The Amphitheatre I

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Amphitheatre part 0I

The Amphitheatre II

(having grown considerably, part one has now been split into two parts)

Back to part I. On to parts II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII | Gallery | 2 - or on to St. John's Church

Site Front Door
Search the Site Index

Check out the Route Map
A brief introduction to Chester

The Northgate
The North Wall
The Phoenix Tower
The Kaleyard Gate
The Cathedral
The Eastgate
The Newgate & Wolfgate
The Amphitheatre
/ Gallery
Amphitheatre Comments

St. John's Church
The 'Roman Garden'
River Dee & Grosvenor Park
The Bridgegate
The Castle
The Grosvenor Bridge
The Roodee
The Watergate
The Infirmary
The Watertower
Tower Wharf
St. Martin's Gate
The Bridge of Sighs
Chester's visitors through time
The Rows of Chester
The Chester Gallery
Old Maps & Aerial Photos
Old photos of Chester & Liverpool
Vanished Chester Pubs
Chester Cinemas
The Old Port
The Chester Canal
The Royalty Theatre
Chris Langford Gallery
Mystery Plays Gallery
Chester Anagrams!
MickleTrafford Railway Stroll
Letters about the CDTS Busway
Letters about our site
The B&W Picture Place
Links to Interesting Places
Advertise with us
Write to us

UDee Housentil the Summer of 2004, visitors could hardly have failed to notice the ugly brick and concrete wall running across the centre of the arena. At the time of the uncovering of the amphitheatre, the large, decaying building you see on the other side, Dee House, was still occupied by the nuns of the Ursuline Convent, so further expansion in that direction was impossible and the wall was erected as a termporary measure to consolidate the land and to preserve their privacy.

It has often been stated that Dee House was built in 1730 but extensive private research offers no concrete proof of this; we don't even know who built the house. It is even surmised, based up the evidence of period maps, that it replaced an earlier house on the same site sometime in the later 18th century. This may have been the private residence of the Alderman and City Recorder James Comberbach, who had served as Mayor of Chester in 1727, but even this is uncertain- his home could have been one of the neighbouring houses. Much research needs yet to be done upon the origins of Dee House.

In 1839, the house was recorded as being the home of the Rev. C B Tayler, Rector of St. Peter's Church at the Cross. The pages of the Cheshire Sheaf at the time told of a "great storm of wind" that occured on January 6th of that year when a chimney of the house was blown down and when "his nephew was asleep when the chimney fell and would have been killed but for the providential fall of a beam aslant across his bed, whereby he was saved".

dee house 1905By the mid-19th century, after centuries of repression, Roman Catholics were achieving greater freedom to to own property, practise their religion openly and educate their children in the traditions of their church. From around 1820, short-lived schools for Catholic children had been established in White Friars and Bold Square. Meanwhile the Catholic community planned to buy Dee House in order to establish a new chuch. However, because of the close proximity of St. John's and the newly-erected Anglican Bishop's Palace, this never came about and the building continued as the vicarage of St. John's.

This faded old photograph shows nuns sitting in the pleasant gardens of the Ursuline Convent in 1905.

After 1828, we hear no more of the Catholic Seminary for Young Ladies in Chester and little is known of where the better-off Catholics sent their daughters to be educated. But then, in 1854, the Faithful Companions of Jesus came to Chester from Birkenhead, where they had already established a girl's school known as Holt Hill, purchased Dee House from the Bishop of Shrewsbury and arranged for four nuns to found a girl's boarding school there. Under their second superior, a parish school and 'select day school' were soon added and, in 1867, growing numbers compelled the building to be greatly enlarged by the addition of the ill-matched 'Gothic' extension which may be seen on the left of our photograph. Though attached to the original house, there was access to the extension, which contained a a study room, dormitory and chapel, only from the ground floor and one upper floor. This new wing, whose architect was Edmund Kirby, was opened on October 23rd 1867 by Bishop Brown, "in the presence of a large number of priests" and consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The first Superior was Madame de Busy; her successor, from 1855 to 1878, was Mme Stritch; her successor, Mother Aloysia Russell, was in post until 1887; Mme Blackett was appointed befor 1892 and continued until after 1910; Mme Walsh was Prioress in 1914 and by 1919 had been replace by Mme Cleary.

ursuline nunsThe nuns not only ran the school but also operated a 'soup kitchen' to give assistance to the destitute, such as the desperate Irish immigrants escaping from famine in their native land and at that time arriving in great numbers at the ports of northern England such as Chester and especially nearby Liverpool.

