Victorian Chester

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This is part of a series of articles on the history of Chester through time:

A map showing Chester in 1825. Apart from the Leadworks and the area around the canal and boatyard there is comparatuvely little industial development

The Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria's reign, from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. The era followed the Georgian period and preceded the Edwardian period, and its later half overlaps with the first part of the Belle Époque era of Continental Europe. Morally and politically, this period began with the passage of the Reform Act 1832 which did away with some of the inequities in the electoral system but did not enfranchise the majority of the "Working class". There was a strong religious drive for higher moral standards led by the nonconformist churches, such as the Methodists, and the relatively recently revitalised Evangelical wing of the established Church of England. Ideologically, the Victorian era witnessed resistance to the rationalism that defined the Georgian period and an increasing turn towards romanticism and even mysticism with regard to religion, social values, and arts. Despite this there was also considerable technological and scientific progress by a new class of scientists and engineers.

By the 1830's traditional manufacturing trades in Chester, including the making of clay-pipes, clocks and gloves were in serious decline, if not entirely extinct. Ship-building at the Roodee was entering a terminal phase and rope-making barely survived. Both of the two cotton mills had closed by the 1820's, so one of the leading industries of the Industrial Revolution had failed to establish itself in Chester. While in the 18thC. the City Fair's had been dominated by linen (the trade peaked in the 1760's), by 1830 the trade was dead. The reasons for the collapse of the linen trade center around the decline in the Chester/Dublin trade route, as its ends moved from Dublin to Belfast and Chester to Liverpool, as well as the substitution of cheaper cotton for linen. In the impoverished economy, areas away from the glamour of Eastgate Street and upper Bridge Street became progressively more decayed. Stanley Palace became "a decayed mansion", while Gamul House was divided into tenements.

The Industrial Revolution had brought the canal to Chester but few new manufactures - Hemingway thought that there were few places in the country where the gentry formed such a high proportion of the population and he was pleased that the lack of factories meant the absence of:

  • "the crowds of the lowest rabble they engender"

George Lee Fenwick commented:

  • "..for a long time [Chester] lay almost motionless upon the great tidal wave of progress which was sweeping past, but at length a movement became apparent, and even ancient Chester.. ..could no longer withstand the onward rush of events. The turning point dates from the accession of Queen Victoria." (A History of the Ancient City of Chester, 1896)

By 1840 Chester's older and wider trade connexions had withered and it had been forced into a diminished role servicing the local region as county town rather that being the economic hum of the county. Modest new industries had appeared in the Leadworks, steam milling, and ironfounding, but the heavy reliance on providing services for the hinterland implied a dependence on its fortunes and the need for improved transport connexions. From 1840 the railways provided the means by which that could be achieved.

Red Map, Route and Line

Though not always effortlessly, Britain was able to maintain a world order which rarely threatened it's wider strategic and commercial interests. Britain's naval might was not openly challenged on the high seas between Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson's famous victory at Trafalgar in 1805 and the World War One Battle of Jutland with the German navy in 1916. The United Kingdom's population at Victoria's accession in 1837 was about 25.5 million, eight million of whom lived in Ireland. At her death in 1901, it had risen to 41 million, but that of Ireland had almost halved, mostly due to the devastating famine from 1845 - 1847, the result of a failed potato crop, due to the blight Phytophthora infestans.

At the dawn of the Victorian age Henry de la Poer Beresford, a wealthy British eccentric, arrived in Melton Mobray somewhat drunk and refusing to pay the entry toll grabbed some red paint and proceeded to "paint the town red". The Victorians would take this to an extreme and literally, on a global scale, "paint the map red" (actually, it is pink, so that it is possible to read the place-names).

The Drugs Trade

The Nineteenth Century saw Britain's interest and activity expand throughout Asia as Britain attempted to increase its commercial activities with China - often involving opium. Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaya were all taken to facilitate trade and economic opportunities in the region - especially between India and China. In some ways opium might seem to be to the Victorians what gin had been to the Georgians although it later became unfashionable, an attitude fuelled by sensationalist journalism and works of fiction such as Sax Rohmer’s novels. Thomas De Quincey, who stayed briefly in Chester, with his mother who lived among the ruins at St Johns inaugurated the tradition of addiction literature in the West. That most rational of Victorian fictioonal characters Sherlock Holmes would appear to be more than a little fond of morphine and cocaine, although much exagerrated by later writers. The reality was probably that "opium dens" were not as commonplace as journalists make it appear, but in many parts of India the majority of British revenue was from opium, and the Victorians purchased tea and silk in China with the profits from Indian opium. These valuable and lightweight commodities were easilly transported, but also easilly pirated, and so a navy was needed to partol the seas and take action as needed. The navy had new ships driven by steam power, required coaling stations and ports for maintenance. Defence bases were also needed for the protection of sea routes and communication lines, particularly of expensive and vital international waterways such as the Suez Canal. The eventual result was the "All-Red Route" which led from Southern Britain → Gibraltar → Malta → Alexandria → Port Said (after construction of the Canal) → Suez → Aden → Muscat (and access to the Persian Gulf) → India → Sri Lanka → Burma → Malaya → Singapore (branching out into the Pacific Ocean towards Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and other British colonies).


The Nineteenth Century also saw Britain's interest in Africa bloom as they attempted to control the maritime routes via the Cape and later the Suez Canal. As rival European powers expanded their own imperial interest in the continent, there occurred something of a 'scramble' which saw the majority of Africa come under direct European control in a remarkably short period of time. This gave them access to raw materials, especially ivory, rubber, palm oil, cocoa, diamonds, tea, and tin. Britain's interest in the Gulf and Middle East also intensified for the same reason - as Britain sought to control access routes to and from their "Jewel in the Crown"


Science and Technology progressed enormously during Victorian times. At its beginning the telegraph was barely being invented, by its end radio signals were about to cross the Atlantic. During her reign the far-flung empire was in part held together by a network of submarine cables known as the "All Red Line". The British had both supply side and demand side advantages. In terms of supply, Britain had entrepreneurs willing to put forth enormous amounts of capital necessary to build, lay and maintain these cables. In terms of demand, Britain's vast colonial empire led to business for the cable companies from news agencies, trading and shipping companies, and the British government. Britain also possessed the majority of the world's underwater-telegraph deployment and repair equipment and expertise, and a monopoly of the gutta-percha insulation for underwater lines.

Early Victorian: Debt, Votes and Railways

During the Victorian age, Britain was the world's most powerful nation, having inherited a vast commercial empire from the Georgians. It had also inherited a vast national debt from the expense of the incessant Georgian wars - half of the tax revenue (admittedly far lower than today) was spent on servicing that debt. It has been said that half the debt came from trying to push the Bourbons off the throne of France, the other half trying to get them back (in place of Napoleon). The business of goverment was largely to maintain the navy and pay the debts and most infrastructure projects were privately funded. Chester was in the difficult position that its "commercial empire" had effectively evaporated.

Britain also started the Victorian age with some reform of government. It had avoided the revolutionary changes in France, but had been forced to dispose of the most blatant "rotten boroughs" and extend the franchise, if only slightly. This had some effect on Chester but in many ways the system of government in the city was still "rotten".

The Eve of the Victorian age had also seen the introduction of the first steam railways providing for relatively rapid movement of goods and people. Industrial towns had grown but Chester was not one of them, neither was it an effective port, with the Portpool becoming progressively more run-down. However the arrival of the railways would bring significant opportunities.

The Chartists and Napier

One of the themes which ran through Georgian Chester was the gradual development of electoral procedures, both for the parliamentary seats (dominated by the Grosvenors) and the Corporation. Both were the subject of what would now be seen as blatant corruption and malpractice, although that was commonplace at the time. The Reform Act of 1832 extended the franchise. In county constituencies in addition to forty shilling freeholders franchise rights were extended to owners of land in copyhold worth £10 and holders of long-term leases (more than sixty years) on land worth £10 and holders of medium-term leases (between twenty and sixty years) on land worth £50 and to tenants-at-will paying an annual rent of £50. In towns and cities it gave the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and some lodgers.

The gun platform at the south of the Castle, as photographed in early 2014. Napier House is the large building.

