Chester and Ireland

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Chester was for many centuries the most important place by far in north-western England. That was largely due to its location at the crossroads of the British Isles, where routes from southern Britain led into north Wales and the Irish Sea. On many occasions Chester's role as the point of entry into the Irish Sea region for rulers based in the South and hence a route to Ireland, made it prominent in national affairs. The effect of the Irish trade on the history of Chester has been very significant on the development of the city. The history of Ireland is a complex subject and this article focuses on the relationship between Chester and Ireland (particularly Dublin), which might not always reflect the more general relationship between England and Ireland. From a very early date Dublin was by far the main port in Ireland and most of the foreign trade passed through Chester. Holyhead's role in trade with Ireland may go as far back as 2,000 BC, when porcellanite stone axes from Ireland were an import.

In recent years historians have recognised the importance of the Irish Sea region for which Chester and Dublin were at times the major ports. The Romans may have considered an invasion of Ireland when Chester would have been conveniently located as a possible capital of the expanded province of Roman Britain. In the post-Roman period there was colonisation of the region around the Irish Sea by the Vikings and later the Normans: in both of these Chester and Dublin played an important role as they also did during the Tudor "reconquest" and the later development of trade. The Chester-Dublin route retained its importance with the development of better land communication in the form of roads and then railways.

Some historians have developed the idea of a distinct "Irish Sea Culture", with various warrior/elite or religious components. Such models can open onto complex historiographical questions.

Early Irish Sea Trade

Burdett's map of the mouth of the River Dee shows the layout of sandbanks and channels in his time. Water deep enough for a ship to anchor is indicated with an anchor symbol. Hyle Lake is marked on the map, which has south at the top. Hyle lake was the "Lazarette" (quarantine port) for Chester, and the roadstead where ships would wait for suitable tides to reach Chester.

Meols, on the tip of the Wirral, was named as such by the Vikings; its original name from the Old Norse for "sand dunes" was melr, becoming melas by the time of the Domesday Survey. The dunes stretch from West Kirby to New Brighton. Strong waves and tidal currents caused the formation of offshore sandbanks. These are covered by the sea at high tide but dry out as the tide ebbs, creating areas of sheltered water in their lee. One such sheltered roadstead developed behind the Hoyle Bank, acquiring the name Hyle or Hoyle Lake. Daniel Defoe described it as follows:

  • "Going down from Chester, by the Rhoodee, … and coasting the river after it is grown broader than the marshes; the first place of any note which we come to is Nesson, a long nase or ness of land, which running out into the sea, makes a kind of a key. This is the place where in the late war in Ireland, most of the troops embark'd, when that grand expedition begun; after which, the vessels go away to Highlake, in which as the winds may happen they ride safe in their way … till the wind presents for their respective voyages." (Daniel Defoe: Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, 1724 – 1727)

Archaeological finds dating back to the Neolithic period suggest that the site, particularly Meols, was an important centre in antiquity. Since about 1810, a large number of artefacts have been found relating to pre-Roman Carthage, the Iron Age, the Roman Empire, Armenia, the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. These include items as varied as coins which belonged to the Coriosolites in Brittany and a silver tetradrachm of Tigranes I of Armenia, minted in Syria in the 1st century BC. Also, tokens, brooches, pins, knives, glass beads, keys, pottery, flint tools, pilgrim badges, pieces of leather, worked wood and iron tools. These finds suggest that the site was used as a port as far back as the Iron Age some 2,400 years ago, and was once the most important seaport in the present-day North West England. For thousands of years, people had made use of the natural harbour called the Hoyle Lake. This gave its name in modern times to Hoylake, the town which grew up nearby. Thus trading connections are believed to have reached far across Europe.

Maps of the coastline in the 18th century show a low sandy promontory, known as Dove Point (the name comes from Celtic dubh meaning black), which once existed to the north of the present coastline. This can still be roughly made out at low tide (as Dove Spit) although the modern coastline at flood-tide shows no sign of it. It was once thought that Dublin came from the same "viking" root, but is now thought that the Viking settlement was preceded by a Christian ecclesiastical settlement known as "Duibhlinn", from which "Dyflin" took its name.

From the end of the 18th century, there were major changes in the offshore channels and sand banks. Some have suggested this was partly caused by the beginnings of large-scale dredging on the approaches to the growing port of Liverpool. Others might suggest that this is in part a consequence of the canalisation of the River Dee. A third explanation is that this was a natural phenomenon where long-term climatic and erosional changes reached a tipping point. Whatever the cause, there was a sudden acceleration in coastal erosion at Meols. Throughout the 19th century, until the sea defences were completed in the mid-1890s, the Wirral coastline retreated southwards for up to half a kilometre in places. As large areas of dune sand were washed away by storms, extensive traces of ancient settlements along the coast were exposed. Patches of blackened mud with fibrous decayed wood are occasionally visible in the shifting sands. These are the last remnants of the forest which stood in late Mesolithic times in this area. As the dune sand was washed away, centuries of accumulated soil under the sand, together with middens and occupation deposits associated with later prehistoric, Roman and medieval settlements became mixed with the forest remains beneath.

Dove Point, Hyle Lake and the sandbanks are shown in this old map, with possible anchorages marked, as is the anchorage at Dawpool. The Point of Ayr lighthouse was built in 1776 by a Trust of the Major, Recorder and Aldermen of Chester to warn ships entering between the Dee and the Mersey Estuary. This was in response to shipwrecks in the area, particularly the loss of two Dublin ferries on which more than 200 people died. The lighthouse marked the mouth of the Dee estuary for mariners who approached in the dark from the north or west. It didn’t include a light for mariners leaving the estuary.

In the early medieval period Meols continued as a port from which people traded with Ireland and the Mediterranean. Finds include a pottery flask, which contained holy water from the shrine of St Menas in Egypt and Byzantine coins from Turkey, dating from the 6th century AD. It is likely that little survives of ancient Meols today. The coastal erosion which revealed the objects also destroyed the settlements. The objects collected by antiquarians in the 19th century and kept in public museums form almost the only surviving evidence of what was once one of the region's most important ports. National Museums Liverpool has a small collection of material from Meols, from the collections of Joseph Mayer and Henry Ecroyd Smith. Unfortunately many objects were lost in the fire at Liverpool Museum of 1941. Other groups of objects are in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, Warrington Museum, the British Museum, and the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum in Birkenhead.

Romans and Ireland

The precise date of the first occupation of Roman Chester by their army remains uncertain, but the potential uses to which the site could be put - a fine harbour at the highest navigable point on the River Dee, a river crossing, and a defendable position with nearby springs - were doubtless well appreciated by Rome from an early date.

Ptolemy's map of Ireland is remarkably accurate and may even show Howth Head (remember sea levels have changed since Roman times) and the Island of Lambay in the Irish Sea. It would only take a very few navigational errors to move Ireland northwards and rotate modern Scotland through 90 degrees as happened in Ptolemy's map.

The Romans possibly selected the site for their fortress of Deva in part because of its potential as a port for an assault on Ireland, which they knew as Hibernia. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions that Gnaeus Julius Agricola, while governor of Roman Britain (AD 78 - 84), entertained an exiled (and unnamed) Irish prince, thinking to use him as a pretext for a possible conquest of Ireland. At about the same time, Juvenal (Satires 2.159–160) specifically tells us, Roman "arms had been taken beyond the shores of Ireland" and there has been much debate as to what is actually meant by this comment.

Neither Agricola nor his successors ever conquered Ireland, but in recent years archaeology has challenged the belief that the Romans never set foot on the island. Roman and Romano-British artefacts have been found primarily in Leinster, notably a fortified site on the promontory of Drumanagh, fifteen miles north of Dublin - perhaps the name of the fortified promontory itself holds clues as to its Roman origin: Drumanagh has as a possible root (D)ruman, which could be a reference to Romans (however Gaelic "Droim Meánach" means "Ridge of Meanach", giving another explanation). Drumanagh has produced a number of artefacts of Roman origin, found during illegal metal detecting. These included coins dating to the reigns of Titus (74-81 CE), Trajan (98-117 CE) and Hadrian (117-138 CE), as well as Roman brooches and copper ingots. In addition, a group of burials on Lambay Island, just off the coast near Drumanagh, contained Roman brooches and decorative metalware of a style also found in Roman Britain from the late first century (this could be invasion or trade).

There may be some connection between the un-named prince and a semi-mythical Irish king. Túathal Techtmar ("the legitimate"), was the son of Fíachu Finnolach, and himself a High King of Ireland according to medieval Irish legend and historical tradition. He is said to be the ancestor of the Uí Néill (O'Neil) and Connachta (Connor) dynasties through his grandson "Conn of the Hundred Battles". Túathal is said to have been exiled from Ireland as a child, but to have returned, defeated the then king and waged extensive war. In one version his mother Eithne, daughter of the king of Alba (Scotland), who was pregnant, fled home to Alba, where she gave birth to Tuathal Techtmar. The Romans were known to use "restoration of an exile" as a pretext of invasion. For example, one reason given for the invasion of Britain in 43 CE was to reinstate Verica, the exiled king of the Atrebates.

Both Roman sites at Drumanagh and Lambay are close to where the semi-mythical Túathal is supposed to have landed. Some other archaeological discoveries inside Ireland, including Roman jewellery and coins at Tara, the midland ritual complex, and at Clogher, further support the possibility of a Roman invasion of Ireland. It has been suggested that the distribution of Roman remains in Ireland fits well with the places associated with Túathal's campaign. The traditional date of his return is 76-80 CE.

Speculating somewhat, it is notable the the unique "Elliptical Building" in Chester bears some resemblance to the ritual structures at Tara, and comes from roughly the same period as the supposed invasion by Agricola and the presence of the "prince", who may (possibly) have been Túathal, in Britain. The lead pipe from the elliptic building is dated to 79 CE and Tacitus (Chapter 24) says that in 82 CE Gnaeus Julius Agricola "crossed the sea and defeated people hitherto unknown to the Romans". While he does not specify which sea they crossed (many scholars think that Tacitus refers to the Clyde or the Forth), it should be noted that after this statement, Tacitus writes only about Ireland for the remainder of the chapter, which suggests that the people he was referring to were, in fact, the Irish. There is no evidence that Túathal was actually in Chester, but it does seem to have a contender for Gnaeus Julius Agricola's "capital" and there is the remarkable co-incidence of dates:

The Roman fortlet at Caer Cybi, Holyhead, which later became a religious house, would not have been the end of the road for monastic communications from Chester along the North Welsh coast but would have been on a link in the chain to the Celtic Church of Ireland.
  • 79 CE: Elliptical building lead pipe (stamped on it);
  • ~76-80 CE: Túathal returns to Ireland (traditional);
  • 82 CE: Agricola "crosses the sea" (Tacitus);

The Annals of the Four Masters gives the date of Túathal's exile as 56 CE, his return as 76 CE and his death as 106 CE. Geoffrey Keating's Foras Feasa ar Érinn broadly agrees, dating his exile to 55 CE, his return to 80 CE and his death to 100 CE. The Lebor Gabála Érenn places him a little later, synchronising his exile with the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81–96 CE), his return early in the reign of Hadrian (122–138 CE) and his death in the reign of Antoninus Pius (138–161 CE). Agricola was governor of Roman Britain from 78–84 CE.

In addition Tacitus mentions that Gnaeus Julius Agricola frequently said that Ireland could be conquered with "a single legion and a few auxiliary troops", which suggests the Romans expected some special advantage if they invaded Ireland. This could have been knowledge of local troop dispositions, geography and local rivalries, but could it also have been the presence on the Roman side of a credible claimant to the Kingship of Ireland. So could the Elliptical Building have been connected to this - a palace for a potential client king, with a design similar to the ritual site at Tara and a fountain that must have seemed magical at the time? A bauble to show Túathal the advantage of being a client of Rome?

Even if there was no invasion there was almost certainly trade, as the geographer Ptolemy (c. 90 – c. 168 CE) writing in the second century made a map of "Hibernia" with reasonably accurate data on rivers, mountains and people, thereby demonstrating some considerable knowledge of the island had been gained by that time. Tacitus states that Ireland’s "approaches and harbours are known from merchants who trade there". It is likely that the Irish exchanged items such foodstuffs, woollen garments, hides, slaves and even wolfhounds.

Caer Cybi


A unique Roman fortress. It is one of Europe's only three-walled Roman forts, the fourth side was protected by the sea and was probably used as a quay. The walls of the fort still stand to an impressive height - 4 metres tall - and are constructed in the distinctly Roman herring-bone style with courses of flat stone cementing the structure. The wall would originally have been topped with a parapet walk. Its date is unknown, but it is generally thought to be part of a late-4th-century scheme, associated with Segontium, which was used to defend the west coast against Irish Sea raiders. It is thought to have been "abandoned" in 393. In the 6th century, the fort was given to Saint Cybi, who used it to build a monastery.

The Church of St Cybi still stands on the site today, with a small detached chapel over Cybi's grave. There are the remains of three towers, one the North west, is mostly Roman origin and two others largely later reconstructions. The fort measured 246ft (75m) by 148ft (45m), the walls stood up to 13ft (4m) high and are 5ft (1.5m) thick. There were originally 4 towers, today there are 3, the largest is 26ft (7.9m) tall but most of this is a later rebuild. The walls are believed to have extended down to the sea and a further pair of drum towers. The fort is unique in Britain but follows the pattern of late Roman beachhead forts used to accomodate galleys and scout ships. Similar forts built under Valentinian are known along the Rhine and the Danube.

Irish Sea Culture

"Pelagius the Heretic" as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle. Pelagianism was "decisively" condemned (the history was written by the winning side) at the 418 Council of Carthage and is still regarded as heretical by the Catholic Church.

The religious influence of the late Roman Empire involved the conversion to Christianity of many Irish people in the century when the Western Roman Empire disappeared. Pelagius was active between about 390 and 418. He was said by his contemporaries, such as Augustine of Hippo, Prosper of Aquitaine, Marius Mercator, and Paul Orosius, to have been of Celtic British origin. Jerome possibly thought that Pelagius was Irish, suggesting that he was "stuffed with Irish porridge" (Scotorum pultibus praegravatus). The first reliable historical event in Irish history, recorded in the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, is the ordination by Pope Celestine I of Palladius as the first bishop to Irish Christians in 431 - which demonstrates that there were already Christians living in Ireland, before Palladius or Patrick. However, it may safely be concluded from the silence of Gildas that the British Church of the first half of the sixth century possessed no knowledge or tradition respecting the introduction of Christianity into Britain. Had such a tradition existed it is unlikely that Gildas would have remained silent about it.

The Roman, and therefore Saxon conception of ecclesiastical government was territorial and diocesan. The Celtic conception was tribal and monastic. In the British Isles in the 5th century, the earliest monastic communities in Ireland, Wales and Strathclyde followed a different, distinctly Celtic model. It seems clear that the first Celtic monasteries were merely settlements where the Christians lived together – priests and laity, men, women, and children alike – as a kind of religious clan. At a later period actual monasteries both of monks and nuns were formed.

The early monastic culture of Wales and that of some parts of Anglo-Saxon England were strongly connected with Ireland, to the extent that the style of the artwork from this period (c. 500–900 AD) is often referred to as "Hiberno-Saxon" or Insular. The term insular is sometimes used in a general sense for all of Britain and Ireland and sometimes for that which is due to a fusion of clear Irish and Saxon elements.

One major distinctive feature is interlace decoration, a particular example often given being the interlace decoration as found at Sutton Hoo, in East Anglia. This is now applied to decorating new types of objects mostly copied from the Mediterranean world, above all the codex or book. The large archipelago located in the north-west Britain, off the coast of Scotland among the Hebrides had for several centuries been colonized by an Irish people known as Dál Ríata who had brought with them their native Gaelic/Irish language. More recently, in the late sixth century it had become the home of a famous Irish ecclesiastic, Columba (Irish, Columcille), who established a monastery on the island of Iona, c. 570. By the time of the founder’s death Iona become a major monastery, the spiritual and intellectual center of the Irish kingdom of Dál Ríata. In the early seventh century Iona began to extend its influence to the Anglo-Saxon part of Britain. At this time it first established contacts with members of the ruling aristocracy of northern England (Northumbria) who at times took refuge there, and included Oswald Oswald's father was Æthelfrith who took part in the Battle of Chester. By the late sixth century Old Irish was being recorded in writing. It has been suggested that the alphabet first used for the writing of Old English came ready-made, not from Latin directly but from the modified Latin alphabet used by the Irish for writing their own language, Old Irish. The importance of Chester as a religious center when it was under Welsh control (around the time of Ecgbert: c.830) and as the supposed site of a synod mentioned by Bede (in 601) would have required information to be communicated along the North Welsh coastal route on or close to which there were various religious houses. Further evidence for cultural interaction between Ireland and Wales is found in legal terminology some of this has been shown to have originated in the period before the Celtic languages split up, because they are preserved both in Old Irish and in the Welsh legal texts.

As in all cases where the spread of a culture is being considered there are the extremes of wholesale movement of people, in the limiting case displacing or eradicating the original inhabitants or the spread of ideas which are adopted by the indigenous inhabitants of a new location. Often there is an intermediate case where changes (either in terms of migration or adoption) are largely limited to a ruling elite or a small class of technical specialists. The development of the Irish Sea culture provides examples of all of these processes.

Vikings and Ireland

Coin finds from the Chester mint indicate the extent of Irish Sea trade.

The Vikings (or Norsemen) began carrying out raids on Gaelic Ireland in the late eighth century, and over the following few decades they founded a number of settlements along the coast. Vikings first established themselves in Early Scandinavian Dublin around 840 when they built a fortified area, or longphort, there. During the tenth century, Viking Dublin developed into the Kingdom of Dublin — a thriving town and a large area of the surrounding countryside, whose rulers controlled extensive territories in the Irish Sea and, at one time, York.

According to some writers Gaelicised Scandinavians dominated the region of the Irish Sea until the Norman era of the 12th century. They were certainly involved in the foundation of long-lasting kingdoms, such as the those of Mann, Dublin, and Galloway, as well as taking control of the Norse colony at York, but the degree of "domination" is debatable and often coloured by the views of the historian or the folklore in which the "history" is recorded.

In 902 the Vikings were thrown out of Dublin for a relatively brief period. As recorded in the Annals of Ulster:

  • "The heathens were driven from Ireland, i.e. from the fortress of Áth Cliath, by Mael Finnia son of Flannacán with the men of Brega and by Cerball son of Muiricán, with the Laigin; and they abandoned a good number of their ships, and escaped half dead after they had been wounded and broken."

Many of these Vikings settled elsewhere, including one group which eventually settled in the Wirral, apparently with the agreement of Æthelflæd who was important in the development of Chester (see: Chester in 900). An Irish historical record known as "The Three Fragments" refers to a distinct group of settlers living among these Vikings as "Irishmen". Further evidence of this Irish migration to Wirral comes from the name of the village of Irby in Wirral, which means "settlement of the Irish", and St Bridget's church at West Kirby, which is known to have been founded by "Vikings from Ireland". Other nearby towns and villages with the Viking "by" suffix in their name include Frankby, Greasby and Pensby. A recently re-identified group of iron weapons in the antiquarian collections, including a sword, a deliberately-bent spear head, an axe and a shield boss, suggest the presence of at least one high-status pagan Viking grave at Meols.

