Louise Rayner's Paintings of Chester
Louise painted this lively scene sometime between 1880 and 1890, sitting with her back to the Northgate, and looking down Northgate Street- the Via Decumana of the Roman fortress. With the exception of a large office block standing on the site of the old Northgate Brewery (just 'out of shot' on the right) - and the inevitable heavy traffic- this part of Northgate Street has managed to retain many of its old features and the scene above will be entirely familiar to anyone who is acquainted with the area today.
The building on the right, in the last remaining part of the vanished 12th century Lorimer's Row is the venerable Blue Bell Inn. Dispenser of refreshment to the traveller since at least 1494, when the first licence to serve ale was granted, this is the oldest 'domestic' structure in Chester, and the only surviving example of a genuine medieval inn. The braced King-Post roof points to a construction date for the present building of between 1250 and 1400, although parts of the building may date from as early as the 11th century.
The unique 'cabin' extension at the front was erected in 1684 by one Elizabeth Halliwell for use as a barber's shop, which it remained until the 1920s. During the 18th century, this extension also served as a stage coach ticket office. A small window that still may be seen high on the building was once used to sell tickets to those passengers who were sitting on top of the coach.
For nearly one hundred years, from 1826, the Blue Bell was run by the Hodgson family- their name appears on the building in the painting. The last licensee was the wonderfully-named Thomas Pogmore Tushingham, from 1924-30, after which the building was bought for £1000 by the city council, who intended to demolish it for road widening. Local people would have none of it, however, and after a six-year fight, the Blue Bell was reprieved, only to be threatened again for the same reason in 1960. Around this time there was even a proposal to dismantle the entire inn and ship it to the USA! But once again, thanks to objections, it miraculously survived and for the next 22 years was the home of Snow White's clothes shop. Then, in 1984 it reverted to its ancient name and became a traditional English restaurant.
The Blue Bell may have gone but, behind it, two other ancient inns can be seen in the painting that are very much still with us today- the Red Lion, established here since at least 1600, and the Pied Bull (right), now the oldest licenced house in Chester still serving beer. The land where it stands had originally been given by Richard the Butler around 1155 to the Nuns of St. Mary's upon the occasion of his mother, Gunnora, taking the veil and dwelling houses were erected. In 1267, Roger the Barber was granted a house here, "on the site of Le Lorimersrowe" (a lorimer was a maker of spurs) and by 1533 it seems to have been rebuilt, become the home of the Recorder of Chester, and known as Bull Mansion. Within 20 years, however, it had become an inn, Richard Grimsditch being the first publican mentioned in the Innkeeper's Accounts of 1571.
Small shops, remarkably unchanged, still line the left hand side of Northgate Street, just they did when Louise Rayner sat outside them to paint her picture. Above all rises the tower of the great Gothic Town Hall, completed in 1869- and which we will meet again in our next painting...
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