The passing of the Reform Act 1832, failed to extend the vote beyond those owning property, and the political leaders of the working class made speeches claiming that there had been a great act of betrayal, with those owning property having looked only to their own interests as soon as they gained the vote. This sense that the working class had been betrayed by the middle class was strengthened by the actions of the Whig governments of the 1830s. Notably, the hated new Poor Law Amendment was passed in 1834, depriving working people of outdoor relief and driving the poor into Workhouses, where families were separated. It was the massive wave of opposition to this measure in the north of England in the late 1830s that gave Chartism the numbers that made it a mass movement. It seemed to the Chartists that only securing the vote for working men would further change things. The "Peoples Charter" called for: votes for men at 21, the ballot to be secret, no requirement that MP's should own property, wages for MP's, equally populous constituencies and annual elections. Clearly, all of these measures were to some extent aimed at the kind of corruption that was endemic in Chester.

John Jervis (1802 – 1856) was elected Liberal Member of Parliament for Chester in 1832 and held the seat until he became a judge in 1850. The electoral situation in Chester was still somewhat peculiar. In November 1832 the registered electorate in Chester had 1379 Freemen and 649 £10 householders, and there was little agiation from any "working class" who were not Freemen. Just how Jervis came to be nominated for the Chester seat is not clear, although he appears to have been favoured by the Egertton faction. Jervis was never overly concerned with local politics and was distant as a constituency MP, even being censured in the Liberal Chester Chronicle for his inaction over the River Dee Bill and his overly-insistent attempts to ensure that his son was nominated as candidate when he stood down. Jervis was Attorney-General while the Revolutions of 1848 were unfolding across Europe (at the time of a general European Potato Failure - and other causes) and affecting events in the UK. These revolutions were most important in France, the Netherlands, Italy, the Austrian Empire, and the states of the German Confederation that would make up the German Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century. The collateral domestic civil unrest resulted in the speedy enactment of the Treason Felony Act 1848 (11 & 12 Vict. c. 12). The Act in turn generated a heavy workload for Jervis in running prosecutions against Chartist activists.

In 1839 the state of the country was unsettled and there was much talk of possible riots by the Chartists - and possibly even an attack on Chester Castle. The Castle was next to Chester Gaol, where Chartists were held (as in the Chartist song "Chester Gaol"). Some believed that the rumours of an attack on Chester were unfounded. General Sir Charles Napier wrote to Chester as follows:

  • Major Bayly, August 10th. — I attach little credit to the threatened attack on Chester Castle, yet be prepared. You must urge the town magistrates to swear in special constables and arm the pensioners; the gentlemen of the city may arm themselves also. Be most careful of the castle and cautious how you weaken your garrison in case of danger. Colonel Wemyss has orders if armed insurgents move from Hyde towards Chester to have them pursued by as strong a body of cavalry as he can spare.

By April 1840 General Napier was moved to Chester from Nottingham with a force of cavalty and troops to quell potential riots. He recorded his rather negative view of Chester:

Sir Charles Napier gave us his opinion of Chester.
  • All the rogues, and fools and drunkards in the country seem collected, and the Row balconies are filled all day with idlers and well-dressed girls, young and old, looking into the streets from daybreak till dark. Such idleness I never witnessed as at Chester. My life has been long, it has but twelve years to run, and yet I never, in any country, witnessed such stupid idleness as in Chester. Those who go to the course have some fun, but those who hang over the Row balconies all day like old clothes, see nothing, hear nothing, do nothing.

The reason why so many Chartists were imprisoned at Chester Castle was presumably that it was not a particularly Chartist city, and had a gaol with a militay garrison on site. By the summer of 1840, the threat posed by Chartism's first Charter petition and the anger that followed its rejection had receded. In the crackdown that followed Parliament's brusque dismissal of the petition, some of the movement's most able leaders had been imprisoned, some at Chester. In the final few months of 1840, the inspectors of prisons set about the production of a remarkable report for their political masters at the Home Office. Each of the Chartist prisoners was in turn interviewed by a prison inspector - 73 interviews in all - and information recorded about their personal circumstances and religious views, their offences, and their own experience of imprisonment. It seems that, for the time, prison conditions for the Chartists ware not particularly harsh.

Chartism Fades

Several Chartist leaders were imprisoned at Chester. These included Joseph Rayner Stephens, one of the earliest to be arrested. Chester was the location of one of the breakdowns in Chartist solidarity, where two groups of prisoners, one supporting Stephens and another supporting Peter McDouall became polarised. The origin of the feud lay with the handling of some £600 raised by Chartists for Stephens's legal defense which proved to be more than ample to meet Stephens's costs. Stephens then refused to share it with other arrested Chartists. When McDouall, a former admirer, criticized him on this score, Stephens accused McDouall of pocketing the funds himself. The terms of the argument rapidly deteriorated. McDouall charged Stephens with sexual license and groups of prisoners at Chester actually attacked each other.

Chartism has often been linked to the early Cooperative movement. Many histories place the start of the cooperative movement with the "Rochdale Pioneers". On 21 December 1844 the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society opened a store selling "pure food at fair prices and honest weights and measures". However, there appears to have been co-operative association activity in Chester as early as 1830, when the "the Chester society commenced a shoemaking business", spending £20 on stock and providing "constant work for six members". At this time the footwear trade was becomming more concentrated in specialist towns like Stafford, Northampton, and Leicester, and mechanized factory production progressively eliminated hand-work, so shoemaking as domestic outwork had declined in Chester from a significant industry. A "Chester Cooperative Chronicle and Magazine for the Working Classes" was in existence in the same year. As recorded in the "Co-operative Miscellany" (January 1830):

  • "We have seen a little work entitled The Chester Co operative Chronicle and Magazine for the Working Classes price one penny. We are glad to see our Chester friends assisting in diffusing a knowledge of those principles they seem so well to understand and at the same time have given us a fair sample of their capability of putting into practice. We wish them every success and urge them to persevere."

Interestingly, Chester was also the publishing place of "The Anti-Socialist Gazette and Christian Advocate" (October 1841-May 1842). Also in 1830 "a cooperative society existed then in Chester, consisting of seventeen members, who were making arrangements to supply all the co-operative societies in the kingdom with prime cheese at low prices" and we are informed that "some of the leading men of the city of Chester attended a lecture delivered by Mr. William Pare on the 17th of March 1830 .. The Chester men seemed desirous of getting at the bottom of the subject, for they put questions to Mr. Pare which caused his lecture to extend over four hours.".

All these events were well before the official founding of the Chester Co-operative Society in 1884. The relationship, if any, between the early Co-Operative movement in Chester and the Chartists had not been explored.

Chartism as an organized movement declined rapidly after 1848. Throughout the 1850s, pockets of strong support for Chartism could still be found in places such as the Black Country, but the final National Convention, held in 1858, was attended by only a handful of delegates. Before the 1980s historians of the movement commonly blamed Chartism's decline on O'Connor's egotism and vanity, but more recent historians have tended to see the process as too complex to be attributed to the personality of a single individual. As the conflicts within the prison at Chester show, the movement was apparently troubled by internal disputes.

Later Napier

As for Napier's later career, Napier House at Chester Castle is named after him. Napier is famous for some of his other quotes in the tradition of British colonialism:

  • "The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed"

In 1843 Sir Charles James Napier led a small force (2,500) of native infantry and cavalry and one British regiment, the Cheshire Regiment, against the Baluchi Army of the Ameers of Scinde. The desert fortress of Emaun Ghur was destroyed, and then, on February l7th, 1843, the small British force defeated 30,000 Baluchis at Meeanee. A month later the Baluchis were defeated at Hyderabad. The province of Scinde fell into British hands, and The Regiment gained the honours of Meeanee, Hyderabad and Scinde. The honours of Meeanee and Hyderbad are shared with some Indian Regiments. That of Scinde is borne by the Cheshire Regiment alone.

There is the now known to be apocryphal tale that after Charles Napier defeated the Emirs of Scinde, he send a one word telegram to Lord Ellenborough – "Peccavī" (Latin for "I have sinned") he is said to have recieved the response "Vovī" (I have Oudh - actually "I have vowed", not very good latin). Unfortunately none of this is true. The Military Museum at Chester Castle features an extensive display on Napier and explains how the urban myth about his signal "Peccave" came about. This was not said by Napier at all, but was a suggestion made by Catherine Winkworth a latin student to a vicar (possibly William Gaskell), who wrote to the newspapers about it. The quote was used in "Punch" magazine and after that was falsely attributed to Napier.

