Hunter Street

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The area around the future site of Hunter Street in 1825.
James Hunter: engraving by Albin R Burt.

Hunter Street runs downhill from Northgate Street to St Martin's Way. As recently as 1825 (see this 1825 Map) this was largely open ground behind the backs of buildings in Princess Street and King Street. Even later maps show significant areas not yet built-upon well into the 20th Century. The Street is named after James Hunter, originally as "Hunter's Passage".

James Hunter (1752-1826) was an engraver who lived and worked in Chester, mostly around the Chester Cathedral - in Eastgate St, Northgate St, Werburghs Church-yard. Historical directories also list him as a carver, gilder and copperplate printer. In about 1815 Hunter had rooms with the miniature painter and silhouettist Albin R Burt, at the end of what is now Hunter Street. A "1789 Survey of the Ancient & Loyal City of Chester", surveyed by noted local canal engineer Samuel Weston was engraved and published by Hunter - which seems a little strange as Weston left Chester for the south of England after 1774 and in 1788-89 was surveying the Western Thames Canal. Burt trained primarily as an engraver and his work was exhibited twice at the Royal Academy, in 1807 and 1830 – both portraits. However, engraving was far from his sole trade. The one trade label discovered boasts of his having painted over 4,000 profile miniatures. Also mentioned is a “New invented machine by which the most accurate likeness can be taken...”. His brother was secretary to Lord Nelson and his mother a friend of Emma Hamilton.

An engraving of Hunter by Burt survives. Oddly, this is dated after the death of Hunter, so may have taken some time to complete or publish. There is a further connection between Burt and Nelson: Burt's nine-year-old son Nelson Burt (named after the admiral) drowned during the River Mersey hurricane of 5/6th December 1822, and is buried at St Lawrence's Church, Stoak. Burt and his son were both aboard the Ellesmere packet boat "Prince Regent" when it collided with a Mersey Flat. The boy was drowned and the elder Burt survived having been thrown onto the flat. Burt later collected dark pebbles from the shore at Parkgate and spelled out the boy's name "NELSON" in the pathway in front of the cottage he rented in Parkgate during the summer. They can still be seen today opposite the Old Quay on the corner of Station Road. Curiously, Emma Hamilton once stayed at the house next door.

For a city center location Hunter Street remained remarkably undeveloped until about 1900, when some large, detatched private houses were built on the north side of the street. However it has a remarkably rich history in terms of archaeology, with finds from the prehistoric, Roman and Viking periods.

Prehistoric Hunter Street

The jadeite axe head found by Newstead in Hunter Street.

There have been a large number of Neolithic axe-head finds in Cheshire, including one from Chester itself found in Hunter Street (the location was at SJ 40330 66480), in 1914.

The stone from which the Hunter Street axe-head is constructed is Alpine jadeite and so it must have travelled a considerable distance. The excavations were carried out by Professor Robert Newstead, curator of Grosvenor Museum, in 1909 and 1914. The find was made in the garden, to the west of the Masonic Hall which was built in the early 20th century and has since been demolished. Cartographic evidence indicates that the Masonic Hall had not been built in 1911, but Newstead states that he had been given permission to excavate in its garden in 1914 (Newstead 1928), so it must have been built by this latter date. This rules-out any possible association between the jade axe-head and the Masonic Hall. In 2006, Earthworks Archaeology conducted an evaluation on the former bowling green, just a few metres from Newstead’s excavations, though in this investigation no evidence for prehistoric activity was found.

Over 100 axe heads made from jadeite quarried in northern Italy in the Neolithic era have been found across the British Isles. Most of them have been accidental and isolated, so there is no sense of a pattern. These jadeite axe heads were not everyday tools for felling trees and chopping wood – they were sacred and precious ceremonial objects. They may have been symbols of status or involved in some form of "gift exchange". The green colour of jade might itself have been significant, as copies were sometimes made elsewhere using local greenish rock.

The jadeite axe in the Grosvenor Museum.

The makers of these axeheads climbed to heights of 1800–2450 metres in the Italian Alps to extract the rare and prized rock from the sout-east foot of Monte Viso, some 60 km south-west of Turin, and Monte Beigua part of the Voltri massif, immediately to the north-west of Genoa. They took blocks and roughed-out axeheads down to their villages to finish them there, before exporting them. From these 2 quarries, Jade axe-heads circulated for considerable distances — that is 3,300 km from the West to the East, Ireland to Bulgaria, and more than 2,000 km from the North to the South, Denmark to Sicily — through Western Europe during the fifth and forth millenniums B.C.

The axeheads travelled north-westwards through France, passing through many hands. Finds of jade axes are strewn across Europe. In Brittany (France) they were buried in numbers with the dead. Some were re-shaped and re-polished during their journey. Most would have been at least 100 years old. They would have been treasured heirlooms, each with its own story. Sometimes, the axe-heads appear to have been deliberately buried, although it is not known whether the axe-head found at Chester was in an original burial site or had been moved at some later time. The main period of production for very long-distance movement seems to have ended by 4000BC.

