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River Dee III

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

10. The Bridgegate & Old Dee Bridge

Bridgegate II

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Acity wall and river dees we approach the end of the Groves our hearing is filled with the roar of water rushing over the weir and the scene is dominated by a magnificent sandstone bridge crossing the river. This is the venerable Old Dee Bridge, comprising seven unequal arches and built, much as we see it today, about the year 1387 on the site of a succession of earlier wooden bridges and a pre-Roman fording place.

The bridge is mentioned as part of Chester's entry in the Domesday Book: "When, for the purpose of repairing or rebuilding the wall or the bridge of the city, the proper officers commanded that one man be furnished from each hide, the lord of such man that did not attend was fined fourty shillings to the King and the Earl".

Successive bridges were washed away by flood tides in 1227, 1280, 1297 and 1353. The later stone structure seems to have been more resistant to inundations: on 16th January 1551, "There arose in the night a mighty great wind and the flood came to such a height that many trees were left by the ebb, on the top of Dee Bridge".

Thomas Pennant (1726-98), Flintshire landowner, naturalist and travel writer wrote of it in 1773, "The approach to the city is over a very narrow and dangerous bridge, of seven irregular arches, till of late rendered more inconvenient by the antient gateways at each end, formerly necessary enough, to provent the inroads of my countrymen, who often carried fire and sword to these suburbs; which were so frequently burnt, as to be called by the Britons Tre-boeth, or the burnt town"...

An older document records how, in the 13th century, Llewellyn, Prince of Wales "gathered a mighty band and with it inflicted much harm even unto the gates of the city of Chester. The city had often been affrighted with the like scare-fires and was lastly defended with a wall made of the Welsh-men's heads on the south side of Dee in Handbridge."

old dee bridgeHandbridge was burned once again, but this time by the citizens, during the Siege of Chester in 1645 to prevent Parliamentary forces taking cover there."Handbridge has once again become Treboeth, being burnt by the command of the Governor Lord Byron to prevent their nesting others" wrote one of the besieged in his diary.

During this period, both sides made desperate sorties over the old bridge and almost incessant fighting occured in the area, a situation difficult to imagine as we gaze upon the bustling, but peaceful scene today.

Despite the bridge being so vital to their prosperity, the citizens were often reluctant to assume responsibility for its repair, and in 1387 Richard II was persuaded to grant them sums of money for this purpose. Letters Patent granted to the citizens on 25 July 1387 state: "Know ye that of our special grace and at the supplication of our lieges, the Commonalty of our town of Chester, and for consideration that as many have been drowned in the water of the Dee since the bridge has been destroyed and broken. And also, because the same town for that reason is very greatly impoverished as we are informed, we have granted to the fabric and repair of the aforesaid bridge all the profits of the Passage of the said water at Chester and the Murage which used to be granted there for the walls, to be received until that bridge is rightly and reasonably completed".

Twenty years later, Letters Patent granted by Henry Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, refer to "the completion and finishing of the Tower on the Dee Bridge begun in the time of Richard, late King of England".

The anonymous author of A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester, published in the first years of the nineteenth century, wrote about the Old Dee Bridge, "The bridge is built upon seven arches; the passage over it is very disagreeable, and indeed when crowded, rather dangerous, owing to its being so narrow; a new bridge would certainly add much to the convenience of the public and the appearance of the City".
The author's desired benefits of convenience and appearance actually came about thirty years later with the opening of the magnificent Grosvenor Bridge.

Left: a salmon fisherman attends to his nets before the Old Dee Bridge in this photograph by the famous Liverpool photographer Edward Chambré Hardman. See more of his splendid images of Chester and Liverpool here.

At the far end of the bridge is an attractive green area bordered by a mixture of 19th century cottages and the exceedingly ugly Salmon Leap apartment blocks. That their occupants enjoy some of the most magnificent views in the city is undisputed, but that such eyesores could have been allowed in such a sensitive location in the first place has long been a source of wonder to everyone else. Soon after they were built, in 1972, the authors of the Chester Riverside Study commented dryly,"The new riverside flats at Mill Street are generally regarded as an unfortunate design for this location". Which is putting it mildly.

Their site was formerly occupied by industrial premises such as the factory of Messrs T. Nicholls, manufacturers of tobacco and snuff, which was established here in the 1780s. Those buildings were entirely demolished in the 1960s- our photograph shows them just before this event- the flats were built at the Old Dee Bridge end of the site and the rest was landscaped and a footpath to the Meadows constructed. At the far end, the Salmon Leap survives and the waterwheel which once powered Nicholl's snuff mill has been restored. A small generating station now stands where a smaller tobacco works and a tallow candle works used to be on Cherry Tree Island at the end of the weir.