The fighting in Scinde was an early stage in the "Great Game" a possibly fictitious political and diplomatic confrontation that supposedly existed for most of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century between the British Empire and the Russian Empire, over Afghanistan and neighbouring territories in Central and South Asia. There has been much speculation as to whether the "Great Game" was to lead onto the Crimean War (1853-6), the first war in which steam powered armoured ships took part, and in which poison gasses might have been used but for the refusal of Michael Faraday to develop them. Such "frightfulness" would have to wait for another war.

The Railways and Chester

At the high point of railway expansion most of the Roman routes into North Wales from Roman Chester were also exploited by the railways.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway (1825-1863) demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotive propulsion for hauling coal. But this did not spark a railway investment mania. What really changed investor expectations for railways was the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in September 1830. This line demonstrated to investors that there was a new, initially unanticipated, and until that opening very speculative, source of demand for railway transportation, namely passenger travel. Matters were only helped by the publicity provided by the death of the unfortunate Liverpool MP William Huskisson, run down by Stephenson's Rocket while trying to shake the hand of the Duke of Wellington. The money to be made moving people around the North West of England (including on trips to Chester Races) would become a clear draw for investors.

The Victorian era saw Chester transformed into something of a "Railway Town", but not one that benefitted from the industry that railways directly brought (such as at Crewe). Rather the railways brought stock for it's stores, and access to visitors and customers. Chester, with its racecourse, was at the junction of several routes and could therefore source these visitors from those who saw it as a destination and those passing through. The railways were privately funded and "Railway Mania" was an instance of speculative communications frenzy in Britain in the 1840s. It followed a common pattern, similar to that of the "Canal Mania": as the price of railway shares increased, more and more money was poured in by speculators, until the inevitable collapse. Railway Mania reached its zenith in 1846 (the same year as the Irish Famine), when no fewer than 272 Acts of Parliament were passed, setting up new railway companies, and the proposed routes totaled 9,500 miles (15,300 km) of new railway. Few made a fortune, most lost their money. Much the same pattern was followed in the 1990s in the stock of telecom companies, but the railway mania was in economic terms a far larger crash, at it's most fervent individual capitalists, in pursuit of private profit, were plowing more than twice as much into the constructionof a public infrastructure as their nation was spending on the military. This private funding was quite unlike anywhere else in the world, were governments were heavily involved in financing the construction of this infrastructure.

Railway promoters needed government permission to force land-owners to sell the land needed for the railways. Until recently, with the Parliamentary reforms, the government had been completely dominated by the landed aristocracy and perhaps the fact that "everything was changing quickly" fueled the frenzy. Landowners were compensated (overcompensated, in the view of railway promoters), but the process could not be dragged on for years through lawsuits and environmental impact statements.

During the late 1830's there was much discussion of the possible route of an improved rail and sea communication with Dublin. With the passing of the Act of Union in 1800, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, elected Irish members of the new United Kingdom Parliament sought the same quality of travel and postal facilities as their fellow members from England, Wales and Scotland. Improvements continued slowly during Georgian Chester, and by the time Thomas Telford had completed his A5 road with improvements through Shrewsbury, Llangollen, Betws-y-coed, Bangor and his Menai Suspension Bridge in 1826, the London to Holyhead journey by road and ship was down to under 30 hours. Chester's Grosvenor Bridge was to a large part a response to Telford's A5 roud route and the percieved threat to the historic Irish trade in Chester.

The interior of Chester Station in Victorian times. The octagonal hut was the office of the Station Manager.

The origins of the General Station came about as a consequence of the fragmentary nature of early railway development where many individual companies built relatively short lines that only later came to form strategic national routes. The major routes into the station were all completed within the decade from 1840 to 1850. The actual histories of the individual companies is somewhat complex as this was a time of considerable speculation when companies were founded, renamed, merged or bought out frequently. The following summary is only an outline.

Lines to Birkenhead and a month later the Crewe begain the railway age in Chester in 1840 connecting through to the national rail network and London Euston. In November 1846 the Chester & Shrewsbury line was opened from Ruabon to Chester and by 1848 it was completed through to Shrewsbury affording a direct link from Chester to London Paddington. The Chester & Holyhead Railway was authorised in July 1844, but by November 1846 it was opened only as far as Saltney. Completion to Bangor followed in May 1848, Holyhead the final destination only being reached in 1850 on the completion of the Brittania Bridge across the Menai Straits. The last major line to reach Chester General was the Warrington Line of the Birkenhead Lancashire and Cheshire Junction Railway. This line was authorised in 1846 and opened in 1850. A branch to Whitchurch opened in 1872 and the line to Mold & Denbigh as early as 1849.

From 1841 to 1871 Chester enjoyed thirty economic boom years. These coincide roughly with the "Great Victorian Boom". The main evidence for this is the extent of migration to the city and population growth, but prosperity was also reflected in a large rise in the number of businesses and in the amount of rebuilding in the city centre. The arrival of the railways reasserted Chester's importance for transport and consolidated its function as a service centre for the region. A limited growth in manufacturing further diversified the economy. In choosing their route through the City, and given the main imperative of creating efficient communication with Ireland through the new port of Holyhead, the railway avoided the City Centre, locating Chester Station in an outlying area of marshy land known as Flookersbrook after the stream that ran through it. The land was occupied only by market gardens and a single row of cottages: one of which was occupied by a shoemaker who had to be forcibly evicted. The growth of Hoole followed quickly. A second railway terminus at Northgate Station did not open until 1875.

Chester and Railway History

Chester was to have two involvements with early railway history. One is well known, the other, which also involves telegraphy, less so. The first was two notable railway accidents. The earlier of these was the Dee Bridge Collapse of 24th May 1847. The second the Sutton Tunnel collision of 30th April 1851. The second was the possible consequence of the collision, as Robert Lewis Jones, Station Manager at Cheste, developed a method for synchronising clocks by electricity, to avaoid the time-keeping problems that were a factor in the collision (see "Time" for more details). The "Jones system" enabled the "Magnetic Telegraph Company" of Liverpool to avoid the patents of their rival the "Electric Telegraph Company" and gave them a finanicial start which was to lead to the first undersea cable to Ireland, and later, to America.

Northgate Station would not open to passengers until 1875, having opened for goods a year earlier. The reason seems to be in part the political manipulations of the other railway companies who were keen to suppress rivals by any methods.

One of the few original bits of stained glass in the Cathedral. This shows a corpse being resurrected.

Stained Glass and the Cathedral

The Cathedral of Georgian Chester had become badly decayed. It's income had been stagnant since the times of Queen Elizabeth and parts of it were seriously in need of repair. The clergy were indifferent, many of the appointees rented-out their accomodation and stayed at inns when they occasionally visited Chester. In 1818 Thomas Harrison was asked to survey the Cathedral and estimated that repairs would cost £7000. Money was raised by a public appeal and Harrison carried out some repair work, but restoration efforts seem to have ended with a dispute. Little else was done to the Cathedral until Frederick Anson (1779-1867) was appointed as dean in 1839. He was said, in 1856, to have:

  • "done more to beautify his cathedral than all his predecessors put together"

He had the choir and lady chapel restored in 1843-4 under the direction of the architect Richard Charles Hussey. The mid 18th-century galleries and the pews were removed from the choir, and the stalls were moved to the west so that they lay partly under the central tower. Anson won particular praise for reintroducing stained-glass windows into the cathedral. At the time of his installation only two panes of coloured glass remained. Under his direction new windows were installed above the west entrance, in the nave, in the north and south choir aisles, and in the lady chapel. The designs were of Pugin, Wailes, the O'Connors, and Clayton and Bell.

Before his death, Anson had the whole of the cathedral fabric surveyed, with a view to a comprehensive restoration scheme.

Mid Victorian: Slums in the shadow of splendour

Chester's poor lived in the many "slum courts" around the city. Often within a very short distance of prosperity. Sanitation was poor and in some cases non-existent. A court could have a single tap providing water of dubious quality. Cess pits were sometimes the only means of disposing of wastes. Even for the wealthier, the sewers were of unsuitable construction and some even emptied into the River Dee above the weir.