However, that was not to be the end of interest in the axe-heads, they may have been collected deliberately in the Roman period for religious or superstitious reasons. The frequency with which Stone Age axe-heads, which includes Palaeolithic hand-axes as well as Neolithic specimens, are found in Gaulish temples of Roman date is consistent with their presence as votive objects: 44 Palaeolithic hand-axes were recovered from the Roman religious complex at Ivy Chimneys, Witham, Essex. As the hand-axes were considered to have derived from several sources, and it was thought that the Romano-British occupants of the site deliberately selected them and placed them in the bottom of two man-made depressions, these may have been considered to represent ‘thunderbolts’ in the worship of Jupiter or a local equivalent. Roman writers such as Pliny (Natural History XXXVII, 9) and Suetonius (Life of Galba VIII, 4) appear to allude to the supernatural origin of stone hand-axes and axe-heads. Newsteads description of the context of the axe-head find is rather brief:

  • "A stone axe (fig. 2) was found a few feet south of room 4, at a low level, just above the rock. It is beautifully polished, and a very good example of the thin-butted type belonging to the New Stone Age. Its discovery, hereabouts, is particularly noteworthy, as it is the first of its kind found at Chester."

This lack of any detail as to it simply being "at a low level" allows for the possibility that the axe head may have been relocated by the Romans or others.

In Medieval and early post-Medieval times, axe-heads were also regarded as ‘thunderbolts’ and it was only contact with the New World stone-using groups from the 16th century onwards which led to them being recognised as the products of human hands. These stones had a protective function and were thought to guard the house, property, and family of their keepers agains lightning strikes, and other episodes of misfortune and illness.

Roman Hunter Street

Roman remains were discovered during the constuction of the original Odeon cinema - the initial dig unearthed some interesting Roman and medieval remains, which were put on show in the upper lounge and remained until the cinema closed. Little is known of this part of the Roman fortress, but further excavation was possible when the Odeon was being converted into Storyhouse. Amongst the Roman finds were fragments from a diverse range of pottery vessels dating to between the late 1st and 4th centuries AD, along with fragments from ceramic roofing tiles. Some of the tiles were stamped during manufacture with the mark of the Twentieth Legion, whilst others bore the paw prints of animals as they walked across the soft clay of the tiles before the tiles were fired. Archaeologists investigating the site in preparation for its conversion also found two Roman road surfaces – with the earlier one made of small pebbles and the later one comprising sandstone cobbles on top.

A building to the north of the Roman road may have served as the private quarters for a Roman general or other high-status individual. Chester was a slightly larger legionary fortress than the norm. The extra space was, it has been suggested, required for the imperial governor of Britain and his staff (Mason 2001, 91-5, fig 93; 2002, 47, fig III IV.14; 2012, 102-8), though its actual significance remains a matter for debate. Certainly, the plan of the fortress as a whole gives the impression of a standard layout modified and distorted to accommodate additional structures, presumably for some very specific, and highly important, purpose, whilst the stone wall enclosing the fortress also seems to have been unusually elaborate (Mason 2012, 97).

The northwest quadrant of the city in the 1950's, before the ring road.

Viking Hunter Street

During excavations in 1971 and 1981 a Viking style brooch was found in Hunter Street, as well as some Saxon paving dating from the 10th/11th Cent. Æthelflæd's refortification of Chester was part of a larger strategic intent (see: Chester in 900). At the time the Danes had occupied much of the North Sea coast and were in a position to threaten the Mercian political center at Tamworth. Meanwhile the Hiberno-Norse had invaded parts of Wirral and much of coastal Lancashire and Cumbria. The Cheshire plain offered an easy line of approach to Tamworth assuming landings along the Dee and Mersey estuaries, so Æthelflæd and her brother built a line of "burhs" (fortified sites) at Chester, Eddisbury, Runcorn and Manchester. At Chester and Manchester this involved the use of Roman fortifications, whereas at Eddisbury an Iron-Age hill-fort was re-used. The reality of the danger was emphasized in 920 when a Norse army from Dublin landed and penetrated as far as Davenport in Cheshire.

The west side of the Market Square from Batenham, shows Cholmondley house and the building which stood on the site of the present day Shropshire Arms. The "shed" is part of the "Shambles". The half-timbered house was the home of James Hunter, an engraver and printer, after whom Hunter Street is named. The building on the far right is the Judges Lodgings, later demolished to make way for the Odeon, now "Storyhouse".

