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Chesters Town Hall is, together with the Cathedral one of the major landmarks of The City. It can be found halfway up Northgate Street. It is a beautiful building and nowadays is maintained to a very high standard (it is also available as a cushion). Most of the time it is open to visitors (free of charge), but it is never that crowded. If you do visit, you can pick-up a free guide leaflet in the entrance. One amusing feature of the Town Hall is that some of the historical sculptures are, to say the least, a little less than accurate.
- 1 History
- 2 Ornaments
- 2.1 The gates .. and the snails which cannot be found
- 2.2 The Porch - some odd choices of sculpture
- 2.3 The Waiting Hall
- 2.4 The Magistrates Courts
- 2.5 The Ballroom
- 2.6 Stained glass..and the mixed-up coats of arms
- 2.7 Upstairs
- 2.8 Works of sculpture .. and more impossible dates
- 2.9 The worlds first cinema?..or yet another falsehood
- 2.10 Other Sculpture, outside
Over the years the Chester Assembly met and conducted business in various locations. The Common Hall stood in Commonhall Street from before 1337 and was possibly built as early as 1250, to act as a meeting place for the "Guild Merchant". A common hall continued in use on that site until c. 1510, when the building was converted into a chapel for the newly founded fraternity and hospital of St. Ursula. Other business was conducted at the Pentice, a lean-to built against St Peter's church, was well established by 1288. Its earliest surviving records date from 1297. Business was transferred to St. Nicholas Chapel in 1488, but in 1553 the building was let to Ralph Goodman (Fishmonger) for 6d. a year, and he had permission to "pull down, remove or take away" the old buildings as he wished.
The Exchange, in Northgate Street was known at first as the "new common hall", and was erected between 1695 and 1698 at the corporation's expense but with contributions from William III, Peter Shakerley (former governor of the castle and a Tory M.P. for Chester from 1698), Francis Gell (projector of a plan to improve the River Dee navigation), and the estate of Thomas Cowper of Overleigh Hall. It stood south of the site of the "shambles" in the wide middle section of Northgate Street almost opposite the Cathedral. The building, of brick with stone quoins and elevated on pillars, was adorned in 1712 with a life-sized statue of Queen Anne (6 February 1665 – 1 August 1714) 'curiously gilt and painted' placed over the main entrance in the south front. The lower storey formed an open piazza with a coffee house, initially in the south-west corner, but later moved to the north-east corner. The main apartments were in the upper storey, which comprised 'a fine magnificent room styled the common hall of pleas', with to the south the portmote court, 'extremely ornamental, wainscotted with oak and adorned with figures of carved work', and to the north the sheriffs' court. Those apartments later functioned as an assembly or banqueting room, a court room, and a council chamber. It was destroyed by fire on 30th December 1862. On the 14th January, 1863, the Council met in Lower Bridge Street "at the house lately occupied by Mr. Snape" to consider the provision of a new Hall. A Committee was set up to report, in the first instance, on whether or not to rebuild on the old site.
After the Exchange fire of 1862 a competition was organized for a new Town Hall. Entrants were to submit designs which were "substantial and economical" and in accordance with "the general features of this ancient city" and costing no more than £16,000. The Committe was to be a long-winded affair: meeting a total of 250 times before it was disbanded in 1878, with 200 of these meetings before 1871.
Harmony with the general features provoked some comments in the local newspapers. The Chronicle wrote:
- "The ancient city is a medley — shops look like convents, banks like Grecian Temples and our leading hotel will soon be a leading contender for that mixed order which defies all classification."
Some thirty designs were submitted by the closing date in 1864. The original plan was to exhibit these at the Royal Hotel, but the Committee could not secure a room and instead the entries were displayed at the grandstand on the Roodee. Estimated costs ranged from £13,000 to £20,000, and the Council Committee could not decide upon a winner. To end the indecision the Committee decided to bring in an outside consultant and the Royal Institute of British Architects was invited to nominate one. R. Wyatt was subsequently engaged for a fee of 500 guineas. While the Wyatt family were well-known architects it is not at all clear who "R. Wyatt" was.
According to Wyatt, the competition was won by the Belfast architect W. H. Lynn with a "Venetian Gothic" design said to be based on the medieval "Cloth Hall" in Ypres, Flanders (largely destroyed in WW1, but since rebuilt). Not exactly "cheating...". The advantage of the revived "Venetian Gothic" was derived by John Ruskin from the Venetian palaces built on very constricted sites. Most palazzi were high (by medieval standards) - tall rectangular boxes with decoration concentrated on the front facade. The style was therefore developed for a similar architectural context to that found in late 19th-century city centre streets.
The site chosen lay west of the Exchange, bounded by Princess Street to the north, the Saracen's Head Inn to the south, and the road to the new market hall to the rear. Previously it was occupied mainly by inns and alehouses, at least one of which was purchased in anticipation of the new construction. The first hitch was when the architect advised the Committee that the plans would not be available until 1865. The Committee then spent a year in seemingly endless debates as to whether to cancel the plan and start afresh with a new design or possibly even on a new site. Meanwhile estimates for the cost of the building continued to rise. In early 1865 the Committee discovered that they already faced an architects bill of £1,400 and decided to errect a cheaper building without a tower whose design was offered by a local builder (Clarke).
Work began in 1865 and lasted some four years, prolonged by the increasingly strained relations between corporation and architect. The principal difficulty was that Lynn's scheme cost more than £16,000, and although the Committee grudgingly accepted a tender of £21,610, it continued to consider various modifications. Other disputes concerned the accuracy of the initial site plans provided by the Committee, which gave the wrong dimentions for the footprint, whether the competition prize could be deducted rom the bill and finally a dispute of the quality of the stone to be used. Costs soared to almost £50,000, and then the stone-masons went on strike. The reasons for the strike seem to have been entirely avoidable but relations between the masons and Gargan, the Clerk of Works, started off on the wrong foot - with petty disputes being blown-up into major issues. The architects were an Irish firm, where labour relations were handled in completely different ways, and refused to "give-in" to the strikers. The Committee refused to meet the strikers, but pressured the builder (Clarke) to complete the work for which he was responsible on time. Clarke, in an impossible situation, suddenly fell ill and died a few days later. and the matter became a national "cause celebre" over thr rights of organised labour. A new builder, Hughes of Aldford, was appointed. Months of inactivity followed and Hughes was ordered to bring in new workers. At last, there were discussions with the Bradford headquarters of the Society of Masons and all sides brought in droves of witnesses. Much of the debate centered around the conduct of the the Clerk of Works, Gargan, and in particular his "colourful" language. The Committee was split between getting rid of Gargan or facing litigation from him - in the end, after further delay, he was bought-off by compensation. In the meantime, Lynn had had second-thoughts about some aspects of his design and now proposed further changes. These included the inclusion of the tower, on which the Committee eventually agreed. 1869 opened with the collapse of the south wall of the public meeting rooms and the architects proposal to either add external buttresses or demolish the building and start again. Several sub-committees were set up to decide such matters as to whether the housekeeper would live rent-free, the nature of their uniform, etc.