The Victorians associated poverty with immorality, but immoral behaviour was not restricted to the poor. Detail of "immoral" conduct in Victorian Chester is hard to find, possibly because of self-censorship by the press. In the 29th November 1879 issue of the "Chester Chronicle" we read that the slum courts of Chester are: "foul and filthy dens, the resorts of thieves, prostitutes, and drunkards", but no further detail is given. Brothel-keeper "Madam Chester" of Manchester was actually Polly Evans of Cefn near Wrexham, but little is known of her brief career in Chester, other than a vague suggestion that the services she offered included flagellation.

The "Chester City Police Reports Against Constables Book", 1842-69, shows that a significant number of officers were dismissed from the force for drinking with prostitutes, being drunk in a brothel and being drunk on duty. When prostitutes made reports against these same officers, documented in the newspapers, they were not recorded in the Reports book. There are also many examples of inappropriate comments and behaviours being displayed in the courtroom by the women being prosecuted, with a multitude of taunts and "improper" comments being levelled at the magistrates and Mayors. This perhaps demonstrates that the bench was dealing with "known" characters, however "known" is interpreted.

30th December 1862: The Exchange goes up in flames

1862: The Exchange fire and a new Town Hall

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, and others. 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. 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 former 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).

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.

Crypt Court in the 1930's, possibly as seen from what is now Weaver Street. This narrow court of low quality housing stretched from Commonhall Street to Watergate Street across the area where Weaver Street now extends. Note the tap and bucket on the left: probably the only water supply.

Disease, Slum Courts and Poverty

In 1866 there was an outbreak of cholera (see: Pandemic), apparently a relatively new disease which had first appeared in India some years previously and spread using the global communications network. At a meeting of the Assembly in May 1866 it was decided to provide two places for Cholera wards within the City in case the outbreak reached Chester. One of these was located in a disused farmhouse on the land which was to become Grosvenor Park. The heftiest women from the local workhouse were selected as potential nurses but there was some concern that they were neither honest nor sober, had no training and that it was unwise to put them in charge of either patients or medicines. Fortunately Frances Wilbraham (1815-1905) of Kings Buildings (King Street), a wealthy member of the local gentry volunteered to oversee them. The first two case of cholera appeared on 1st September 1866. One was a woman from a tenement in Goss Street the other Alderman John Trevor, a former mayor and editor of the Chester Chronicle: both were dead within days. The ward in the park was soon full of the sick and dying, but Francis Wilbraham nursed them tirelessly and by November the outbreak began to abate. The Duke of Westminster called Frances Wilbraham the "Florence Nightingale of Chester". The farmhouse was demolished before Grosvenor Park was opened. The epidemics illustrated the weakness of the sewage system in Chester and in 1872–5, alarmed by analysis of the drinking water, and with George Angelo Bell as consultant, the council built intercepting sewers to collect the outfall from the existing drains, one running from the Bars to the Little Roodee and the other from Liverpool Road to a new treatment works by the Dee off Sealand Road, from where the treated effluent was discharged into the river.

Despite the improvements to the Water Supply, little else was done for the city-center poor. Life expectancy, which had previously shown long-term improvement, took a tumble in the second quarter of the 19th century. By the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, it had fallen to around 25–27 years in the industrial towns of Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. As the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure calculated, life expectancy in urban slums of the 1830s and 1840s was the lowest it had been since the Black Death. The primary reason was the high rate of child mortality. Around one-third of children, and more than half in some poor neighbourhoods, died before they reached the age of five.

White Lion Yard, just off Crook Street was an example of a stable converted into "houses". In November 1879 the Chester Chronicle reported on a visit to White Lion Yard:

  • "We looked into one of those places – I cannot call them cottages – where Mother Brady resides. The poor old body, whose wrinkled and decrepit little form seemed made of parchment, and very dirty parchment at that, said she had been very ill since last Christmas. The walls were yellow with grease and her den is about six feet in width – next to it is a bulk of eight closets, separated from the houses by a passage of some two feet. An ash pit full to the brim occupied the centre and on both sides of the passage a filthy stream ran. The cottages may be compared to No 1c ell in the County Gaol, with the difference being that they are neither clean nor well ventilated."

Poverty was often associated with crime. Hannah Payne, sometimes of White Lion Yard was brought before the magistrate Major French (the balloonist?) over 100 times for a variety of "petty crimes": she eventually died on a bench in the Market Inn, aged 66, in 1874.

It would be well into the 20th Century before the last of the City-center slums was cleared. But Victorian times did seem improvements: infectious diseases were responsible for around 40 per cent of urban deaths in 1840, but this figure dropped to about 20 per cent by 1900. Few of the "court buildings" survive although some can be seen in Union Place off Cuppin Street.

Rebuilding the Cathedral

Anson's great scheme to restore the crumbling Cathedral was carried out by his successor John Saul Howson between 1868 and 1876, with Gothic Revivalist Sir George Gilbert Scott as supervising architect. Though Scott was not at the outset in sympathy with the high church ecclesiological party, it was by an interview with Benjamin Webb, the secretary of the Cambridge Camden Society (a high-church organisation), as well as to the writings of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, and to a meeting with the latter, brought about through Myers (Pugin's builder), that he owed his first insight into the principles of Gothic art. He strengthened his knowledge of these principles by careful study in the competition for the Martyr's Memorial at Oxford, for which he was selected as architect (1840). His first Gothic building of any size or artistic value was the church of St. Giles at Camberwell, during the progress of which his faith in Gothic architecture was assured. In 1847 the chapter of Ely gave him his first appointment as restoring architect to a cathedral. The enthusiasm of George Peacock, dean, of Ely, for the Gothic Amiens Cathedral led him to pay his first visit to the great French churches, which was followed up in later life by many continental journeys.

The Cathedral after "restoration" by George Gilbert Scott. The spires, flying buttresses and turrets are all a product of Scott's idea's on "Gothic" architecture.

Scott's work is better described as "rebuilding" than restoration. While Scott claimed archaeological evidence for his work, in 1872 the dean felt compelled to defend himself against the charge of "destroying the past, and erecting a new building". Scott added the flying buttresses, the parapets along the lines of the roof, the many pinnacles and the gargoyles - none of which appear to have been part of the original plans and which mostly derive from Victorian ideals. Most controversial was Scott's decision to shorten the south choir aisle and terminate it in an apse surmounted by a steep pentagonal roof. The interior of this termination has been made a memorial of Thomas Brassey, the railway contractor who built the Chester and Crewe Railway. On the north wall is a bust of Brassey while the mosaics were executed in Venice (Murano) by Salviati from designs by Clayton and Bell. Scott's proposal to erect a spire on the central tower was rejected, but much of the external appearance of the church is the result of his work. Scott remodelled the tower, adding the familiar turrets and crenellations. At this time Dean Howson found the nave of the church 'if used at all . . . used only as a place for loitering'. His restoration created a great debate and led in part to formation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

St Johns was changed in appearance by the tidying of its ruinous east end in the 1870s and the collapse of its tower in 1881. The most prestigious new churches and chapels, whichever denomination was responsible, were all Gothic in style, though sometimes eclectically so, and often built or faced in stone. In the city centre the Anglicans began the process of Gothicization with the complete rebuilding of St Michael's in 1849-51 and Holy Trinity in 1864-9, and completed it towards the end of the period by demolishing neo-classical St Bridget's in 1892. Already by the 1860s they were being emulated by the English Presbyterians in Newgate Street (1860), the Welsh Presbyterians in St John Street (1866), and more modestly by the Primitive Methodists' first church in George Street (1863). In the following decade, city-centre churches in a variety of Gothic idioms were erected by the Roman Catholics (St. Francis, Grosvenor Street, 1873-5), the Congregationalists (Upper Northgate Street, 1875), and the Welsh Congregationalists (Albion Street, 1870).