Some historians have suggested that allowing the Vikings to settle in the Wirral was a strange decision. What may be relevant is that Æthelflæd's brother, Edward the Elder had other issues with the Vikings at the time. Becoming king was not straightforward for Edward upon the death of his father Alfred the Great. A cousin, Æthelwold, disputed the succession and seized the royal estates of Wimborne, symbolically important as the place where his father (Æthelred I) was buried, and Christchurch, both in Dorset. Edward brought an army to Dorset, but Æthelwold fled to Viking-controlled Northumbria, where he was accepted as king - although it is not clear whether he was accepted as "king of Northumbria" or simply recognised as having a claim to the kingship of Wessex. No explanation can be offered as to how he came to be on apparently friendly terms with the Northumbrians. In 901 or 902 Æthelwold sailed with a fleet to Essex, where he was also accepted as king (again it is not clear of what). The following year Æthelwold persuaded the East Anglian Danes (Vikings) to attack Edward's territory in Wessex and Mercia.

At about the same time that Edward the Elder was involved in the succession dispute that the Hiberno-Norse exile Ingimund sought to settle near Chester. Ingimund was a Viking who had been expelled from Ireland and had attempted to settle in north Wales where he came into immediate conflict with the Welsh. According to the Welsh Annals, Ingimund came to Anglesey and held "Maes Osmeliaun", whilst the Welsh vernacular chronicle reports that Ingimund held "Maes Ros Meilon". The site itself appears to have been located on the eastern edge of Anglesey, perhaps near Llanfaes (effectively the later site of Beaumaris) if the aforesaid place names are any clue. Another possibility is that Ingimund was settled near Llanbedrgoch, where evidence of farming, manufacturing, and trading has been excavated at a Viking-age settlement. There is reason to suspect that the Llanbedrgoch site formed an aristocratic power centre, and that it may have originated as an informal Viking trading centre just prior to Ingimund's attempted colonisation. The centre itself could have provided an important staging post between the Welsh and other trading centres in the Irish Sea region. The conflict with the Vikings is well-attested in the Welsh records but Ingimund's subsequent move to the Wirral is only based on fragmentary evidence, in Irish Annals. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as usual, hardly mentions anything that the Mercians did.

There is no reason to suppose that the events on the Wirral and in East Anglia were related, but any arrangements reached with Ingamund could have been affected by the threat from Danes on two fronts, and the close timing of these two events is often overlooked by historians. The later fortunes of Ingamund's people is not entirely certain: there was a sizeable Scandinavian "ghetto" in the southern quarter of Chester later on, centred on the church of St Olave’s (the Norwegian king, Olaf Haraldsson, martyred in 1030), and it would appear that many of them settled down in the city as merchants, possibly giving rise to the Gloverstone enclave.

The copper-alloy "Jellinge" Irish-Norse brooch found in excavations at Hunter Street in Chester. It is identical to one discovered in Dublin and was doubtless made from the same mould.

The Vikings return to Ireland

Some of the settlers in the Wirral may have returned to Dublin - in 917, Sitric Cáech and his kinsman Ragnall ua Ímair sailed separate fleets to Ireland where they won several battles against local kings. Sitric successfully recaptured Dublin and established himself as king. Over time, the settlers in Dublin became increasingly Gaelicized. They began to exhibit a great deal of Gaelic and Norse cultural syncretism, and are often referred to as Norse-Gaels.

In the 10th century the reoccupied fortress at Chester became the centre for attempts by English kings to dominate other rulers around the shores of the Irish Sea, notably in the carefully staged set-piece by which King Edgar demonstrated his overlordship by having them row him on the Dee from Edgar's Field in 973. Tribute in silver extracted from such rulers was turned into coin at Chester, whose mint was astonishingly prolific in the 10th century. In addition there may have been a local source of silver at the lead mine on Halkyn Mountain, although no convincing archaeological evidence in the form of trace-element analysis linking Chester-minted coins to North Welsh silver or archaeological evidence for silver production at Halkyn Mountain has yet appeared.

During the reign of Æthelstan (924-39) the mint of Chester was the most productive in England (Blunt 1974:98) and it continued to produce coins on a scale rivalling London until the 970's. In this period of high production, large quantities of silver coin minted at Chester occur in hoards across the Irish Sea region. The context of these hoards and their mixed content often suggests that they represent the proceeds of trade rather than plunder. This flow westwards "points strongly towards trading activity via Chester". It has been noted that Chester coins are the most numerous English issues in Irish tenth-century coin hoards, although coins as a whole only comprise a small proportion of the total silver in Ireland in the tenth century.

The reign of Æthelstan saw the Battle of Brunanburh which possibly took place on the Wirral in 937. The combatants are identified as the people of Wessex and Mercia on one side, led by King Æthelstan and his brother Edmund. The enemy is identified as Constantine king of the Scots, whose son was killed in the conflict and Olaf, king of Dublin. The battle is described as a heavy defeat for Æthelstan’s enemies. Olaf fled with a small band of followers and Constantine escaped home to Scotland while the departure of the ships of Northmen to Dublin from "Dingesmere" is also reported. Although the location of the battle has been the subject of much debate. Dublin and Chester were the wealthiest ports in the Irish Sea region in this period with a regular trade between them, taking advantage of a well-established sailing route along the north Welsh coast minimising the dangers of sailing across a large stretch of the Irish Sea. Irish Sea trade is also evidenced at Meols on the tip of the Wirral. An army meeting on the Wirral would have access to a secure and efficient maritime supply line from Dublin to meet their needs before battle and to provide for an onward campaign, had the invaders been successful.

By the mid 10th-century, Chester exported things like salt, for the preservation of fish and the treatment of hides, cloth, metalwork and slaves to Dublin. Dublin exported goods like furs, hides and fish to Chester. Marten fur, a precious commodity due to its associations with royalty, was a high-value item and prized export in Dublin and marten furs made there way into Chester in this time.

It is thought that the Dublin-Leinster army in the 1014 Battle of Clontarf may have included troops from the Duchy of Normandy. At this point Dublin was a major port. The traditional view is that the battle ended a war between the Irish and Vikings by which Brian Boru broke Viking power in Ireland. However revisionist historians see it as an Irish civil war in which Brian Boru's Munster and its allies defeated Leinster and Dublin, and that there were Vikings fighting on both sides.

Stone cross fragments on display at St Johns. A printed sign in the Church says: "These stone crosses are reputedly from the workshop established in the quarry of St Johns by Irish - Norse traders who settled in Chester during the 10th Century. Similar crosses thought to have been from the same workshop have been found over a wide area as shown on the map."

Cnut won the throne of England in 1016 in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in northwestern Europe. Given that it would be impractical for societies to spend this entire period engaged in warfare, trade between Ireland and Chester probably continued for much of it. Evidence from coin finds suggests that the Vikings may have been intermediaries in this trade and indicate an active mint at Chester: the Bryn Maelgwyn hoard contains coins minted by both Cnut and Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin Sihtric Olafsson: 203 Cnut silver pennies (minted at Chester) and just two Sihtric silver pennies. Society was complex enough for there to be issues over taxation, religious dialog and some record keeping.

Edward the Confessor returned to the English throne in 1042 and restored the rule of the House of Wessex after the period of Danish rule since Cnut conquered England in 1016. Edith of Wessex, sister of the later Harold II married Edward the Confessor in 1045: she was educated in several languages including Latin, French, Danish and Irish: the last being the the "lingua franca" of the Irish Sea region.

The "ring-cross head" design developed in the Celtic west and was first brought to England by Hiberno-Norse settlers in the early years of the tenth century. It remains arguable as to which of the various Celtic lands was the ultimate source of the English versions, though the western isles of Scotland have as much claim to have pioneered ring-headed forms as the Irish and Manx source. The Cheshire circle head group is geographically limited to the Wirral and Chester, with an outlier across the Mersey estuary at Walton on the Hill. Neston provides another certain example. While the precise shape is a north-west England invention, it may owe some of its details to Irish inspiration. The so-called "Cross of the Scriptures" at Clonmacnoise shows a closely comparable form in existence in Ireland in the ninth or early tenth century. St Barnabas Churchyard Cross at Bromborough is of a similar type and is associated with Æthelflæd.

By far the best collection of ring-head crosses is that at St Johns. Investigations into relative sea levels through time have documented significant variation in sea levels in the Irish Sea basin and its major river estuaries – including the Dee – in the post-Roman period, with a marked rise from the seventh century to a peak in the later pre-Conquest era and a fall again from the thirteenth century to the present day. Those falls in sea level contributed to gradual impacts on the viability of Chester as a sea port in later medieval times, to the development of successively more distant down-stream alternatives at Portpool, Neston and Parkgate, to the silting and reclamation of the Roodee, and to major engineering and expenditure on canalising the lower reaches of the river. The early medieval sea rise, coupled with the loss of the Roman bridge serving the main road from Chester south and standing at approximately the point where its medieval successor stands, opened up the possibility of riverside landing facilities of a sort typical of the age further upstream and above the Chester "gorge": at the strand below St John’s.

In a paper by Paul Everson and David Stocker, it was argued that Edgar’s voyage on the Dee in 973 can be read as a very public confirmation of his intention both to promote Chester’s market as a commercial hub for Irish Sea trade, to service that market with his reformed coinage, and to protect its alien traders as overlord of the city. Representing Chester’s early merchant community, the authors proposed that St John’s ‘exceptional’ collection of monuments offer confirmation that Edgar’s trade initiative was "so much more than a whimsical regatta".

Late Anglo-Saxon age Ireland

In 1051 a civil war almost broke out in England. Godwin marched on Gloucester where Leofric of Chester was leading the kings forces but a war was averted when it was agreed that the Witan would sort out the dispute. The earls of Chester (Leofric) and Northumbria (Siward) remained loyal to Edward the Confessor and the Witan eventually declared that Earl Godwin and all his sons had five days to leave England. Godwin and his sons, Tostig and Gyrth, went to Flanders. Harold went to Ireland and spent the winter with Dermont, king of Leinster. For more on this see: Harold's family.

St Olave has Viking origins. St. Olave's cannot have come into being before the mid 11th century, since the dedicatee, the Norwegian king Olaf II Haraldsson, was killed (at the Battle of Stiklestad) only in 1030. St Bridget's, however, could well be earlier. The dedication was especially likely to have been favoured by immigrants from Ireland and was used also at West Kirby, in the Scandinavian settlement on Wirral. Moreover, since the medieval parish of St. Bridget's at Chester was in two portions, separated by parts of other parishes, it was perhaps once larger and had been eroded by later foundations. St. Bridget's was probably the first to serve the Hiberno-Norse in Chester and dated from the period of their settlement in the city.

The following year Harold sailed from Dublin with nine ships, came ashore at Porlock in Somerset and plundered the neighbourhood. He then joined up with his father and brothers and sailed up the Thames. The King summoned the northern earls, and whilst Ralph (the timid) of Hereford and Odda responded, Leofric of Chester and Siward (of Northumbria) were noticeable by their absence. King Edward the Confessor was forced to seek terms.

Ælfgar, the son of Leofric, himself was (perhaps wrongly) banished around 1055, and also fled to Ireland, where, just like Harold, he also found forces to assist his return. The speed with which he is able to do so makes clear that strong political, and therefore trade, links between Ælfgar and those from whom he was able to draw support were already in place before his expulsion. Holinshead writes as follows:

  • About the same time K. Edward by euill counsell (I wot not vpon what occasion, but as it is thought without cause) banished Algar the sonne of earle Leofrike: wherevpon he got him into Ireland, and there prouiding 18 ships of rouers, returned, & landing in Wales, ioined himselfe with Griffin the king or prince of Wales, and did much hurt on the borders about Hereford, of which place Rafe was then earle, that was sonne vnto Goda the sister of K. Edward by hir first husband Gualter de Maunt. This earle assembling an armie, came forth to giue battell to the enimies, appointing the Englishmen contrarie to their manner to fight on horssebacke, but being readie (on the two & twentith of October) to giue the onset in a place not past two miles from Hereford, he with his Frenchmen and Normans fled, and so the rest were discomfited, whome the aduersaries pursued, and slue to the number of 500, beside such as were hurt and escaped with life. Griffin and Algar hauing obteined this victorie, entered into the towne of Hereford, set the minster on fire, slue seuen of the canons that stood to defend the doores or gates of the principall church, and finallie spoiled and burned the towne miserablie.

"Griffin" here is Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. The rather hopeless defender of Hereford is known to history as "Ralph the timid". He was actually a Norman: Ralph de Mantes, Edward the Confessor’s nephew by his sister Goda. Ralph’s Norman-style English cavalry forces were destroyed, with Ralph earning the insulting nomenclature of ‘Timid’ for running away with his Norman retainers and leaving his men to be slaughtered. Having seen Hereford trashed King Edward raised an army and placed Harold Godwinson in command of it. Once again all-out civil war was avoided. It seems highly unlikely that Ælfgar would have sailed to Wales unless he was moderately sure of being received peacefully. The ability to generate support from across both sides of the Irish Sea is an important component of Ælfgar’s narrative.

In late 1063 or early 1064, Tostig had Gamal son of Orm and Ulf son of Dolfin assassinated when Gamul visited him under safe conduct. Gamul may have been of Viking stock. There has actually been a suggestion that Gamul was a member of the same family of the Gamul's of Chester, who lived at Gamul House, opposite St Olave. Another death at the time was that of Gospatric. The latter assassination has been pinned on Queen Edith, Tostig’s sister, and it has been said that she ordered this killing in her brother’s interest.

Normans and Ireland

After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the Normans became aware of the role Ireland played in providing refuge and assistance to their enemies. Following the crushing defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings, three of Harold Godwinson’s adult sons by his common law wife – Godwin, Edmund and Magnus – sought refuge in Ireland at the court of the family’s old sponsor, the king of Laighin and his aristocratic kin. They may have been proceeded by Harold’s legal wife, Edith of Mercia, the possible if unproven mother of his infant son and likely heir, Harold (see: Harold's family). With Diarmaid’s support Harold's sons organised several unsuccessful seaborne expeditions from the Scandinavian-Irish towns of Dublin and Wexford to liberate England, raiding some distance into the south-west of the country in the summers of 1068 and 1069 to the great alarm of the new and still insecure Norman-French occupiers. The Normans also contemplated the conquest of Ireland. It is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that if William the Conqueror had lived for two more years (until 1089) "he would have conquered Ireland by his prudence and without any weapons". William's son, William II, is stated as having said:

  • "For the conquest of this land, I will gather all the ships of my kingdom, and will make of them a bridge to cross over".

Gruffudd ap Cynan (c. 1055 –1137), was King of Gwynedd from 1081 until his death in 1137. In the course of a long and eventful life, he became a key figure in Welsh resistance to Norman rule, and was remembered as King of all the Welsh and Prince of all the Welsh. Through his mother, Gruffudd had close family connections with the Norse settlement around Dublin. He was born on the family estate north of the Liffey at "Baile-Griffin" (modern-day Balgiffin) and he frequently used Ireland as a refuge and as a source of troops. He would even survive being imprisoned at Chester Castle by Hugh of Avranches for many years (some say ten, others 12, others 16):

Gruffydd ap Cynan escapes after MANY years in prision at Chester Castle - note guard having a kip. For someone who had been chained up for years he looks remarkably clean and tidy. At this stage in its history the castle would not have been the massive stone building shown.
  • ... put him in the gaol of Chester, the worst of prisons, with shackles upon him, for twelve years (History of Gruffudd ap Cynan)

He three times gained the throne of Gwynedd and then lost it again, before regaining it once more in 1099 and this time keeping power until his death. Gruffudd laid the foundations which were built upon by his son Owain Gwynedd and his great-grandson Llywelyn the Great.

The extension of the Anglo-Saxon burh system into the coastlands of the Irish Sea was arguably one of the most important events in the history of the Celtic West. The complex relations between the English, the Welsh and the Scandinavians (if indeed such simplistic 'national' terms can be used) are shown to have mediated social change, economic development and urbanism. The ruling elites around the Irish Sea evidently had close ties and at times would grant aid, especially refuge and military aid to exiles. The Fragmentary Irish Annal 429 begins in 907 and abruptly ends in 914 and concerns the Norwegians in Britain and their encounters with Æthelflæd. Like other alternative, non-canonical, sources, Æthelflæd’s agency is direct and active. At signs that the Danes were amassing in Chester:

  • “The Queen then gathered a large army about her from the adjoining regions, and filled the city of Chester with her troops.”

According to the Three Fragments, she directed fortresses against the Irish-Norwegian leader Ragnald, whom she met in battle in 918 where “her fame spread abroad in every direction.” The Queen “holds authority over all the Saxons” and she specifically requests Irish help in defeating the Danes at Chester.

Summary: Chester and Dublin before the 1170's

There are no surviving detailed records of early trade between Chester and Dublin, but there is evidence of the existence of strong cultural connections. These include some traces of Roman trade, coin evidence and other physical artifacts. Other cultural connections include the presence of Vikings and their artifacts in both Chester and Dublin and the links between the political elites in Mercia, North Wales and Dublin, especially when it comes to exiles. Irish annals record events associated with Chester, particularly those assocated with Æthelflæd. Cross manufacture in Chester is of a Celtic style. There is a flow of coinage from the Chester mint to Ireland and many of the moneyers at Chester seem to have Scandinavian names. Notably Domesday has Chester producing annual taxes of £45 in pounds of silver and 125 pine marten pelts, together with an additional income from the mint in the time of Edward the Confessor. The silver and the pelts may have been associated with the Irish trade.

Henry II

In the 1120s the historian Henry of Huntingdon regarded Chester's distinct attribute as being "near to the Irish" (not the Welsh). At the time, Gaelic Ireland was made up of several kingdoms, with a High King claiming lordship over most of the other kings. Although the earlier Norman kings have made vague comments about Ireland it was to be Henry II whould would first invade.

First, Henry secured the approval of the Pope. Laudabiliter was a bull issued in 1155 by Pope Adrian IV, the only Englishman to have served in that office. The bull is quite specific to Ireland:

  • "You have indeed indicated to us, dearly beloved son in Christ, that you wish to enter this island of Ireland, to make that people obedient to the laws, and to root out from there the weeds of vices, that you are willing to pay St. Peter the annual tax of one penny from each household, and to preserve the rights of the churches of that land intact and unimpaired."

Existence of the Papal bull giving the English the right to invade Ireland has been disputed by scholars over the centuries; no copy is extant but scholars cite the many references to it as early as the 13th century to support the validity of its existence. The bull purports to grant the right to the Angevin King Henry II (ruled 1154-1189) to invade and govern Ireland and to enforce the Gregorian Reforms on the semi-autonomous Christian Church in Ireland. Henry would do nothing about Ireland for the next 14 years.

In May 1169, Anglo-Norman mercenaries landed in Ireland at the request of Diarmait mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurragh - the great-grandson of Dermont, king of Leinster), the deposed King of Leinster, who sought their help in regaining his kingship. Diarmait had been an early supporter of Henry II, who sanctioned this military intervention. The mercenaries achieved a reconquest within weeks and raided neighbouring kingdoms. In return, Diarmait had sworn loyalty to Henry and promised land to the Normans. The Norman invasion was a watershed in Ireland's history, marking the beginning of more than 800 years of direct English and, later, British, conquest and colonialism in Ireland.

St Werburgh Dublin. The original church on this site was built in 1178, shortly after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the town. The 1719/59 building shown here still exists but has lost its spire.

The Norman takeover at Chester in 1069 apparently did not cause a major discontinuity in trading contacts. Conditions of trade in the Irish Sea changed only gradually, and the Hiberno-Norse towns of Ireland did not lose their commercial independence until after the Norman Conquest of Ireland in the 1170's. Two sources in particular refer to the port and trading activity at at Chester. William of Malmesbury, writing in the second quarter of the twelfth century, noted a deficit in the production of corn in the Chester area. Although there was no lack of beasts and fish, grain had to be imported from Ireland. Lucian the Monk echoed Malmesbury's assertion that there was trade in considerable bulk commodities with Ireland, Wales and England (meaning central and southern England). Meat (cattle and horses) and sheep were obtained Britonum (Wales), fish ex insula Hibernoram (Ireland) and corn ex provincia Anglorum.