Standing close to the Handbridge end of the bridge is The Ship Inn, whose licence can be traced back to 1770 when the licencee was Mr Stephen Hyde. During the period 1850-60, the licencee, Mr William Dutton, was a man of many talents, for as well as landlord he was also a practicing blacksmith, farrier and wheelwright. The Ship was indeed a waterside hostelry with around it, manufacturers of twine and rope for fishing nets. Fisher folk thronged the courts around Greenaway Street in old-time Handbridge, and they had the run of the river. They all had their own jealously-guarded named spots to fish from, such as Marshead, Lane End, Under the Hills, Crane and Littlewood.

Guide and author Joseph Hemingway, wrote in 1835, "In that useful article, salmon, no market in the kingdom did, some few years ago, excel it; indeed, such was the profusion of that valuable fish, that masters were often restricted, by a clause in the indentiture, from giving it more than twice a week to their apprentices. Though the bounty of providence, in this particular, is yet unabated, such restriction is no longer necessary- some artificial cause, or other very kindly, rendering this fish, at the present day, a delicacy even to the masters themselves... The supply was so great, that after furnishing our own market for the city and neighbourhood, five or six carts were employed in conveying it for sale to distant places".

Due to the increasing quantity of fish being taken from the river, by 1880, it was deemed necessary to introduce restrictions and Fishery Boards became responsible for licensing the fishermen. But at £5 a licence this proved a considerable financial burden so the Rector of the parish, Rev Henry Grantham, formed a Fishermen's Association for the encouragement of the salmon fishermen, with a penny bank to enable them to save for their licence. Each year he gave a ton of coal to the fisherman who caught the first Dee salmon. This later became a guinea paid by the Rector of Handbridge to the fisherman who brings the first salmon for him to see. Contrary to popular belief, the Rector does not receive the first salmon.

The Handbridge fishermen still ply their craft, and their fishing boats and nets can be seen below the bridge when the men are not out on the water. Nowadays, however, fishing does not bring in sufficient livelihood, and the majority of the fishermen also have other employment. Nor do they now live as once they did in Greenway Street- their simple cottages have given way to more modern dwellings but this old thoroughfare which rises uphill from the river retains its cobbles to this day.

old dee bridge 1753Until it was removed in 1850, a maypole once stood at the Handbridge end of the Old Dee Bridge. The American author, Washington Irving (best remembered today for his stories The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in which the schoolmaster Ichabold Crane meets with a headless horseman, and Rip Van Winkle, about a man who falls asleep for 20 years)- recalled seeing it on a visit to Chester around 1825, "I shall never forget the delight I felt on first seeing a May-pole. It was on the banks of the Dee, close by the picturesque old bridge that stretches across the river from the quaint little city of Chester. I had already been carried back into former days by the antiquities of that venerable place... the May-pole on the margin of that poetic stream completed the illusion. My fancy adorned it with wreaths of flowers and peopled the green bank with all the dancing revelry of May-day. The mere sight of this May-pole gave a glow to my feelings and spread a charm over the country for the rest of the day".

A footpath here will take you back to Queen's Park Bridge and the Meadows, or, if you carefully cross the busy road, next to the Ship you will see the entrance to a tree-lined open green area. Today this serves as a public park and it has for centuries been known as Edgar's Field, being the legendary site of the 10th century Royal Palace of King Edgar 'The Peacemaker'. (Read the splendid old legend of how he was rowed on the River Dee to St. John's Church by six lesser kings here). Earlier still, there was a large quarry here which was the source of much of the stone used in the construction of the Roman fortress. This was a superior material to that used by some later generations of builders, as we saw when we visited the Cathedral and the Northgate. Excavations have shown that work in the quarry ceased around the end of the fourth century AD.

On the eastern face of a remaining sandstone outcrop may be seen a remarkable survivor- a carved Roman representation of the goddess Minerva, the patron of all rivers and springs in Britannia, and also protector of of soldiers and craftsmen. Situated as she is here, facing the bridge and the ancient route to the south, she was revered as the protector of travellers. Hemingway calls her the Diva Armigera Pallas. Also known as Pallas and Athena, she was one of the most popular deities and was worshipped at the five-day March festival of Quinquatrix.

Later generations, taking her for the Virgin Mary, also worshipped and protected her, and she remains with us to this day- albeit a severely weathered shadow of her original self- and claimed to be the only representation of a Classical goddess still in its original position anywhere in Western Europe.

To quote again from A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester, its author wrote in the opening years of the nineteenth century, "Over the bridge in the front of a rock in the field on the right is cut a rude figure of the Dea armigera, Minerva, with her bird and altar. Here were formerly some ancient buildings, whose scite is marked by certain hollows; for the ground, probably over the vaults, gave way and fell in, within the remembrance of persons now alive. Tradition calls the spot the scite of the place of Edgar, from whence he was rowed in the year 973 by eight tributary kings to the monastery of St. John Baptist, and back again to his palace."

Our photograph shows the shrine as it now is- a shocking mess. A fine information board was some time ago provided by the City Council, explaing the history of the shrine and included a reconstruction of the statue as it may once have appeared, finely detailed and painted in bright colours. This has now disappeared- doubtlessly due to the attentions of vandals- and only the metal poles that once supported it remain.