Victorian Class Prejudice

It was in 1870-1873 that Charles Kingsley served as a cannon at the Cathedral and lived in Chester for three relatively brief periods. Views on Kingsley vary widely from the nostalgic picture of the Victorian humanist, writer, poet, natural historian and curate to a racist and paternalistic imperialist with an unhealthy interest in masculine heroics. It is in part the contradictions and complexities of his character which have maintained him as an object of scholarship as regards his cultural influence and as a reflection of his times. Kingsley is often seen as a supporter of Charles Darwin, whose "Origin of Species" was published in 1859 and sparked a debate about "creationism" as opposed to evolution. However, examination of Kingley's writings suggests that he saw Darwin's theory as a vindication of his own somewhat racist views, with some social groups being considered as "inferior". That is not to say that he did not make a positive contribution to Chester. He was among those who founded the "Natural History Society" at the Grosvenor Museum. Their early journals make for fascinating reading.

In Chester, the groups which seem to have been singled out as "naturally inferior" included the Irish. During the Victorian period the link between Irish immigration, crime, and disorder in England was widely regarded by contemporary observers as axiomatic. In 1836 the "Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain" devoted four pages to the examination of Irish criminality, noting that:

  • "..the Irish in the larger towns of Lancashire commit more crimes than an equal number of natives of the same places,” and in 1839 the Report of the Constabulary Commissioners observed that in the towns of South Lancashire, “when large bodies of Irish of less orderly habits, and far more prone to the use of violence in fits of intoxication settled permanently in these towns, the existing police force, which was sufficient to repress crime and disorders among a purely English population, has been found, under these altered circumstances, inadequate to the regular enforcement of the law."

In Chester much the same prejudice existed. Large numbers of Irish people came to Chester during the Famine, in 1851 forming 7.3 per cent of the population. The Irish were, nevertheless, a minority among the newcomers to Chester. In 1851 over 30 per cent of the city's population had come from the surrounding counties and another 20 per cent from further afield in Great Britain. The proportions had not altered greatly by 1911. Many of the Irish settled in Boughton, particularly in the area around Stephen Street. Another poor group were the canal boatmen, who counted among their numbers the unfortunate Charles Moston. The reports of the inquest into his mysterious death in 1877 shed considerable light on the lives of the boat-people.

McCafferty was the last man ever to try and take Chester Castle.


Chester was to play a "what if" part in Irish history due to a series of events which are now largely forgotten in the city. In 1867, Chester Castle was the focus of an audacious plot by Fenians (supporters of Republicanism in Ireland) that ended in farce. Their plan was that around 2,000 men would infiltrate Chester and, under American-Irish command (by officers with experience in the American Civil War), seize a cache of rifles belonging to the Chester Volunteers. These arms would be used to storm Chester Castle, at that time garrisoned by only 60 regular soldiers of the 54th Regiment. The castle arsenal contained 10,000 rifles and 900,000 rounds of ammunition, which the Fenians hoped to obtain. Once armed, the plan was to commandeer a train, take the arms to Holyhead, seize a streamer, sail to Wexford and raise a revolt in Ireland. Unsubstantiated additional features of the plot (possibly just scaremongering) included sabotage of the waterworks, the burning of Chester and the sacking of its shops.

On 11 February 1867, the plot was to put into action led by the American ex-confederate soldier John McCafferty (variously: M'Afferty). However the Chester raid did not go as planned. The previous night the plan had been betrayed and while an estimated 1300 supporters reached Chester the attack on the Castle did not materialise. There was a somewhat spectacular sea-chase when some of the leaders escaped and fled to Ireland.

Salvationists and the Skeleton Army

The Salvation Army used to refer to Boughton as a "Stronghold of Satan" and in the early 1880's it was their habit to march through it on Sundays, after gathering at St Giles Cemetery and ending their march at the Pavilion roller-skating rink near Chester Station. On the 26th March 1882, this led to a serious riot and Chester was shaken by what came to be known as "Black Sunday", during which the local Salvation Army marched through the Irish Catholic district around Steven Street, where it was attacked by a mob of "decidedly criminal appearance", according to the local press. The ensuing trial saw the magistrates threatened with "Revenge and Death" (according to the Salvationists). Trouble had been brewing for some time, as "An Angry Citizen" had written a long complaint letter to the Chester Courant which begins as follows:

  • "Sir, a detachment of the Salvation Army, now in this city, are allowed nightly to parade the streets shouting and singing, to the serious inconvenience of the public. If a man has a restive horse he must hold him fast by the heads and cover his ears to prevent him bolting on account of the noise..."

Religious acrimony continued once the news that Nessie Brown was promoting a monument to George Marsh near St Giles Cemetery. There were a series of vehement protests as well as strident letters to the press as published on 27th April 1898 and 4th May 1898. Other letters took the opposite view - one of the 22nd June 1898 refers to the monument as:

Pat Collins - his funfair still vists Chester in May.
  • "an ornament to the city, a wholesome reminder to our children, and a permanent protest against the unscriptural claims and intolerant assumptions of the Papacy."

Despite all the hostile feeling engendered, the erection of the memorial finally received the sanction of the City Council having once been almost refused. The story made news far and wide the South Wales Daily News reported 27th December 1898:

  • "The Roman Catholics of .Chester have protested against the erection in that city of a proposed monument to the Lancashire martyr George Marsh, who was burned for his Protestant principles in tho 16th oontury. The statue is the gift of Miss Nessie Brown, well-known philanthropist. The matter was discussed at a meeting of the Chester Town Council, when the motion for the rescinding of the permission to erect the statue was withdrawn."

The Irish/Catholic community in Chester had one further legacy which is also largely forgotten. Patrick Collins (12 May 1859 – 9 December 1943) was a Liberal MP for Walsall (1922–1924) and Mayor of Walsall (1938), but he is chiefly remembered for his involvement in the fairgrounds industry. He was born in Chester and attended St. Werburgh Catholic School: then located in Queen Street, but left at the age of ten to go travelling with his family. At the age of 35 he expressed his thanks to the church and school by giving the church a richly carved marble pulpit with the inscription “Pray for Patrick Collins who gave this pulpit”. Some people still refer to St. Werburgh’s, in Grosvenor Park Road as "Pat’s church".

Late Victorian and Edwardian:

Shipyards at the Roodee and Crane Bank were in operation until 1869, but shipbuilding did not return to the Portpool after the 1869 closure. There is some suggestion that Troughton's yard at the Roodee closed after falling clinker from a passing train started a fire in 1845. William Roberts shipyard, building both working boats and pleasure craft operated on the Dee under Chester Castle until around 1906 when it moved to the Canal and Boatyard. The Shropshire Union Canal Company built narrowboats and Mersey flats at Tower Wharf until 1913, but final end of Chester as a seaport came during Victorian times. There were still links with the sea: three people on Titanic had associations with Chester and HMS Chester played a famous part in the Battle of Jutland. After the sinking of the Galeka, a troop and hospital ship, its bell would find its way to St John's Hospital.

Steam and Seeds

The Frost family came to Chester in 1818 and took over the Dee Mills, which were destroyed by fire in 1819 prompting a move to the Steam Mill. They developed an existing site at Canalside and replaced the original steam engine in 1827. Further steam mills included the Milton Street (Cestrian) Mill, built in the 1850's - now the "Mill Hotel" and the Albion Mill in 1868/9. The water powered Dee Mills were further undermined by these newcomers, but plodded on for a few more years.

By the mid-19th century, the rise of a new middle class and an explosion in house building, resulting in the creation of entire suburbs, created an open and hungry market for the nursery industry, which grew rapidly to meet the demand for ornamental plants. Cousins Francis R. Dickson and James Dickson had come down from Perth by stage-coach in the early 1800s. The Dicksons were already (since 1728) well established as seed and nursery-men in Scotland, and may have originally come to Chester when a Mr Potts of Chester ordered a vast number of trees for his estates in Wales. Two enterprises separated in 1853 (when both had sons to continue the businesses): F. & A. Dickson operating at Upton nurseries and James Dickson & Sons at Newton - and merged again in 1880s, when the grounds under cultivation extended to over 400 acres (about half a square mile). It was one of the largest businesses of its type in the country and made extensive use of the railway.

Other large nurseries were operated by Samuel Dobie and John Kirk in the Vicars Cross area, F. W. Dutton at Queen's Park, McHattie & Co. at Overleigh, and Alexander McLean at Upton. In 1883 James Hunter established a farm seed business in Chester, attracted to the city solely by its location. Hunter was a leading advocate of the need for scientific testing of seeds and his firm was the first to offer a guarantee of purity, genuineness, and germination rate. Operating from premises in Foregate Street, by 1913 it had become one of the leading farm seed suppliers in the country. In 1911 at least 413 people living in the city, together with an unknown number from outside, worked in nurseries or related businesses, double the number in 1861.