In 1170, there were further Norman landings, led by the Earl of Pembroke, Richard "Strongbow" de Clare. The event is mentioned in the Annals of Chester for that year, together with the birth of Ranulf de Blondeville. They seized the important Norse-Irish towns of Dublin and Waterford, and Strongbow married Diarmait's daughter Aoífe. Diarmait died in May 1171 and Strongbow claimed Leinster, which Diarmait had promised him. Led by High King Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O'Conor), a coalition of most of the Irish kingdoms besieged Dublin, while Norman-held Waterford and Wexford were also attacked. However, the Normans managed to hold most of their territory.

The island of Ireland was itself claimed as an Ecclesiastical fief, via the forged, mid 8th century, Donation of Constantine, with the feudal Lordship of Ireland later leased to Henry II of England and his heirs, by Pope Alexander III's, 1171 grant, resulting in the presence and settlement of Irish traders and seamen in English and Welsh ports. The "donation" has a long history, but for present purposes it neglects to note that the Romans never actually conquered Ireland.

In October 1171, King Henry II landed with a large army to assert control over both the Anglo-Normans and the Irish. This intervention was supported by the Roman Catholic Church, who saw it as a means of ensuring Irish religious reform, and a source of taxes. Henry was in Dublin between November 1171 and February 1172. He resided in a tent where he received the submission of the Irish Kings. He also issued a charter which is the earliest document in the Dublin City Archives. This gave to the men of Bristol the right to live in the city of Dublin ‘ad inhabitanda’. The tiny parchment measures 121 mm x 165 mm and a fragment of the seal remains in green wax. The charter is written right through, leaving no room for additions – a measure taken to prevent fraud. The 1175 Treaty of Windsor acknowledged Henry as overlord of the conquered territory and Ruaidrí as overlord of the remainder of Ireland, with Ruaidrí also swearing fealty to Henry. The Treaty soon collapsed: Norman lords continued to invade Irish kingdoms and the Irish continued to attack the Normans. Despite the charter in favour of Bristol the bulk of its Irish trade was with Waterford, Cork, Youghal, Dungarvan, Wexford, Kinsale and New Ross. The Dublin–England trade was predominantly with Chester.


There were most likely secular canons at Downpatrick, the traditional burial place of St. Patrick, prior to c.1183 when John de Courcy (the Norman conqueror of Ulster) threw them out and brought in Benedictine monks from Chester: he stipulated, however, that the new cathedral priory should be free of any dependency on Chester. It is claimed that de Courcy miraculously found the bones of St Patrick, St Brigid and St Colmcille at Downpatrick. In the presence of the Papal Legate, Vivian, the relics were reburied inside the cathedral on 9 June 1196. This story of their discovery is thought to have been crafted by de Courcy for political reasons. Lewis' Topographical Dictionary provides the following additional information:

  • "De Courcy having espoused the claims of Prince Arthur, Duke of Brittany, assumed, in common with other English barons who had obtained extensive settlements in Ireland, an independent state, and renounced his allegiance to King John, who summoned him to appear and do homage. His mandate being treated with contempt, the provoked monarch, in 1203, invested De Lacy and his brother Walter with a commission to enter Ulster and reduce the revolted baron. De Lacy advanced with his troops to Down, where an engagement took place in which he was signally defeated and obliged to retreat with considerable loss of men. De Courcy, however, was ultimately obliged to acknowledge his submission and consent to do homage. A romantic description of the issue of this contest is related by several writers, according to whom De Courcy, after the termination of the battle, challenged De Lacy to single combat, which the latter declined on the plea that his commission, as the King's representative, forbade him to enter the lists against a rebellious subject, and subsequently proclaimed a reward for De Courcy's apprehension, which proving ineffectual, he then prevailed upon his servants by bribes and promises to betray their master. This act of perfidy was carried into execution whilst De Courcy was performing his devotions unarmed in the burial-ground of the cathedral: the assailants rushed upon him and slew some of his retinue; De Courcy seized a large wooden cross, with which, being a man of great prowess, he killed thirteen of them, but was overpowered by the rest and bound and led captive to De Lacy, who delivered him a prisoner to the king. In 1205, Hugh de Lacy was made Earl of Ulster, and for a while fixed his residence at the castle erected here by De Courcy."

Curiously the cult of St Werburgh was sufficiently strong in Chester for churches to be founded in her name elsewhere, not least in Dublin where the church of St Werburgh’s was established close to Dublin Castle around 1178 (Jonathan Swift was baptised there in 1667). The street name has been Gaelicised to "Sráid Bharbra": which actually sounds like "Werburgh", the Irish alphabet does not include 'w' and the 'gh' combination is not used. The Church of Ireland Primate – James Ussher was appointed to this church in 1607, and Edward Wetenhall, afterwards Bishop of Kilmore, author of the well-known Greek and Latin Grammars, was curate here. Swift's friend, Dr. Patrick Delany (1685–1768), was rector of the parish in 1730. Ussher would himself halt at Chester to visit Christopher Goodman (1520–1603), a sturdy Nonconformist, mistakingly reputed by some, on account of his book against Mary, Queen of Scots ("How superior Powers ought to be obeyed of their subjects, and wherein they may lawfully be by God's word disobeyed and resisted"), to have been the author of "The Monstrous Regiment of Women" and who was then on his death-bed. In his time he had refused to subscribe to the prayer-book and articles. For his recusancy Archbishop Parker had Goodman "beaten with three rods," and forbade him to preach. Goodman was involved in the banning of the Chester Mystery Plays.

King John

Had all gone according to plan, King John would not be known as one of the worst kings ever to sit on the English throne. Less than a decade into the English invasion of Ireland, in 1177, King Henry II looked to reorganise his newest acquisition. The leader of that invasion, Richard fitz Gilbert (Strongbow), had died the previous year and the conquest threatened to falter. A new leader was needed, and Henry used the opportunity to provide for his youngest son, John ‘Lackland’. At the Council of Oxford (1177), Henry dismissed William FitzAldelm as the Lord of Ireland and declared that the ten-year-old boy should be crowned king of Ireland. Part of the evidence for this is a short-lived issue of half-pennies struck in Dublin in 1179: this first issue featured a profile portrait of John with the legend IOHANNES (or a contracted form) on the obverse.

This decision was perhaps more about Angevin court politics than it was about the situation in Ireland, but it nevertheless began an association between John and Ireland that would span almost four decades. John had at the time three surviving older brothers, one of whom, Henry, had already been crowned junior king of England in 1170 to secure his succession there. The approval of Pope Alexander III was sought to have John crowned King of Ireland. Disagreements with first Alexander III and then his successor Pope Lucius III caused this to be delayed and instead John became only "Lord of Ireland".

The Annales Cestriencis confuses matters slightly as it does not mention the Council of Oxford in 1177, and states that John was first given the Lordship of Ireland in 1184, when he sent Philip of Worcester (c.1160–c.1218) to Ireland with a force of 40 knights:

  • "Also Henry [II.], k-ing of England, first gave to his son John the lordship of Ireland. Which John sent Philip of Worcester with a great retinue into Ireland for the purpose of undertaking the defence of Ireland."
An illustration from Gerald's work on Ireland. Gerald wrote that: "From an ancient and wicked custom, they always carry an axe in their hands instead of a staff, that they may be ready promptly to execute whatever iniquity their minds suggest". Gerald claimed that the Irish preferred axes to swords or bows because they could inflict a lethal wound more quickly.

Gerald of Wales was chosen to accompany John, in 1185, on his first expedition to Ireland (April-December 1185). This was the catalyst for Gerald's literary career; his work Topographia Hibernica (first circulated in manuscript in 1188, and revised at least four times) is an account of his journey to Ireland; Gerald always referred to it as his Topography, though "history" is the more accurate term. He followed it up, shortly afterwards, with an account of Henry's conquest of Ireland, the Expugnatio Hibernica. Both works were revised and added to several times before his death, and display a notable degree of Latin learning, as well as a great deal of prejudice against foreign people. Gerald was proud to be related to some of the Norman invaders of Ireland, such as his maternal uncle Robert FitzStephen and Raymond FitzGerald, and his influential account, which portrays the Irish as barbaric savages, gives important insight into Cambro-Norman views of Ireland and the history of the invasion.

The Annals of Chester give the following account for the year 1185:

  • mclxxxv Johannes sine terra filius Regis Henrici II. cum multa manu armatorum et navium multitudine apud Penbroch Wallie mare ingrediens Ebdomada pascali Hiberniam Rex coronandus petiit. Ceteri vero Anglie cc justicie et primores cum ejus (?) sociis apud Cestria iter navale arripiunt. Eodem anno interfectus Hugo de Lacy a quodam Hiberniense in Hibernia. Quo audito Henricus rex preparuit Johannem filium suum iterum mittere in Hibernia. Qui Johannes veniens Cestriam dum ventum ibi expectat, nuntiatur patri suo mors Galfridi fratris sui comitis de Britania. Qua audita Henricus rex revocare fecit Johannem filium suum et misit in Hiberniam Phillippum de Wigornia cum aliis quam paucis. (John Lackland, son of king Henry II., with a great band of armed men, and a multitude of ships, arrived by sea at Pembroke in Wales. On the Sunday after Easter he started for Ireland in order to be crowned king there. But two hundred other justices and nobles of England, with his [their ?] companions, commence their sea voyage to Ireland at Chester. The same year Hugh de Lacy was killed in Ireland by a certain Irishman. When king Henry heard of it, he prepared to send his son John again into Ireland. But when John had come to Chester, and was waiting for a [favourable] wind, the death of his brother Geoffrey, count of Brittany, is announced to his father; when Henry heard of this, he caused his son John to be recalled, and sent Philip of Worcester with a very few others to Ireland.)

John was also accompanied to Ireland by Gilbert Pipard, the former guardian of Ranulf de Blondeville during the minority of the latter. From the moment he set foot in Ireland in 1185, the seventeen-year-old John displayed a self-assured arrogance towards his intended subjects. Even Gerald understood the need for discretion in face-to-face dealings, and chastised John for his treatment of the previously loyal Irish kings who came to render him service. Gerald claims that John and his companions mocked the Irishmen’s "outlandish" dress and pulled their unfashionably long beards. True or not, the story is at least in keeping with the disregard for property rights, loyalty and diplomacy that John showed when dealing with the Irish. The would-be king alienated many of the island’s resident élites (Irish and English).

On his return John complained bitterly to Henry II that Hugh de Lacy the governor of Ireland, would not permit the Irish to pay tribute. In 1186 Hugh de Lacy was killed by Gilla-Gan-Mathiar O'Maidhaigh, while he was supervising the construction of a Motte castle at Durrow. Plans were made to send John over to Ireland to take possession of his lands as the new Pope Urban III (1185-87) apparently approved. However, the death of his brother, Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany, in France cancelled these plans while John was waiting at Chester and John did not return to Ireland until his second expedition in 1210. A golden crown set with peacock feathers reportedly arrived from Rome the following year — John had his belated papal approval

Norman Decline

In 1201 King John gave notification of his confirmation to the men of Chester of liberties in Ireland, granted by King Henry II and confirmed by the present King whilst count of Mortain (in 1192). He followed this up by a Charter of King to the Citizens of Chester in which he styles himself "King of England and Lord of Ireland" and:

Norman Ireland in 1300, when the Normans held the maximum extent of their control. Trade with Chester at this point would have been trade with the Norman Irish.
  • "requests all Justices, Constables, Bailiffs and faithful people in the whole of Ireland to grant the citizens of Chester liberty to trade in Ireland as in the time of our Father King Henry II"

Furthermore John ordered that should the Justicar of Ireland take any of the goods he should pay a resonable market price for them. Undoubtedly, the traders of Chester paid for this royal protection. The intermediaries between the burgesses and the kings would have been the Earls of Chester. Henry II, in 1171 had granted permission to the Burgesses (citizens) of Chester to buy and sell at Dublin:

  • "having and observing the same customs which they observed in the time of King Henry my grandfather."

Thus, there had been some form of official sanction of trade between Chester and Dublin in place since the reigh of Henry I (1100-35). Records of several charters mention trade between Chester and Durham, and some of these (such as that of 1160), if not all, may confuse the latin "Diuelina" (Dublin) with "Dunelina" (Durham). There are also suggestions that Ranulf de Blondeville travelled to Ireland but these are probably legendary and no historical basis can be found. Economic exploitation generated population movement on a spectacular scale. The names of more than a thousand migrants bearing names suggesting origin in England, Wales, and France are recorded as citizens of Dublin c. 1200.

The Norman settlers in Ireland later became known as Norman Irish or Hiberno-Normans. They originated mainly among Cambro-Norman families in Wales and Anglo-Normans from England. During the High Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages the Hiberno-Normans constituted a feudal aristocracy and merchant oligarchy, known as the Lordship of Ireland. In Ireland, the Normans were also closely associated with the Gregorian Reform of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The military power of the crown in Ireland was greatly weakened by the Hundred Years War (1337–1453).

The Black Death arrived in Ireland in 1348. Because most of the English and Norman inhabitants of Ireland lived in towns and villages, the plague hit them far harder than it did the native Irish, who lived in more dispersed rural settlements. After it had passed, Gaelic Irish language and customs came to dominate the country again. The English-controlled territory shrank to a fortified area around Dublin (the Pale), whose rulers had little real authority outside (beyond the Pale). By the end of the 15th century, central English authority in Ireland had all but disappeared. England's attentions were further diverted by the Wars of the Roses (1455–85).

The Battle of Piltown took place near Piltown, County Kilkenny in 1462 as part of the Wars of the Roses. It was fought between the supporters of the two leading Irish magnates Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Desmond, head of the government in Dublin and a committed Yorkist, and John Butler, 6th Earl of Ormond who backed the Lancastrian cause. It ended in decisive victory for Desmond and his Yorkists, with Ormond's army suffering more than a thousand casualties. This effectively ended Lancastrian hopes in Ireland and bolstered FitzGerald control for a further half-century. The Ormonds departed into exile, although they were later pardoned by Edward IV. It was the only major battle to be fought in the Lordship of Ireland during the Wars of the Roses. It is also part of the long-running feud between the FitzGerald dynasty and the Butler dynasty. The early 15th century had seen some trade through Chester of bowyers from Yorkshire, at least one of whom became a freeman of Chester: later they were superseded by merchants from Halifax, Pontefract, and Bradford, exporting cloth from the West Riding and returning with Irish furs. Until the later 15th century the English city with which Chester was most strongly linked was Coventry. Its merchants regularly passed through Chester en route for Ireland, taking with them cloth, dyestuffs, and occasionally the sweet wines of the Mediterranean, and perhaps returning with hides. By the later 15th century Irishmen were prominent in Chester's guild merchant; at least 6 of the 17 men entering the guild in 1474 came from Dublin and a seventh from Drogheda. Others opted for citizenship. Robert Nottervill, mayor of Chester in 1478-9, had apparently twice served as mayor of Drogheda. Not all Irish immigrants were of high status, and in the early 15th century they included male and female labourers, and women who turned to keeping brothels in Chester. Some of the brothels were in Watergate Street. Agnes Irish and Emma Trim were fined for keeping brothels there in 1463, as was Elizabeth Ireland in 1476. Thirty years later Katherine Irishwoman of Greyfriars was accused of brothel keeping.

By 1500 Irish and coastal trade accounted for over 75 per cent of all inward sailings to Chester, rising to 95 per cent in 1548-9. There was an active re-export trade between Chester and Ireland in both directions, suggesting that Irish merchants picked up what they could as return cargoes, and were perhaps more concerned with selling in Chester than with buying. Some traditional commodities had disappeared from Anglo-Irish trade. Cheshire salt was not exported via Chester after 1450 and had been replaced by salt from the bay of Bourgneuf carried in Breton and Gascon ships. Irish corn imports faded after a ban in 1472. Most cargoes were a mixture of cloth, fish, hides and skins, linen (both cloth and yarn), wool (fells, flocks, and yarn), honey, tallow, wax, and occasional reexports such as silk. The trade was concentrated in the Pale, and not with wealthier Waterford, Cork, and Kinsale.

Since the Normans had arrived in Ireland the power and influence of the English crown in Ireland had fluctuated but at no time could it have been said to have exerted total control. Such a situation was however to witness a significant change with the succession of the Tudor dynasty to the throne of England. This new approach was to be based on the need to enlarge the power and influence of the crown throughout Ireland by means of a powerful and centrally-controlled administration. Although at times various methods were to be adopted to achieve such an objective there remained throughout a determination that in the future Ireland would be subject to strong government under the crown. The Tudor reconquest of Ireland took place during the 16th century. Irish salmon continued to find a market in Chester and over 5 tons and 260 butts was imported in 1543-4.

Tudor and Stuart Trade

The Dee coastline near Little Neston. The "Old Quay" existed from the 1540's but fell into disuse. Little Neston Quay was the first local coal-quay in the 1760's. Denhall Quay was built in 1781.

Shotwick, being one of the nearest anchorages to Chester became a busy little port. It has been suggested that Henry II left there for Ireland, but there is no primary source for this and he seems to have sailed from Milton Haven. During the reign of Henry VI (1422-71) a quay may have built there and the "creek" was in use as a landing, although possibly only for smuggling. Silting eventually reduced the depth of the channel at Shotwick and shipping moved along the coast to the deeper waters of Burton Point and Denhall. Burton Church is dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of mariners and at Denhall in Ness was the ancient Hospital of St. Andrew. The hospital, for the use of poor travellers from Ireland and other poor or shipwrecked men is first mentioned c.1234.

As long as the Dee remained navigable, Ireland was Chester's chief overseas trading partner, and as such the main source of Chester merchants' prosperity in the later Middle Ages and the 16th century. Although the early 16th century overseas trade at Chester with Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Brittany expanded, only merchants with a sizeable turnover could carry the heavy costs which arose from carriage from anchorages down the River Dee estuary and from high customs duties. The share of the port's trade controlled by Cestrians fluctuated. Dubliners, probably with some Norman or Anglo-Norman ancestry at times dominated the Irish Sea trade, and there was strong competition for the rest of the overseas trade from English, Welsh, and Continental merchants. The involvement of the city's own leading merchants appears to have ceased between the 1460s and the 1490s. Thereafter, however, their share increased until in the 1510s they were dominant. Such merchants, generally aldermen or common councillors, were engaged mainly in the Spanish trade but also maintained an interest in the Irish and coastal trade. In 1538-42, during Chester's trading zenith, 40-45 per cent of traders were Chester freemen. Most were probably only occasionally involved, and between 1500 and 1550 there were forty or so significant Chester merchants who shipped through the port. Their trade was predominantly in importing iron and wine and exporting hides and cloth, but few were specialists.

In the mid 16th century, while Chester exported more cloth to the Continent than Liverpool did, Liverpool had overtaken Chester in the Anglo-Irish trade. Liverpool's success was due in part to its location closer to the textile centres in Lancashire and in part to Chester's reluctance to adapt to market forces. No exemptions from Chester's local customs were allowed, except in a reciprocal agreement with Wexford. While Chester freemen made a single payment of 4d. a vessel, outsiders had to pay on every major item imported and exported. Dubliners claimed the lower dues payable at Liverpool as a major attraction in 1533, and in 1550 the mayor of Dublin complained to his counterpart in Chester that increases in customs dues encouraged merchants to sail elsewhere. However in 1569, even Liverpool was still ‘a creek port within the Port of Chester’ in legal terms, with a fleet of only 12 ships. Over half a century later, during the reign of Charles I (1625-49) £100 ship money was demanded from Chester, and willingly paid, but only £15 from Liverpool.