The Committee Goeth On...
Nevertheless, in 1869 the new town hall was completed. Built of red and grey sandstone, its main facade was symmetrical, of ten bays with a central tower. The interior included a large assembly room, a court room for the city quarter sessions, and on the first floor, reached by a fine staircase rising in an apse, a council chamber, mayoral suite, and committee room. It was opened on October 15th 1869 by the Prince of Wales (and then also Earl of Chester), later King Edward VII. Mr Bolland was employed to provide a cake in the shape of the building. Troubles did not end: when the first fire was lit in the Treasurer's office, smoke poured from the mouth-pieces of the "speaking tubes" which had been installed in the building, and none of the locks worked. Exploration of the smoke issue revealed that wooden joists had been inserted through several flues and that the building had been on the verge of burning down. The flues were so bodged and routed so badly that an expert was consulted. He was R. Hall of Stockport and concluded that only eight chimneys out of twenty-seven could be swept. Hall managed to partly cure the problem with additional soot doors in 22 flues - although most of the fireplaces continued to smoke badly. Below the Town Hall in the new Police Station the "lock-ups" had been provided with flush toilets, but not with a water supply.
All that remained was to demolish the old inn's, the Saracen's Head and the Market Inn which stood beside the Town Hall between it and the Market Hall. At once the owners (Huxley's and the Northgate Brewery) hiked their prices. The City needed permission from the Treasury to borrow money for this, but opposition Aldermen had already written to Whitehall with objections, and the request to borrow further funds was refused. A public meeting organised by the "rebels" voted unaminously that a new jail, workhouse and drains were more important. The matter was only sorted-out in 1871, although the Market Inn was not demolished until 1880 or shortly thereafter. Evidently the Market Inn was still trading in 1874, when 66 year old widow Hannah Payne, was found dead on a bench in the bar - a fitting end for an habitual inebriate who had been up before the magistrates over a hundred times for drunk and disorderly behaviour.
Despite the building having been completed the Building Committee continued to meet until 1878. In it's final years the Committee debated many matters which it no doubt considered of vital civic importance:
- whether a police constable should be sent to the Post Office each morning to get the correct time for the mayor;
- whether the Rifle Volunteeers should be able to supply their own spittoons;
- the manner in which the names of the previous mayors and sherrifs should be painted on panels - when this was eventually done, all the dates were found to be out by one year;
- whether the hall porter could accept tips or should only get a portion of monies deposited in a charity box. One historian strongly implies he was later dismissed for stealing from the box.
There was also a discussion as to whether the High Cross should be restored to a site in the Town Hall square. The remains of the Cross were (apparently) lying in a garden at Netherleigh (see: Brown). After considerable debate the owner of Netherleigh was consulted and he flatly refused to have the remains removed.
In "The Building News", December 2nd 1881, we read:
- “The space between the covered market and the site of the Town Hall was occupied by tavern premises, which, owing to rights of light which they enjoyed, prevented the completion of the return of the new building towards the market. This bad to be sloped inwards from about two-thirds of its depth as a temporary expedient. The Corporation having acquired this property, are now extending the market accommodation up to the Town Hall boundary, with a front towards Northgate-street, in keeping with the style of the Town Hall. This, which is shown in our view of the building, is being carried out from Mr. Lynn’s designs also. The return of the south end of the Town Hall is drawn complete — a condition which, it is to be hoped, it will be left in before the opportunity for accomplishing it simultaneously with the market work is allowed to pass. The extension of the market is being carried out by Mr. W. Edge Samuels, of Wrexham, contractor, under the superintendence of Mr. J. Matthew Jones, the City surveyor of Chester, who has prepared the drawings of all the work now being done, with the exception of the new front designed by Mr. Lynn.”
Some myths about the clock
One often-mentioned feature of the town hall is that the clock tower only has a clock on three of the four sides, and that the clock face facing Wales is missing because the inhabitants of Chester "would not give the welsh the time of day" (see "Shoot the Welsh). The Cloth Hall in Ypres (built in 1260, destroyed in WW1 and rebuilt in 1934), upon which the Town Hall is based, also only has a clock face on three sides of the tower - however it houses a carillon with 49 bells.
The actual clock is recent (having only been installed in 1980), as plans for the inital purchase of a clock (originally intended for Woolwich Arsenal) were cut for cost reasons and the discovery that the clock would require an hour of winding each day!
Other buildings said to based upon the Cloth Hall in Ypres include the Calcutta High Court constructed in 1872.
One cannot help but notice that Chester Town Hall is filled with sculpture which shows men in skirts, on their knees, kissing the boot of authority. Perhaps that is better discussed elsewhere.
The building itself is clad with banded pink and buff sandstone and has a graded grey-green slate roof. The front is symmetrical with a 160 foot helm spire. Opposed flights of steps with a pierced parapet in front of the plain semi-basement lead to a central landing before the porch which is recessed behind a pair of arches with a polished stone central column. Between the entrance arches the date 1869 and the pre-1974 Chester City arms are carved. The present Arms of Chester feature a gold bordure charged with acorns, representing the rural areas (including Hoole) added to the city in 1954. In 1975 two oak branches were added to the crest for the two rural districts and the two castles were added to the supporters for "heraldic difference".