In 1893, Hoole was the venue of the Royal Agricultural Show. The exhibits included the following stands and stalls: Implements 50, Cheeses 44, Machinery in Motion 12, Poultry 11, Horses 12, Cattle 18, Sheep 8, and Pigs 4. Hoole Road was widened especially for the occasion. Following the clearance of the site, the Bellevue Entertainment Company of Manchester considered moving its operation from Manchester to Chester and using the show site permanently, however this did not happen.

Black and White

James Harrison (1814-66) and Thomas Penson (1818–64) pioneered the Vernacular Revival "Chester Look", which was taken up and reached its peak artistic expression under the prolific John Douglas (1830-1911) and his contemporary, Thomas Lockwood (1829-1900). John Douglas was perhaps the most successful exponent of the vernacular revival in Chester. His work had a strong sense of craftsmanship and sensitivity to materials, exemplified by his best buildings in the city such as the east side of St. Werburgh Street (1895-9), Shoemakers' Row in Northgate Street (1899), and no. 38 Bridge Street. However Douglas did not confine himself to Black and White: his brick buildings in Bath Street and Grosvenor Park Road together with other buildings in the city are simply stunning. The work of Lockwood, a local achitect much patronized by the Grosvenors, was perhaps best exemplified at the High Cross. In 1888 he was responsible for one of the best known groups of Vernacular revival buildings in Chester, no. 1 Bridge Street, on the eastern corner of Eastgate Street and Bridge Street, and in 1892 he designed those on the opposite corner, between Bridge Street and Watergate Street, a more eclectic composition with renaissance and baroque elements in stone and brick interwoven with half-timbering.

This part of the east side of Upper Bridge Street in 2015 - the curvature is an artifact of the panoramic photography process used. The work of many notable Chester architects is represented. St Peter (Harrison and Douglas) can be seen on the left and St Michael (Harrison) on the right. In the middle the white building (1858) is by James Harrison, while to either side are buildings by Boden (1891) and Edwards (1889). On the mid left is St Micheal's Row (1911) by the Lockwood's. Nothing in the photograph is actually Mediaeval (St Peter is the most original) - even St Michael's Rectory (behind the phone box) is shown without the half-timbering in some early photographs.

Many early colour photographs show that in a considerable number of buildings the "black" wood was actually brown. In many cases the black paint only appears to have been applied in the 1950's or 60's.

Electorial Corruption

The latter part of the Victorian/Edwardian era finally seemed to bring an end to political corruption in Chester. The two-member Parliamentary constituency of Chester, at first solidly Liberal and still much influenced by the Grosvenors, was riddled with bribery until events at the election of 1880 brought matters to a head - possibly being a contributing factor to electoral rules which are still with us today. Hugh Grosvenor's payments to inn-keepers in Chester (the largest of which was a little over £109 to Matthew Gardener of the "Dublin Packet" - about 5000 pints given the price of beer at the time) and his employment of two men to collect bills and check stock at inns show that he was clearly involved in electoral corruption. However, his election speeches reveal a genuine attachment to a ‘great extension of the franchise’ as well as also showing his horror at the growing influence of the Liberal Radicals on setting a too rapid reform agenda. His views brought him into conflict with his near-neighbour Gladstone and eventually led him to support a Conservative candidate in Chester against Gladstone's sitting Liberal MP.

Votes in Chester were being freely "bought for beer" by both the Liberal and Conservative parties. Through the middle half of the 19th Century records kept by the candidates as elections approached show large sums being paid to local inn-keepers. There was a further source of corruption:: vast sums were also spent on "ribbons, cockades and favours" which signified voting intent, and which voters were often bribed to wear. Detailed attempts at reform in Chester date back to at least 1832 when there were proposals to change the shape of the bourough by extending it to the north and west to include parts of Upton, Hoole and Boughton, which were at the time not part of the City constituency but part of the County. A map prepared (by surveyor Robert K. Dawson R.E.) on the instructions of the House of Commons shows the proposed changes and the rather small extent of the built-up area within the city at the time.

The Grosvenors had held at least one of the two Chester seats since 1715 and Hugh Grosvenor held the seat from 1847 until 1869 when he succeeded to the peerage. A speech of his reported in the Cheshire Observer possibly indicates that he was against the concentration of political power in a small group (as was the case in the Corporation of Chester) but did not agree with complete emancipation of "the lowest orders, without property or money":

  • "If you go at once for manhood suffrage, you go by numbers and population only, by which means you take into the constituency numbers of men of the lowest orders, without property or money … who would follow any demagogue … I hold that the whole of the classes in the country should be represented, property, land, intelligence, wealth and numbers, and not numbers alone … And labour too … There is a large class of wage receiving working men who ought to be admitted to the franchise … I shall be prepared to see the franchise extended in counties and boroughs … and a fair redistribution of seats, without which any reform bill would be imperfect. (Cheshire Observer, 23 Apr. 1859)"
Charles Brown, Mayor of Chester from the Town Hall. He lived at "The Folly", Flookersbrook. Both he and his brother William were secheduled in the aftermath of the 1880 election due to their corrupt practices.

Urging the need for some form of ‘final settlement’ to prevent years of future agitation, Hugh Grosvenor called for a cross-party solution and proposed the appointment of a cross-party committee to bring in a moderate measure of reform that would ‘conciliate all interests’. It was these long-held beliefs, expressed on the hustings and at constituency meetings, rather than on the floor of the House of Commons, which propelled Grosvenor to act as he did in 1866 and help bring about the defeat of Gladstone's Liberal reform bill, and as a consequence, the resignation of the Liberal ministry and the formation of a Conservative government. In the political turmoil of the 1880's Grosvenor (by then the Duke of Westminster) would intervene again.

The Grosvenors withdrew from the Chester seat in 1874, when the Liberal candidates were the senior party politician J. G. Dodson and one of the local party leaders, Sir Thomas Frost (of the mill-owning family: see Industrial Revolution), but in 1880 the Grosvenors came back, partnering Dodson with the first duke of Westminster's nephew Beilby Lawley. In 1874 Raikes, who was building up a strong local following, cleverly chose to run alone and won narrowly. The local Liberal party determined to organize better for the 1880 election through a Liberal Association established in 1879; on the model of those elsewhere, it comprised a large representative (but nominal) ruling body, the '300', and a small executive committee. Sir Thomas Frost was its president, but the key figures were two of the vicepresidents, Enoch Salisbury and A. O. Walker, and William Brown (of the department store family), who was chairman and treasurer of the finance committee. Salisbury is a local character worth noting: he collected books relating to Wales and the border counties, and his library went to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire by purchase, in 1886.

After the April 1880 election, the Conservatives immediately petitioned against the result. A short hearing in Chester uncovered much evidence of corruption and the MP's were unseated in July 1880 pending the oucome of a royal commission. The press reports at the time were very sparse and mostly in non-Chester newspapers, perhaps in view of the politicisation of the press, and especially in Chester, a fear of upsetting the rich and powerful. Of the few provincial papers which covered the story in any detail some were in areas with an embryonic Labour movement and the opportunity could be taken to cast scorn on the corrupt activities of the landed gentry and business owners. The Royal Commission exonerated the candidates but imposed a seven-year disqualification from voting on 914 individuals who had given or received bribes or treats. Chester was banned from being represented in Parliament for several years.

Chester was left unrepresented in parliament until 1885. The redistribution of 1885 left Chester with one seat, for which the electorate grew steadily from 6,300 to 8,100 by 1910. The first new MP elected was Radical Liberal Walter Foster but he was unseated by the "faggot votes" of the duke of Westminster's tenants at the Liberal defeat in the 1886 election. A "faggot voter" was a person who qualified to vote in an election with a restricted suffrage only by the exploitation of loopholes in the regulations. Typically, faggot voters satisfied a property qualification by holding the title to a subdivision of a large property with a single beneficial owner. Faggot voting was a common electoral abuse in the United Kingdom until the electoral reforms of the late 19th century. Faggot voting was abolished by the Representation of the People Act 1884.

Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, now the Duke of Westminster, not only refused to endorse the new Liberal member, Foster, but lent transport to the Conservatives during 1886 election, and made two powerful Unionist speeches in Chester. Partly as a result, the Conservative, Robert Yerburgh, won by a narrow margin of 66 votes. Both Gladstone and the Liberal leadership in the county bitterly condemned the duke's 'interference', which they believed had cost them the seat. Yerburgh would be MP until 1906, and then again from 1910 until 1916 when his death was probably hastened due to his internment by Germany. The intervening MP was Alfred Mond a noted industrialist and very likely the inspiration for Mustapha Mond of Huxley's novel "Brave New World".

The Gilded Age

It is often said that Chester flourished as a regional shopping center, but in reality the prosperity of Chester's shops and services depended to a large extent on custom from the City itself. Demand from outside enabled it to support a larger range than its own population would have justified, but perhaps 60-65% of Chester's trade came from residents of the city and its suburbs. Rating evidence for the later 19th century shows that Eastgate Street retained its place as the commercial heart of Chester and that Bridge Street, Foregate Street, and Northgate Street also prospered. In each of the last three streets the number of separate premises diminished as small businesses were squeezed out by the expansion of bigger and more successful shops. Elsewhere the situation was quite different. Lower Bridge Street and Watergate Street experienced economic decline as property became increasingly subdivided, a process reflecting colonization by small, often marginal businesses needing cheap premises. In Frodsham Street development seems to have intensified as an offshoot from the central area because its location served customers from working-class suburbs in the north of the city. Overall, however, Chester's central area saw little absolute expansion in the 19th century. City Road, laid out in the 1860s to provide more convenient access to Chester Station, would have been a natural line of growth if the commercial centre had been expanding, yet it developed only slowly and included few shops. Conflicting economic factors applied:

The former Chester Co-operative Society department store, now a range of shops, has a distinctive coupola and domed "lantern" on the corner of Love Street. The place of Chester in the history of the Co-operative movement is often overlooked.
  • Chester's restricted manufacturing base weakened the local service economy, since the city was deficient in both an industrial middle class and a skilled working class, two groups with significant purchasing power in the late Victorian economy.
  • Improved railway connections allowed the wealthy from Liverpool, Manchester, and other towns to choose the city as an elegant place of residence: in 1899 it was asserted that only four of 75 occupiers in Hoole Road derived their living from Chester. Chester also attracted a class living off inherited wealth and investment income, who perhaps formed 5% of the population by the Edwardian period.

Browns' monopoly had been broken in the late 19thC. by the growth of three other stores which exploited the increased spending power of the middle classes (and to a lesser extent working people):

  • Richard Jones's drapery business was founded in Watergate Street in the 1850s, and expanded into larger premises in Bridge Street in the 1860s. It diversified into furnishings and grew rapidly from the 1890s, and in 1900 opened a new clothing shop in Eastgate Street, by which time it was second only to Browns in importance.
  • Burrells was also a newcomer: Thomas Gaze Burrell, a Norfolk man working in London, was advised in 1877 that Chester was growing in importance as a shopping centre and would be an ideal place to start a business. He bought an existing haberdashery shop at no. 32 Foregate Street and renamed it the 'Little Wonder'. By 1890 he had opened men's, women's, and children's clothing shops and in 1899 expanded into furnishings.

The grocery trade changed greatly between 1890 and 1914. New shops were dispersed in the suburbs and the number of city-centre grocers fell. The chain stores of Liptons, Home & Colonial, Maypole Dairies, and Pegrams established branches in Chester, and their branded, packaged goods started to supplant the shop-blended and shoppacked provisions typical of the older and often more exclusive retailers. By 1910 there were c. 20 chain stores in the city, including Boots, Marks & Spencer, and Hepworths, but Chester remained a shopping centre dominated by local businesses often biased towards a wealthy and socially select clientele.

An upswing in the service economy performance after the 1890's led to even more of the City Center being rebuilt in the "Mock Tudor" style. Eastgate Street remained the heart of commerce, but developments of the ends of Bridge Street, Northgate Street and to some extent Watergate Street radiating from the High Cross as desirable locations pushed out the smaller shops. The story was different in lower Bridge Street and much of Watergate Street where buildings became subdivided and in some cases ruinous.

The Edwardian period featured many innovations. Ernest Rutherford published his studies on radioactivity. The first transatlantic wireless signals were sent by Guglielmo Marconi, and the Wright brothers flew for the first time. By the end of the era, Louis Blériot had crossed the English Channel by air; the largest ship in the world, RMS Olympic, had sailed on its maiden voyage and her larger sister RMS Titanic was under construction.

Chester Castle gates decorated with recruiting posters during WW1. These include the famous "Kitchener" poster, of which few were actually posted.

There has been much debate as to the causes of World War I and the actual picture is still considered unclear. The deepest distinction among historians remains between those who focus on the actions of Germany and Austria-Hungary as key and those who focus on a wider group of actors. Some historians maintain that Germany deliberately sought war while others do not. The main distinction among the latter is between those who believe that a war between the "Great Powers" was ultimately unplanned but still caused principally by Germany and Austria-Hungary taking risks, and those who believe that either all or some of the other powers, namely Russia, France, Serbia and Great Britain, played a more significant role in risking war than had been traditionally suggested. A view has been put forward that the cause was Jingoism. Marxist historians see it as the inevitable clash of capitalist systems, while Social Darwinists see it as a conflict over resources following a period of growth into new empires. Others have suggested that the development of the Dreadnought, a fast highly advanced warship with an "all big gun" configuration, showed the world that it was possible to build a navy which could compete with the long-standing British dominance of the seas. There are arguments and counter-arguments all ways.

In Summary: Victorian Chester

When Victoria came to the throne the Crown had lost the affections of the people. Power had largely passed to Parliament, for which the voting franchise was still limited. Society was hierarchical, yet there was much social and geographical mobility. Self-made entrepreneurs used their new wealth to rise in society, building large houses, educating their children and employing domestic servants (by the 1880s 1.25 million people were employed in domestic service – more than in any other work category). At the era’s beginning in 1837, it is estimated that approximately half of the adult male population was literate to a certain degree. Because of the new practices, compulsory education and technological advances in printing resulting in widely available reading materials, standard literacy was more or less universal by the end of the century. The Victorian Age witnessed a radical metamorphosis in artistic representations of the natural world from inspirational and benevolent to savage and competitive.

The Victorian era saw the rise of the co-operative movement and socialism, an increased movement towards Irish independence and many moves towards catholic emancipation. Chester played a small part in each of these which illustate more general changes rather than placing Chester at the center of any of them. Even so, in 1912 some 2,636 people still lived in the 660 "slum" court houses which remained, and their death rate was 23.9 per 1,000, compared with a city average of 15.2.

Sources and Links

Victorian Arcitecture

The architectural profession is largely a Victorian creation. In the 18th century it was common for architects to act as developers and surveyors too, but by the 1820s such roles were being devolved, leaving architects free to experiment with a profusion of styles. The identity of the profession was cemented by the creation in 1834 of the Institute of British Architects (from 1837 the Royal Institute of British Architects). Its first president was Earl de Grey, who had designed his own house in the 1830s at Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, in a French Baroque style. Such amateur architects had largely disappeared by the end of the century.

Victorian/Edwardian architecture in the suburbs of Chester. Much of the timberwork is purely decorative and some of the structure is provided by hidden iron and steel. Welsh slate roofs and machine-made bricks show how the railways influenced construction.

The term Victorian architecture therefore refers not to a particular style but to an era which spanned more than 60 years and encompasses a jumble of overlapping styles that include early Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Italianate, Romanesque Revival, and the popular Queen Anne style at the tail end of the era. Victorian-era housing was built to accommodate people from all walks of society and income levels. This meant everything from close rows of terraced houses built for factory workers on crowded narrow streets that didn’t include gardens or sanitation to semi-detached and detached houses that by the end of the Victorian era featured modern conveniences like running hot and cold water, sanitation, and gas. Innovations in building techniques and mass-produced building materials that could be transported by rail—such as newly machine-made bricks, gray roofing slate from Wales, or the arrival of plate glass in the 1830s that increased window size from previous periods—saved builders time and helped lead to a housing boom during the 1850s and 1870s. Other technical developments included iron-framed construction, terracotta (for chimney pots and tiles) and polished granite, widely commercially available for the first time thanks to steam power.