Left: the staff of the Ursuline Convent in the 1950s. Back row: 1st on left is Miss Barlow (music), 4th left is Miss McAllister (English), 5th left is Mrs Thompson (biology). From the right: 2nd left is Miss Ingoldsby (geography and Latin), 4th from right is Miss Latham (maths). Front row nuns: 3rd left is Mother Imelda Carey (French); far right Is Mother Matthew, and 3rd from right is Mother Paul Flood who was headmistress.

In 1886, under Mother Aloysia Russell, the adjoining mansion was purchased from a local gentleman, Mr Meadows Frost and continued to expand and thrive. It was first recognised by the Board of Education in 1921 and remained in the hands of the Faithful Companions of Jesus until 1925, when they were obliged to give it up and the Ursulines of Crewe took over.

meadows frost fountain(Mr Meadows Frost, incidentally, had lived at the nearby St. John's House and had at one time served as Mayor. His name was known in Chester up until the 1960s on account of a splendid and ornate drinking fountain- illustrated here- designed to benefit both horses and people, which he donated and which bore his name. It long stood at the junction of Bridge Street and Pepper Street until being sadly removed, and presumably destroyed, when the Inner Ring Road was constructed.)

Our thanks go to old girl Brenda Hutchison for these names. She added "I've enjoyed what I read so far very much. I went to school there in the late 50s/early 60s. 'The Convent' was highly regarded educationally in the area and several non-Catholic girls were accepted as fee-paying pupils. There were also weekly boarders who came from as far afield as Crewe. In the 60s the nuns accepted that they had to move with the times and cater for their less academic pupils with a 'Modern VI' where pupils were taught shorthand and typing.
Space was short and although the playground was marked out for tennis and netball there was no room for other sports. Consequently we were marched in a crocodile to the Roodee where I remember playing hockey. I do not recall what we did about changing into our sports kit as there were no changing facilities".

Catholic boys, too, had for long been educated privately here and there throughout the city, for example, in rooms in Goss Street, Queen Street, Love Street and Watergate Row. These efforts were finally taken over by the Faithful Companions when a day-school for boys and girls was started in a coach house and hay loft of Dee House. Writing fourty years alter, teacher Mother Louise recalled, "Arrangements were made to open a parish school, which until then did not really exist. The site on your right as you entered the convent gate was the coach-house and the hay-loft, the boys in the coach-house under a master. The girls entered at the convent gate, the boys at a small door in the wall leading to the river".

The school inspector who visited here described the arrangements as "provisional but serviceable"- though he later described them as "an old stable" and classified them in his list as "bad". In any case, the old structure proved unable to stand up to all the new activity and the ground used by the girls as a playground suddenly collapsed without apparent cause and fell several feet into the lane below. No one, fortunately, was hurt in the incident.

convent interior
Three views of the Ursuline Convent's interior

convent interior

assembly hall of convent

A block containing a gymnasium and classrooms was built in 1929 and in 1955 a further wing was built to house a domestic science laboratory and library. Finally, in 1960, a wing providing a physics lab and art room was completed. There appears to be no record of archaeological discoveries being made during the course of all this building work or as a result of the collapsed playground.

With the advent of the comprehensive school system and the opening of the Catholic High School across the river at Overleigh, Handbridge, the convent and its school were closed in September 1976 and the building was acquired by Post Office Telephones (later British Telecom) and converted to house an automanual (AMC) telephone exchange, offices, training and staff facilities.

telephone operatorsThe cables connecting the new exchange with the national telephone system were planned to be buried beneath the front drive of Dee House until a survey carried out by the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments showed that this route crossed the perimeter of the Roman amphitheatre. The cables were instead laid within the brick boundary wall separating Souter's Lane and Dee House.

We're grateful to reader Tony Roberts- who formerly worked for BT in Dee House- for the following interesting reminisciences...

"The chapel was de-consecrated and had a plinth at the far end (away from the road) where the altar was. This area was unused by BT except for Christmas when the operators held their party there! The room above this was the full size of the chapel and was used as an office.