The first stage of the tower has 2 pairs of French doors to the balcony, with colonnettes and tracery; 3 hipped dormers with ornate finials in the roof to each side of the tower; cast-iron cresting in roofs; ornate stringcourse to base of second stage of tower; triple bell-openings have boarded louvres and a gabled niche to each side (but no bells); a corbelled stringcourse above; the plate tracery of a circular window in each gable of the helm spire serves as a clock-face; corner pinnacles have niches and crockets; a steep-roofed hipped dormer on each face of the spire has boarded louvres and an ornate finial; the spire terminates in a balconied belvedere with a steep pyramidal roof.
The guides at the Cathedral have been known to say that the turrets on the top of the Cathederal were added because it had to be the tallest building in Chester. It is true that the turrets were added just after the completion of the Town Hall, however the Cathedral is not the tallest building in Chester. The shot tower at the Leadworks is slightly taller at 168 feet (51.2 m), but the top of that building is not accessible to the public. Moreover, the ground on which the cathedral stands is higher than that on which the Shot Tower stands, and so the top of the Cathedral is arguably the highest accessible point above sea level in Chester. However, the Cathedral is 127 feet high (39 meters) whereas the Town Hall spire is 160 feet (48 meters). The tallest high rise buildings in Chester (Plas Dinas, Nant Peris and Glyn Garth in Blacon) reach 37 meters.
The gates .. and the snails which cannot be found
The steel and bronze gates, designed and made by Terrence Clark, were presented to celebrate the granting of the Lord Mayoralty to the City of Chester in 1992. Welded onto the Town Hall gates are three small metal snails, one on the right hand and centre gates and a third which is really hard to spot.
The Porch - some odd choices of sculpture
The porch contains four sculptures in Bath stone. These are technically very well executed and depict a series of historical events that unfortunately share the common feature that they have brought military "conflict" in some form to Chester, and they often relate to the relation between the Corporation and authority, be that the Crown or the Earls of Chester. The porch sculptures are the first of many at the Town Hall which are notable for their historical errors and innaccuracy. Whether these errors are intentional or accidental is an interesting subject for consideration.
"Roman Soldiers Building The Walls Of Chester" (see: Roman Chester)
These Roman guys were obviously tough - three of them are lifting a huge block of stone that probably weighs several tons up to the top of a gateway, without any lifting gear other than brute force. On top of that, they have bare feet - not even military boots are being worn. The walls of Roman Chester were once thought to have been rebuilt in stone from the middle of the second century CE. There has been much debate on this. However, it now appears that the facing of the ramparts with stone started earlier and the rebuilding of the ramparts with solid stone was well underway by the end of the first century, i.e. within a few years of the establishment of the city. This would have been a massive undertaking, as the stone walls, towers and gates comprise some 55 thousand tons of stone (about 70 thousand Roman wagon-loads). The Romans who invaded in the year 43 were clean shaven. In the early 2nd century the Emperor Hadrian made beards fashionable again because he thought a beard made him look like a Greek philosopher, so depending on the date maybe the guy in charge is fashionable or not.
Whether the inclusion of a figure with a Hadrianic beard in a mural about the walls of Chester is an intentional reference or not, Hadrian is most noted in Britain for building Hadrian's Wall, a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia, begun in AD 122. Legio XX based at Chester were involved in both the building and the garrison of the wall. Although Hadrian's biographer wrote that Hadrian "was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the Romans from the barbarians", reasons given for the construction of the wall vary, and no recording of an exact explanation survives. On Hadrian's accession to the purple in 117, there was unrest and rebellion in Roman Britain and elsewhere: these troubles may have influenced Hadrian's plan to construct the wall as well as his construction of frontier boundaries in other areas of the Empire, to fix the limits of the Empire and provide both defence and a degree of control over immigration, smuggling and customs. Whether the mural is intended to draw attention to these issues remains unknown.
"King Egbert Uniting The Kingdoms Mercia" (see: Dark Ages)
Why pick Egbert? In 829 Egbert (king of Wessex) invaded Mercia (which then included Chester) and drove Wiglaf, the king of Mercia, into exile. This victory gave Egbert control of the London mint, and he issued coins as King of Mercia. It was after this victory that the West Saxon scribe described him as a bretwalda, meaning "wide-ruler" or "Britain-ruler", in a famous passage in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The relevant part of the annal reads, in the [C] manuscript of the Chronicle: ⁊ þy geare geeode Ecgbriht cing Myrcna rice ⁊ eall þæt be suþan Humbre wæs, ⁊ he wæs eahtaþa cing se ðe Bretenanwealda wæs (and the same year King Egbert conquered the kingdom of Mercia, and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king who was 'Wide Ruler'). Egbert seems to have plundered every territory he conquered - to quote Roger of Wendover: "When Egbert had obtained all the southern kingdoms, he led a large army into Northumbria, and laid waste that province with severe pillaging, and made King Eanred pay tribute". Egbert didn't even keep Mercia for that long - in 830, Mercia regained its independence under Wiglaf — the Chronicle merely says that Wiglaf "obtained the kingdom of Mercia again". Samuel Lewis (in his Topographical Dictionary of Wales) does not paint Egbert in a good light: "Immediately after surrender of Chester to Egbert of Wessex, the whole of the present county of Flint, being an open tract devoid of those rugged and almost inaccessible elevations which occupy so much of the rest of North Wales, became subject to the arms of that powerful monarch who carried his devastations to the foot of the mountains." . Egbert appears to have visited Chester but once, around 830. As one writer records:
- During Egbert’s final war with Cornwall, the North Welsh had to the best of their ability aided their fellow Britons, and therefore Egbert launched a punitive expedition against them. He laid siege to and took Chester, then capital of the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd – strongest of all the several North Welsh states. Of the punishments Egbert visited upon these Britons, the most humiliating was his command that the statue of their ancient king, Cadwalhon, be destroyed and never replaced. When he returned to Wessex, Egbert decreed that all the Welsh and their offspring leave his kingdom within six months or be put to death. Egbert ordered this apparently at the instigation of his wife, Redburga, who did exercise some political influence over her husband, and whose hatred of the Welsh was well-known.