In 1541 the Chester corporation adopted a plan to build a new harbour some 10 miles down the Dee estuary at Lightfoot's Pool in Little Neston, perched on a sandstone outcrop jutting out to sea, and Henry VIII ordered 200 trees to be delivered to the mayor for that purpose. The name "Neston" is of Viking origin, deriving from the Old Norse Nes-tún, meaning 'farmstead at/near the promontory'. In 1548, in response to a petition from the city for aid with the work, the orders were repeated and augmented by a grant of £40 for seven years. Despite a further appeal for a royal grant in 1551, the city was forced to raise funds locally; between 1555 and 1560 voluntary rates and special assessments were imposed on the guilds, parishes, and citizens, and special payments were exacted from members of the corporation. Work was evidently well under way by 1565, when a salaried overseer was appointed. In 1566, however, the "great pier of stone" which formed the main feature of the haven was largely overthrown in a gale. To repair the damage a further special assessment was made in 1568 on the citizens and the guilds of Chester, and councilmen were ordered to oversee the work at their own cost. The New Haven, otherwise known as Neston Quay or New Quay, eventually comprised an anchorage protected by a stone pier. The project, which was probably never completed, remained a constant burden on Chester's finances throughout the later 16th century, despite appeals to the Crown for grants out of customs revenue in 1576 and 1589. Its repair was aided by the Ironmongers' company in 1571, and was the subject of further orders by the Assembly in 1576, 1587, and 1598. The city's last recorded expenditure upon it was in 1604. By 1743 the New Quay had become known as the "Old Quay". When the River Dee was canalized with the opening of the New Cut in 1737, another New Quay (which later became Connah’s Quay) was formed at its outer end. The Old Quay at Neston was abandoned after 1704 and in 1799 its stone was bought by Sir Thomas Mostyn, and some of the stone blocks were reputedly used to build the sea wall at Parkgate.

Chester's links with Ireland at the time are preserved in the story of the "Blue Posts", which was an inn located in Bridge Street. Hughes (and many others) tell the following story:

Legend of the Blue Posts Inn, Chester, 1558 by Martha Hodkinson (1864) - here is Elizabeth Mottershead doing her trick with the cards
  • "A little way down this Row was an ancient tavern called the Blue Posts supposed to be the identical house now occupied by Mr Brittain woollen draper. In this house a curious incident is stated to have occurred in 1558 which tradition has handed down to us in the following terms. It appears that Dr Henry Cole, Dean of St Paul's, was charged by Queen Mary with a commission to the council of Ireland which had for its object the persecution of the Irish protestants. The doctor stopped one night here on his way to Dublin and put up at the Blue Posts then kept by a Mrs Mottershead. In this house he was visited by the mayor to whom in the course of conversation he related his errand in confirmation of which he took from his cloak bag a leather box exclaiming in a tone of exultation: "Here is what will lash the heretics of Ireland!". This announcement was caught by the landlady who had a brother in Dublin and while the commissioner was escorting his worship down stairs, the good woman prompted by an affectionate regard for the safety of her brother opened the box took out the commission and placed in lieu thereof a pack of cards with the knave of clubs uppermost. This the doctor carefully packed up without suspecting the transformation nor was the deception discovered till his arrival in the presence of the lord deputy and privy council at the castle of Dublin. The surprise of the whole assembly on opening the supposed commission may be more easily imagined than described. The doctor in short was immediately sent back for a more satisfactory authority but before he could return to Ireland Queen Mary had breathed her last. It should be added that the ingenuity and affectionate zeal of the landlady were rewarded by Elizabeth with a pension of £40 a year."

Mary died 17 November 1558, which allows the story to be roughly dated. Another writer in "The Old Inns of Old England" states that:

  • "The former "Blue Posts" .. was long since refronted in respectable, but dull, red brick, and is now, or was recently, a boot-shop. But although no hint of its former self is given to the passer-by, those who venture to make a request, are shown a fine upstairs room, with an elaborately pargeted ceiling, still known as the "Card Room".

There does seem to have been some special relevance assigned to the Jack of Clubs, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I there were reports of the Jack of Clubs being left hanging in desecrated churches. There is also a minor mystery in that the card is first mentioned in the French literature only from 1557 and not mentioned in English works on cards until 1709 when it was described as being "much used in gambling games" and was frequently a "wild card". The most likely location of the "Blue Posts" is given in July 1863, when the Cheshire Observer referred to "The Rising Sun", stating that it was formerly the venerable Blue Posts Inn and reciting the legend. According to some accounts the Rising Sun was located at 8 Bridge Street Row, although there is an early map of Chester which has it placed on the opposite side of the street. While Henry Cole is a known historical character the veracity of his misadventure in Chester remains unclear.


Chester's political importance to the English Crown from the 1590s into the early 18th century arose because it was the main staging post on the route between the two capital cities: about 185 miles from London by road (see: Road Transport) and 150 from Dublin by sea (see: Portpool). However, one of the main difficulties of the last years of the rule of Queen Elizabeth was the war in Ireland which broke out in 1579. The crisis point of the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland came when the English authorities tried to extend their authority over Ulster and Aodh Mór Ó Néill, the most powerful Irish lord in Ireland. Though initially appearing to support the crown, Ó Néill engaged in a proxy war in Fermanagh and northern Connacht, by sending troops to aid Aodh Mag Uidhir lord of Fermanagh. This distracted the crown with military campaigns in the west while Tyrone consolidated his power in Ulster. Ó Néill openly broke with the crown in February 1595 when his forces took and destroyed the Blackwater Fort on the Armagh-Tyrone border. Later named the Nine Years War, Ó Néill focused his action in Ulster and along its borders, until Spanish promises of aid in 1596 led him to spread the conflict to the rest of Ireland.

Chester was the main port used for sending English troops levied in other parts of the country, who passed through the city frequently and in growing numbers. The mayor and other officials were often fully occupied with receiving them and arranging quarters, food, and money. Ships were requisitioned and provisioned, and supplies of food, drink, stores, and ammunition were sent to Ireland. The repeated demands strained local markets, especially during the shortages of the later 1590s: prices rose, ships' masters demanded large payments, disaffected men deserted in droves and were rarely captured, weapons were often found to be defective, moneys were embezzled, profiteering was rife, and Chester earned a reputation as a "robber's cave". Disorderly conduct was frequent, especially when troops were delayed by bad weather or lack of ships. To contain it, in 1594 the mayor erected a gibbet at the High Cross.

The eventual fate of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. He featured in the Chester Pageant 1937.

With the Irish victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford, the collapse of the Munster Plantation, followed by the dismal vice-royalty of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, the power of the Crown in Ireland came close to collapse. In October 1601 Spanish forces landed in Ireland. During the two years from early 1600 many reinforcements passed through Chester, the mayor received a stream of orders from the privy council, and there were further problems of supply and unruly behaviour.

King James

After the Spanish War and with the ascension of James I eight merchants controlled over fifty percent of the overall trade at Chester. The eight included the surviving Aldersleys and the Gamulls. In the early seventeenth century Chester’s population within the city walls numbered around 5,000. The local economy revolved around the leather industry, whose craftsmen comprised approximately 23 per cent of the freemen (see: Tanning). Most trade was with Ireland, particularly Dublin, which supplied considerable quantities of hides. Concessions to merchants who were not freemen were rare, but in 1607 non-free importers of Irish yarn were permitted to sell it without restriction in an attempt to divert them from Liverpool. Chester's coastal trade continued, but Ireland remained the city's main commercial outlet. Coal exports and livestock imports had little direct effect on the city: both were shipped at anchorages in the estuary, mainly by Irish merchants in vessels not owned locally.

Chester's cloth trade was at a low ebb in the first decade or so of the 17th century, but it improved during the 1620s and certainly expanded considerably in the 1630s, particularly from about 1632. The modest nature of the trade and its connection with Ireland (which seems to have increased its cloth imports in these years) rather than with France and southern Europe, undoubtedly enabled Chester to avoid the worst disasters of the middle and later 1620s which particularly affected most of the other provincial ports. The fluctuations of Chester's cloth trade in such years as 1621, 1625 and 1628-9 do not bear comparison with the extreme slump which other provincial ports suffered. Some of these had not recovered by the outbreak of the Civil War.

Civil War

War in Ireland began again with the Irish Rebellion of 1641, when Irish Catholics rebelled against English Protestant rule. When news of the insurrection reached King Charles I, he and the English Parliament promised to send troops. It led to the 1641–1652 Irish Confederate Wars, part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, with up to 20% of the Irish population becoming casualties. The Confederation eventually sided with the Royalists in return for the promise of self-government and full rights for Catholics after the war. On 14 June 1645, Charles's main army was decisively beaten at the Battle of Naseby by the New Model Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax. The King then withdrew to Hereford, hoping for more reinforcements from Wales and Ireland.

Map showing Parkgate c1900. "Birhouse" was probably located near the slip marked at the upper left, whereas the "Old Quay" is shown in the bottom right corner of the map.

During the early part of the Civil War Chester was in Royalist hands and was beseiged to an increasing extent. It is often said that Charles wished to keep Chester open as a port during the Civil War so that he could land troops from Ireland. The Confederates, in the context of the English Civil War, were divided over whether to send military help. Ultimately, they never sent troops to England save for one instance, but did send an expedition to help the Scottish Royalists, sparking the Scottish Civil War. Whether landing Royalist troops from Ireland at Chester ever made any military sense in the larger-scale conduct of the war is doubtful.

The Nantwich Campaign

The exception was the Irish Royalist campaign of November 1643 - January 1644.

Throughout the period between 1642 and 1646 there was a close connexion between the privy council in Dublin and the royalist leaders in Cheshire, North Wales and Lancashire. With misplaced but unquenchable optimism the latter looked to Ireland for reinforcements and supplies while the council feared they would be cut off completely from England and the king's headquarters if the coast opposite should succumb to parliament. For his own part, Charles I dreamed of raising a vast Catholic army in Ireland for his salvation in England and regarded North Wales and Cheshire as its potential area of assembly. His more immediate concern was to transfer to England of those troops who had been on active service in Ireland ever since the rising in Ulster in October 1641. The first problem was that owing to the parliamentary blockade Dublin had ceased to function as a commercial port and ships could not be had there at any price, and what ships could be found were enough that the troops could only be brought accross in three trips. The troops in Ireland were also owed pay. By 11 November the first wave, consisting of 2,000 foot under the command of Sir Michael Ernie, was safely embarked and only waiting for a fair wind. Horse, artillery and more foot, were standing by to follow when the transports had returned. The weather must have been slow to change, for it was not until 16 November that the convoy weighed anchor. Various proposals had been put forward for a suitable landing-place. The king had recommended Chester. Ormond apparently originally favoured somewhere in Wirral. In the event, having lain at anchor for two days waiting for a storm to drop, the convoy hove-to at Mostyn in Flint on 20 November. The town and castle had only just surrendered to Brereton, the parliamentary commander and but for the Irish army he could have occupied much of North Wales.

At first, while helping to circulate the rumour that the enemy were Irish papists (which they were not), Brereton tried to seduce them by sending a letter to Ernie, when he was still aboard ship, in which he praised the army's valour in Ireland, admitted the troops had been shabbily rewarded for their arduous service and promised that they would be given their full arrears of pay if they would only declare for parliament. Ernie stiffly replied that he could not enter into discussion with one who was in rebellion against the king. Upon this, Brereton quickly fell back across the Dee and issued warrants for all men between the ages of 16 and 60 to take to arms and repulse "the bloody Irish rebels" who were invading their country. The 2000 troops from Ireland, on the 29th November, came:

  • "in very evill eqipage to Chester, and looked as if they had been used hardship, not having either money, hose or shoes." and were "faint, weary and out of clothing"

About 6th December the second contingent from Ireland, consisting of 1,200 foot and 140 horse, also reported for duty. They had landed at Neston. remained in Chester until the 12th December when they marched out as a column of 4,000 foot supported by 1,000 cavalry under Lord Byron. As the army advanced a parliamentary detachment of cavalry charged the forward elements near Barbridge and inflicted considerable damage. Its commander, Sergeant-major Lothian, was captured, but the failure of Byron's cavalry to protect the foot-soldiers was highly significant in view of what was to come. On 22 December the army crossed the river Weaver and made for Northwich in order to cut communications between Nantwich and Manchester.

Christmas Day saw a massacre at Barthomley. The Royalist troops brought in from Ireland had been fighting a far less civilised war than that fought in Cheshire, where the same families often found themselves on different sides of the conflict. The tactics of the "Irish" units were far more violent. A Royalist raiding party from the Chester garrison led by Major Connaught entered the village of Barthomley. A number of the villagers fled to the church for shelter and when the royalist troops entered the church, they retreated to the steeple. The royalists started a fire with the intention of smoking them out and when the party in the steeple called for quarter, Connaught granted it:

  • "...But when hee had theim in his power, hee caused theim all to be stripped starke Naked; And moste barbarouslie & contr[ar]y to the Lawes of Armes, murthered, stabbed and cutt the Throates of xii of theim;...& wounded all the reste, leavinge many of theim for Dead...." (Malbon)

Lord Byron, the royalist commander at Chester was unrepentant saying in a letter to the Marquis of Newcastle:

  • "...The Rebels had possessed themselves of a Church at Bartumley, but wee presently beat them forth of it, and put them all to the sword; which I finde to be the best way to proceed with these kind of people, for mercy to them is cruelty..."

In 1654 Connaught was tried for the murder of one of the villagers, John Fowler. The jury heard that Connaught, with a battleaxe (valued at 6d) in his right hand, had caught hold of Fowler and struck him on the left side of his head, inflicting a wound which, though only one inch long and one inch deep, was instantly fatal. The jurors found the case proved, Connaught offered nothing in mitigation and John Bradshaw, who five years before had presided over the king’s trial, passed sentence of death. Connaught was hanged at Boughton, on the outskirts of Chester, on the aftemoon of Tuesday 17 October 1654. According to the diarist, Henry Newcome, he went to the scaffold protesting his innocence.

Nantwich was besieged through January 1644 and the Battle of Nantwich took place on the 25th January. It was a very confused fight but the Parliamentarians were victorious. Byron retreated to Chester with the Royalist cavalry. The defeat at Nantwich thwarted King Charles's plan to create a field army in the northwest based on regiments returned from Ireland. Using the troops from Ireland in this manner was almost certainly a waste.


Robert Morden's map from William Camden’s “Britannia”. Revised by Edmund Gibson, D.D. Published 1753. This shows Hilbre as a single island, and indicates the cross which stood there. The accuracy of the map is made doubtful by its inclusion of a non-existent river flowing across the Wirral through the Backford Gap - clearly this is a copy of an earlier somewhat inaccurate map. The Survey of Captain Greenville Collins, published in 1689, correctly shows Hilbre Island as three small, smaller and tiny islands. However the map does show the New Quay at Neston.

According to the "Calendar of State Papers Relating to Ireland: Adventurers for Land, 1642–1659", in November 1644, William Harris and partners were paid £833, 16 shillings and 11 pence to take Cheshire Cheese to Royalist forces in Ireland – the first shipment of the Civil Wars to have had a named source. Previous shipments had just been called "cheese". In 1646–1650, there were cheese shipments from Chester and Liverpool to Dublin and Derry, which were presumably of Cheshire cheese. It is recorded that the ship James (Robert Mills master) arrived in London with 20 tons of cheese on 21 October 1650 (PRO, E190/45/6, London coastal for 1650) and often said that this is the beginning of the success of this type of cheese, but the military records show the earlier use in Ireland.

In August 1649, a large English Parliamentarian army, led by Oliver Cromwell, invaded Ireland. It besieged and captured many towns from the Confederate–Royalist alliance. Cromwell's army massacred many soldiers and civilians after storming the towns of Drogheda and Wexford. The Confederate capital Kilkenny was captured in March 1650, and the Confederate–Royalist alliance was eventually defeated with the capture of Galway in May 1652. An officer claimed in 1650:

  • "Nothing is more certain than this, that in the late wars both Scotland and Ireland were conquered by timely provisions of Cheshire cheese and biscuit." (Swinburne, Dancing with Mermaids, 317, citing C. H. Firth 1992, Cromwell's Army, 3rd edition, 223.)

Confederates continued a guerrilla campaign until April 1653. This saw widespread killing of civilians and destruction of foodstuffs by the English army, who also brought an outbreak of bubonic plague. Some Hiberno-Normans assimilated into the new English Protestant elite, as the Anglo-Irish.

The city's overseas trade recovered only very slowly from the war. The Continental trade in cereal exports and wine imports was beginning to improve by 1648- 9, but the Irish trade remained at a low ebb: small quantities of cloth and larger cargoes of wool were exported; hides, tallow, and herring were imported, but the livestock trade had yet to revive. The Irish trade was increasingly conducted by Irish merchants from the smaller ports of the Dee estuary, and its effects on the city's fortunes therefore remained limited. Hostilities in Ireland and Scotland involved the city authorities in organizing the passage of several thousand troops through the port in 1646-7. Between 1648 and 1650 the city's officers were repeatedly asked to watch for royalists travelling between England and Ireland and to arrange for the dispatch of troops, money, guns, ammunition, clothing, and foodstuffs.

The expansion of Chester's Irish trade from the 1650s to the early 1670s was followed after 1680 by five slack decades during which the number of sailings fell below those from Liverpool and Whitehaven (Cumb.). Even then, however, Ireland was much the city's most important overseas trading partner: in the 1710s, for example, of 150-200 ships cleared for overseas voyages each year only 20-30 were for other destinations. Exports from Chester were led by Welsh coal, shipped largely in Chester vessels, which amounted in 1699, for example, to as much as 7,800 chaldrons. Other exports included limited quantities of lead and iron, clothing, woollen cloth from Yorkshire and Lancashire (the latter 'cottons'), cheese and other foodstuffs, hops, and supplies for the English military expeditions. The main import from Ireland was at first livestock. Government legislation began to interfere with the trade in the earlier 1660s by imposing duties on imported live cattle, followed in 1667 by a total ban. Smuggling flourished, and when the Act temporarily lapsed in 1679 the trade resumed on a large scale: in 1680 more than 12,700 head of cattle and over 41,000 sheep were imported. The ban was reimposed in 1681, forcing Chester's leather industry into a greater dependence on imported Irish skins and hides, which numbered 3,000 or more a year c. 1705 but became fewer in the later 1710s and did not grow again until the 1750s.


Roger Whitley fought through the Civil War for Charles I, was exiled, and became an MP after the Restoration of Charles II, being rewarded with the grant of the wardenship of St John's Hospital and later the valuable office of Deputy Postmaster-General. Whitley was elected a Member (for the north-east Welsh borough constituency of Flint) in the Convention Parliament of 1660. He represented Flint from 1660 until 1681, when he moved to Chester. He was rumoured to be embroiled in many plots, including the schemes of the Duke of Monmouth. He served as Whig MP for Chester 1681-1685 (when he was disenfranchised) and, after the death of Charles II, recovered his fortunes and served as Chester MP, briefly, from 1689-1690. The early 1690's saw an at times violent battle between the Whig's (led by Whitley) and the Tory's (led by the Grosvenors) for power in Chester. Whitley returned to represent Chester in 1695 (having accepted a deal with the Grosvenor faction), until his death two years later. From 1664 until 1697 Roger Whitley kept a dairy which still survives and which details his day to day activities. As well as his country seat at Peel Hall he also keeps a house in Chester itself (from 1692). His diaries contain details of his frequent trips to London.

