Weaver Street

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Numbers 69-71 Watergate Street now a public house (The Old Custom House), comprises two undercrofts and town houses, now combined. The eastern house is dated 1637 on a much restored timber-framed gable amd also bears the initials "T & AW", thought to be Thomas and Anne Weaver after whom the adjoining Weaver Street is said to be named (prior to that it was St Alban's street, and c1500 Berward Lane). Thomas Weaver occupied the pub in 1637. The row was enclosed in 1711, on the petition of Elanor Massie (noted as "Widow, of Dublin" in records entry AF/49d/14) for a 50s fine, but there is also a records entry (A/B/3/1.4.1714) that it was enclosed in 1714 by Bernard Fileding (innholder), again for a 50s fine. The former cottage on Weaver Street behind east-most house is of late Georgian Vernacular character and now forms a part of the public house. The plan of the licensed rooms is altered, but some oak beams survive and there is a carved stone fireplace with Classical surround of painted wood in the north east room.

Weaver Street today seems quite dull, but a little effort reveals some really interesting history.

Hemingway, always the snob, writes:

  • "The only branches from the south side of Watergate street are Weaver and Nicholas streets The former composed of mean paltry buildings and leads into White Friars.."

He obviously does not consider Nicholas Street Mews to be a "proper" branch, and forgets about Nuns Road completely.

Hughes writes:

  • "Just below we have upon the left hand Weaver Street anciently St Alban's Lane leading to the spot where the Church and Monastery of the White Friars in times past stood Of this monastic establishment no vestige remains except a portion of the western wall which is still visible from Weaver Street. The spire of this Church which was of noble dimensions served mariners as a landmark in steering their vessels up to the Walls of Chester."

There is no sign of the wall meantioned by Hughes today, although it is reported that "The Friars" incorporates medieval sandstone walling.

A panoramic view of Weaver Street. It does not seem to be of much interest, but, in fact, it is.

Romans

Weaver Street is now L-shaped having been extended as a service road by slum clearance along the back of Watergate Street. The original street is most likely a survival of the "Via Sagularis" - The Way of the Cloak from Roman Chester. This road is sometimes called the 'intervallum road' as it lay in the space between the rampart and the buildings in the interior of the fort, the intervallum. The via sagularis thus ran around the entire perimeter of the camp within the rampart, encircling the interior buildings. It was possible to use this road to move troops rapidly around. It continues in one direction as Trinity Street and in the other, rather less precisely, as Whitefriars. Excavation works at the northern end of Weaver Street have revealed the remains of the Roman fortress’s granaries.

To see the Roman pillar look over this fence. The passageway to the left would have linked the Rows with the slum courts behind.

Roman remains can be seen today on Weaver Street in the form of a pillar base which sits in the "area" at the back of a Watergate Street property. To see it, one has to lean over a low metal railing. Interestingly, the base of the column is about a metre higher than the current level of the floor of the undercroft in the building concerned.

"Weavers Lane" and "The Sugar House" are shown on the Lavaux Map of 1745.

Carmelites

The Carmelite priory occupied a site between Commonhall Street, Weaver Street, Whitefriars and Bridge Street; Hollar's Map of Chester from the 1660's shows that the church stood directly on Whitefriars. Apart from the church, buildings mentioned in the 1538 inventory and later documents include the cloister, the convent hall, the dorter, the prior's chamber and the kitchen, bulting house, salt house, and store house, but there is no evidence as to the position of these buildings and no clearly identified remains of the friary have survived. However it has been speculated that the precinct eventually (by 1354) measured almost 80 m. from north to south and 120 m. from east to west, extending from White Friars Lane to Commonhall Lane, and from "Berward or Alban Lane" (Weaver Street) to the rear boundaries of houses on Bridge Street. The cloisters and conventual buildings presumably lay north of the church. At the Dissolution the dorter, reredorter, and prior's chamber probably occupied the east range, and the kitchen and frater the north range. The graveyard perhaps lay east of the east range, and an outer court stood to the west with a gateway opening on to White Friars Lane. There may also have been a gateway on Commonhall Lane. A barn once in the possession of the early 14thC sheriff Gilbert Dunfoul had apparently been acquired by the friars before 1350. It lay in the northwest corner of the precinct, and parts of its walls and plan were preserved in the house called the Friary, which dates mainly from the late 17th and 18th century, with mostly 18th-century interiors and a south range rebuilt early in the 19th century. Within and adjoining the precinct there were other buildings, orchards, and gardens. They included a house used by the Carpenters' guild for storing the props for their Mystery play.