Chester must have been changing hands rapidly at this time. In 839 Egbert's successor, Æthelwulf of Wessex, held the Witenagemot (literally "meeting of the wise") in Chester, and, being crowned (in Kingston not Chester?), received at Chester the homage of tributary kings, "From Berwick to Kent." (Encyl Brit 1911 - not found in the A.S. Chron - and Wiglaf should have been in charge then). Æthelwulf and his first wife, Osburh, had five sons and a daughter. After Æthelstan came Æthelbald, Æthelbert, Æthelred, and (his most famous son) Ælfred. Each of his sons, with the exception of Æthelstan, succeeded to the throne. What did Egbert do for Chester? - plundered it probably.
So why Egbert? - because at the time that the Town Hall was built he was generally regarded as the first king of all England. He was, briefly.
Hugh Lupus Created Earl Of Chester" (see: Earls of Chester).
Presumably the fellow on the throne is William and the fellow kneeling is Hugh of Avranches (with his hunting dogs). In 1071, Gherbod the Fleming, the first Earl of Chester was (perhaps) taken prisoner at the Battle Of Cassel in France. Taking advantage of the circumstances, the king declared his title vacant, giving Hugh the Earldom (of the second creation). Hugh was born atound 1047, so he's around 24 at the time he becomes Earl, while William, born around 1028, is over 40. If anything the kneeling figure looks the older of the two. And what's with the mustaches? - the Normans in the Bayeux Tapestry are all clean shaven (whereas Harold is the one with the mustache). Finally, Hugh seems to be remarkably forward-looking with his Knight's Templar headgear, actually dating from well after his time. Both these guys are shown as quite thin, whereas in truth they both became quite fat in later life. In William's case that led to war with France when the French King asked him when he expected to give birth. While he was burning down a French town, William's horse stood on a hot ember which caused William to be thrown against the pommel of his saddle "rupturing his organs". He lingered in extreme pain for five weeks, then died. As regards Hugh, Hemingway quotes the following:
- He was, "saith Ordericus, not only liberal, but profuse; he did not carry a family with him, but an army. He kept no account of receipts or disbursements. He was perpetually wasting his estates; and was much fonder of falconers and huntsmen, than of cultivators of land, and holy men, and by his gluttony he grew so excessively fat, that he could hardly crawl about."
What did Hugh do for Chester? Identified as a centre of disaffection, Chester was dealt with severely. The construction of William I's motte and bailey castle south-west of the legionary fortress almost certainly entailed considerable destruction; when Earl Hugh received the city, probably in 1071, the value of the farm had been reduced by a third to £30 and it was described as 'greatly wasted'. Of 487 houses standing in 1066, 205 had been lost and were perhaps not rebuilt before 1086. The increase in the farm of the city under Earl Hugh to £70 and a mark of gold (about its pre-Conquest level) perhaps indicates more burdensome exactions rather than returning prosperity. Hugh is also notable for bringing Anselm of Bec to Chester to found the Benedictine Abbey which later became the Cathedral in 1092. Anselm is possibly the figure shown dressed as a bishop. Unfortunately, by 1092 William the Conqueror had been dead for five years and so the presence of William and Anselm in the same mural is, at best, artistic licence.
The selection of the subject of this mural, as with many of the others, makes a clear statement both about loyalty to the crown but also the independence of the Palatinate under the Earls of Chester. The king's writ did not run to Cheshire. The chief administrative official, the justice of Chester, was at times neither appointed by the king nor responsible to him. The king derived no benefit from scutages or tallages levied in the county. Royal justices did not visit it; fines and amercements levied there did not reach the king. Only with the Henrician reforms of the 1530s and 1540s, was Cheshire subjected to English justices of the peace (1536), national taxation (1540), and Parliamentary representation (1543). Palatine practices remained in place because they were grounded in a pair of county specific institutions: the county court (presided over by the justice and roughly equivalent to the Queen's Bench) and the Exchequer of Chester (supervised by the chamberlain and roughly equivalent to the Chancery Division), both of which continued in one form or another until 1830. The apartness should be obvious to any visitor: dominating the Cheshire plain from its perch atop a steep bluff, Beeston Castle guards the southern and eastern approaches to Chester, "all too obviously defending the county from England rather than Wales".
"The Entry Of Charles The First Into Chester" (see: Civil War)
In September 1645 the Civil War was not going well for Charles. Chester was under siege by the "Roundheads". Charles had gathered what men he could and marched north along the Welsh border in the hope of relieving Chester and consolidating his forces with those of his supporters in Scotland, particularly Montrose. His course northward was paralleled by parliamentary forces under Sydenham Poyntz who had been instructed to prevent Charles from breaking out into the Midlands. At Chirk Castle, Charles, heard that Boughton had been overrun and that Chester itself (whose walls had been breached) might soon fall. He hastened northward to the beleaguered city, arriving on 23 September 1645, as depicted in the sculpture. What is strange about the sculpture (apart from the fellow who seems both drunk and dressed in clothing from a later century) are the armored trousers that Charles is wearing. These appear to be based on "lobster-shell cuisses", but seem impossible to sit down in (as well as dated from prior to about 1370). Charles did not stay long. The next day his army was defeated at the Battle of Rowton Moor and he promptly left.
What did Charles do for Chester? - as Hemingway writes:
- "The incessant drains upon their property, in the shape of levies for the maintainance of the garrison, and the support of their fugitive prince, had levelled the different classes of the community, and reduced the whole to one common condition of absolute beggary. Desolation and destruction marked the suburbs, which presented an undistinguished mass of ruins, the only remains of dwellings, once the peaceful habitations of content and security; while our walls and edifices within the city were defaced, or battered down by the destructive cannon."
The obvious symbolism of this mural relates to a historical event, and once again relates to loyalty to the Crown.
The Waiting Hall
Flanking the doors of the "Waiting Hall" are busts of George V and Sir Horatio Lloyd, who was Recorder of Chester from 1866 to 1921.