From 1681 Greenvile Collins spent several years compiling Great Britain's Coasting Pilot, the first survey of the country's coast undertaken by a Briton. This was published in 1693 and included a chart of the Dee. The charts were not completely accurate, but with all their shortcomings they were an enormous advance on anything before them, and entitle Collins to rank not only with the earliest, but with the best of English hydrographers.

The London road was turnpiked from Staffordshire southwards by the 1720s, and from Chester to the Staffordshire border in 1743. The Cheshire portion came under a separate turnpike trust in 1755. The Acts of 1743 and 1755 prevented the trustees from building a tollgate anywhere between Nantwich and Chester, severely restricting the trust's income. As a result the condition of the road, which was heavily used, remained poor until an Act of 1769 empowered the trust to make further improvements. In 1782 Thomas Pennant published his "Journey from Chester to London", in which he travels by Tarvin, Nantwich, Stone and Stafford to Lichfield and then on through Coventry and St Albans. The road was disturnpiked in 1883.

The French traveller, Albert Jorevin de Rochefort, gave an account of the City around 1666 which stresses the links with Ireland and how interesting travel could become:

Albert Jorevin de Rochefort, French cartographer, described an eventful voyage from Chester to Dublin which involved a near shipwreck and a sword-fight.
  • "Chester - may be reckoned among the good seaports, sinco it is the ordinary passage of the packet boat, messengers and merchandizo going from England to Ireland. The first thing I did on my arrival at Chester was to learn when the packet boat would'sail for Dublin; it had set off some days before; but I found a trading vessel laden with divers merchandize, in which I took my passage for Ireland. This vessel was at anchor in the gulf, near the little village of Birhouse, eight miles from the town. Here are some large stone houses for the keeping of the merchandize to be embarked for Ireland, as is generally done every month from hence to Ireland, and reciprocally from Ireland to England, from whence all the letters, the messengers, and vessels that are to pass go first to the village of Holyhead which is in the island of Mona or Anglesey, as a place of rendezvous, there being a very good harbour, from whence a boat commonly sets out for Dublin. I embarked, then, in this vessel, which set sail at four in the afternoon, the weather bad and rainy; on account whereof, after we got out of the gulf and the mouth of this river, within sight of the town of Flint and its strong castle, we chose not to expose ourselves much to the sea, when the wind was so furious and so contrary that it split all our sails, and obliged us to put out all our anchors, one of which broke as the storm augmented. This, together with the horrid spectacle of surrounding rocks, which seemed to threaten our destruction, threw us into great terrors, the sea seeming opening to swallow us up, without any resource. This lasted all the night, but the dawn of day brought us a stark calm, attended with rain, which ceased when the wind became fair, although this did not last long; for as we could not, for want of depth of water, pass the straits that lie between the land and the Isle of Anglesey, we turned round about to go to the village of Holyhead, distant from Chester more than sixty miles, to embark the merchandise and passengers, who come to this place as a rendezvous from England to go to Dublin, the capital town of Ireland. We anchored in this port; during which time we went to walk in the village and about the island, which seemed fruitful in corn. We saw the post arrive, who gave his packet to the captain of our ship. There were a good many persons who waited for a passage to Ireland. Among them was a young man who spoke a little French; he was a clockmaker, and had worked in the galleries of the Louvre in Paris; with whom, entering into some discourse, touching the skill and valour of the English, he said he should not fear two Frenchmen. ‘It would not be,’ said I (in answer to him), ‘a man of your sort that could terrify me sword in hand,’ when all on a sudden he drew his sword, crying out, ‘Defend yourself.’ Whilst I learned to fence at Rome, there were several English with whom I practised, whose faults I easily discovered; and, in fine, observing this young man assaulted me precipitately, by keeping always on the defensive, and considering his default, I retired a long way, which caused this young, giddy-headed fellow to throw himself almost out of all kind of guard. He had a sword of the French fashion, long and slender, that would not cut, which is the ordinary way of using the sword in England. Stopping, then, all on a sudden, I gave him a thrust in the under part of the right arm, which made him cry out to me, in the presence of many persons, who prevented me from killing him in the rage I was then in at being attacked by such a young coxcomb. I broke his sword on a rock, after having disarmed him, and he was blamed by all for having attacked me without cause. This did not prevent our embarking with a very favourable wind, which carried us that day to Dublin, a distance of fifty miles."

It has been suggested that "Birhouse" refers to the present site of the Boathouse car park at Parkgate. Somwhat curiously given the obvious hazards to navigation in the Dee estuary there is very little mention of pilotage in the literature. The West Coast Pilot from 1870 is a rather late document in the history of the Port of Chester but states:

  • "Chester and Parkgate pilots are seldom to be procured at Chester bar, but the Liverpool pilots are empowered to take charge of any vessels as far as Wild road (the outer part of Mostyn deep) and Dalpool (pronounced Dawpool), where, as well as at Helbre island, Chester pilots may be obtained for the upper navigation. Pilots and steam tugs may be procured off the point of Air towards and during spring tides."

Liverpool had a well organised pilotage system from 1766 and in the early days of the port, visiting ships relied on local fishermen for skilled local guidance and assistance.


The origin of Parkgate is said to be traced back to the former Neston Park which was created when land was enclosed as a deer park in about 1250 by Roger de Montalt (c1200-1260), sometime said to be steward to the Earl of Chester. However there was no Earl of Chester after the death of John Canmore in 1237 and the Earldom was firmly in the hands of the Crown in 1250. The hunting park came to an end in 1599 when the land was sold off to new owners. In 1672 the ownership of the land transferred to the Mostyn family by the marriage of Bridget Savage of Leighton Hall to Sir Thomas Mostyn, whose residence was across the water at Mostyn Hall in Flintshire. In June 1849 their descendant, the 2nd Baron Mostyn, sold off all his family's Cheshire holdings (including the whole of Parkgate) at a public auction held over six days at the former Mostyn Arms Hotel. He had decided, that Llandudno would be a better place for the investment of his money.

The once thriving port of Parkgate is now fronted by a saltmarsh which only rarely floods.

An anchorage hamlet, or small fishing community, gradually developed on the foreshore of the Dee estuary, near the gates of the old Neston deer park. As noted above a substantial quay already existed in Elizabethan times at Neston at the mouth of the Neston Brook, but it is recorded in the first decade of the 17th century that shipping was also being handled at "the park gate". At the coastal end of Boathouse Lane, in the township of Leighton, an inn, first shown simply as a Beerhouse (probably the "Birhouse" mentioned above), is recorded from 1613, and the stretch of water at this point is recorded as "Beerhouse hole", implying an anchorage with deeper water than elsewhere. One reason for the development of Parkgate may be the high tolls which Chester levied for use of the "New Quay" at Neston. From 1660, the Royal Navy provided a service, using Royal Yachts appointed to the service of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland which was intended for distinguished persons, although they took extra passengers at the Captain's discretion. Commercial interests (such as John Bibby of Liverpool, among others) also provided vessels in this trade. A crossing took at least 14 hours. In 1795-6 about 80 such voyages a year were recorded (in vessels Prince of Wales, Princess Royal, King, Queen, Lady Fitzgibbon). The service was at its peak around 1790 and had dwindled by 1830 when a good road to Holyhead (with a much shorter sea crossing); steamship service from Liverpool and the silting up of the Dee, all curtailed activities.

Parkgate is first mentioned in 1610. The first mapped evidence of a settlement known as Parkgate is shown on Greenvile Collins' survey of 1686 showing Parkgate (in Neston township) and Beerhouse (in Leighton) apparently as separate developments. It was an important port from the start of the 18th century, in particular as an embarkation point for Ireland. During the time of the port a number of famous people are known to have passed through and/or stayed at Parkgate on their way to or from Ireland, including the satirist Jonathan Swift, Dean of Dublin cathedral, the essayist Thomas de Quincey, and the preacher John Wesley, who was a frequent visitor over many years. Mrs Maria Fitzherbert, the estranged wife of the Prince Regent, stayed at the former Talbot Inn in 1798, when troops were camping on the shore en route to Ireland. They were on their way to put down the rebellion of "the United Irishmen" and, observing their dejected condition, she generously provided them with extra rations.

As there was a good road from London to Chester and a regular stagecoach service, passengers and their goods would travel to Chester and await good weather there for their passage across the Irish Sea. They could no longer embark at Chester, but had the choice of two other routes. These were either by a short journey to Parkgate, followed by a long sea voyage or a much longer journey over land to Holyhead, followed by a shorter sea voyage. For centuries, travel to Anglesey from the mainland was often hazardous. Ferries traversed the Menai Strait at various places, but the currents are tricky and numerous boats capsized or ran aground, often with loss of life. One of the most tragic occurred in 1785 when a boat carrying 55 people became stranded on a sandbar in the middle of the southern end of the strait. Attempts to refloat the boat left it swamped. The alarm was raised and rescuers set off from Caernarfon. But, the combination of high winds, nightfall and the fear of also running aground meant that the rescuers could not approach the sandbar. Night fell, the tide rose and those stranded on the sandbar were swept away. Only one survived.

As the journey to Holyhead was over mountainous tracks at first unsuitable for wheeled vehicles, Parkgate developed as the most popular choice at that time. The passage to Dublin was very hazardous however. Ships were frequently wrecked, blown off course or attacked by pirates. One notable loss was the "royal yacht" Mary who struck a rock on the Skerries, off the coast of Anglesey near Holyhead in 1675. Skerries Lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1717 to guide shipping past the low tract of submerged land north east of Holyhead. "Skerry" is derived from the Old Norse sker, which means a rock in the sea, and is again indicative of Viking presence.

The yacht Mary: gaff-rigged and with lee-boards (sometimes called "drop keels"). She was a 50ft (15m) miniature man-of-war with a crew of 30, and cost £1,300 to build in 1660. This model of the Royal Yacht Mary, was made by ship modeller, Des Newton, for display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum.

The Mary was built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1660 and purchased by the City of Amsterdam, embellished and given to Charles II when he was restored to the English throne. Descriptions of the Mary's construction, dimensions and equipment are contained within the archives in Amsterdam. The vessel's subsequent history is referred to in the contemporary diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. The vessel was built for speed and had leeboards in order to combine a large sail area with a shallow draught. A long spar or spit supported the mainsail (e.g. gaff rigged). However, Charles II wanted a faster vessel improving on the design. The following year Phineas Pett built the KATHERINE for his use. The Mary was demoted to transporting officials. She was recorded at Holyhead by Robert Lyle (who mistakes "yacht" for "jack") in 1663:

  • "I was going on to catch the packet-boat at Holyhead, having found no convenience at Chester; but as I found here the Mary Jack (given by the King to the Lord Lieutenant) ready to sail, I am going over by her."

The Mary was first recorded in Chester Water in 1666 when she was at Dawpool awaiting money for Ireland. Records from Dublin tell how much:

  • "The Mary yacht, arrived here on Monday, brought £11,700 in her".

This was the role, the transport of "treasure", for which a naval vessel was ideal, and for which Lord Deputy Sidney had asked in 1576. Money was too valuable to be entrusted to the Post Office barks at Holyhead, and at this date was too heavy to be transported through North Wales. During the 1660s the Mary was working with a small naval vessel, the Harp, which carried ten guns to the Mary's eight, so both were lightly armed against the dangers of the high seas. In 1667 both ships were at Dublin, petitioning the Navy Commissioners for fifty-two weeks' pay:

  • "that their families may not be starved in the streets, and themselves go like the heathen having nothing to cover their nakedness".

Such evidence that survives suggests that Dawpool, three miles down river from Parkgate, was the Mary's usual landfall in the Dee estuary. When the new Lord Lieutenant, Lord Berkeley, was anxious in 1670 to reach his new appointment as quickly as possible, he left all his 'equipage, place and goods to follow as they could' and went to Dawpool, where he, with his wife, children and gentlemen of his train, embarked on the Mary and Monmouth yachts for Dublin. In 1674 it was at Dawpool that she was paid off:

  • "Last Wednesday the Mary yacht was paid forty-six months pay at Dawpool in this river and yet she is still sixteen months in arrear".

The lack of pay no doubt contributed to a scandal in 1672 when James Leslie, gunner on the Mary, accused his captain of being 'a drunken, idle, debauched fellow' who was cheating the King by forging seamen's tickets and selling the ship's gunpowder. Although Captain Sharland was eventually acquitted of these charges, he was removed from the ship, being replaged by William Burstow. It was Burstow who was in command for the Mary's last voyage in March 1675. She had sailed from Dublin bound for Chester water (and so probably for Dawpool) but during a foggy night she struck a rock on the Skerries, off the coast of Anglesey near Holyhead. The Mary's official complement was listed as twenty men in peace time, thirty men at war. On this voyage she carried a crew of twenty-eight, four of whom were lost including Captain Burstow. Of the forty-six passengers, thirty-one were lost including the Earl of Meath. Some artefacts from the wreck, which was discovered in 1971, can be seen in the Liverpool Maritime Museum.

Edward King

A suitably operatic-looking "Deva" makes her entrance with a huge number of bearers for her wavy train. This is from the Chester Pageant of 1910. According to the Pageant Master, the inclusion of nymphs appears to have been inspired by Milton's "Lycidas".

A Packet(name unknown) from the Dee Estuary (starting location named as Chester) to Dublin was lost on 10 August 1637. It was carrying Edward King, aged 25, a fellow of Christ's College Cambridge, an acquaintance (and previously a fellow student) of the poet John Milton.

King was travelling to visit his brother and two sisters in Ireland. The vessel was coasting in weather variously described as calm and as stormy along the Welsh shore, when it struck on a rock, was stove-in by the shock and foundered. The most likely area, where rocks would be close to the vessel's route, is the north coast of Anglesey. With the exception of a few who managed to get into a boat, all on board perished. King is said to have behaved with calm heroism; after a vain endeavour to prevail upon him to enter the boat, he was left on board, and was last seen kneeling on deck in the act of prayer. His body was not recovered.

John Milton wrote a poem, Lycidas, published in a collection of elegies in memory of Edward King. This poem is regarded by many as one of the finest in the English language.

Sir Thomas Browne

One traveller who passed through Chester from Ireland was Sir Thomas Browne. Confirmation that he did visit Chester (on his return from Ireland) comes from a poem (in two versions) written by Browne, about his experiences of the stormy seas between Dublin and Chester. Writing to his worried daughter Elizabeth in September 1681 (she was married to a sea-captain and had just seen a ship founder), Browne includes a copy of the poem and recalls:

  • "I came once from Dublin to Chester at Michaelmas and was so tossed, that nothing but milk and possets would goe down me 2 or 3 days after.."
Frank Simpson recorded the interior of what was once "The Roual Oak" in Chester, where Browne wrote a poem.

A truly remarkable thing about the poem ("A tempest at sea") - said to be annotated: "at the Crowe Inne in Chester at his Coming from Ireland" - is that it has the same metrical structure as "Those in Peril on the Sea" (more properly known as "Eternal Father, Strong to Save") written some hundreds of years later (1860) by William Whiting (1 November 1825 – 3 May 1878) an alumni and later headmaster of Sir Thomas' old school - Winchester - who was almost certainly familiar with Sir Thomas' work, although no link between the two works has ever been proved. Browne's verse is:

  • "In vayne we do the Pilot coart / the bottome of the sea's our port / no Anckers in the sea wee cast; / Our Ancker is in heaven fast. / our only hopes on him wee Laye / to whom both Seas and winds obeye."

The later hymn is:

  • "Eternal Father, strong to save / Whose arm hath bound the restless wave / Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep / Its own appointed limits keep / Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee / For those in peril on the sea!"

An inn caled "The Sign of the Crow" existed in Chester from a first mention in 1580, until it became "The Royal Oak" by 1703.

Francis Place (1647-1728) was another artistic traveller to Ireland who passed through Chester. In 1699 he was returning to his home in York from a sketching tour in Ireland between Drogheda and Waterford. From Holyhead to Chester, he continued to draw vistas and landmarks including St Winefrid’s Well, just outside Flint. He also reproduced his sketch of this pilgrimage site as a detailed etching which was then published in London by Pierce Tempest, a fellow native of Yorkshire. This image was an enduring, and apparently commercially-successful one, since it was republished several times during the 1750s by two further London printsellers, John Bowles and Robert Sayer. Thomas Pennant acquired one of Sayer’s prints of St Winefrid’s Well (with its original imprint, mentioning both Place and Tempest, firmly erased and replaced with Sayer’s details) which was pasted into his extra-illustrated copy of A Tour in Wales. Also included in the first volume of Pennant’s guide to Wales are two original drawings by Francis Place, executed in pen and ink with light washes of watercolour. One depicts the west side of Hawarden Castle with a distant view of Chester, the other, of Flint Castle, has been annotated by the artist to indicate specific landmarks: ‘West Chester’ ‘The West Side of Flint Castle in 1699’ and ‘& Bestone Beeston Castle’.

John Mackay's chart of the River Dee.

Events in 1688 emphasized Chester's military significance. In August 1688 the government of James II removed the entire Tory Assembly including Tories Grosvenor and William Stanley, earl of Derby, and obliged the city to petition for a new charter, which named the corporation and principal officers, reserved the Crown's right to dismiss individuals, dispensed all members from the prescribed oaths, and restricted the parliamentary franchise to the corporation. Of the 24 aldermen named in addition to the mayor and recorder only 11 had already served as aldermen and four as sheriffs. The attempt to conciliate Whigs and nonconformist protestants was fruitless: the nominated corporation apparently never met.

Troops from Ireland, recalled by James II, began to arrive in October and were joined by others from Lancashire. Governor Peter Shakerley prepared to make a stand, but James II's flight weakened the garrison's resolve and in December Shakerley declared for William of Orange and ceded control of Chester Castle to the Whig mayor, William Street. The Williamite War in Ireland took place from March 1689 to October 1691. Chester's earlier importance as a base for military operations in Ireland was regained after the outbreak of the Irish rebellion in 1689. Fought between supporters of James II and his successor, William III, it resulted in a Williamite victory and is generally viewed as a related conflict of the 1688 to 1697 War of the Grand Alliance. The war began in March 1689 when James II and VII landed in Ireland seeking to reverse the November 1688 Glorious Revolution, which had replaced him with his nephew William III and daughter Mary II. Troops passed through Chester before embarkation from anchorages on the Dee: On 11th June 1690, William set sail from Chester (Hoylake) with a fleet of almost 300 ships. There were shipments of military supplies, money, and foodstuffs, while senior military officers and State dignitaries also sailed from Chester. Sick and wounded soldiers were evacuated to a temporary hospital established in the city in 1691, while prisoners of war and occasionally an alleged spy were detained there. The flow of troops continued in the later 1690s.

The New Cut

Various schemes to improve the navigation of the Dee were proposed. In November 1695, Francis Gell, a London merchant, obtained a grant from the Crown of a tract of marsh and common twenty miles long and, in several places, six miles wide, mostly on the Flintshire shore of the Dee. In January 1696, Gell reached agreement with the city authorities to make the Dee navigable for vessels of 100 ton. sIn 1699 Francis Gell's proposal was opposed by the inhabitants of Flintshire stated that there were "about 10 harbours and several docks upon the said river". About 1730 navigation to Chester ceased altogether after breaches in the dykes destroyed the channel.

