leisure from the later 1950s quickly eroded the crowds. An evening meeting which drew 17,000 in 1974 was thought remarkable, and the daily average in 1995 was c. 14,000.
The crowds necessitated new facilities after 1893. At first there were only minor additions, such as a press box and telegraph office in 1894, and the company proposed merely to improve the existing stands, but the council's racecourse committee pressed for new stands meeting current standards and expectations. Thus was completed in 1900 the County Stand, a picturesque half-timbered building designed by Mangnall & Littlewoods of Manchester to accommodate 5,000 people under cover.
The County Stand was destroyed by fire in September 1985. Its loss was much lamented, and in 1988 it was replaced by a new stand with improved facilities. The new stand cost a little over £2.5 million. Externally the new stand followed the style of the old.
Mutlow and StockdaIes Map of Chester from 1795 shows the Iron Foundry and Lime Kilns established on a corner of the Roodee.
In the 1820's the two main shipyards at Chester were close together near where the Dee railway bridge would later be built. Cortney's shipyard, after the damage by fire in 1817, was offered for sale and William Mulvey moved from a smaller yard to that location in 1825. The adjacent Troughton's shipyard was advertised for sale in 1819 and was reported as owned by Harvey (possibly Hervey) in 1822, and then offered for sale again - it was eventually bought by John Wilson. The shipyards were adjacent the Roodee Foundry:
- "FIRE AT MR MULVEY'S SHIPYARD. On Sunday last, about eleven o'clock in the evening, considerable alarm was excited in this city, by the announcement that Mr. Mulvey's shipyard was on fire. It appeared that flames were seen by some persons issuing from a shed in the ship yard, situated between Roodee Foundry and the pattern room, and it was feared that, before help could be obtained, the ignition might communicate to those buildings. Notice was, however, immediately given to the civic authorities and to the garrison, and in the course of a very few minutes, the city engines were on the spot. The Castle engines did not arrive until the fire was nearly extinguished as the men were at the time engaged in Divine worship at St. Mary's church; but on being called out they immediately hastened to the ship yard. On the arrival of the city engines, attended by a body of firemen, under the superintendence of Mr. Hill, the shed was nearly destroyed, and the flames were just bursting into the pattern room; the window shutters and frames of which, we understand, had already taken fire. After considerable exertion, however, on the part of Mr. Hill, the further communication of the flames on either side of the shed was cut off - the shed itself being completely destroyed. A large quantity of new timber, which lay in the vicinity of the shed, was saved by the timely arrival of the force. It has not been positively ascertained how the fire originated; but, as Mr. Mulvey states, there had been no fire kindled in his yard the previous day, it is supposed that a spark had flown from the crucible of the foundry, which after smouldering some time, had at length burst into a flame. It is stated that a similar accident has happened by this means on a former occasion. The amount of damage done does not, it is said, exceed £50 or 60; but had the fire occurred in the night, is very probable that the entire buildings would have been destroyed." (Chester Chronicle - Friday 07 February 1845])
The Roodee shipyard changed hands twice in the 1850s, and nearly closed on at least one occasion:
- "SUSPENSION OF BUSINESS AT THE ROODEE SHIP YARD. We regret exceedingly to have to mention the stoppage of a concern which by the number of persons it employed, and the activity imparted to the general business of the city, must be looked upon as a public benefit. Consequently, its cessation partakes of the dimensions of a public misfortune. Wednesday afternoon, while the men at the Roodee Ship Yard were in full occupation, they were startled by the announcement that all business was suspended, and that they must attend Friday, yesterday, for the amount of wages due. The men immediately left, and it is but justice to them to state that their own difficulty was almost lost sight of in sympathy for that of their employer. We understand that these difficulties have been considerably enhanced by the strikes that have taken place in this establishment. One which occurred about a fortnight ago entailed a loss of at least £200 on Mr. Cram. The extensive works at Sandicroft are, of course, in the same predicament as those at the Roodee. Of the cause of this commercial catastrophe we are uninformed. All we know is that an assignment for the benefit of creditors has been executed, and that Mr. Roberts, of the Old Bank, and Mr. Septimus Ledward, of Liverpool, are the Assignees. On Wednesday evening, a considerable sensation was caused in the Ship Yard, by an attempt of a creditor, largely engaged in the Iron Trade, to obtain possession of an anchor recently delivered there. When the object of the party and his men was known, the police were sent for, and it was frustrated by their resistance. This coup was very nearly successful in the attempt, but of course it could have had no result - the property was vested in the assignees. It was a realisation of the "good old rule, the simple plan." The party came in a boat, had obtained his hold of the anchor, and dragged it from the wharf into the water, when the police appeared on the scene, and the takers of the law into their own hands had to drop the anchor, which fell to the bottom, while they escaped as they could, some in the boat and others by swimming. We earnestly hope that this suspension will be only temporary, as well for the sake of the respected and enterprising proprietor as for the sake of the many hundreds employed by him. We understand that upwards of 1,100 persons are thrown out of work by this event. We understand that yesterday morning a deputation of the workmen resident in Chester, heretofore employed at the Ship Yard, waited upon Mr. Cram in their own name and that of their fellow-hands, placing their services at his disposal gratuitously for a fortnight, for the completion of such works on contract, the non-fulfilment of which might expose that gentleman to additional loss. We understand, from the latest information, that the yards and works will be opened this day (Saturday), and business resumed as usual." (Chester Chronicle - Saturday 19 August 1854)
The final occupier, Cox and Miller of Liverpool, provided a dramatic finale between 1857 and 1869 by launching a succession of large iron sailing ships from the yard. John Gray & Co., Roodee Iron Works, had disappeared by 1860, but it is unclear whether it was swallowed up by the revived shipyard or was too poorly located to make efficient use of rail transport. The slump of the late 1860s ended the shipbuilding boom, however, and in 1869 the yard was closed. The site was used for the new gasworks.