"Sir W. Brereton Before The Mayors Court" (see: Brereton)
Above the entrance to the Court Room, Sir William Brereton is shown before the Mayor's court, following his arrest in 1642 for attempting to raise recruits for the Parliamentary army (see: Civil War). In 1628 Brereton was elected Member of Parliament for Cheshire and sat until 1629 when King Charles I decided to rule without parliament for eleven years. In April 1640, Brereton was re-elected MP for Cheshire in the Short Parliament. He was re-elected for the Long Parliament in November 1640. Brereton came into conflict with mayor Cowper when he tried to raise troops for Parliament at the High Cross. Brereton was having a drum beaten to literally "drum-up support" and the mayor hacked the drum to bits with a sword. Both the sword and the drum appear in the mural. Thomas Hughes in the Journal of the Architectural, Archaeological, and Historic Society, Volume 2 (see Hughes: JCAS Vol 2 pp 123-125) is recorded as reporting a follows:
- Mr T HUGHES volunteered some remarks on the Cowper Family of Overleigh and especially on those members of it connected with the siege of Chester He exhibited an old portrait in oil colour of Alderman Thomas Cowper Mayor of Chester in 1641 which had been recently presented by Mr J Edisbury of Bersham near Wrexham to the Water Tower Museum Chester. Mr Cowper was Mayor of this city the very year in which a drum was beaten for the Parliament at the instigation of Sir William Brereton and Mr Hughes quoted the following passage from Hemingway's History of Chester to show how boldly and bravely his Worship put down the first symptom of rebellion: Information of this treason having been given to the Mayor Mr Thomas Cowper this intrepid magistrate immediately directed some constables to apprehend the leaders of the tumult but the latter forcibly resisted and compelled the constables to retire upon which the Mayor stepped forward in person to expostulate with them on their conduct and upon being disrespectfully treated he boldly advanced up to one of the Parliamentarians and seizing him by the collar delivered him to the civil officers at the same time wresting a broad sword from another of the party with which he instantly cut the drum to pieces securing the drummer and several others This firm and manly demeanour on the part of the Mayor effectually put an end to the tumult and finally repressed it During this affray the common bell was rung the citizens lent their cheerful aid to the chief magistrate and when they had seen him in a state of personal security the city was restored to peace Sir William Brereton a gentleman of competent fortune in the county and knight for the shire and who was a strong partizan for the Parliament was brought before the magistrates at the Pentice to answer for the part he had taken in the above disturbance though he owed his rescue from the popular fury to the personal interference of the Mayor he was however discharged.
Brereton was Commander-in-Chief for Parliament's army in Cheshire, during which he undertook the siege of Chester. He played an important role in the first civil war's final major pitched battle at Stow-on-the-Wold, but thereafter faded into the background vis-a-vis military matters. Prior to this, Brereton turned his attentions to besieging Chester, a Royalist stronghold. Lord Byron, then Governor of the City, held out until February 1646, but finally had to capitulate, and the shell-shocked and starved city was almost in ruins. In 1642 (9 Nov) grenades were apparently first used at Holt Bridge at Farndon - Sir William Brereton, attacking the bridge for the Parliamentarians stated:
- "for which end they had also made a towre and drawbridge and strong gates upon the bridge soe as they and wee coceived it difficult if not altogether ympossible to make way for our passage". Despite this he, Thomas Middelton and their forces took the bridge when they cast "some grenados amongst the Welshmen"
After the first civil war, Brereton was rewarded by Parliament; he gained Eccleshall Castle in Staffordshire and Croydon Palace, previously the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He later argued that the Earl of Derby (imprisoned at Chester) should not be executed for his alleged part in the "Bolton Massacre". So what did William Brereton the grenade-throwing MP do for Chester? - shelled it mostly.
A group of minstrels marching to the aid of Ranulf de Blondeville (see: Minstrel Court and Dutton)
Above the central doors of the Assembly Room, a sculpture shows a group of minstrels marching to the aid of Ranulf de Blondeville, who was besieged by the Welsh in Rhuddlan Castle. The story depicted (which appears to have taken place sometime around 1198-1205) is found in Leycester's Prolegomena:
- Being distressed by the Welsh and forced to retreat to the castle of Rethelent (Rhuddlan) in Flintshire, where they besieged him, he presently sent to his Constable of Chester, Roger de Lacy, surnamed 'Hell' [Yclept] for his fierce spirit, that he would come with all speed and bring what forces he would towards his relief .. It was the time of the Midsummer's Fair, de Lacy gathered a large group of fiddlers, players and cobblers and marched them immediately to the earl's rescue. Seeing a great multitude approaching, the besiegers fled.
It may be that it was because of this event that Hugh Dutton, Roger's seneschal at Halton Castle (one of the Barons of Halton) was granted control and licencing of the musicians of Cheshire by Roger - see Minstrel Court. As noted by Leycester, the rights even made it onto the statute books. in the 1744 Vagrancy Act, (17 George II., c. 5.), the heirs and assigns of John Dutton, of Dutton, co. Chester, deceased, Esq., are stated to be "exempt from the pains and penalties of vagrancy".
Sculptures at the end of the Waiting Hall depict:
Edward the Black Prince and Henry VII
In 1351, as part of a more general investigation of his earldom's franchises, the Black Prince instituted quo warranto proceedings in Chester. For a ratification of their charters and a declaration of the bounds of their liberties, the citizens agreed to a fine of £300, which because they were impoverished was to be paid by instalments over five years. Royal officials delayed the matter until the prince himself went to Chester in 1353. His visit, which lasted some two months, involved a meeting in the city at which the men of the shire paid a fine of 5,000 marks to maintain their franchises. Chester itself, in accordance with its exempt status, did not contribute.
In 1352, Edward the Black Prince (Earl of Chester (1330-76) see: "Earls of Chester") gave notice to the Mayor and citizens that he had granted the fee-farm of £100 payable by the city yearly to Richard, Earl of Arundel (c.1306/1313 – 24 January 1376), for his life, commanding them at the same time:
- "to be attentive and obedient to the said Earl and his attornies in the payment of the said Farm."
"Fee farming" could be lucrative. In effect the "farmer" contracted with the crown to pay a fixed sum of money each year. In exchange he was given the right to collect certain taxes and dues. Should he collect more than the annual "farm" then he could keep the excess: if less then the "farmer" had to make up the difference. This meant that the Crown was more or less guaranteed a regular income of a known level and that was of benefit to fiscal planning. The 10th Earl of Arundel hardly needed the money, his peak wealth of over 100 Billion in todays money possibly (just) puts him in the top ten richest people of all time. The Black Prince evidently also visited Chester, briefly, in 1358, the only other time that he visited the city, so the charter of 1354 would not actually have been granted in Chester as the mural seems to represent. Evidently the prince only extracted his £300 with "great difficulty".