In 1731, a decision was made that would alter the River Dee forever. Nathaniel Kinderley of Lincolnshire suggested that a deep-water channel or canal could be cut from the City of Chester to deeper waters lower down the Dee Estuary. There was opposition to this scheme from the Port of Liverpool (by this time the more important port) as Liverpool merchants feared that they would lose trade if Chester once again became a deep-sea port. The improvement of the Dee was not to be plain-sailing. A chart of the mouth of the River Dee was prepared by mathematician and surveyor John Mackay in opposition to "A Bill to Recover and Preserve the Navigation of the River Dee, in the County Palatine of Chester, 11 June 1732". It is likely that the chart was commissioned by the London Cheesemongers, to accompany The "Case of the Cheesemongers", in and about the Cities of London and Westminster, relating to the Bill to recover and preserve the Navigation of the River Dee, in the County of Chester; the Cheesemongers conducted their trade through Parkgate" and they feared this route would become silted up by the new works. For further information see Cheshire Cheese.

Thomas Badeslade's warning about the New Cut, noting some other projects which Kinderley had worked on.

However, after an Act of Parliament was passed, a wide channel, 16 feet deep at high tide, was dug from Chester, along the Welsh coast and through the White Sands to Flint, during 1753-6. This ‘New Cut’, as it was called, was not the natural course of the river, as the deep water channel flowed to Chester along the Wirral coast. The promoters of the scheme believed that below Flint the channel of the river would revert to the Wirral coast. Surveyor John Mackay seems to have genuinely believed that the plan to go down the Welsh side would be of detriment to Parkgate and his views were supported by other surveyors, who were keen to point out that a previous scheme involving Kinderley had caused flooding at Rye. Thomas Badeslade, in the first of two attacks on the project, in 1735, argued that the new channel would destroy the navigation over the bar, through Hoylake, and upon the river Dee. His work was ominously titled: "Reasons humbly offer'd to the consideration of the publick ; shewing how the works ... to recover and preserve the navigation of the River Dee, will destroy the navigation and occasion the drowning of all the low lands adjacent". Badeslade compared the likely consequences with the disastrous happenings to Wisbech, Lynn, Spalding, and Rye where similar drainage had been affected. Badeslade's pamphlet was followled by Grundy's outlining "The Philosophical and Mathematical Reasons'" against the work. Grundy was equally pessimistic, but he was not wholly in agreement with Badeslade.

In spite of the criticisms, work on the scheme continued with vigour. in April 1737, the river was diverted into the New Channel. This work of Kinderley seemed to offer great promise, but success or failure lay very much in the state of the channel below the exit from the New Channel, where the river was expected to carve out its own deep trough across to the Wirral side.

The following year a new survey of the river was conducted by Samuel Fearon and John Eyes and this was published with sailing directions showing how the state of the estuary had changed considerably with the navigation having become worse. Above Parkgate, the channel had become more congested with sandbanks, and contained less wator than in the time of Granvile Collins. On the chart, Fearon and Eyes marked depths at low water spring tides: between Chester and Parkgate no depths greater than three-quarters of a fathom were recorded. They also noted growth of sandbanks on the Welsh shore and that Parkgate and Dawpool were less satisfactory as anchorages than before and that the "Wild Road" had silted up. Hoyle Bank and Hoyle Lake were underging changes

A new "River Dee Company" was formed to try to correct problems in 1741, but the work was ineffective. The company found it impossible to maintain the depth of water they had promised. Another act, obtained in 1743, authorised an increase of capital over and above the £47,830 raised by previous subscription, but it is significant that the company now guaranteed to maintain at Wilcox Point only fifteen feet of water. The safeguarding of the navigation of the Dee was proving an intractable problem, and it is interesting to compare how similar issues were deal with at the Dublin end of the trade.

The original Port of Dublin was situated upriver, a few miles from it’s current location and close to Christchurch Cathedral. Dublin also had a long-running problem with silting, including at the mouth of the River Liffey, with major sand banks, notably the North Bull and South Bull, to either side of the Liffey mouth, along with the Kish Bank over 11 km out to sea. Between the North and South Bulls, a sand bar existed, rising over time, limiting access to the city quays. On 17 September 1707, Thomas Burgh, the Surveyor General of Ireland, read a paper to the Dublin Society entitled 'Some Thoughts for the Improveing the Harbour of Dublin' (sic) in which the dangers of the bar of Dublin was mentioned as well as a proposed basin in which ships could be secure from inclement weather or hostile attack. The year 1707 also witnessed the passing of "An Act for Cleansing the Port, Harbour, and River of Dublin and for Erecting a Ballast Office in the said city". The key functions of the Ballast Office were the imposition of port charges and the maintenance of the navigation channel. In 1715, work began on constructing the Great South Wall to shelter the entrance to the port of Dublin. The wall was finally completed in 1795 measuring 5 km. It was the world's longest sea wall at the time of its construction and remains one of the longest in Europe. Poolbeg Lighthouse at the end of the South Wall was constructed in 1767. This protected the port from the shifting sands of Dublin Bay. Started in 1820, the North Wall was completed in 1825, at a cost of £95,000. The total length of the wall is 3,200 yards (2,900 m). The natural tidal effects created by the two sea walls deepened the entry to the Liffey from 1.8m to 4.8m. Much of the silt now scoured from the river course was deposited on the North Bull, and a true island, North Bull Island, began to emerge.

The Port of Dublin and the works constructed to defend it against silting. The problem was not as difficult as at Chester and was much more successful.

On the English side of the Dee, Wirral was slowly robbed of the natural channel that gave life to its small ports. By the early 19th century, the old watercourse had largely silted up and the company's maintenance of the new channel was under attack. Parkgate lost its Irish ferry service by 1815, due to the silting of its anchorage. However, it was still deep enough for the smaller Flint and Bagillt ferries, small coasters and fishing boats to operate. Sadly, by the mid 1860s, Parkgate waters became too shallow for the Flint and Bagillt ferries, but they continued to operate from deeper waters off Gayton Boathouse Inn.

The Dublin Ballast Board was established during the era of canal building in Ireland and, while the Great South Wall was being built, the Royal and Grand canals were also being constructed to link Dublin, city and port, to the Shannon. The canals greatly increased the hinterland of the port and the continued improvement of Dublin Port was a matter of national importance to the extent that, in 1800, the Directors General of Inland Navigation were given statutory responsibility for improving the port. In Chester the initial Chester canal was a failure. Part of the canal was even abandonned in 1787, when Beeston staircase locks collapsed, and there was no money to fund repairs. If anything, it had a negative effect on the trade of Chester by allowing the export of Cheshire Cheese to Shropshire rather than via the Port of Chester. The Wirral line of the Ellesmere Canal proved a great success and revived the debt-ridden Chester Canal.

Many Dublin merchants were dissatisfied at the slow progress of building the wall and in 1786 control of the Port was transferred from Dublin Corporation to a new authority, the Corporation for Preserving & Improving the Port Of Dublin, which was controlled by merchants and property owners. In Chester, the corporation remained concerned about the company's neglect of the navigation, and there were several schemes for its improvement in the 1830s and 1840s, none of which came to much. In 1846 the Tidal Harbours Commission criticized the company for its interest in land reclamation at the expense of the new cut, and in 1850 an Admiralty inquiry into the Dee conservancy condemned the ruinous state of the navigation, attributing it to the negligence of the company and to the long-standing apathy of the city council.


A common myth is that Handel sailed from Parkgate prior to his first public performance of his "Messiah" in Dublin. In the 18th century, Dublin was a thriving musical city and desirable place to live for people of wealth, fashionable in every way, and due to the patronage of the arts by the colonial Protestant governing class. By 1750, Dublin was regarded as the second largest city in the British Isles after London and eleventh on the list of European cities in size, with music firmly established as an integral part of daily life and social hierarchy.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) wrote his "Messiah" to provide funding so that he could recover from serious debt. He had been gravely ill and half-paralysed after a stroke in April 1737 and unable to work. It was even thought by his doctor that he would never write again. The "Messiah" was almost never written, in 1740 he initially tore up the libretto proposed by Charles Jennens (who was educated at the King's School Chester), but then returned to it and over three weeks largely completed the composition of the oratorio.

The years 1739-41 saw severe bad weather, the cause of which remains unknown. The devastating famine of 1740 to 1741 is known in Ireland as the Bliain an Áir (Year of Slaughter) was due to extremely cold and rainy weather in successive years, resulting in a series of poor grain harvests, a shortage of milk and a failure of the potato crop. It is estimated to have killed between 13% and 20% of the 1740 population of 2.4 million people of Ireland, which was a proportionately greater loss to death than during the Great Famine of 1845–1852, although the latter also say many leave the country. Coal dealers and shippers could not ferry coal due to the ice-bound quays and frozen coal yards. The mill-wheels in several pre-industrial towns froze and affected the water powered machinery used for grinding wheat, making cloth for the weavers and rags for the printers. As a result, the abrupt weather change disrupted craft employment and food processing.

"Flint from Parkgate" (published 1797) engraved by Walker after a drawing by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Flint, with its castle, is to the left of center and the smoke from the Gadlys Lead Smelting Works can be seen to the right of center. The large ship is in a typical mooring location for the "port" of Parkgate, and a small boat can be seen between the ship and the shore (between the two figures in the foreground).

The inflated food prices caused mass starvation across Ireland and so poverty relief schemes were initiated to raise money. In 1741, Handel was invited to perform a whole season of subscription fundraising concerts for the Charitable Musical Society to raise money for the Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay and the Relief of Prisoner’s in the several Gaols, which held people who were imprisoned solely because of their financial debts after the famine rather than from other crimes committed. He was also offered the use of a new concert hall that was being built on Fishamble Street, and a whole series of concerts, rather than just the one he would have been offered in London for his new oratorio. The first rehersal of it was in Chester in November 1741. Handel was staying at the Golden Falcon in Northgate Street, on his way to Dublin, but weather conditions meant that he could not expect to embark from Parkgate for several days. The music historian Charles Burney, remembered:

  • “seeing him [Handel] smoke a pipe, over a dish of coffee, at the Exchange Coffee House” and was “extremely curious to see so extraordinary a man”.

At something of a loose end, Handel made enquires at the Cathedral as to whether they had any "choirmen" who could sing from a sight-read score. Having been advised that this was certainly the case a rehersal was arranged at the Golden Falcon, but turned out to be something of a farce, as the lead bass could not, in fact, sing from a score. According to the music historian Burney (also educated at the King's School, Chester), on "An Account of the Musical Commemoration of Handel" (1785), Handel lost his temper, swore in four or five languages, and cried out in broken English:

  • "You shcauntrel ! tit not you dell me dat you could sing at soite" (You scoundrel! Did you not tell me you could sing at sight?)

Janson, the bass, replied "Yes, sir, and so I can: but not at first sight."

Handel never sailed from Parkgate, although he may have returned to England through that port (accounts vary). Burney is correct that Handel intended to sail from Parkgate, but at the time Burney (7 April 1726 – 12 April 1814) was just a schoolboy aged 15 and he failed to add that because of continuing bad weather, the composer eventually sailed from Holyhead. Handel travelled between London and Ireland, via Chester and Holyhead between the 4th and 18th November, 1741, returning (according to Deutsch, Otto Erich, Handel: a documentary biography, London, 1955) along the same route in August 1742. The premier performance of "Messiah" in Dublin April 13, 1742, received rave reviews and exceeded expectations raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison. The charity sponsors, hoping to squeeze in additional paying patrons, asked the ladies to refrain from wearing hoops under their skirts and encouraged men to leave their swords at home. Jennens was less than wholly approving of the musical setting, writing to Edward Holdsworth:

  • "I shall show you a collection I gave Handel, called Messiah, which I value highly. He has made a fine entertainment of it, though not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition; but he retained his overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah."

The artist J. M. W. Turner was another notable visitor, leaving in his "View of Flint from Parkgate 1797" a reminder of his time here. However Turner did not go on to visit Ireland. One notable feature of artistic depictions of the Dee is that they usually show the estuary at high tide with no obvious hazards to navigation.

The excavation of the New Cut in 1737, to improve access to Chester, diverted the river's course to the Welsh side of the estuary, but failed to stem the silting up of the river. The largest loss of life in the Dee Estuary was when the Parkgate to Dublin Packet Ship King George stranded and was lost on 14 September 1806 on the Salisbury Bank. From the Morning Herald (London) 20 September 1806:

Denham's Sailing Directions for the Dee from 1834-9: this shows that Parkgate is already difficult to reach and Hyle Lake is being cut off. The Dawpool Deep was now dry at low-water.
  • "AFFECTING SHIPWRECK. The King George packet, Captain Walker, bound from Parkgate to Dublin, sailed from Parkgate at twelve o'clock on Sunday, with a flag at her topmast-head, full tide, weather hazy, and drizzling rain, with the wind nearly directly south. At half past one she struck on the Salisbury Sand Bank, and remained nearly four hours dry, with part of her crew on the sands, waiting for the next tide. No apprehensions were then entertained of her having received any injury. On the return of the tide, the wind veered round to the west, and she received the wind and tide right on her side, resting against her anchor. As the tide came in, she filled, rapidly with water; the night was dark, with rain. Her passengers, mostly Irish harvest-men, above a hundred in number, who were going home with the pittances of their labours to their families, were under hatches. The pumps were soon choaked, and the water came so fast on the Irishmen in the hold, that they drew their large pocket harvest knives, and with a desperation that a dread of death alone inspires, slew one another to make their way upon deck. The wind and waves beating hard upon her side, her cable broke, and she was drifted round with her head towards the tide, and lay upon her side. They were three miles from any vessel, and could not, or at least did not, give any signal that was heard. The boat was launched, and ten of the crew, among which was the Captain and an Irish gentleman, got into it. It was nearly full of water, and death on all sides stared them in the face. Her Captain seeing some of his best sailors still with the vessel, and falsely hoping she might remain the tide, which had nearly an hour and a half to flow, went again on board; the Irish gentleman and three others followed him. One of the sailors in the boat, seeing a poor Irish sailor boy clinging to the side of the vessel, pulled him by the hair of the head into the boat, cut the rope that fastened it to the vessel, and the tide drove them away. At this time great numbers ran screaming up the mast; a woman with her child fastened to her back, was at the top-mast-head: the masts broke, the vessel being on her side, and they were all precipitated into the waves! Only five men and the poor Irish sailor boy have escaped; the remainder, 125 in number, among which were seven cabin passengers, perished. The boat and her little crew were driven up by this tide to within a quarter of a mile of Parkgate. They heard the cries of the sufferers distinctly for half an hour. The ebb tide washed the vessel down into the deep water, and she was seen no more till the next tide drove her up. She lies on her side, with her keel towards Parkgate, and her head to the Welsh coast; her lower masts and rigging out of water. The King George packet belongs to Mr. Brown, of Liverpool; she was formerly a privateer, and carried 16 guns; was afterwards employed as a Harwich packet. This was her second voyage to Dublin, for which service she has been lately patched up. She was confidered as too sharp built for the sands. Some flats are expected round from Liverpool to sweep her. None of the bodies of the sufferers have yet been found. "

In 1857, after a period of decline following the loss of the shipping trade, it was recorded that:

  • "The place consists mostly of Lodging Houses, which present a long irregular range, forming a side of the street facing the Dee" (Kelly 1857, p.177).

Documents such as reports by various harbour commissioners tell a clear tale of the neglect of the River Dee and difficulties of navigation.

The End of the Estuarine Ports

As noted above the loss of the anchorage at Hoyle Lake may have been due to natural changes or due to the canalization of the Dee or dredging at Liverpool. With the ports and anchorages and even the navigation further up the River Dee there are also a range of explanations which can be put forward. There have certainly been massive changes since the lower Dee was canalized in the upper estuary.

The Port of Mostyn is the only remaining deep water port on the Dee. It is served by a quay extending into the river and a dredged chanel. Hoyl Lake as a roadstead has vanished. Parkgate is now fronted by an expanse of saltgrass.

The commercial port at Mostyn can still be used by vessels passing over the Chester Bar at the western entrance to the estuary. In 1485 Henry Tudor eluded capture at Mostyn Hall by Richard III, escaping by boat using Mostyn Quay. He later went onto to defeat Richard III at Bosworth Field. As Henry Tudor he bestowed upon Lord Mostyn, in recognition of his valuable support, the foreshore and its mineral rights from Llynegar to Llanerch-y-Mor, a stretch of coastline either side of the port and extending out into the estuary for about one mile. Extensive coal mining took place under this area until the late 1800’s. Coal was also mined within the port complex, and in 1816, to keep pace with the demand and to better facilitate the shipment of coal in larger vessels, Lord Mostyn commissioned Thomas Telford to devise modernisation plans for the quay. Iron production commenced at Mostyn in the mid 1800’s. The combination of nearby limestone, a colliery, iron works and a dock made the whole enterprise extremely successful. The ironworks closed down in 1965, but the Port continued to operate as an independent commercial entity, handling a variety of cargoes such as timber, finished steel, animal feeds, fertilizer, aggregates and cement for the region’s agriculture and manufacturing industries. 1998 saw the construction of a 120 metre long riverside quay with 6.5m water depth alongside at low tide; an additional 0.8 hectares of land adjacent to the berth was also developed for cargo storage. This development increased the size of vessels the Port could accommodate from about 3,000 dwt up to 7,000 dwt whilst remaining afloat at all states of the tide. In 2001/2002 a second phase of port development was undertaken by the construction of a 190 metre extension of the riverside quay together with a 170 metre long Roll on – Roll off berth and a further seven hectares of tarmac storage area.

Mostyn to Dublin was a short-lived P&O route, that operated between 2001 and 2004. The route was closed as it was lossmaking, with low passenger numbers, perhaps because of the relatively poor road connections on the Flintshire side, which was coupled with issues relating to obtaining dredging consents on the approach to Mostyn. In April 2004 the Afon Dyfrdwy made its first transit down the River Dee carrying the wings for the then-new Airbus A380. ‌E​‌‌​​​‌‍‌​‌​‌‌‌​‍‌​‌​‌‌​​‍‌​​‌‌‌‌​‍‌​​​​‌‌​‍‌​‌​‌​‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​​‌‌​‍‌​‌‌‌‌‌​‍‌​​​‌‌​‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​‌​‌​‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌​‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​‌​​‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​‌‌​​ach of the wings for the A380 was 48 metres long, 14 metres wide and weighed 25 tonnes, for transport these had to be placed in a jig that itself weighed 100 tonnes, making transport by air impossible. ‌​‌‌​​​‌‍‌​‌​‌‌‌​‍‌​‌​‌‌​​‍‌​​‌‌‌‌​‍‌​​​​‌‌​‍‌​‌​‌​‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​​‌‌​‍‌​‌‌‌‌‌​‍‌​​​‌‌​‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​‌​‌​‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌​‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​‌​​‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​‌‌​​With the Broughton factory located adjacent to the River Dee and a deep-water port available 18 miles away at Mostyn, the only likely method was the river. ‌​‌‌​​​‌‍‌​‌​‌‌‌​‍‌​‌​‌‌​​‍‌​​‌‌‌‌​‍‌​​​​‌‌​‍‌​‌​‌​‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​​‌‌​‍‌​‌‌‌‌‌​‍‌​​​‌‌​‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​‌​‌​‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌​‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​‌​​‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​‌‌​​In 2010 a Mid-Way Berth (MWB) was constructed at Corus Jetty – next to the Flintshire Bridge. ‌In 2019, Airbus made the decision to stop manufacturing the A380 and in February 2020 the final A380 wing left the Airbus factory in Broughton destined for the Port of Mostyn and an onward journey to the final assembly line in Toulouse, France. ‌​‌‌​​​‌‍‌​‌​‌‌‌​‍‌​‌​‌‌​​‍‌​​‌‌‌‌​‍‌​​​​‌‌​‍‌​‌​‌​‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​​‌‌​‍‌​‌‌‌‌‌​‍‌​​​‌‌​‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​‌​‌​‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌‌‍‌​​‌​‌‌​‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​‌​​‌‍‌​​‌‌​‌​‍‌​​​‌‌​​In April 2020 following a dispute over port fees at Liverpool ferries between Mostyn and Dublin briefly returned.