In 902, a Hiberno-Norse community settled in Wirral after its expulsion from Dublin, arriving somewhere between "Vestri-Kirkubyr" (West Kirby) and "Melr" (Meols). The exiles, led by one Hingamund, were granted land in Wirral by Æthelflæd and soon established a community with a clearly defined border, its own leader, its own language (Norse), a trading port, and at its centre a place of assembly or government (þing vollr) - the "Thing" at Thingwall. According to some they also brought their religion with them to "Thor's Stone" (Mjollnir) at "Thorsteinn's farmstead", now Thurstaston Hill. "Thor's Stone" appears to be a mistranslation, whereas the actual name is based on the farm.

It is also possible that the Norwegian "Labskause" may have come to this part of the country at that time and survived as "scouse" From AD 910 to 1066 a significant number of moneyers and landowners bearing Norse names appear in Chester. The proportion of moneyers with Norse names appears to have been far higher than at many mints elsewhere in England, even during the period of Scandinavian rule by King Canute (1017–35) and his sons Harald (until 1040) and Hardacanute (1042), when one would expect them to be ubiquitous.

An early Commercial Directory in the library at Storyhouse shows there was never much in Hunter Street.

By Canute’s time a strong Scandinavian community appears to have been well established in the southern part of the city. The existence of this community is reflected in some street names: Clippe Gate (near the Bridgegate) and Wolfeld’s Gate (the old name for Newgate) possibly derive from the Norse personal names of the man Klyppr and woman Úlfhildr respectively. There is also Crook Street (Old Norse: from the man’s name Krókr, meaning "hook" - as in crochet - or bent/crooked - and said to be originally bestowed on a devious schemer).

In the late 1980's archaeology revealed a metal-working site at Hunter Street dating from 13th-14th century. Clay fragments indicated the remains of a bell-like mould which had had been used to cast something cylyndircal made of a bronze (copper-tin) alloy with traces of lead. This does not appear to have been a bell, but was possibly a pharmacy mortar. Mortar casting a bell casting would probably be done by the same artisans and Chester does appear to have had a bell-founders company who took part in the Chester Mystery Plays although very little is known of them other that the fact that they assisted the Dyers in the production of Antichrist. If the Bellfounders also made mortars for grinding dye-stuffs this could have provided a loose association.

Kirkton House

This Ruabon brick building was the family home and doctor's surgery of Dr Robin Taylor before being occupied by solicitors. It had originally been built as the house of a doctor around 1900. It was planned for demolition as part of the Northgate Development, but survived when the development was put on hold. Due to changes in the plans it may well survive well beyond the present (2018).

Freemasons Hall

Until its demolition in 2007, Hunter Street was the home to Freemasons Hall. The history of Freemasonry in Chester can be traced back several hundred years, when Lodges were originally ‘Operative’ (i.e actual Stonemasons), but few records exist. However, the Initiation of Elias Ashmole at Warrington in Cheshire in 1646 is recorded in his diary and papers of the ‘Old Chester Lodge’ around the same period are in the British Museum. Following the formation of Grand Lodge in London 1717, Cheshire was the first Province to be recognised in 1725 when three ‘Time Immemorial Lodges’ were registered and the title ‘Provincial Grand Master’ first used.

The copper-alloy "Jellinge" Irish-Norse brooch found in excavations at Hunter Street.

The Freemasons Hall, which faced on to Hunter Street, was built in 1909, and demolished in June 2007. In the "Demolition Method Statement" it was stated that "items of architectural salvage will be recovered, stored safely and passed to the client for incorporation into the new development", so the building should not be entirely lost. The Hall was home to four separate "lodges": Deva, Memory, Bridgegate and St Marys. While some sources state that these were the four "founding lodges" Memory was consecrated in 1921 and Bridgegate in 1944. Deva Lodge had been established in 1837, changed it's name to Deva in 1839 and ceased to meet arounf 1856. The new Deva Lodge was formed in 1910. Bridgegate Lodge has an interesting history, as the Bridgegate in Chester once bore a plate inscribed "AL 5782" as noted by Hanshall:

The Northgate Development plan has Goss Street extended as far as Hunter Street via a new "Market Square".
  • "On a tablet over the western postern arch is inscribed: This Gate was begun April mdcclxxxii Pat tison Ellames Esa Mayor and finished December THE SAME YEAR ThOS PaTTON Estt MaYOR Thos Cotgreave Esa Henry Hesketh Esa Joseph Turner Architect. On a Tablet on the eastern side. This Gate having been long inconvenient was taken down adm dcc lxxxi Joseph Snow Esa Mayor Thos Amery Henry Hegg Murengers Treasurers. Much form was observed in laying the foundation of this Gate. The first stone was placed in its situation by the Mayor and the Lodges of Freemasons attended on the occasion. A brass plate sunk in the stone bore this inscription: Pattistm Ellames Esq Mayor of this City Chester laid this stone in the year of the Christian era 1782 as D Provincial Grand Master of Free and Accepted Masons. A numerous procession of Brethren attended - AL 5782."

