A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Vanished Pubs of Chester Gallery

This fine watercolour by Louise Rayner depicts two of the lost pubs of Chester's Bridge Street, The Old Vaults- better known to generations of regulars as Barlow's- and The Harp & Crown, later known as The Grotto Hotel (a photograph of it is at the bottom of this page), between which runs Commonhall Street.

Barlow's (28 Bridge Street and 26 Bridge Street Row), named after one William Barlow, who was landlord in 1898, closed for good on the 15th March 2002 when owners Scottish & Newcastle found that it (to quote the Chester Chronicle) "did not fit in with their company portfolio, which is geared towards theme pubs". Frank Marnell, secretary of the Chester Licenced Victuallers Association (and landlord of the Watergate Inn), commented, "the brewery has sold out on Ye Old Vaults".

Established in 1789 and refurbished in 1900, Barlow's was unusual in being on two levels, one bar on the street and the other on the Row above. You could walk from the cellar up to the top floor, three floors above street level, making it one of very few complete Rows buildings in Chester.

barlows todayIt was yet another Chester pub with a reputation for being haunted- over the years there have been reports of loud groaning wails and banging noises. It is said that these emanated from the spirit of an old-time landlord who had been very proud of his inn and dedicated his life to maintaining its quality. Unlike the philistine Scottish & Newcastle, sadly, who briskly turned the listed building into a 'shopping development'- the frontage was torn out and replaced by bland plate glass windows and the premises initially became yet another clothes shop (illustrated right.) and is now a hairdressers premises. Self-catering holiday apartments have been created in the rooms above.

(See the ghosts entry in our site index for links to many other reputedly-haunted Chester pubs.)

Talking of spirits, William, a descendent of George Barlow used to blend and bottle his own whiskey at the back of the pub he also used to bottle beer and soft drinks. A later George Barlow was licencee in 1942 and Nev Hewitt in 1976-79. Interestingly, the name 'Hewitt' appears on the building's facade in another famous 19th century painting of Bridge Street by Louise Raynor.

Reader Annette Edwards wrote to tell us that one of her family, Arthur Wilcoxon was the publican at the Olde Vaults from 1871 to at least 1875. By 1877 he had moved to 9 Paradise Row, a long-vanished street that once faced onto the Roodee.

barlows advert 1903Barlow's upstairs bar or lounge was know as “the passion parlour" in World War II as it was a favourite, intimate rendezvous for servicemen and their lady friends.

Right: a Barlow's advertisment from the long-defunct Chester Courant in January 1903

The Grotto Hotel- no. 34, across Commonhall Street and next door-but-one to Barlow's. In the 1980s the Grotto became for a while the Sir Edward's Wine Bar until being transformed into a branch of Liberty's clothes store.

It had formerly been known as The Harp & Crown, mentioned in a 1751 edition of the Cheshire Sheaf as being "next to Common-Hall Lane". In 1707, one Thomas Heath petitioned "to build a shop in the Row before the Harp and Crown Inn". It was recorded as being used as a polling station in 1809.

It was one of a number of properties in Chester to be subject to the Execution Rent. Execution Rent Tenants were bound to keep watch for the city on three nights in the year, namely on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and St. Stephen's Day (26th December) and they were bound to mount guard over and conduct felons and robbers as far as the gallows. For their services these tenants were "exempt from attendance on all inquisitions, juries and assizes, except when held before the Lord, the Prince and the Earl of Chester".

barlow's bottle

barlow's bottle top
A rare survivor: one of George Barlow's original beer bottles, complete with cap,
now a treasured possession of the building's current owner, Roslyn Bell.

Photographed by the author in the original 'passion parlour'.

the grotto hotel
The Grotto Hotel with Barlow's on the right

the grotto

The Grotto Hotel had formerly been known as The Harp & Crown which was mentioned in a 1751 Cheshire Sheaf as being "next to Common-Hall Lane". In 1707, one Thomas Heath petitioned "to build a shop in the Row before the Harp and Crown Inn". It was listed in Cowdroy's Directory in 1789 when the licencee was Mrs Doughterty.

Right: this rather blurry detail from the 1875 Chester OS map shows The Old Vaults and The Harp & Crown with Commonhall Street running between them.

1875 map


The RoyaltyTheatre & The Grotto Hotel; excerpts from Douglas Young's diary, week commencing Monday 9th July 1945. Kindly sent to us by their daughter Hilary Young..

kenway and youngThe husband and wife partnership of Nan Kenway & Douglas Young had made their names on radio during the war years, notably with the comedy programme Howdy Folks which ran weekly during 1940 and 1941. By 1945, as well as broadcasting, they were also touring in variety and roadshows..

In Ipswich, the previous week of July 1945, DY complained of a depressing week: “Ipswich very overcrowded with lots of Navy and American types. Practically all the pubs closed all the time. Very little beer, no scotch and few cigarettes. Very depressing – what with the theatre, audiences and bad microphone”.