The northern entrance to the estuary is through Hilbre Swash. This entrance is normally only used by small craft such as those proceeding to and from moorings off the Wirral foreshore at West Kirby, Thurstaston or places further upstream.

The problem of shifting sand is illustrated by the "General Advice to Vessels" in sailing directions, which states:

  • "Because of frequent changes in the navigable channel and adjacent sandbanks, the navigation buoys marking the high-water channel are moved as necessary. Anyone in charge of a vessel without local knowledge should not enter the estuary without first seeking advice from the pilotage authority (Port of Mostyn). It is considered dangerous for vessels to ground in certain positions in the navigable channel on an out-going (ebb) tide, as the sand may be washed away leaving the vessel liable to keel over."

Small craft still moor at Connah's Quay.


The address leaf of an Elizabethan gallows letter, sent by the Privy Council from London to Chester for sending to the Council of Ireland. Dated 21st of August, 1598 and arrived three days later. The gallows is the two-post and cross-bar variety with a short rope handing from it and can be found near the center of the image.

Henry I appointed messengers to carry letters for the government, although it is obvious that messengers would have been used earlier. Henry III provided uniforms for them (messengers were generally clad either in blue or russet robes, without fur or lambskin), and Edward I instituted posting houses where the messengers could change horses. The reign of Edward II saw the first postal marking; handwritten notations saying "Haste. Post haste". Little primary evidence exists for much of this, but Shakespeare uses the expression (in Richard II) and Hall’s Chronicles of ca. 1548 stated, “The Duke of Somerset, with John, erle of Oxenford, wer in all post haste flying toward Scotlande.”

London to Chester

During the reign of Elizabeth I to express an extreme degree of urgency of delivery, gallows were drawn on the letter, known as Gallows letters and may additionally have a version of "haste, post haste" added. In a surviving letter sent by the Privy Council to Chester for sending to Ireland the address panel is marked with a gallows, is signed by Robert Cecil, and bears the words:

  • "For her Majesties speciall affayres To our very loving ffrend the Maior of the Cytye of Chester - Post hast - hast for lyfe"

The letter (dated 21st of August, 1598) was sent at around the time of a defeat of the English army at the Blackwater Fort and the Battle of the Yellow Ford (14 August 1598). It was endorsed by ten postmasters at various points along the route from London via Towcester, Coventry and Lichfield to Chester. In Chester it would have fallen into the hands of Mayor Thomas Fletcher who had himself errected a gibbet at the High Cross as a warning to soldiers passing through to Ireland.

Under Thomas Witherings, chief postmaster under Charles I, the Royal Mail was made available to the public.

When a public postal service was first introduced in 1635, letters were carried between "posts" by mounted post-boys and delivered to the local postmaster. The postmaster would then take out the letters for his area and hand the rest to another post-boy to carry them on to the next ‘post’. This was a slow process and the post-boys were an easy target for robbers, but the system remained unchanged for almost 150 years. Coach travel soon came into existence but was not used for the post. On the 9th April 1657 an advert appeared in Mercurius Politicus, a London Newspaper: a public coach service was about to start running between London and Chester. The 190 miles would take four days, and at a passage cost 35 shillings. Most of the new coach's passengers would have been travelling between London and Dublin. It was Chester's importance as a port that singled it out to be the terminus of this new form of public transport. The timetable for this first coach was a little optimistic: adverts two years later show that it was now taking five days for the journey. However, the coach service was a success and so other routes started operating, linking London with other major towns in the country.

Coaches for the mail came along somewhat later. John Palmer, a theatre owner from Bath, had organised a rapid carriage service to transport actors and props between theatres (originally in Bristol and Bath) and he believed that a similar scheme could improve the postal service. In 1782, Palmer sold his theatre interests, and went to London to lobby The Post Office. Despite resistance from senior Post Office staff, who believed the speed of the mail could not be improved, William Pitt, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, accepted the idea.

The first stage-coach to ply between London and Holyhead is often said to be the conveyance promoted chiefly by an enterprising Shrewsbury innkeeper, Robert Lawrence. In May 1779, while landlord of the Raven Hotel, he began a thrice-weekly coach service from Shrewsbury to Holyhead through Ellesmere, Wrexham, Mold, St Asaph, and Conwy. He conveyed only four passengers, with a journey time of 36 hours. The following year this service was supplemented by another through Oswestry, Llangollen, Corwen, and Llanrwst, which meant that there were departures from Shrewsbury every weekday. In 1681 a coach was definitely running (or crawling) between London and Shrewsbury, by way of Newport Pagnell. Sir William Dugdale (12 September 1605 – 10 February 1686), travelling by it from London to Coleshill, wrote:

  • “The first night we stopped at Woburn, the second at Hill Morton, near Rugby, and on the third we proceeded to Coleshill.”

According to other sources, in 1808 the Post Office tried to operate mail coaches to Holyhead, but it apparently "proved completely impossible". This may be a reference to a particular route, or to particular times of year, as several sources have a mail coach running from London through Chester to Holyhead after 1785. Several early writers also seem to confuse mail-coaches and other coaches.

The Shewsbury-Chester Stage-coach. As this is a photograph and there is an absence of luggage, it probably depicts a re-creation of a coach journey, something which also appears confirmed by the style of clothing.

Chester to Holyhead

Prior to the stage-coach, the trip between Chester and Holyhead frequently required the use of a hired guide, such as was employed by Johnathan Swift (1667-1745). Swift did not relish the journey in an entry in his "Journal to Stella" made at Chester on 6th June 1713 he wrote:

  • "I AM come here after six days. I set out on Monday last, and got here today, about eleven in the morning. A noble rider, faith! and all the ships and people went off yesterday with a rare wind. This was told me, to my comfort, upon my arrival. Having not used riding these three years, made me terrible weary; yet I resolve on Monday to set out for Holyhead, as weary as I am: 'tis good for my health, man. When I came here, I found MD's letter of the 26th of May, sent down to me. Had you writ a post sooner, I might have brought some pins: but you were lazy, and would not write your orders immediately, as I desired you. I will come, when God pleases; perhaps I may be with you in a week. I will be three days going to Holyhead; I cannot ride faster, say hot oo will. I am upon Stay-behind's mare. I have the whole inn to myself. I would fain escape this Holyhead journey; but I have no prospect of ships, and it will be almost necessary I should be in Dublin before the 25th instant, to take the oaths; otherwise I must wait to a quarter session. I will lodge as I can; therefore take no lodgings for me, to pay in my absence. The poor dean can't afford it. Farewell."

On a later trip Swift left Dublin on 9th April 1727 for a six-month visit to England. On his way back, he left Chester at 11am on Friday the 22nd September. The Holyhead Journal begins with Swift, his manservant Wat and an unnamed hired guide setting off from Elizabeth Kenna’s Chester inn, the "Golden Faulcon", in Northgate Street. From there he travelled seven miles and stopped at an ale-house, before going a further fifteen miles to Rhuddlan, where he spent the night, dineing on "bad meat, and tolerable wine". He left "a quarter after 4 morn. on Saturday" and overnighted again at Conway, before travelling on to Bangor. Swift and his servant then crossed the Menai Straits a few miles from Bangor and stayed at an inn 22 miles from Holyhead. Departing for Holyhead at 4 in the morning, Swift hoped to be in Holyhead in time for church on Sunday morning. Progress was slow, though, and with only 7 miles still to go, they had to stop at Llangefni for a 2 hour rest. Both Swift and his servant had problems with their horses and they walked the remaining few miles "on the rocky ways" before finally meeting a blacksmith. With three miles to go to Holyhead, they left their horses to be shoed "and walked to a hedge Inn 3 miles from Holyhead; There I stayd an hour, with no ale to be drunk. a Boat offered, and I went by Sea and Sayl in it to Holyhead". That Sunday evening, he slept in Holyhead. Swift was keen to get back to Ireland due to the illness of his close friend "Stella" (Esther Johnson). Whether or not she and Swift were secretly married, and if so why the marriage was never made public, is a subject of debate.

Swift remained in Holyhead for four days, all the while anxious for letters and news from Dublin. "I confine my self to my narrow chambr in all the unwalkable hours", he wrote, complaining that "The Master of the pacquet boat, one Jones, hath not treated me with the least civility, altho Watt gave him my name. In short: I come from being used like an Emperor to be used worse than a Dog on Holyhead". He had to stay in the town because of storms where he dined on good mutton, but "the worst ale in the world", and complained in his journal that none of the local farmers and shopkeepers spoke English. A boat eventually sailed, but met another storm and had to turn back. He finally got away on the first day of October 1727.

In 1769 John Bush in his Hibernia curiosa wrote of a journey to Ireland via Chester and suggests the running of the occasional stage-coach in prior to the 1779 service from Shrewsbury:

  • "From London our first course was to West Chester, distant from Ireland about 150 miles, and from London 190. From Chester there are two passages to Dublin, either of which may be taken as shall best suit the convenience of the traveller. The one from Park-Gate, a little seaport for packets and traders, about 12 miles below Chester. – The other over-land, for 80 or 90 miles, to Holy-Head, the most western point of North Wales, in the isle of Anglesey, and distant from Ireland about 23 Leagues. .. Those who shall take the Chester road, if they have much baggage to carry and are not fearful of the sea, will find the passage from Park-Gate much the easiest and the most convenient, as it is very troublesome and expensive getting heavy luggage for 90 miles over the mountainous country, wide and rapid ferry ways of North Wales. However, the passage over land is, of late years, made much safer and more convenient, by the making a turn-pike road through the country, and by the running of a coach or two from Chester to the Head, which they perform in two days very well; or otherwise you may be accommodated with horses and a guide from Chester quite on to the Head; the road to which lays through Flint, Denbigh, and Carnarvon counties; and the variety of land and sea prospects in fine weather, makes a ride over the mountainous country of North Wales extremely entertaining.."

There is further evidence of early stage coaches running from Chester to Holyhead found in the letters between Henry (Harry) and Frances unfortunately, the letters are not dated, but are from the 1750's:

  • "Wednesday. Chester. We arrived here, this Morning, through a very disagreeable Climate, and bad Roads. I have seen the Masters of the Ships from Parkgate, and they tell me that the Wind is not only obstinate against them, at present, but threatens to continue to, for some Time. This has determined my little merry Companion and me to set out To-morrow, in the Stage for Holyhead, to take the Advantage of the shortest Sea, and first shifting of the Sails, to make our Passage to Ireland. I was engaged in very agreeable Company this Evening, but my old Disorder has come upon me so severely, To-day, that I was obliged soon to quit them, and am now retired to write a few Lines to you, and wait for the Coach, as I don’t think two Hours, which is all that is allowed me, worth going to Bed for."

Before the use of steamships, a trip across the Irish sea took about 12 hours on average, but Parnell crossed it in 8 hours in May 1769, taking 3 days to get to Chester owing to a coach accident: it should have taken only 2 days. On his return in April 1770, a ferry load of passengers from Holyhead bound for Ireland had to return to Holyhead after 74 hours at sea, unable to land owing to a storm which lasted three days. This delayed everyone who was waiting to cross, causing Parnell and his party to be detained at Holyhead for about 60 hours.

The chief fount of information for travellers at one time was Ogilby’s Britannia, first printed in 1675. This Bowles' 1782 version of the Road Map from Chester via Hawarden (Harding), Denbigh, Conwy and Bangor to Holyhead. In places the "old road" crosses the coastal sands. The Bowles version is dated shortly after Bush describes coaches in his 1769 writings.

In the summer of 1785 the first regular official mail-coach from London via Chester to Holyhead was established, going by Northampton, Welford, Lutterworth, Hinckley, Atherstone, Tamworth, Lichfield, Wolseley Bridge, Stafford, Eccleshall, Woore, Nantwich, Tarporley, Chester, and St. Asaph. There had previously been a semi-official version of the service. Each Mail coach had priority on the route, paid no Turnpike dues and the Mail was protected by an armed Royal Mail Guard. Mail Coaches left the Swan with Two Necks Inn in London promptly at 8.00pm every evening and arrived at Holyhead 45.5 hours later. The stop at Chester included a meal break where food would be waiting, although even if the coach arrived late it would depart on time and thus the meal might be rushed. Over time the route was changed to miss out the dangerous crossing of the River Conway and the mountainous North Wales coast to an easier one via Shrewsbury thus the Mail coaches no longer came through Cheshire. It also shortened the journey to about 25 hours.

This, the main mail route to Holyhead until 1808, measured 278 miles 7 furlongs, and was the longest of all ways. Other roads for many years led by Oxford and Stratford-on-Avon, and were used by some of the smartest coaches to the end of the coaching age. The shortest route, the great “Parliamentary” road to Holyhead, measured 260½ miles. In 1808 the London, Birmingham, and Shrewsbury Mail, through Oxford, was extended to Holyhead, going by Llangollen, Corwen, and Capel Curig. It ran thus until 1817, when it was transferred to the direct Coventry route.

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. A description from the time shows how dangerous the route could be:

  • "Many parts are extremely dangerous for a coach to travel upon. From Llangollen to Corwen the road is very narrow, long, and steep; has no side fence, except about a foot and a half of mould or dirt, thrown up to prevent carriages falling down three or four hundred feet into the river Dee. Stage-coaches have been frequently overturned and broken down from the badness of the road, and the mails have been overturned. Between Maerdy, Pont-y-Glyn, and Dinas Hill, there are a number of dangerous precipices, steep hills, and difficult narrow turnings. At Dinas Hill the width of the road is not more than twelve feet at the steepest part of the hill, and with a deep precipice on one side; two carriages cannot pass without the greatest danger. At Ogwen Pool there is a very dangerous place, where the water runs over the road; extremely difficult to pass at flooded times."
The Grosvenor Bridge looking down a still River Dee - built between 1827-1833 in order to ease congestion on the Old Dee Bridge at Handbridge. It was built high above the river for shipping to pass: a very few years later (1846) the railway bridge downstream was very much lower.

"Ogwen Pool" is a reference to Llyn Ogwen. In 1801 Joseph Huddart and John Rennie had investigated the options for the routes between London and Dublin and particularly for the Irish Sea crossing they recommended that the crossing via Holyhead. In 1810 a Parliamentary Select Committee was established to inquire into the possible routes that could be improved from London to Holyhead. It was chaired by Sir Henry Parnell (1770–1842), the MP for Queen’s County in Ireland.

Crossing the Conwy

A major obstacle to travellers in the eighteenth century was the wide estuary of the River Conwy. The recognised points at which ferries operated were at Conwy itself, which was considered dangerous, and at Tal-y-cafn, some four miles inland; safer but requiring a considerable detour from the preferred route which otherwise lay along the coast from Chester. Tal-y-cafn would not get a bridge until 1897, but had other benefits over Conwy. In an account of 1811 Edmund Hyde Hall remarked on the crosssing at Conwy that:

  • "..the first improvement would unquestionably be the construction of a bridge which would do away with the evils of the ferry..".

William Bingley complained about the state of the ferry at Conwy:

  • "Their charges ought to be a penny for every person on foot, except with respect to those who come in the public coaches or in post chaises, who are required, though from what principle I cannot learn, to pay a shilling each; two pence for a man and horse, and half-a-crown a wheel for carriages. Instead of the latter fare, I have myself known them, with the most impudent assurance possible, charge half a guinea for a gig and after that importune for liquor. They are besides so much their own masters that I am told they will only take over the boat when they think proper and in this manner persons have been frequently delayed in their journey three four or more hours without the possibility on their part of preventing it."

This debate eventually resulted in a more direct route for the main London to Holyhead road as demanded by the Irish MPs at Westminster. Though this route bypassed Chester, roads to Holyhead from Manchester, Liverpool and the north-west of England still converged there and then came along the coast through Conwy. Since the Afon Conwy was navigable to Llanrwst and beyond, any bridge had to be at a high level to allow ships to pass underneath. In March, 1819 Sir Henry Parnell introduced a Bill into Parliament one of the objects of which was the improvement of the road between Chester and Holyhead. The news was received enthusiastically in Chester and a public meeting decided to give every support to the project, through its M.P., stressing the importance of a bridge at Conway to replace the sometimes dangerous and always inconvenient ferry. No doubt one consideration in Chester would have been the possible loss to Chester's Irish Trade if the main route was to be through Shrewsbury. Chester's Grosvenor Bridge was to a large part a response to Telford's A5 route and the percieved threat to the historic Irish trade through Chester when Telford was appointed to the new road project in 1815.

By 1819, the mail coach normally left London at 8pm and arrived in Dublin, favourable winds permitting, early evening two days later. Improvements continued slowly, and by the time Thomas Telford had completed his Shrewsbury and Bangor Ferry Turnpike road with improvements through Shrewsbury, Llangollen, Betws-y-coed to Bangor in 1819, and his Menai Suspension Bridge in 1826, the London to Holyhead journey by road and ship was down to under 30 hours. At the same time as the Holyhead Road was being constructed, Telford was commissioned to rebuild and renew the road from Bangor (or Llandegai) to Conwy as part of the improvements to the Holyhead to Chester route. In 1836 and the last two years of its existence, the stagecoach journey from London to Holyhead was performed in 26 hours 55 minutes; the arrival timed for 10.55 p.m.

Linen and Railways

The original "Lining Hall" is shown in the Lavaux Map of Chester.

Connexions with Ireland were again evident in the brief flourishing of linen imports in the later 18th century. For a short time by far the greatest share of trade at the fairs in Chester came to be linen. The linen trade had developed through Chester in the late 17th Century. By 1700 it reached 61,400 yards of imports (about 40 miles) and by the 1780's the trade reached its maximum of some five and a half million yards (over 3,000 miles) was imported. The first Linenhall had opened off Northgate Street in the 1740's, and was in premises adapted by innkeeper William Smith. In 1743–4 Smith built 29 small shops, furnished with counters and a gallery, which were let during the fairs to linen drapers, all of whom came from Dublin except for one from Liverpool. By 1746 Smith had built a further 14 shops at the southern end of the original structure, also let mostly to Dublin drapers. By 1749 the hall had been enlarged again with the addition of another 22 shops on the northern side, all of which were let to traders from Dublin and Liverpool by 1752. Drapers from elsewhere, including Wolverhampton, Shrewsbury, Drogheda, and Chester itself, took up shops in 1754 and 1755, and a second linen hall was built close to Smith's by Charles Boswell between 1755 and 1762. By 1755 the linen fair had also spread to the Exchange.

27th October 1758 saw the loss of the vessel variously described as "Dublin"; "Dublin Trader", "Dublin Merchant" or "Chester Trader". There are reports that she struck on a sandbank on leaving the Dee Estuary and then continued on her voyage. Reports from 12 November 1758 describe wreckage found around the Mull of Galloway in Scotland. The passengers were almost all eminent Dublin linen-drapers and shop-keepers returning from Chester Fair. It was reported that the Dublin was an old vessel and had an inadequate crew: just 3 sailors plus a boy, as well as the master, Captain White.

A second, much larger Linenhall opened in 1778 on land between Stanley Street and the vanished Linenhall Place. It comprised a rectangular courtyard from which their cloth was distributed by wagon and pack horse throughout the country, around which were arranged 36 double shops to east and west and 23 single shops to north and south, all built in brick. All 95 shops were let in 1778, mostly to Irish traders.