The friary was dissolved in 1538. Its holdings passed in 1544 to Fulk Dutton, and a house, known as White Friars, was built on part of the site. Thereafter the friary passed in 1583 to Edmund Gamull and in 1593 to Thomas Egerton, who in 1597 demolished the church to make way for a new building. The site remained in the hands of Egerton's descendants until the later 18th century. From the 1540s it appears to have been divided into two, an eastern portion comprising the church and conventual buildings within St Bridget's parish, and a western portion including the barn perhaps in St Martin's. Dutton's house, apparently distinct from the convent itself, was probably built on the latter, and Egerton's on the former.

Weaver Street around 1900, prior to slum clearances in the courts at the back of Watergate Street.
John Vanbrugh - grew up in Weaver Street.

Sugar

The site was still divided between two tenants in the 1660s. The western portion, known as White Friars or the Friars, was tenanted in 1667 by Giles Vanbrugh, father of Sir John Vanbrugh, and in 1679 by Anthony Henthorn, both "sugar bakers". Sir John Vanbrugh grew up in Chester, where his family had been driven by either the major outbreak of the plague in London in 1665, or the Great Fire of 1666. He is remembered as an English architect and dramatist, perhaps best known as the designer of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. He wrote two argumentative and outspoken Restoration comedies, The Relapse (1696) and The Provoked Wife (1697), which have become enduring stage favourites but originally occasioned much controversy. He was knighted in 1714. The architectural historian Kerry Downes is sceptical of earlier historians' claims of a lower middle-class background, and writes that a 19th-century suggestion that Giles Vanbrugh was a sugar-baker has been misunderstood. "Sugar-baker" implies wealth, as the term refers not to a maker of sweets but to the owner of a sugar house, a factory for the refining of raw sugar from Barbados (where the Dutch had introduced sugar cane from Brazil in 1642). Sugar refining would normally have been combined with sugar trading, which was a lucrative business and trading of molasses, the thick dark sugar syrup created when sugar cane is refined into crystallised sugar (and the raw material for rum). Downes' example of one sugar baker's house in Liverpool, estimated to bring in £40,000 a year in trade from Barbados, throws a new light on Vanbrugh's social background, one rather different from the picture of a backstreet Chester sweetshop as painted by Leigh Hunt in 1840 and reflected in many later accounts.

The will of Giles Vanbrugh reads:

  • "Giles Vanbrugh of the city of Chester by his will of this date gave to his wife Elizabeth the whole of his household furniture etc (plate excepted) and what was due to her by marriage contract and directed the whole of his real estate etc to be sold by his executor and the proceeds to be divided into fourteen parts two of which he gave to his eldest son John, one part to Lucy, one to Anna Maria, one to Mary, one to Victoria, and one each to Elizabeth, Robina, Carleton, Giles, Dudley, Kendrick, Charles and Philip Appoints his wife sole executrix Will proved by her July 24 1689"
The back of Leche House can be seen at the end of Weaver Street. The closer building is "Lyon House".

From 1686, Vanbrugh was working undercover, playing a role in bringing about the armed invasion by William of Orange, the deposition of James II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Returning from bringing William messages at The Hague, Vanbrugh was arrested at Calais on a charge of espionage (which Downes concludes was trumped-up) in September 1688, two months before William invaded England. Vanbrugh remained in prison in France for four and a half years, albeit in reasonable comfort. In 1691 he requested to be moved from Calais to Vincennes, at his own expense, where his treatment deteriorated enough to suffice his writing to Louis XIV (the "Sun King"), leading to his eventual transfer to the Bastille in February 1692. This raised the profile of his case once more, finally prompting his release in November of the same year, in an exchange of political prisoners. Once he returned to England he joined the Navy and took part in an unsuccessful naval attack against the French at Brest. At some point in the mid-1690s, it is not known exactly when, he exchanged military life for London and the London stage. Vanbrugh's London career was diverse and varied, comprising playwriting, architectural design, and attempts to combine these two overarching interests.

In the later 1680's the area was still linked to political intrigue: the dissenter Matthew Henry, living in Whitefriars was embroiled in the 1688 issues over the Chester Assemby (see: Trinity Street).