The filing cabinets had to be placed up against the walls as the loading on the floor would not allow anything to be placed in the middle. The room showed that it had been divided into 'cells' for the nuns because of marks on the ceiling and walls. The room above this was sound but almost derelict- there were a couple of broken panes of glass which let in pigeons.

Through the door at the front, there was a room to the left, used as a lounge for operators, and a first aid room and to the right was the kitchen and the canteen. The second floor was unused and in disrepair- it had a lath & plaster construction (with most of the plaster falling off).
The rooms were still as they were for the Mother Superior and senior staff- they were narrow small rooms- and the Mother Superior's room (second floor above the main entrance door) had an electric shaver socket! My office was on the second floor above the switchroom where we dealt with customer complaints and operator service planning.

tennis courts at conventThe basement housed filing cabinets and in one room a lot of rubbish including a "Do not throw stones at this notice" enamel sign dating from about 1910. I wonder what ever happened to that! The switchroom was housed in the old sports hall of the convent and the wing to the right hand side housed the repair service centre and the coinbox repair area. On one occasion there was some work being done on the gates at the back leading to the car park which resulted in the workmen finding remains of a roman wall at the bottom of the hole.
As the exchange was staffed 24 hrs a day there was a story of a ghost and some of the night staff were convinced that they had seen it!"

(The presence of the Dee House ghost is also mentioned in popular publications of the 'Haunted Chester' variety and is said to be that of an aged lady who looks out of the upper windows.)

chester guided walksOur illustration above shows operators at work at the-then state of the art 'cordless switchboard' (CSS1) positions soon after the new exchange opened in 1976. Note the tasteful wallpaper!

The exchange eventually closed in its turn, and in 1990 British Telecom announced their intention of selling the decaying building by auction- resulting in a great deal of public debate regarding the future use of the site- here are the thoughts of the Chester Archaeological Society at the time.

The City Council and other interested parties negotiated at length with the now-privatised BT, who, despite being keen to make as much money as possible for its shareholders from the sale, remarkably agreed to cancel the auction. Instead, in late 1993, they gave Chester City Council a 12-month option to purchase Dee House at an agreed price- a figure, it was claimed, to be "well beyond the city's available resources".

dee house in the snowThus negotiations recommenced- this time with the private developers who had previously expressed an interest in the cancelled auction.

The Donald Insall / Chester City Council publication, Conservation in Chester, hoped that the BT sale "may make it possible to excavate and display the whole of the amphitheatre, together with appropriate interpretative facilities. This exciting possibility would provide Chester with another major attraction; the centre-piece of an amenity area that has been protected and enhanced for the benefit of the citizens and their visitors".

Should, then, this rundown, but Grade II listed, building be itself demolished to allow the hidden portion of the amphitheatre to finally be uncovered and the complete edifice to be properly displayed, and thereby,
• Add to our knowledge of our city's (and country's) past, and therefore
• Make a splendid and unique contribution to our national heritage, as well as
• Create a spectacle that would attract large numbers of visitors from all over the world, thus greatly benefitting Chester's economy?

Or should it, at least part of it, be disposed of to the first developer that comes along with the money, to do with virtually as he will? Past experiences in Mercia Square, the Market Hall and the Grosvenor Precinct among others, were more than enough to prepare us, and, to nobody's surprise, in 1995 a 'partnership' was duly established between Chester City Council and Flint (North Wales)-based building contractor, David McLean Ltd, and the site was carved up between them, McLean's taking the rear part of the site and the council taking Dee House and the land in front of it.

McLean's wasted little time in finding a use for their acquisition and the local press soon after published an artist's impression of their proposed new headquarters building, designed by one John Hickey of Didsbury-based architects Downs Variava- a structure of great ugliness and inappropriateness which had the outline of the still-buried southern half of the amphitheatre marked out on the surface of its car park!
Planning permission was applied for and duly granted, with hardly a whimper of objection, in April 1995.
Meanwhile, a number of groups and individuals, concerned at the loss of local control over the rear part of the site, came together under the title of the Chester Heritage Trust (which name produces some strangely-pertinent anagrams and one of whose trustees was, ironically, David McLean himself) to adress the 'problem' of the future of Dee House.

greenwood view of amphitheatreCompare the absurd and depressing prospect of allowing much of this unique heritage site to disappear under yet another office block and inevitable large car park with this breathtaking illustration- and the map below- from the Greenwood Redevelopment Proposals of 1944, which, sixty years ago and during wartime, strongly advocated the complete excavation of the amphitheatre and the clearing away of the cluttered buildings that surrounded the site to create a stunning setting worthy of the monument and the adjoining Church of St. John the Baptist. Unfortunately, nothing came of City Engineer Greenwood's plans.