Three years later, the ninth of March, 1355, the Black Prince confirmed the previous charters (see: Charters) and granted other privileges. The chattels of felons and fugitives, to the amount of £30 were to belong to the city, above that amount to the King. In addition, the Mayor, by virtue of his office, was to be escheater to the King. Finally, the boundaries of the city were described, and appear to have largely coincided with those of to-day, and the citizens were invested with Admiralty powers enabling them to arrest for tolls, dues, customs, and offences committed on the Dee between Chester and Arnold's Eye (Hilbre Island). This charter was signed by the Prince himself at Chester. The Prince's attitude to the city of Chester is note-worthy:
- "there were more evil-doers within the city than in the entire shire outside it"
In 1486 Henry VII (1485-1509) reduced the annual farm to £20 in perpetuity. The king visited Chester with his queen and his mother in 1493 or 1495, and in 1498 or 1499 his son Prince Arthur attended a performance of an Assumption Day play and presented a silver badge to the Smiths, Cutlers, and Plumbers' company. The king's final demonstration of his favour was in 1506 when Henry VII granted the city of Chester county status:
- "know Ye that we, for the great affection which we have and bear to our City of Chester, the Citizens and Commonalty of the same City, and in consideration of the good behaviour and great expenses of the inhabitants of the same City, as also of the voluntary service many ways rendered by them against our adversaries and rebels, willing the better estate of the same City, and especially to provide for the convenience and quiet of the said Citizens, their heirs and successors, of our especial grace and certain knowledge, and mere motion, have given and granted, and do give and grant, and by these presents have confirmed for us and our heirs to the aforesaid Citizens and commonalty, their heirs and successors for ever, that the said City, and all the ground within the said City, with the suburbs and hamlets within the precinct and compass of the same, and all the ground within the precinct and compass of the said City of Chester and the aforesaid suburbs and hamlets, (wholly excepting our castle within the walls of the said City), be exempted and separated, as well by land as by water, from our shire of Chester; and that the said City, and the suburbs and hamlets of the same, and all the ground within the precinct and compass of them, (except as before excepted), be henceforth a County by and in itself distinct and separate from our County of Chester, and that from henceforth it shall be called and named the 'County of the City of Chester.'"
It could be that this "Great Charter" was a "reward" for the Stanleys of Stanley Palace for their support against Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. This is however slightly problematic: it could not be a reward to Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby who died in 1504. Neither could it be a reward to his brother William (who had led the Stanley forces at Bosworth) he having been beheaded in 1495 for treason in his support of the pretender Perkin Warbeck.
The Magistrates Courts
The courtroom ceased to be used for Quarter Sessions in 1972 or as a Magistrates Court in 1991 when a new Magistrates Courthouse was opened in Grosvenor Street. Quarter sessions usually sat in the seat of each county and county borough and were abolished in England and Wales in 1972, when the Courts Act 1971 replaced them and the assizes with a single permanent Crown Court. An adjoining room was used as a retiring room for the magistrates.
The court of quarter sessions was the meeting of the justices of the peace for the county held quarterly at Epiphany (January), Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas (Autumn). While in the other English counties the office of justice had been in existence since the 14th century, it was not until 1536 that Cheshire was statutorily obliged to have justices appointed by the crown in commissions of the peace and establish courts of quarter sessions. Courts were originally held at Chester, Middlewich, Northwich, Nantwich and Knutsford, but from 1760 the only sessions towns were Chester (Epiphany and Easter) and Knutsford (Midsummer and Michaelmas).
Additionally, the city of Chester had its own quarter sessions, formally established by the ‘Great Charter’ of 1506 which empowered the mayor and aldermen who had held that office to act as justices of the peace and created the new office of recorder. Under the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, Chester Corporation petitioned to retain its separate Quarter Sessions and this was granted in William IV’s charter of 1836. A typical record of the court (from before it moved to the Town Hall) reads:
- "JOAN HARVY late of the parish of St.Oswald, aged 14 yrs. On 14-03-1837 in said parish stole loaves valued two pence, sentenced to 12 months hard labour in prison and to be severely whipt."
Stairs from "the dock" lead down to the Police Station in the cellars of the Town Hall, and the cells. If someone was found guilty of an offence they would be "sent down" these steps. A previous Police Station used to be in the cellars of the Town Hall but was closed as such for many years: for a while its rooms were the Records Office. A detailed description of this older Police Station can be found in the links below. In April 1966, the infamous "Moors Murderers", Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were held there while facing trial at Chester Castle: trial in Lancashire being considered too risky.
The ten full-length portraits of the Grosvenors of Eaton Hall form the grandest sequence of paintings in the building. Among these are the most art historically significant paintings in the Town Hall: the portraits of Sir Richard Grosvenor, 1st Earl Grosvenor and his brother Thomas Grosvenor by Benjamin West (October 10, 1738 – March 11, 1820), the American-born second President of the Royal Academy (after Joshua Reynolds). West was entirely self taught and later explained that as a child he was taught to make paint by Native Americans who showed him how to mix clay from the river bank with bear grease in a pot. West was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait (showing the famous kite/lightning experiment) he painted. The series is brought up-to-date with Paul Brason’s 1995 portrait of the late Gerald Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster.
In addition to the portraits, a notable picture depicts the "town-class" cruiser HMS Chester, which took part in the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. The painting by Arthur James Wetherall Burgess shows the ship leaving Birkenhead on her maiden voyage.