Former Methodist Chapel

Many older photographs of Chester show the short spire of the "Chester City Temple Primitive Methodist" chapel, which was located on Hunter Street. This was the only Methodist Church within the City Walls and was officially opened on 1st February 1899. It replaced the previous second-circuit meeting-place in Commonhall Street. It took 22 years to clear the debt from building this church. The final service at the church was on 10th September 1967, just 68 years after its opening. The congregation then united with those of St. John Street and George Street and, after the transition period, settled in the renewed premises at Wesley St John Street in February 1970.


This site was previously occupied by Northgate House, initially a residence, then offfices and lastly used as the Judges Lodgings for the Chester Courts.

One of the original Oscar Deutsch chain of Odeon Theatres. The Odeon Chester was built in 1936 to the design of Robert Bullivant. Like the Odeon York, the building of this theatre was beset by delays due to the proposed placement within historic city walls and the discovery of Roman archeological remains. It opened on 3rd October 1936 with Ned Sparks in “Two’s Company”. Seating was proivided for 1,628; with 1,080 in the stalls and 548 in the circle.

The Odeon Theatres at Chester and York are both different from other Odeon’s being built at the time, in that they did not have the distinctive Odeon ‘Moderne’ look externally due to the ruling of the Royal Fine Arts Commission not allowing the usual cream tiled facia. The exterior was executed in a plain brick with horizontal and vertical channeling. The signage was again different to the usual Odeon signs being rather larger and in "Trajan" lettering. The interior was very much in the Moderne Streamline style with clean simple lines directing the eye to the screen. In 1976 the cavernous space was split into three screens, with two more shoehorned in in the Nineties.

King Street, Hunter Street and Princess Street before redelopment started. The Masonic Hall is the church-like building at the center of the frame.

The Odeon was closed on 14th June 2007. It was purchased by Chester City Council in 2012 and has been altered to create "Storyhouse" - an 800-seat theatre, a small 100-seat single screen cinema and the Chester City library (with lots of Internet access) housed within the building. The "Garret" on the fourth floor has interesting views over the rooftops of Chester - and on a clearish day you can even see Beeston Castle!

Storyhouse is now a thin, rectangular, 100m-long building that extends along Hunter Street. The old cinema has been stripped back to its shell and opened up to reveal its original form and plasterwork, while an adjacent nine-storey office building at the back of the Odeon has been demolished and replaced by a new brick and cast-glass extension, doubling the size of the building and expanding the floor area to 7,500 sq m. The space where the original cinema screen sat is now the opening between the two buildings, framing a large foyer space and a suspended, bold red staircase that projects out like a piece of theatre scenery and acts as the central focal point and navigation device for the building. Dark wood library shelves line the walls on all levels of the old building — unlike a traditional library there is no loans desk or librarian telling you to be quiet; everywhere is licensed for alcohol, meaning you can grab a beer and a book and be trusted not to run away with it. It also means that no one section can be closed off from another — if there’s a late-night theatre performance, the library is open too.

Chester City Mission Building

The Chester City Mission building (originally "The Spinney") suposedly dates from 1829 and is said to be the oldest City Mission building in England. However the building does not appear on John McGahey's view of Chester from 1855 - neither does Hunter Street - as it was at the time a field accessed by Hunter's Passage next to Cholmondley house in the market square. The City Mission relocated to Hunter Street from its premises in Princess Street in 2007, when those were demolished.

From John McGahey's "Balloon View" of Chester (1855) - Hunter Street does not yet exist and the site was posssibly used as a bowling green. The road to the right is King Street.

The mission was founded in 1845 on the model of the London City Mission by laymen from several denominations. Paid full-time missionaries and voluntary assistants held evangelistic cottage meetings, organized thrift clubs for the poor, and undertook charity work, notably in Handbridge and Boughton. In the 1850s and again briefly from 1870 four missionaries were employed, but the number was usually two and never more than three after 1872. The headquarters were at first in a barn off Upper Northgate Street, from 1853 in a room over a shop in Crook Street, and later in a mission hall built by Miss M. A. Walker next to the premises in Crook Street in 1881. In 1854 the organization opened a mission to canal boatmen, which was later hived off and operated as the Boatmen's Bethel at Canalside. It came back under the wing of the mission in 1920, from 1924 most services were held in Crook Street, and after 1929 there was only one paid missionary.

In 1959, when Crook Street was being redeveloped, the mission moved to the former ragged school in Princess Street, which was given to it by the city council. Thereafter the mission still undertook charitable work but from 1989 could not afford a full-time superintendent and its premises lay under the threat of the redevelopment of Princess Street. It secured instead the part-time services of the experienced former head of the Liverpool City Mission and the promise of the present site in Hunter Street.

Beeston Castle seen from the bar on the fourth floor of Storyhouse.

Sources and Links