Thirty years later, the council-sponsored Chester Riverside Study of 1972 noted that "The Department of the Environment has stated that, although opposed in principle to the demolition of listed buildings, it is prepared to consider any proposals for the Convent (Dee House) which for example may may be desirable to uncover the underlying Roman amphitheatre".

The co-author of Conservation in Chester, architect Donald Insall stated that "very little of the original merit of the Georgian house remains; it is hard to imagine any viable new use for its small rooms" and the report recommended that "there should be no new building on or close to the amphitheatre, and the long term likelihood is that it will be totally excavated and exposed. This would involve some demolition of the convent, including the listed section"..." this exciting possibility would provide Chester with another major attraction; the centre-piece of an amenity area that has been protected and enhanced for the benefit of the citizens and their visitors".

The report concluded that "we recommend the following objectives and action: (F.4.3) Fully support the excavation of the southern part of the Roman amphitheatre and the development of appropriate interpretative facilities".

(Dee House, incidentally, is of a similar age to St. John's House- a considerably more attractive and less altered building- which was demolished without complaint in 1958 by the Chester Archaeological Society in order to commence the uncovering of those sections of the amphitheatre that lay beneath).

greenwood map
In the 1930s, there had been international uproar that Chester could conceive of building a road across this special site and the city fathers were indeed wise enough- albeit when given little choice- to reconsider, to the great benefit of later generations. But times change, and in the intervening seventy years, acts of cultural vandalism have regularly taken place with hardly a whimper of official objection. Thanks to the attentions of the developers, our so-called "Roman City" can today boast very few relics of the great fortress and culture to which it owes its existence. Those Chester citizens of the hungry, but apparently more enlightened 1930s, would doubtless be rolling in their graves- if they've escaped been torn up to make room for a supermarket, that is.

Interestingly, just ten years earlier, in 1987, yet another controversy raged concerning the Chester amphitheatre. At a time when the city was looking for a 'blockbuster' visitor attraction to rival the huge success of York's Jorvik Viking Centre, a company by the name of Deva Roman Centre Ltd, owned by local entepreneur Tony Barbet, proposed to demolish Dee House, fully excavate the hidden portion of the amphitheatre and reconstruct a portion of the site to appear as it would in Roman times and to run it as a 'Roman experience', complete with galleys plying the River Dee and a restaurant where toga-clad staff would serve 'Roman' meals (and doubtless occasionally be required to battle to the death in the arena for the entertainment of visitors.

Mr Barbet's proposals also involved building a quality visitor centre and museum which promised to be able to tell far more of the history of the site than any current council-run facilities allowed- or continue to allow.

The Chester Civic Trust and other local bodies objected loudly to the proposals and some within the council were also upset, apparently seeing the plans as some kind of threat to the city's museum services. After years of discussion and the expense of a Public Inquiry, in 1990 Barbet won the day and was granted full planning permission for his scheme, including the demolition of Dee House. By then, however, his expenditure had become too great to bear and he was ruined financially. The 'Deva Roman Experience' sank without trace and planning permission eventually lapsed in October 1995. (Go here to read Piloti's comments upon the proposals that appeared in the satirical magazine Private Eye at the time).

Barbet's proposals may have been ridiculed by opponents following different agenda, but nontheless seem to have had very much to recommend them. Certainly nothing since has managed to come anywhere close.

view of amphitheatre, dee house and st. john's
The Amphitheatre, Dee House and St. John's Church: February 2007

But then the whole debate started again, in November 1998, when the local press announced that the owners of the land alongside Dee House (which is itself still owned by the city council), David McLean Ltd, "Had been in secret talks with council officers over plans to build a hotel on a site adjoining the Roman amphitheatre".

In return for planning permission, it was proposed that McLean's would fund the excavation of the hidden half of the monument- which would, of course, necessitate the demolition of Dee House.