However trade fell off equally quickly as English merchants began to deal directly with the Irish, the Belfast-Liverpool route grew in importance over the Dublin-Chester route, cotton became cheaper and the River Dee continued to silt. In 1785 65.1% of the consignments despatched from Dublin were destined for England and 41% of those were consigned to Liverpool, with Chester only having 2% of the trade. In contrast the number of consignments from Chester to Dublin in 1785 was 340 (24% of English imports into Dublin) with only 232 from Liverpool. By the 1830's the Linen trade was all but dead and even at it's peak the trade could not have done more than enrich a few rather rather than provide any lasting industry. Of the buildings associated with the fairs, the Old Linenhall was dilapidated in 1831 but still used as shops and warehouses. It had disappeared by 1872 and was presumably destroyed when St. Werburgh Street was extended. The New Linenhall survived as the cheese market until its closure in 1876, and was eventually replaced by stabling for Chester races.

The Linenhall as shown on an 1873 map. This shows the significant size of the building and the large square that it enclosed.

Between 1762 and 1840 key elements of Chester's traditional economy withered and finally died, and the city struggled to find new roles. Previously important manufacturing trades vanished and were replaced only in part by new industries. The port declined so drastically that by 1840 Chester's wharves were of little importance, and the city also suffered problems with its road and canal traffic. The Irish linen trade reached its zenith and then disappeared rapidly, and the traditional fairs and markets were undermined by changes in the patterns of distribution. The most important commodity in the early 19th century was cheese. In the late 18th and early 19th century Chester was not a propitious place in which to establish new industries. It was not on a coalfield, and water power was restricted to the weir on the Dee, which was affected by the tide. The hinterland was mainly rural and was poorly served by transport. There seems also to have been a lack of enterprise on the part of Cestrians, and the residual power of the city guilds may have restrained development. It was observed in 1814 that:

  • "corporate privileges are not often calculated to foster commerce, and in this city, although we mark the infancy of several manufactures, few arrive at maturity"

The influence of the guilds did not ebb as quickly as in other towns, due mainly to their subvention by the Owen Jones charity. Their final decay came about in part because of restrictions on membership imposed in order to maximize existing members' benefits from the charity, but their authority was destroyed finally in 1825 when an unsuccessful case was brought against a tanner for trading when not a freeman. Lead was the only other modern manufacturing industry to be established successfully between 1762 and 1840. In 1800 Walkers, Maltby & Co. set up a Leadworks on the banks of the Chester and Nantwich canal. The proprietors were not freemen of Chester and the business was initially in jeopardy from a reassertion of old restrictions, which it was only able to evade because some of the owners were freemen of the City of London. The River Dee Company failed to maintain an adequate navigable channel to Chester, but even if it had, it is questionable whether any significant challenge to Liverpool could have been mounted, not least because the city lacked a merchant community with enterprise and strong enough overseas links. Telford's improvements to the Shrewsbury-Holyhead road were largely complete by 1818, and the last through Royal Mail service from Chester to London was abandoned in 1829.

Steam Packets

Steam had an impact on the travel between Chester and Dublin long before the advent of the railways. In July 1818 the ninety-tons paddle steamer Rob Roy, the first ever steam-powered ship built specifically for use at sea, began operating on the Irish Sea between Greenock in Scotland and Belfast. In July the following year a private company, the Dublin Steam Packet Company, began running the 150-ton steam boat Talbot between Holyhead and Dublin. Talbot was built by John Wood and Co, Port Glasgow 1819, 150grt, 93 x 17 x 11 ft. It had two 30 hp engines by David Napier, Glasgow, and was registered and owned at Greenock.

The Ivanhoe was added to the crossing the following year. The Dublin-Liverpool Post Office packet service which began operations on 29 August 1826 was established in response to requests from commercial interests in both Dublin and the north-east of England, for a quicker service between the two cities than that which already operated out of Holyhead.

Steamers had greatly improved ferry services on the Dee and Mersey estuaries. For the first time, ferries could publish a timetable and keep to it. This at first benefited the stage-coach industry which had introduced improved services based on the new ferries and their much more regular and predictable timings. By 1830 stage-coaches were enjoying a "golden age" on the Irish Route through Chester and on to the steam-packets.


"Viaduct, Tunnel & Sea Wall at the foot of Penmaen Mawr" drawn by S. Russell, published June 1st 1849. This shows the difficulties inherent in a route along the North Wales coast between Chester and Holyhead.

From 1841 Chester enjoyed thirty boom years. The main evidence is the extent of migration to the city, but prosperity was reflected also in a large rise in the number of businesses and in the amount of rebuilding in the city centre. It was the arrival of the railways which reasserted Chester's importance for transport and consolidated its function as a service centre for the region.

During the late 1830's there was much discussion of the possible route of an improved rail and sea communication with Dublin. The proposed, competing routes were:

  • By rail from London to Chester (via Rugby and Crewe), and then onwards by rail through Flint, Conway and Bangor to Holyhead, where the small existing port would need improvement. The sea crossing would be 63 miles. Apart from a few short sections (near the Great Orme, for example) the railway would run along a flat coastal strip from Chester to Bangor, and few tunnels would be needed. This was largely a traditional route from Chester to Angelsey, used by the Romans and various Norman and later English invaders over the centuries.
  • By rail from London to Shrewsbury, and thence up the valley of the upper River Dee and through hills and mountains to Llangollen, Corwen, Bala, Barmouth, Portmadoc and Porth Dinllaen (near Nefyn). From the latter there would be a sea-crossing to Dublin only slightly longer than that from Holyhead.. While a shorter rail route, this would have been expensive to build due to the terrain, but avoided the difficult cross of Menai. A similar railway line was later built, but only survives in part today. The great advocate of Porth Dinllaen was Henry Archer, Secretary of the Ffestiniog Railway Company, who engaged the services of Charles Vignoles to survey the route in 1835.
  • London to Liverpool by rail, and then by sea to Dublin, a crossing of 138 miles. This involved a longer sea-crossing and the Irish Sea crossing was both notorious in poor weather and needed pilotage from Holyhead into Liverpool.
  • Via Gloucester and New Quay in Cardigan Bay - a route favoured by Brunel, making use of his broad-gauge. The crossing to Dublin would be quite long.

Fortunately for Chester, the route chosen was that along the north Wales coast. There was powerful support for the Chester and Holyhead Railway (CHR) from Robert Peel. Peel had been MP for Tamworth from the election of 1830 and therefore he was supporting a scheme which would take the railway through his own constituency in the Trent Valley.

Chester political interests responded quickly and John Uniacke, Mayor of Chester, told the Town Council that he was confident that the projected line from the city to Holyhead would proceed. A meeting in London in May 1840 was attended by important CHR personnel and chaired by the Marquis of Westminster, who confirmed the confidence expressed by Uniacke. The meeting particularly noted that the London Birmingham Railway and the Dublin Chamber of Commerce supported them, and then unanimously endorsed a proposal to proceed to parliament to obtain approval for the CHR. Daniel O’Connell confirmed the support of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. However matters then stalled in political wrangling.

Special mail trains began operating on completed rail sections between Liverpool and London, the first on 7 May 1837. As early as December 1837 mail began to be sorted on board the train. This proved so successful that just a year later, in May 1838, the Post Office commissioned purpose-built sorting carriages for use between London and Liverpool. Four months after the completed London-Liverpool line was opened to the public on 24 September 1838, all mail between Dublin and London was routed via Liverpool and the Holyhead packet station was moved to Liverpool. Using the railway and steamers via Liverpool the mail could now reach Dublin from London in 22 hours, despite the longer sea crossing. It was moved again, in September 1840, to Birkenhead after a spur railway line was opened between there and Chester. All London mail continued to be routed through Birkenhead until August 1848, when the railway reached Holyhead, and it once again became the main packet station.

The layout of the railway at Hoole in Chester in 1846. The Chester and Birkenhead Railway and the Chester and Crewe Railway had separate stations.

While a route from Crewe to Birkenhead via Chester would have been shorter there was at first no connection between the Chester and Crewe Railway and the Chester and Birkenhead Railway. The Chester and Birkenhead Railway had assumed friendly relations with the Chester and Crewe Railway (C&CR), and it depended on the C&CR for access to the railway network. During the construction phase of the C&CR it simply ran out of money, and on 1 July 1840 it was taken over by the Grand Junction Railway. The GJR was in close partnership with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and were discouraged from collaborating with the Chester and Birkenhead, which the L&MR regarded as a competitor, so this was a serious setback; a number of collaborative schemes at Chester between the two companies were now unlikely to be possible. Each company would have its own station at Chester, although there would be a connecting line by-passing both. After the Chester–Crewe line was opened on 1 October 1840, the GJR train times at Chester were contrived to avoid any convenient change of trains to the C&BR, and at first this went as far as the Irish mails having to be carried across the street in Chester from one station to the other, even though there was a through track.

The Chester and Holyhead Railway was thus conceived to improve transmission of Government dispatches between London and Ireland, as well as ordinary railway objectives. Its construction was hugely expensive, chiefly due to the cost of building the Britannia Tubular Bridge over the Menai Strait. The company had relied on Government support in facilitating the ferry service, and this proved to be uncertain. Work commenced on the Chester and Holyhead Railway, with the backing of the London and Birmingham Railway, appropriately enough on St David’s Day 1 March 1845, at Chester, Conwy and Bangor. Robert Stephenson, son of George was appointed Engineer. Francis Thompson was appointed Architect. Thompson would design Chester Station. The stretch of line between Chester and Saltney Junction, approximately 2 miles was opened on the 4 November 1846, for traffic on the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway. On the 24 May 1847 Stephenson’s reputation took a knock when one his bridges, over the River Dee, collapsed. But undaunted, he pressed on to open the remaining 58 miles of North Wales line as far as Bangor on 1 May 1848.

The first Irish Mail was operated by the London & North Western Railway on 1 August 1848. As the Britannia Bridge had yet to be completed, the first services terminated at Bangor and recommenced at Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. The company opened its main line throughout in 1850: at a half-yearly shareholders' meeting in March 1850, it was stated that the Britannia Bridge had cost £674,000, three times Stephenson's estimate. The Holyhead station was more than a mile from the pier, and the line was extended to reach it much later, in 1851. Attitudes of the time may be seen in the speech at the opening of the Anglesey Central Railway when Sir Richard Bulkeley, a prime mover of the CHR project, told the audience that:

  • "Not until the Saxons of old got possession of the island [of Anglesey] were they ever able to hold and keep possession of the country [of North Wales]; and this railway now penetrated through its very heart. […] He never saw any country so much in want of civilization as a certain portion of the line through which they came that day."

The Chester and Holyhead Railway were assured of the contract to bring the mail to Holyhead by rail, but to warrant the large investment made they hoped to win the sea voyage contract as well. In 1848 four new ships were acquired so that they could vie for the sea voyage portion of the Irish Mail contract. These were the Anglia, Cambria, Hibernia and Scotia. They were iron paddle steamers powered by single expansion engines, each capable of 14-knots. In 1849, the sea voyage portion of the Irish Mail contract from Holyhead to Kingstown (later renamed Dun Laoghaire) was put out to tender. The contract was awarded to the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (CofDSPCo), and the Chester & Holyhead Railway Company were bitterly disappointed. CofDSPCo purchased RMS Saint Columba and RMS Llwywllyn from the Admiralty. The ships of the Chester & Holyhead carried passengers, cargo, and livestock to the Irish port of Kingstown, and also cargo and cattle to North Wall port in Dublin. In 1853, as the result of an agreement made with a Select Committee of the Commons, it was agreed that four new mail ships would be purchased by the CofDSPCo, each capable of crossing the Irish Sea in three and three-quarter hours. As the ships of the CofDSPCo also carried paying passengers this gave them a distinct advantage over the Chester & Holyhead ships, which took five hours to make a crossing. The Chester & Holyhead was taken over by the London and North Western Railway in 1859.

The two Menai bridges. The suspension bridge in the distance was opened on 30 January 1826 to great fanfare. Its completion, along with other improvements to the road by Telford, reduced travel time from London to Holyhead from 36 hours to 27. The rebuilt Britannia rail bridge in the foreground was originally constructed by Robert Stephenson and opened on 5 March 1850. Rather than being a tubular bridge the new span is now supported by arches. A single railway track carries the trains to and from Holyhead. On top of this is a roadway carrying traffic on the A55 Expressway.

By 1885, journey times on the London to Dublin night mail had been cut to ten hours and 20 minutes. The Irish Mail operated twice daily in each direction, although this was reduced to daily during World War II. When trouble flared in Dublin at Easter 1916 and then after the end of the First World War, the line from Holyhead was a conduit for troops and equipment in one direction and prisoners in the other. It also carried the Irish negotiators between London and Dublin as a settlement was finally reached. During WW1 the Kingstown-Holyhead mailboat RMS Leinster was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine UB-123, which was under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Robert Ramm, on 10 October 1918, while bound for Holyhead. Ten days after the sinking of the RMS Leinster, UB-123 detonated a mine while trying to cross the North Sea and return to base in Germany. There were no survivors.

For many Irish migrants, the Irish Mail route to Euston proved a depressing introduction to England. Reardon Connor recalled in "A Plain Tale from the Bogs" (1937) how

  • "From Chester onwards there is nothing but flatlands and sights of industry, mine-tops, slag heaps, fields of green that seem sickly after the emerald grass of Ireland, cows of a colour and shape never seen on the other side of the Irish Sea, wagon-loads of coal, poultry farms, and very rarely the sight of even a low hill"

On the night of 23 May 1970, a fire took hold in the Britannia Bridge. The fire was very severe, and so intense that the main tubes buckled and were unusable. The line had to be closed at that point. A new bridge superstructure was designed, capable of carrying rail and road traffic on separate levels; it was a braced arch structure, using the original foundations. The crossing was reopened to rail traffic on 30 January 1972, and to road traffic in 1980


Although Chester's population doubled between 1841 and 1911, its social character changed little. The city was polarized between a middle- and upper-class population whose income came from land, agriculture, trade, and, increasingly, inherited wealth, and a working class employed in declining manufactures or in unskilled and casual jobs in the service sector. The distinctive economic base meant that Chester lacked both a significant class of industrial capitalists and a sizeable skilled working class employed in modern industries.

During the summer of 1845, a "blight of unusual character" devastated Ireland's potato crop, the basic staple in the Irish diet. A few days after potatoes were dug from the ground, they began to turn into a slimy, decaying, blackish "mass of rottenness." Expert panels convened to investigate the blight's cause suggested that it was the result of "static electricity" or the smoke that billowed from railroad locomotives or the "mortiferous vapours" rising from underground volcanoes. Over the next ten years, more than 750,000 Irish died and another 2 million left their homeland for Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Within five years, the Irish population was reduced by a quarter.

Natural increase ensured that Chester's population rose continuously, but between 1841 and 1871 and again in the 1890s it was augmented by migration. Large numbers of Irish people came to Chester during the Famine, in 1851 forming 7.3 per cent of the population (some 2000 people). The Roman Catholic presence in the city from the mid 19th century was very largely of Irish origin. 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. In comparison, more than 20% of Liverpool's population was Irish by 1851.

Daniel O'Connell M.P. lying in state in St Werburgh, Queen Street. O'Connell died in Genoa, but after his death was taken back to Ireland.

Irish migration to Chester peaked in the mid 19th century and then declined somewhat: by 1901 the level had fallen to 3 per cent (though of a considerably larger total population), and in 1991 stood at about 2 per cent. In the 2011 census 1% of the population of Chester described themselves as Irish. Until the 1750s there was no permanently resident Roman Catholic priest in Chester, masses being said either by a gentleman's chaplain, typically from Hooton Hall in Wirral or the Fitzherberts' house. From 1758, however, an almost continuous series of settled priests can be traced.

In 1799 the congregation built and registered a chapel on the west side of Queen Street. It was largely paid for by the Irish merchants who headed the list of those for whom perpetual masses were afterwards said. They were very likely men who frequented Chester on business (probably the linen trade) rather than permanent residents.

The position of the Irish poor in England was complicated by the provisions of the Poor Law. This was largely aimed at settled poor rather than vagrants or refugees and was initially administered via the church.

The main Irish district in the city throughout the 19th century was around Steven Street in Boughton, while Irish people were always to be found elsewhere in Chester, they were not quite confined in a ghetto. Father John Briggs stated in The Chester Courant in 1847 that there were 469 Irish people living in Steven Street alone, most of them sleeping three to a bed and sometimes only on straw. On 14 February 1847 the Chronicle reports over 300 destitute Irish are relieved with soup, coal and money from Father Carberry and his Charity. The newspaper notes these:

  • "unfortunate and starving creatures were huddled up in large numbers in very confined and filthy dwellings"

The 1848 typhus epidemic in Chester occured at the same time as a typhus epidemic which killed over 10,000 people in England and Wales and particularly affected Lancashire and Cheshire. It has been proposed that the typhus epidemic was caused by large-scale emigration from Ireland due to the potato-blight famine which was accompanied by a typhus epidemic in Ireland. The Chester Chronicle, even though its somewhat snobbish and anti-Irish editor Hemingway had died in 1837 was still vehemently anti-Irish in the 1840's and probably exagerated the detrimental effects of migration.

Another description makes this community "poor, riotous, tight-knit and happy". In December 1880, Irish children were given tickets entitling them to free meals at the Town Hall, and at one point clogs were handed out, because so few of them had adequate footwear.

An almost comically abortive Fenian plot against Chester Castle took place in 1867. 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 the 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. The plan was discovered and thwarted on the eve of its proposed execution.

Trade Chronology

  • 841: Viking camp established at Dublin;
  • 1160-1201: various charters granted on Chester's trade with Ireland;
  • 1397-1399: Richard II raises Chester to a principality with himself as Prince;
  • 1410-1420: Chester imports more wine than in any decade 1350 and 1510;
  • 1460-1500: Dubliners, probably with some Norman or Anglo-Norman ancestry at times dominated the Irish Sea trade to the exclusion of Cestrians;
  • 1500-1550: prices for skins in the luxury market rose significantly between 1500 and 1550, marten tripling in price and otter quadrupling, and Irish skins were sold in London after preparation in Chester. In 1536 Chester was brought into the national customs system for leather and in 1537-8 customs duties were paid on 10,681 tanned hides in five Spanish and five Chester ships;
  • 1550-1600: work on the New Quay at Neston continued.
  • 1600-1605: war with Ireland - Chester was the military supply base;
  • 1605-1640: generally expanding trade between Chester and Ireland, benefitted from the putting down of pirates in the Irish sea;
  • 1641-1650: violent dislocation of trade through Irish Rebellion and English Civil War. Ireland was left much ruined by the Cromwelliam Wars;
  • 1650-1680: recovery of trade, with especial importance of the Irish cattle trade. Government legislation began to interfere with the trade in the earlier 1660s by imposing duties on imported live cattle, followed in 1667 by a total ban. Smuggling flourished, and when the Act temporarily lapsed in 1679 the trade resumed on a large scale: in 1680 more than 12,700 head of cattle and over 41,000 sheep were imported;
  • 1681-1735: a period of declining trade, especialyy due to the governmental ban on importing live cattle from Ireland. The ban was reimposed in 1681, forcing Chester's leather industry into a greater dependence on imported Irish skins and hides, which numbered 3,000 or more a year c. 1705 but became fewer in the later 1710s. By 1700 the linen trade had become significant;
  • 1735-1775: the reconstruction of the Dee failed to recover the Irish trade. Trade moved from importation of leather related goods to linen;
  • 1775-1820: the linen trade saw a peak in the 1780's, but the rest of this period saw the final decay of the Irish trade, when almost all of it moved to Liverpool.

Sources and Links

The collection of Ring-head crosses at St Johns, Chester, possibly provides the best early physical evidence of cultural exchange with Ireland.

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