Souter’s Lane is a medieval road that led from the area of the Newgate down to the River Dee, and was once called Shoemaker's River Passage. On the Lavaux Map it is marked as "Dee Lane", although the present day Dee Lane is elsewhere. Souter is a Middle English term derived from the word for a shoemaker, which suggests that shoe-related aspects of leatherworking were concentrated in this vicinity in the late Saxon period. The lane follows a natural ravine which almost certainly influenced the precise location of the walls of Roman Chester by fixing the site of the South-East corner tower at the head of the ravine.
The site of the Roman Gardens was previously occupied by a clay tobacco-pipe factory which was in production from at least 1781 until 1917. The foundations of a brick building have been found alongside the City Wall which runs to the east of the Gardens. Chester was the centre for a flourishing clay tobacco-pipe industry. Chester's pipes were exported in great quantities. The earliest clay tobacco-pipe kiln ever found in Britain has been discovered in Chester on the site of the Infirmary, and another has been found near Souters Lane. The industry died out with the introduction of cigarettes, although tobacco remained an industry in Chester.
Dee House was supposedly built in about 1730 as a town house for John Comberbach, a former mayor of Chester, although there is some debate about who it was actually built for and exactly when. Extensions were made in the 1740s to the south and southwest, giving the house an L-shaped plan. It continued in use as a private residence until about 1850, when it was sold to the Church of England. In 1854 it passed to the Faithful Companions of Jesus, a religious institute of the Roman Catholic Church, who used it as a convent school. They added a wing to the east, which incorporated in its ground floor a chapel designed by Edmund Kirby. The chapel is in Gothic Revival style, in contrast to the rest of the building which is in a Georgian style. A west wing in Neo-Georgian style was added in about 1900 again by Kirby. In 1925 the building was taken over by the Ursulines, another religious institute. Dee House was later acquired by Post Office Telecoms (later British Telecom) and converted into a telephone exchange with offices and training facilities. In 1993 it was sold to Chester City Council. It has been vacant since this time. Further details about Dee House, its history and significant features are contained in Historic England’s Historic Places Investigation Report - Dee House, Chester - An Investigation and Assessment.
No-one knew for certain that Chester had an Amphitheatre until 1929, when a large curved wall was discovered while an underground boiler room was being built onto the south side of Dee House. A local schoolmaster, W. J. Williams, was the first to recognise what this meant. Williams identified a stretch of masonry exposed in June 1929 as the outer wall of the amphitheatre. The curving wall and the buttresses were the main features that suggested that this was the amphitheatre, which proved to be well preserved. In the early 1930s, parts of the western entrance, the outer wall, the arena walls and the arena itself were discovered. Controversial proposals had been put forward in 1926 by the City Corporation to straighten Newgate Street and Little St John Street between the city Walls and St John's Church. Hostility to the scheme was increased by the discovery of the amphitheatre in 1929, when it was realised that the new road would cut directly across the centre of the monument. The walls lining the proposed road had been built, cutting the site in two, and a new gate through the Walls was under construction when the Ministry of Transport effectively blocked the scheme in 1933 by refusing loan sanction. In 2016 the Council approved plans to grant a 150-year lease for Dee House, meaning that the still-buried half of the Amphitheatre will not be excavated. Reasons for the decision included the argument that much of what is visible today is actually 20thC reconstruction and it is likely that very little remains under Dee House. The lease fell through due to the delapidated state of the building. By 2022 the plan was to remove the roof and all the internal structure to leave an empty shell of walls. Some doubt has been expressed by local historians that this shell will hardly comprise any of the 1730 structure as Kirby possibly refronted the building when making his alterations in 1900. The latest report on the building can be found on the Civic Trust website as Dee House: The Future.
Towards the foot of Souters Lane is a bricked-up doorway at street level. Above this is the building which was constructed as the Bishop's Palace. The former palace of the bishops of Chester, later became a YMCA hostel (the "YMCA" sign from The Groves has gone "missing"), and it now (2021) contains a wedding venue. The building dates from 1751, with C19 and C20 alterations. It is thought to replace a medieval palace nearby. Separation from the River Dee was maintained by high walls, terraces and the natural slope of the ground, so the best place to see the building from is the Walls. The exterior of the building other than the front door is virtually unaltered by C20 changes of use.
The interior is partly sub-divided, c1980, for office use, but retains some features of interest. A good open-well open-string stair of 6 flights but, if earlier description was correct, with turned balusters replacing the Chinese Chippendale balustrade then mentioned. A stone back stair with iron stick balusters and rail; a replaced secondary stair; some original 6-panel doors. A room with panelling, now painted and probably restored, on the ground floor, with one row of panels below dado and a tall row above dado; an excellent main room, now boardroom, on first floor with plasterwork intact including a coved ceiling with exuberant mid C18 decoration; a good deal of minor features of C18 plasterwork; some fireplaces and overmantels. Built for Bishop Peploe mid C18 according to Pevsner, but according to Harris occupied as the Bishop's Palace 1870, when the former palace in the Cathedral Precinct was replaced by the King's School, to 1921.
A replica of The Rose Theatre was featured in the film "Shakespeare in Love" and after 10 years in storage it was donated by Dame Judi Dench to the British Shakespeare Company, who were planning to rebuild it in the north of England, although the plans have not progressed any further since they were announced in 2009. The proposed site offered in Chester was at the bottom of Souters Lane, a location which has been occupied by a cafe/restaurant for many years. One earlier incarnation of the cafe was noted for its "penny arcade" "What The Butler Saw" machine (apparently censored by inking-in underclothes on every frame) and a machine which administered electric shocks.
The riverside at the bottom of Souters Lane is the place where the boat tours start. Previously known as Bithell Boats, the ChesterBoat Company has, in one form or another, been operating passenger vessels and taking tourists on cruises along the River Dee for over 100 years. A Bithell took place in the Regatta of 1819 as crew of one of the "working" boats.
The Dee Steam and Motor Boat Co offered a regular ferry service on the Dee, with four boats; "Ormonde", "Aldford", "Flying Fox" and "Bend’Or". Two of these are named after noted racehorses owned by the Grosvenors. One of the early Dee steam-boats (previously the "Flying Fox") "survives" as the Lady Charlotte, but is no longer on the Dee.
The passenger vessels were originally wooden with a cloth awning but have gradually been replaced by much larger steel vessels. The flagship, the Lady Diana joined the fleet in 1981 when it was decided that an all-weather all year round boat was required. Her style and appearance was in complete contrast to the traditional launches and was greeted with some criticism at the time. The Mark Twain arrived in 1988, looking a shadow of the vessel that it is today as it was much smaller and has subsequently been made longer.
Sources and Links
- The Buildings of England: Pevsner N & Hubbard E: Cheshire: Harmondsworth: 1971-: 165-166
- The River Dee’s Boats from the 1930s;