City council leader John Price was reported in the local press as being enthusiastic about the idea, and felt the loss of Dee House was a price worth paying: "It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to unveil the most significant archaeological monument in Chester". (By July 2000, curiously, he was of a totally different opinion, as you can read here)
Local politicians who knew what they were talking about must have been thin on the ground that day, so the local press had to resort to the Deputy Chairman of the Chester Planning Board, Councillor Sandra Rudd, who opposed the development and said Dee House must be protected because "We have so few fine Georgian houses in Chester..."

gladiators(there's little that could be called fine- or even Georgian- about Dee House, and this is not the place for a long list of Chester's many other buildings of the period. But read on)-

"...and it's the main view as you walk down St. John Street. The amphitheatre was only uncovered in the 1960s, and it's not an amphitheatre, it's a military drill ground. It's highly unlikely anything would be uncovered anyway".

By this stage in our brief exploration of the history of this special site, you should have little difficulty in appreciating the breathtaking inaccuracy of these statements. Want more? Cllr Rudd went on, somewhat incoherently, to claim that "any idea of locating a huge arena on the amphitheatre is a non-starter because it is too small and that there would be nowhere to park".

We had little idea what this meant either.

The developers, McLean's, comissioned architect Edward Cullinan, said to be "experienced in working with heritage sites" to produce plans for a 'quality' semi-circular hotel building which would be erected 'wrapping around' between the southern end of a fully excavated amphitheatre and the Bishop's Palace. Seemingly, an idea which both allowed for development and respected the ancient remains. Unfortunately, the plan, for totally unaccountable reasons, also demanded the demolition of the base of the Early English West Tower of St. John's Church next door (a great impertinence, considering the protected status of this ancient structure, and that it was not in McLean's ownership and was never likely to be)- and, it was judged, at its other end the hotel intruded too far in front of the Newgate.

retiariusBut the whole thing once again came to nought. English Heritage were, and continue to be, unhappy at the prospect of the purposeful demolition of Dee House- even if it was, as we keep saying, a decaying shell that would cost a fortune to restore, and for which nobody had any real use- and a largely Victorian / 1920s shell at that.

And the plan of siting a hotel- or any other commercial development- in this extremely congested corner of the city seemed one that that many thought was most unlikely to get planning permission anyway- even though McLeans did already have permission for their office block. They were actually very enthusiastic about the semi-circular idea, and were quoted as expressing great regret that they "received no support for the proposals". From whom? The City Council? English Heritage? Another question people would like an answer to.

The Chairman of the Chester Civic Trust, Stephen Langtree, incidentally, continues to enthuse over the idea of erecting a 'modern' semi-circlar building on the site to this day.

But, as we shall see, at the very same time that the hotel proposals were being discussed, a very different plot was being hatched...

McLean's, who were doubtless keen to get cracking with their 'prestige' development, whatever it turned out to be, were understood to be unhappy about the high level of critical debate regarding the future of the site. Their company motto, "Building our Reputation" suddenly seemed to many rather ironic given the high level of public outrage over the situation. But then, what on earth did they expect?

Planning and development chairman, Cllr John Vernon declared in the local press that a "long period of public consultation" (as opposed to all those 'secret meetings'?) "would take place before further decisions are made about the amphitheatre's future".

(Later, in July 2000, Cllr Vernon made his own viewpoint clear when he voted against the removal of Dee House and the further excavation of the amphitheatre)
Had this "long period of consultation" actually ever taken place- which it did not- we would have been most surprised if it has not been found that Chester's people overwhelmingly supported the amphitheatre's complete restoration, and demanded the absolute best for this very special site and its immediate surroundings.

Continue the story of the Chester Amphitheatre here or read what the people think: reader's letters to us and the local press...

Top of Page | Site Front Door | Chester Walls Stroll Introduction | The Newgate | St. John's Church
The Amphitheatre I
| II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | | X | XI | XII | XIII | Gallery | 2 | Letters 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Some alternative views | St. John's House | 'Round in Circles' by Flavius | Chester Amphitheatre Project
Save the Chester Amphitheatre! (1932) | Search our Site Index

Help keep the Chester Virtual Stroll growing and up-to-date: please donate! email

Strictly © Steve Howe / B&W Picture Place 1990-2014