Stained glass..and the mixed-up coats of arms
In the main stairs inside the town hall are stained glass windows (by Ralph Bolton Edmondson of Manchester). Edmundson (died 1864), had established the stained glass department at Pilkingtons. Starting his own studio in 1854 in Manchester, it continued as a family firm after his death. Under his son, James, it continued in business until 1890. The windows depict the Earls of Chester:
- John Canmore - in stained glass at (Stoneleigh Abbey) - at Stoneleigh he is shown in the arms of Ranulf Blundeville;
- Ranulf de Blondeville - in stained glass at (Stoneleigh Abbey) - arms are three gold sheaves on blue;
- Hugh de Kevelioc - in stained glass at (Stoneleigh Abbey) - arms are six gold sheaves on blue;
- Ranulph De Gernon - in stained glass at (Stoneleigh Abbey) - arms are gold lion on red or red lion on gold?;
- Ranulf de Meschines - in stained glass at (Stoneleigh Abbey) - arms are silver lion on red or red lion on gold?;
- Richard of Avranches - in stained glass at (Stoneleigh Abbey) - arms are silver wolf head on red with crosses;
- Hugh of Avranches - in stained glass at (Stoneleigh Abbey) - arms are silver wolf head on blue;
- Gherbod the Fleming
The Stoneleigh Abbey glass has an interesting history. The panes date from the third quarter of the 16th century and were originally made for Brereton Hall, Brereton Green, in Cheshire. The glass was sold at auction in Liverpool in 1818 and bought by Abraham Bracebridge, who installed it in his library at Atherstone Hall, Warks. On his death he bequeathed the glass to his friend Lord Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warks, where it remains today. Among the glass bequeathed were figures of seven Earls of Chester from Hugh Lupus to John the Scot, together with two figures of Saxon Earls of Mercia. It is unusual to find English figurative glass of this period, and so these figures are of considerable importance. Jane Austen stayed at Stoneleigh Abbey in 1806 (long before the glass was installed). Her second cousin, the Reverend Thomas Leigh, had just inherited all 690 acres of the parkland as well as the Baroque mansion at its heart, several sandstone buildings from the Tudor period, a gatehouse from around 1340 and what remained of a 12th-century Cistertian abbey. The Austens stayed for a fortnight before returning to genteel penury. She wove elements of life there into at least three of her books: Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and, most obviously, Mansfield Park.
There is a conflict between the arms in the Town Hall and those on the Queens Park Suspension Bridge. Ranulf de Meschines has arms which are, on the Suspension Bridge, a gold lion on a red ground and, in the stained glass of the Town Hall, possibly a red lion on a gold ground. To add further confusion some versions of the arms of his son Ranulph De Gernon and that shown on the bridge also differ. The Stoneleigh Abbey glass appears to agree with the Town Hall stained glass and not with that on the suspension bridge.
There are also eight late 16th century (1578) painted boards depicting the Norman earls and Edric Sylvestris (Eadric the wild), supposed ancestor of the Sylvesters of Storeton in Wirral. The depictions are entirely imaginary as they show the earls in Tudor armour. These panels were formerly in the possession of the Stanleys of Hooton, they were purchased by Sir Thomas Gibbons Frost and presented by him to the city during his mayoralty in 1883. The coats of arms on the painted boards are consistent with those on the stained glass (i.e. different from those on the Suspension Bridge).
The Ballroom in Stockport Town Hall is lit by tall round-headed windows on the east side with armorial and pictorial glass of the Earls of Chester.
The war memorial outside the Assembly Room bears the names of 768 Chester citizens who died in the First World War. A small plaque commemorates those from Chester who died in the Second World War.
The City Council meet in a grand chamber on the first floor which had to be rebuilt by Thomas Lockwood after a disastrous fire which completely destroyed it in 1897. The Lord Mayoral suite consists of the Lord Mayor's Parlour and the Mayoress' Parlour. In the committee room are panels bearing the names of the mayors of Chester from 1238, the sheriffs from 1836, the earls from around 1070, the clerks and town clerks from 1291 and the recorders from 1506.
The Mayoress' Parlour is home to a smallish portrait of Owen Jones who has a very interesting history and who also had a significant effect on the finances of the Corporation of Chester.
On display in the Mayor's Parlour at the Town Hall is a clock, carved to resemble the west front of Chester Cathedral, is one of six similar clocks presented to HMS Chester by the citizens of Chester in May 1916.
Works of sculpture .. and more impossible dates
On the first floor landing are three more pieces of sculpture and, as with all the others there is a "funny" story associated with each of these as well..
"Charter Granted To Mayor And Corporation By Ranulph The Third In AD 1181"
The problem is that in 1181 Ranulf de Blondeville (Ranulph III), Earl of Chester was only nine years old and became Earl when his father Hugh de Kevelioc died on the 30 June 1181. Ranulph did not achieve his majority until 1187. The sculpture portrays Ranulph as being much older than nine, and no Chester charter from that year has ever been identified.
Also, despite standing on some kind of pedestal, Ranulph does appear to be of normal stature, at least as compared to the other figures. In fact, Ranulph was noted for his particularly short stature, so much so that he was taunted about it prior to the Battle of Lincoln. In reality, the office of mayor of Chester probably originated with Ranulf de Blondeville's confirmation of grant of a "Guild Merchant" to the city a little later, in the 1190s.
"James The Second Welcomed By The Citizens And Nobility"
This shows James II on his Visit to Chester in 1687. Mistrust of the king was evident during his visit to Chester in August 1687, to the extent that the Governor of Chester was unable to procure a loyal address from the corporation - not much of a welcome really.
In 1687, James issued the Declaration of Indulgence, also known as the Declaration for Liberty of Conscience, in which he used his dispensing power to negate the effect of laws punishing Catholics and Protestant Dissenters. He attempted to garner support for his tolerationist policy by giving a speaking tour in the West of England in the summer of 1687. As part of this tour, he gave a speech at Chester where he said:
- "suppose... there should be a law made that all black men should be imprisoned, it would be unreasonable and we had as little reason to quarrel with other men for being of different [religious] opinions as for being of different complexions."
The King saw the Quaker, William Penn preach at the Quaker meeting house. Bishop Cartwright of Chester wrote: "I was at his majesty's leave and accompanied him to the choir where he healed 350 persons" (presumably of the "king's evil").
Cooke records the attitude of the Corporation at the time:
- So venal and dependent the corporation became afterwards, that, when James the Second visited this city, the recorder, Leving, at the head of the corporation, thus addressed him: "The corporation is your majesty’s creature, and depends merely on the will of its creator; and the sole intimation of your majesty’s pleasure shall ever have with us the force of a fundamental law." When James made an alteration in most of the charters in the kingdom, the like attempt was made on the city of Chester; but the independent citizens, conceiving, that this offer was only made to seduce them into a resignation of their religious liberty, unanimously refused its acceptance, and desired to have their ancient charter of Henry the Seventh restored. Thus, through the dismission of the corporation created by Charles’s charter, and the non-acceptance of that of James, the city was destitute, nearly three months, of magistrates, and the election-day passed, without any officers being chosen.