Chester is particularly noted for the use of Ruabon brick. The discovery of vast quantities of high quality Etruria Marl clay in the Ruabon area in the 19th Century heralded the beginning of tile and terracotta production on a vast scale. Ruabon's materials were the subject of the term "redbrick" which was coined to describe the wave of university and other buildings in industrial cities which are characteristic of the Victorian age. The Ruabon bricks were not only simple oblong blocks but could be provided in a range of decorative forms. In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, bay windows began bulging outwards, usually covering their modesty with a small slate roof. They are easy to date, in 1894, an amendment to the building act decreed that windows no longer need be flush with the exterior wall. Canted bay windows – those with a straight front and angled sides – quickly became a particularly fashionable and popular feature of middle-class Victorian terraced houses and villas.

Iron railings became increasingly popular and readily available in the Victorian era and were an impressive introduction for visitors to the quality home. Often decorated with elaborate finials, they might be painted green or brown. After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, many iron railings were painted black as a sign of mourning – and remained so for many decades. During the second world war, many were removed, supposedly for recycling into weapons, although few were used as such. As the gothic revival seized Britain from about 1850, even modest-sized domestic buildings tried to imitate the upward swoop of medieval churches by the inclusion of finials on ridges and other parts of roofs. Encaustic and geometric tiling were another common feature making use of mass-produced materials. Stained Glass enjoyed a renaissance in Victorian times, particularly during the gothic revival, which restored the painstaking mosaic method of leading together pieces of shaped glass. Stained glass with floral and geometric patterns was typically fitted in the upper panels of windows, in entrance panel windows and in front-door panels.

Victorian Hoole with partly mock-tudor housing of Ruabon brick, gaslamps and telephone cables. The Browns lived nearby and had drained the cattle-watering ponds at Flookersbrook to provide an ornamental park, surrounded by mass-produced iron railings.

Interior design in the Victorian period was layered, cluttered, ornate, and eccentric. Similar to Victorian architecture is the Edwardian style of architecture, which began upon the death of Queen Victoria and subsequent reign of King Edward VII (1901–1910), although everything up through 1914 is considered part of the period. Edwardian style was less ornate than Victorian, its interiors featuring simpler decor and less clutter. It coincides with the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in 1880 as artists and architects reacted against the technical advances and mass-production ushered in by the Victorian age and sought to produce goods that celebrated human craftsmanship. Arts and Crafts combined a strong interest in the Middle Ages and the revival of traditional crafts with a rejection of many of the technological innovations that had made mid-Victorian architecture so distinctive. In Chester, there were some Arts and Crafts buildings, but the peculiarity of the city was its near obsession with Tudor "Black and White". Very little of the Victorian timber-frame work is actually structural, but often held up by hidden structural metalwork.

Across the country local pride transformed towns and cities with new town halls, libraries, museums, concert halls and schools, built in Gothic, neoclassical and Italianate styles. This was a golden age of civic as well as church architecture. Chester gained its Town Hall and the Grosvenor Museum at this time. One of the most prolific Chester builders of the time was Alex Smith who appears to have frequently worked with John Douglas. His work combines both traditional carpentry (in which he was trained) and the newer techniques. Some of his late Victorian/Edwardian villas clearly demonstrate the use of hidden steelwork to provide for balconies, overhanging juttied stories and "Tudor" turrets with extensive windows.

Exploring Victorian Chester

Early Victorian architecture can be seen at Chester Station which displays the traditional early station features of an elaborate facade and the use of steelwork to support extensive roof structures. Heading off down City Road it becomes obvious how the Victorians did not have the consistent architectural style of the Georgians, and much less of a sense of symetry. The "Tradesman's Entrance" at the Westminster Hotel provides an indication of the Victorian obsession with social class, and the association of the Grosvenors with Chester is clear from the prolific use of the words "Westminster", "Eaton" and "Belgrave" in the names of the hotels. The name "Grosvenor" is difficult to avoid in Victorian Chester. Prior to modern redevelopment many of the side streets were rows of brick houses of variable quality to house the immense urban workforce which the Victorian economy required. Some have survived, but many had a relatively short lifetime. When exploring Victorian Chester it is often useful to refer to the Art of Louise Rayner, a prolific artist who lived in Chester from some time around 1869 until 1910. Some might find her street-scenes banal, but she has a fine eye for detail and illustrates Chester at the time when it was gaining the "Mock-Tudor" appearance known as the "Chester look".

Chester in 1908 (as published in 1911). The city has outgrown the walls and gained suburbs to the North. Some land remaines unused but this is either prone to flooding or downwind of the Leadworks. Large area's are used by the railway and facilities around Chester Station. Both North and South maps are available.

In the city itself there is relatively little of the Victorian brickwork found in other northern towns along the principal streets, although the area of "Douglasville" around Love Street has many buildings by the architect John Douglas. What Victorian architecture is to be seen is dominated by the "Vernacular Revival" style of Douglas and Lockwood and some poor copies of the same. Grosvenor Park is a fine example of a Victorian city-center park, and the Town Hall, with its sometimes odd choice of sculpture, a monument to the corporations view of its place in history. The ancient abbey, later the Cathedral was almost wholly rebuilt by the Victorians, who started to fill every available window with stained glass at around the same time as lantern slides were commonplace. Other Victorian/Edwardian features are less obvious: cable-roses from electric trams, elaborate vents for new sewers, a proliferation of school buildings. Many of the shop-fronts retain some Victorian features including large windows as glass became available in quantity at low cost.

To the south of the city the most significant alteration to the street plan was the building of Castle Drive in 1901 to provide a link around the south side of the castle between Grosvenor Road and the Bridgegate. In the south-east of the intramural area a small group of new streets was built on the former gardens of the Albion Hotel: Albion Place, Albion Street, and Volunteer Street were laid out in the mid 1860s and Steele Street was added in the 1880s, partly on the site of Roberts' and Wilkinson's Courts. All four streets had terraced working-class housing. The centrepiece of the area was the new Volunteer Drill Hall, erected by public subscription in 1869 at a cost of £2,500. Built of red sandstone in an 'Edwardian castellated' style, it was for the use of the Chester Artillery and Rifle Volunteers. An extension of the building through to Duke Street in the 1900s resulted in the demolition of almshouses and two courts.

In the west of the intramural area there were two notable developments. A barracks for the Cheshire Militia was built in the 1860s on the west side of Castle Esplanade on the site of the nunnery, an area which had remained largely undeveloped since the 17th century. The Queen's school was built in 1882 on the site of the old city gaol in City Walls Road. Designed by E.A. Ould, a pupil of John Douglas, it was in 'Tudor Gothic' style with patterned brickwork. The formation of the Chester Archaeological Society in 1849 created a forum through which half-timbered vernacular revival styles of architecture were promoted in Chester. An anonymous author in the society's Journal argued in 1857 for the retention of "ancient landmarks", the restoration of old houses, and the erection of new ones "after the same distinguishing type".

The Grosvenor Museum has an adjoining house which has been refurbished to depict life (at least for the middle class) in several periods of Chester's history. The Victorian rooms are cluttered with manufactured goods. Even in death the Victorians met with commerce: Chester's somewhat spooky Overleigh Cemetery started as a private concern as did many Victorian cemeteries and contains the graves of several of those in the gallery below. Queen Victoria has more statues than any other British Monarch, with three in Chester (including a wooden one in St Werburgh Street), but she is topped in Chester by Earl of Chester Hugh of Avranches with whom the Victorians seem to have had an obsession - perhaps beacuse the Grosvenors claimed to be descended from him.


Many people contributed to the development of photography and in Victorian times it became fashionable. In the March 1851 issue of The Chemist, Frederick Scott Archer published his wet plate collodion process. It became the most widely used photographic medium until the gelatin dry plate, introduced in the 1870s, eventually replaced it. The Victorians embraced phtography as an alternative to painted portraits, so it is here, in the Victorian gallery that photographs first appear.

Related Pages


Chester in Other Historical Periods