Louise Rayner's Paintings of Chester
Lower Bridge Street 4: The Bridgegate and the Bear & Billet and Old Edgar Inns
This watercolour by Louise Rayner, executed in a 'looser' style than many of her works, depicts a scene that remains almost entirely familiar to modern Cestrians at the corner of Lower Bridge Street and Shipgate Street. Two ancient inns are featured- the Old Edgar and the Bear & Billet.
The Gates of Chester, with the exception of the Northgate, which was the charge of the Mayor and citzens, were held in serjeancy, or wardenship, by noble families who were responsible for maintaining them so as to be ready as defences in times of war. In turn, they were allowed the lucrative privilege of charging tolls on all goods brought into the town through their gate.
Notice the large doors at the top of the Bear & Billet- the opening to the loft where goods were stored after being hoisted up from the street. This was common practice at the time, the loft being the part of a house deemed most secure from damp, vermin- and thieves. The windows on the first and second floors extend right across the front of the building and contain 1,620 quarries, or small leaded panes of glass- doubtlessly, during the 17th and 18th centuries, a serious drain upon the purses of the occupants during the bad old days of window taxes!
Collectors of obscure Beatles information will be interested to know that John Lennon's (and his half-sister Julia Baird's) grandmother, Annie Jane Millward, was born in the Bear & Billet in 1873 and lived there until she was in her 20s. Julia, a longtime former Chester resident, recalled, "Our great-grandfather (John Denbry Millward) and great-grandmother (Mary Elizabeth Millward nee Morris) lived there. Our great-grandfather was the clerk to the Earl of Shrewsbury and because of that he had the freedom to the city of Chester. During childhood, John and I used to spend a lot of time in Chester. We also used to come on the train from Liverpool as we always knew that Chester was the best place for clothes shopping. We used to go for lunch at Brown's and walk down by the river. Chester has always been in the family. We are the classic family that moved from Wales to Chester to Liverpool. John was very fond of Chester. We always thought Chester was the place to be, not Liverpool".
The ancient Bear & Billet may be thriving but many others have not been so fortunate- go here to learn about the many Chester pubs that have ceased to be. On the corner of Shipgate Street, and prominent in Louise's painting, is one such ancient tavern, the Old Edgar, dating from around 1500, which, after years of dereliction was restored and now serves as two private residences. It is named after King Edgar of England, who, according to legend, was rowed on the River Dee from his palace in what is now known as Edgar's Field, just across the bridge, to St. John's Church by eight subject kings in token of submission to him. The event was portrayed on a large painting which can be seen on the inn's wall. A splendid copy of this, translated onto ceramic wall tiles, is a proud feature in the George Street entrance to the Bull & Stirrup Hotel in Northgate Street.
An interesting feature of the painting is the presence, beyond the Bridgegate, of the Dee Mills, which stood here, in one form or other, from Norman times until the early 20th century. The site is now occupied by a hydro- electric generating station, which opened in 1913- the first of its kind in Britain and an early example of 'green energy'..