By 1781 the Henthorns' former house, in Weaver Street, was still known as the Sugar House and is marked as such on the Lavaux Map of 1745. For some 160 yrs sugar was refined in Chester, though on quite a small scale and probably for local consumption. As noted above Giles Vanbrugh, the father of Sir John, and John & Samuel Henthorne refined in Chester in the late 17thC. By the 1780s the sugar house in Weavers Lane was run by Robert Hesketh & John Kennerly. The main evidence for the sugar refining industry consists of associated artefacts such as sugar moulds and refining jars. In Chester a large number of sherds were found in a late 17th-century pit fill during excavations at 25 Bridge Street in 2001, but these appear to be rubbish brought in from elsewhere.

Slums

In 1830, G. A. Cooke wrote of Chester:

  • "A stranger, on his first entrance into the city might suppose it is but thinly inhabited, the enveloped situation of the shops...tending to hide a considerable proportion of people from the eye."

By 1900 the backlands to the south of Watergate Street had become a series of "Slum Courts" characterised by extreme poverty and poor sanitary conditions. The development of these courts within Chester appears to have occurred quite rapidly between 1840 and 1890. In the census returns of 1841 there can be found very little evidence of the existence of courtyards; however by 1874 over 1,000 of the 6,700 houses in Chester were situated within courts and approximately half of these were found inside the walls. Not only did the housing density rise, but also the numbers of people crowded within them increased. Sewers were in many cases non-existent, being replaced by ash-pits which were sometimes rarely emptied. Many of the associated problems, such as poor ventilation, lack of light and insanitary conditions, could have been greatly improved had these houses been less densely packed, but it was not until the passing of Chester's 1884 Improvement Act that any kind of building regulation was adopted in the city. The courts were frequently accessed by narrow covered passages leaing to The Rows. Most of these passages have been absorbed into the structure of buildings and lost, but a good example still exists between Weaver Street and the Watergate Street Row.

Listed Buildings

Old Hall Place - shopworkers cottages by Lockwood for Browns of Chester.
Crypt Court in the 1930's. 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. The image is something of a puzzle as the building on the left has the same timber bracket door-canopy design as Lockwood used in nearby buildings, but this does not fit with any local building alignment.

Lyon House

This former town house (now offices) stands at the far end of the extended Weaver Street probably on the site of the former detached kitchen behind Leche House to which it is linked by a roofed passage. The present three-storey house is late C17 or early C18, and has been altered. It is constucted of brown brick in irregular bond and has a double-depth grey slate roof. The east front (barely accessible by an alley full of bins) has an inserted 6-panel door and a camber-arched doorcase under a damaged stone lintel with a carved rose and foliage. The renewed casement with 3 lights of 3 panes is to the right of the east door to each of lower 2 storeys and there is a 24-pane horizontally sliding sash to the third storey. A major feature of the east side is the tall central staircase window of 44 panes which has a segmental-arched brick head.

Old Hall Place

A row of four two-storey cottages for staff of Browns of Chester Department Store. c1889. By T. M. Lockwood at the expense of then Alderman Charles Brown. These replaced "Brittain's Entry, containing twenty two wretched tenements". This has been described as "formerly one of the worst courts in the city" (Cheshire Observer - April 1899). While the tenements have gone, the entry to Watergate Street still survives: it is the one with the Roman pillar base.

Built in Flemish bond brown brick with moulded hard red brick dressings and a red clay tile roof. 2 storeys. Each cottage has a part-glazed framed and boarded door and a mullioned casement of three 3-pane arched lights in the lower storey. The doors of Nos 2 & 5 are angled at the corners of the row, the upper storey providing triangular canopies on timber brackets; the upper storey of each cottage has a timber oriel of three 8-pane lights under a timber-framed dormer gable; 2 shaped brick ridge chimneys. The gable-ends have a mullioned window of two 3-pane metal lights to the upper storey.

The Friary

This is best viewed from Whitefriars, but from Weaver Street the flat-roofed 2-storey "strongroom" extension can be inspected.

Greenery

There is little greenery in Weaver Street, but there is a fine example of Catalpa bignonioides which is native to the southeastern United States. The fruit is a long, thin bean like pod 20–40 cm long and 8–10 mm diameter; it often stays attached to tree during winter. The pod contains numerous flat light brown seeds with two papery wings and gives the tree its common names: cigartree, and Indian-bean-tree.

Sources and links