In August 1688 the government of James II removed the entire Tory Assembly including Tories Grosvenor and William Stanley, earl of Derby, and obliged the city to petition for a new charter, which named the corporation and principal officers, reserved the Crown's right to dismiss individuals, dispensed all members from the prescribed oaths, and restricted the parliamentary franchise to the corporation. Of the 24 aldermen named in addition to the mayor and recorder only 11 had already served as aldermen and four as sheriffs. The attempt to conciliate Whigs and nonconformist protestants was fruitless: the nominated corporation apparently never met
"Edward Price of Wales Receiving Homage: First Royal Earl Of Chester AD 1254"
This presents something of a problem and contains probably the biggest historical error in any of the sculptures: King Henry III passed the Lordship of Chester, but not the title of Earl, to his son the Lord Edward (later Edward I) in 1254, and as King Edward I he in turn conferred the title and the lands of the Earldom on son, Edward (later Edward II), who was also made the first English Prince of Wales in 1301, when King Edward I of England, completed the conquest of Wales. So the figure above the doors of the Mayor's parlour is not Edward I ("Hammer of the Scots") but his somewhat disappointing son Edward II (of hot poker fame), Prince of Wales, who was only born in 1284. In 1254, his parents had probably not even met.
David Powel, a 16th-century clergyman, suggested that the infant Edward II (born 1284) was offered to the Welsh as a prince "that was borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English" (because he was still a baby), but there is no evidence to support this account. In fact, Edward only became Price of Wales in 1301 (aged 16, by which time he would have been able to speak English) there is no way he could have been "Receiving Homage" in 1254.
So why are there so many mistakes in the sculptures? One possible reason is the relationship between the corporation and the builders. In 1867 the "Operative Stonemasons" were involved in a nine-month strike on the town hall building site. Perhaps they decide to have "a laugh" at the corporations expense by incorporating so many mistakes in the sculptures. We do not know the name of the actual sculptor, except that he was selected by the architect and was a "sculptor of repute". One possible candidate is Felix Martin-Miller, who was known to have been a "sculptor of repute", and to have worked with the architect on another town hall. In 'Sculptors of the Day', published in 1880, Miller is recorded as being at the Art School, South Kensington Museum (now the V&A): he was Master in the Modelling Class from about 1860 to 1880. Mentioned in the obituary of the sculptor Henry Foley in the 'Art Journal' of 1874, Miller was described as 'one of the few sculptors whose genius is manifest and who has produced works, chiefly bas-reliefs, that are unsurpassed by any production of their class in modern Art: Foley thought so well of Miller that he commissioned more than one of his works in marble: indeed the great artist was the principal patron of his struggling brother-artist'. Felix Martin Miller (1820-1880) was active between 1842 and 1880.
Other reasons for the "errors" in the sculptures might include plain ignorance, or a certain amount of artistic licence.
The worlds first cinema?..or yet another falsehood
On 21 June 1889, William Freize-Green was issued patent no. 10131 for his 'chronophotographic' camera (“An Improved Apparatus for taking Photographs in Rapid Series”). It was apparently capable of taking up to ten photographs per second using perforated celluloid film. He was the first to use celluloid. A report on the camera was published in the British Photographic News on 28 February 1890.
On 18 March, Friese-Greene sent a clipping of the story to Thomas Edison, whose laboratory had been developing a motion picture system known as the Kinetoscope. The report was reprinted in Scientific American on 19 April. Friese-Greene would later claim that one Sunday morning in January 1889, he set up his newly-invented camera – a box approximately one foot square with a side-handle – on a tripod to the west of Aspley Gate in London’s Hyde Park and exposed roughly 20 feet of film. Friese-Greene claimed to have filmed “leisurely pedestrians, open-topped buses and hansom cabs with trotting horses” According to some sources, it was first publicly exhibited at Chester Town Hall 1890.
Thus, William Freize-Green claimed to have shown the first ever successful moving pictures on 26 June 1890 at Chester Town Hall, during the 1890 "Chester Photographic Convention". That would make the Town Hall the world's first ever cinema.
Unfortunately, there is no surviving record of the actual demonstration and the claim has been dismissed as either self-deluding or fraudulent.
Beset by financial troubles (including a spell in prison for borrowing money while an undischarged bankrupt), Friese-Greene remained an incorrigible optimist. Although he was forced to sell the rights to his patent for £500 (the first renewal fee was never paid and the patent lapsed in 1894). He died penniless on 5 May 1921 while giving an incoherent speech to a meeting considering the parlous state of the British film industry - which attempted amends with his tombstone inscription and a lavish funeral wreath - a floral projector and screen with blooms spelling out 'The End'.
Other Sculpture, outside
The sculpture outside the Town Hall is "A celebration of Chester" by Stephen Broadbent. Celebration of Chester was unveiled in Chester Town Hall Square in September 1992, as part of the 900th anniversary celebrations of Chester Cathedral. The sculpture was funded by "Capital Bank".
In March 2007, the Town Hall steps became the brief home of a sculpture made of nearly 8000 used drinks cans, most of which appeared to be beer cans. These were arranged down the stairs at the front of the building and onto the Town Hall square in a swirling spiral pattern. This was not only intended to promote the annual Chester Food and Drink Festival but also an attempt at a world record. As of 2020, the largest aluminium can sculpture consists of 104,840 cans and was created by Junior Chamber International Toyohashi (Japan) at Toyohashi Park, in Toyohashi, Aichi, Japan, on 21 September 2013.
- Some notes on Charters;
- Chester Town Hall: on Wikipedia;
- Town Hall at English Heritage.
- Town Hall by another Chester resident.
- Chester Town Hall on British History Online
- The Virtual Town Hall on the City Council site (features some 360 tours).
- The Town Hall at Virtual Stroll
- A history and very detailed description of the Police Station at the Town Hall.
- More on the Town Hall;
- Paper on the Town Hall from the Archaeological Society;