They travelled by train from Euston to Chester on Sunday: “Managed to get two seats- even though the train was packed to the toilets. Taxi to the Grotto Hotel, Bridge Street. Quaint old pub. Excellent cold salmon supper, comfortable room. Tea and Breakfast served in bedroom. Should be a cheap week as was last week (our bill only 14 pounds odd).

Monday: Pleasant theatre- Royalty, Chester. Also exceptionally efficient staff and charming manager who made himself known to us- most rare. Tubby Turner & Vincent Ryan both on the bill with us. We are sole top. Hope we do well… Two good houses and quite enthusiastic audiences. Manager seems pleased. Nice intimate theatre…

At hotel excellent cold supper and chat with proprietors Mr & Mrs Lewis. Everyone in hotel most anxious to please. Even two scotties who have 'taken to' Nan.

Tuesday: How I love the streets of Chester with its ‘Rows'. Magnificent architecture. Cannot think why no other city has adopted the idea of shops in two tiers. Most convenient to walk about if it's raining. Lovely morning this one. Feel very happy in contrast to last week. Two good houses and excellent audiences again.

Wednesday: Took Nan and Sylvia for a trip on the Dee in a God-awful “skiff” with too-short sculls.

(Hilary comments: “Father's sport as a young man had been rowing- hence the caustic comment about the skiff on the Dee.)

Thursday: Pub closed. Lloyd Lewis, the landlord here, took me round the quaint old pubs of Chester. Gosh what a wonderful old city !! The more I see the more I love it. Two more shows but not such good audiences. Mr & Mrs Lewis came to second house then back for drinks in their taxi.

Saturday: Two shows as usual except that orchestra had two men missing- leader and trumpet - so Nan had to play Rhapsody in Blue.

(Nan Kenway was an accomplished pianist and within their otherwise comedy act included a concert item which was usually well-known highlights from the first movement of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. Rhapsody in Blue did not require the orchestra.)

Real party here before we went to bed. Lloyd showed me his cellars. He opened a bottle of scotch down there and we sat on a crate and swigged a couple. Then he insisted on presenting me with a bottle of scotch!! What a grand bloke.

Sunday: BC** came over from Liverpool and we had a long and satisfactory chat then lunch in the Lewis's private sitting room and so off to catch the train at 3.

(BC Hilliam, otherwise known as 'Flotsam' of the partnership 'Flotsam and Jetsam'- the Flanders & Swan of that era. K&Y were to be part of a radio series 'Flotsam's Follies' that was to start on 22nd July.)

Very crowded. Stood to Crewe- had tea during a 2-hour wait- then stood to Derby- changed again and stood to Nottingham where we waited a hell of a time for a taxi..

Our bill at the Grotto on 16 pounds with Sylvia staying 2 days and people to lunch on Friday.

Thursday 19th: Wrote laughable verse of appreciation to Lloyd and Rose Lewis:

Oh, I have discovered a wonderful pub
With plenty of liquor and plenty of grub.the grotto hotel at night
The bars have good sandwiches- salmon or brisket-
And also there’s Marie- she fair takes the biscuit.

The landlord’s a feller it’s best to avoid
Although his name’s Lewis, they all call him Lloyd.
He’ll pick on some innocent, clean-living feller
And lure him to shame in the depths of his cellar
By plying the greenhorn with drinks till he’s bottled
His eyeballs all bloodshot and features all mottled.
And flatly refusing, in spite of his prayers,
To let the poor perisher get up them stairs.

He waits till his victim don’t know what he’s doin’
Then pushes him down the dark roadway to ruin
By handing the poor sap, now hopelessly blotto
A bottle of Scotch, as “a gift from the Grotto”.
Yes, yes, I repeat that the best thing to do is
Avoid taking trips to the cellar with Lewis.

Now, Rose, on the other hand, she’s quite bewitchin’
She even lets people make tea in her kitchen,
And when you have guests into luncheaon and teas
You’re shown to her private room, if you please!
(Although Rose herself, in these days on a diet!)-
Jim serves you a meal that’s a positive joy
Much better and cheaper than Ritz or Savoy.
Another nice feature about the old “Grott”- is-
The friendliness shown shown by two charming Scotties.

And inside this pub at the close of the day
You’ll see Lloyd a-sweeping the fag-ends away
Or giving the carpets a ‘do’ with the Bissell-
Although, mark you, dressed in his Newmarket-Whistle!
And then there’ll be Marie and George and Pierre
Washing glasses or mopping up odd pools of bière.
But still, they are never too busy with chores
To stop for a moment and murmer “what’s yours?”

Then follows a chat, lots of stories and laughter
And when you feel sleepy some hour or two after
You climb to your bedroom- just two happy Pros-
To find lovely flowers have been placed there by Rose.

Yes, we have discovered a wonderful pub
With plenty of liquor and plenty of grub
where “do unto others”- is always the motto.
You’ll find it in Chester. The name is “The GROTTO.”

A small memento- with sincere thanks for the happiest week ever- from Nan and Doug. July 1945

Here is another piece Hilary wtote about her parents: A Music Hall Diary 1945

Do you have any more information about these old pubs?

Chester's Vanished Pubs parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | gallery

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