Buffalo Bill, 1903
Buffalo Bill's Wild West toured Europe eight times, the first four tours between 1887 and 1892, and the last four from 1902 to 1906. The Wild West traveled throughout Great Britain in a tour in 1902 and 1903 and a tour in 1904, performing in nearly every city large enough to support it. The 1904 schedule and the program are impressive, with the original program having performances in Llandudno, Holyhead, Caernafon, Portmadoc, Dolgelly and Aberystwyth on the Monday to Saturday before performing in Chester on the following Monday (19th May). The 1903 show at Chester was cancelled due to a smallpox outbreak in the city (Chester Courant, 27th May 1903). The two performances scheduled for Chester on Friday, 29th May 1903 had to be rearranged at short notice, in favour of Ruabon, Wales.
the overwhelming majority of venues were for one day only. The crucial expertise which made this important development possible was initially provided by James Bailey, of the Barnum & Bailey organisation, who had been assumed as a partner in 1895. The venues selected were centres of population served by effective rail links. These were indispensable, not just for the transportation of the show but also because railway services were the principal means by which spectators travelled in large numbers from the outlying areas. Barnum & Bailey owned the special "Circus Trains" in which the the vast entourage of 800 people and 500 horses travelled from one venue to the next. Sixty-seven new-build rail cars were originally ordered by Barnum from WR Renshaw of Stoke-on-Trent (Phoenix Works), Staffordshire. Sixty-six would comprise four trains (sections), each to be powered by a pair of goods locomotives supplied by the hosting railway. The passenger cars and stock cars borrowed heavily from contemporary American designs, aided by a contract engineer from Barney & Smith in Dayton, Ohio, further distinguishing this show as a uniquely American spectacle. Fifty of the Barnum European rail cars went to Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show which had come under Barnum management, touring England and Europe in 1903-1906.
On the day of arrival at a new venue, the trains arrived in the early hours of the morning at a local goods yard. Crowds invariably gathered in anticipation. All the equipment was swiftly unloaded and transported in wagons to the show ground. The performers mounted up and rode along in seemingly endless cavalcade. On arrival at the showground, the canvas city, consisting of the vast arena, sideshow, stables, sleeping quarters, dining marquee, refreshment tents for the spectators, the ever-popular Indian village and all the other associated temporary structures, would spring up over an area of around ten acres with a rapidity which never failed to astonish the locals. These procedures were repeated in reverse, at the close of the final performance at any given venue; as soon as an item of equipment was no longer required, it was loaded up and packed off to the station.
The mysterious death of Damer Leslie Allen, 1912
Damer Leslie Allen and Denys Corbett Wilson were two Irishmen who were among the first pilots in the early days of aviation. In 1912, both were flying regularly at Hendon and knew each other well. Both men flew Blériot XI monoplanes and had many shared experiences. Thus, it was not unexpected that in April 1912, the two men decided it was time to make a first successful crossing from England (or Wales) to Ireland. They both left Hendon soon after half-past three in the afternoon and Allen, following the London and Northwestern Railway line, arrived at Chester at 6:43 in the evening, landing on the Roodee. This was the first time a winged aircraft had landed in Chester. Allen was born in Limerick on January 30, 1878. He had only earned his wings on February 20, 1912, receiving Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certficate No. 183. So he was not a particularly experienced pilot.
Just after six on the following morning Allen started from Chester and being seen passing over Holyhead at 7:50, flew out to sea. He was never seen or heard of again, and his fate remains a mystery. For some weeks after the flight, many thought that the two men had bet one another some money as to which would successfully make the trip first. That turned out not to be the case and it seems that whatever happened to D. L. Allen, it wasn’t from a rush to be first that caused his problems. Most likely, the best technology of the day, a Blériot XI monoplane, had simply failed him. On 24 June 1912, the High Court in London made an order that Allen should be presumed to have died on or after 18 April 1912. A consulting engineer by profession, Allen left an estate valued at £6,923 15s 8d. At the time of his death, Allen was being sued in the English courts for the recovery of a portrait of Lady Anne Ponsonby by Thomas Gainsborough, which he had sold at Christie's for 8,300 guineas (£8,715 - more than he was worth at the time of his death). However it is unlikely that the dispute over the painting had anything to do with his dissappearance and presumed death.
Just who made the first successful flight to Ireland is also something of a mystery. The following week, on 26 April 1912, Vivian Hewitt successfully completed a flight between Rhyl and Dublin, landing in the Phoenix Park. However in 1910 the actor Robert Loraine, flew from Holyhead in North Wales to Howth, County Dublin on September 11. He actually flew inland over Ireland searching for a place to land and when forced to turn back towards the sea, came down a few hundred feet from the shore, and walked ashore. Denys Corbett Wilson had managed to fly from Goodwick in Wales to Enniscorthy on April 17th 1912, but detractors argued this was not a crossing of the Irish Sea but simply the St George's Channel. Robert Loraine is also credited with having invented the word "joystick".