That said, during the Summer of 2010, with the assistance of The Friends of Edgars Field, a radical programme of improvements were undertaken, including repairs to the shrine, attractive and imaginative new equpment in the play area, tree maintainance and much more. The Friends are a group of local people who are dedicated to improving, publicising- and defending from development, as you'll see when you visit their fascinating and informative website- this unique and historic open space next to the River Dee in Handbridge.

The Old Dee Bridge was reconstructed in stone in 1387, complete with strong towers and a drawbridge, and the Handbridge end was rebuilt again in 1499 when defences were added to give it greater protection. It was necessary to repair the bridge once more after its battering during the Civil War (when the tall tower seen in our illustration, known as Tyrer's Tower, was also destroyed) and in 1826 it was widened, its narrowness having longbeen a serious obstruction to traffic in the growing town. This involved the corbelling out of the footwalk on the east side and the building of new arches in front of the east side of the first and third arches and the west side of the seventh, but the 14th century moulded arch openings remain visible. The seaward side- seen at the top of the page in the photograph of a salmon fisherman by Edward Chambré Hardman- remains substantially as it was 600 years ago.

We see it again in a small detail from a view of Chester (above) which was published in the London Magazine in 1753 and, more clearly, in this interesting sketch by historian Randle Holme III (1627-1699).

Just a year after the widening of the Old Dee Bridge in 1826, the foundation stone of a second river crossing, the new Grosvenor Bridge was laid by the Marquis of Westminster.

Today, the picturesque bridge stands devoid of towers, drawbridge and portcullis, but remains a busy bottleneck throughout the day as- despite its 19th century widening- it is still too narrow for two-way traffic, the flow being controlled by traffic lights.
In the Spring of 1999 the carriageway was resurfaced and laid out to include an advanced stop line for the benefit of cyclists. At the same time a series of safety checks were made, which found that, after over six hundred years of constant use, the ancient structure was coping very well with modern traffic. These investigations also found evidence of a cobbled road surface below the level of the present carriageway.

Millers of Dee
You can hardly failed to have noticed the great weir in front of the Old Dee Bridge. As far as we know, this was constructed around the year 1093 on the orders of Hugh Lupus, first Earl of Chester, to supply power to his corn mills which were situated where you see the small modern generating station at the north end of the bridge. It is the oldest surviving structure of its kind in Britain.

dee mills and bridgeIn earlier times, the river seems not to have been navigable all year round, for the Romans had to haul the bricks and tiles produced at their industrial centre at Holt overland from Heronbridge some of the time. This was later to change: "The river of Dee was drawn unto the said cittie with great charge by the said Earle or some of his predecessors before the Conquest, from the anciente course it held before, a myle or two distant from the cittie, and a passage cut out of the rock under the walls of the said cittie".

Apart from improving the navigation, this produced a fast-flowing deep watercourse ideal for supplying power to watermills, whose construction, together with the strengthening of the Castle and city walls, were one of the first acts of Chester's new Norman masters. Hugh also reserved the Earl's Pool (later the King's Pool ), next to the causeway, for his private fishing interests and granted the Abbot of St.Werburgh's Abbey tithes for a mill "this side of the bridge" and fishing rights. He also granted three score fisheries, known as stalls, above the weir to several of his dependants.

Under the Earls of Chester, the mills on the Dee constituted the manorial mills of the city (Northgate Street excepted) and the custom of Soke Rights was established, which compelled the citzens (excepting the occupants of the Abbey and other religious houses) to take their corn to the Earl's mills to be ground- a lucrative monopoly which realised a handsome profit, the mills being constantly busy. The millers who worked here would raise their fees from the common people by taking a quantity of grain from each sack, but were often accused of taking more than their legal due and violent disagreements were common, often involving the use of lethal weapons. For centuries after, to call someone a 'Miller of Dee' was considered a serious insult, implying as it did dishonest trading practices.

There was a jolly miller once,
lived on the River Dee,
He worked and sang from morn till night,
no lark more blithe than he
And this the burden of his song
For ever used to be-
"I care for nobody, no, not I,
If nobody cares for me"

In 1237, the Crown took over the Earldom of Chester, and the Dee Mills became the King's Mills, becoming extensive and increasingly lucrative, especially when sub-let, as for example in 1277, when the master mason Richard the Engineer, who worked upon the Cathedral and Conwy Castle, obtained a 12 year lease from the King for a monopoly on the Mills and fishery of the Dee for the huge sum of £200 per year.

Richard may not have found this as good a bargain as he may have wished: several times during the 1280s, the mills, weir and salmon cages suffered severe flood damage- at one time putting the former out of action for three months.

By 1600, when Alderman Edmund Gamull purchased the mills, there were at least eleven water wheels operating: six for grinding corn, two for raising water to the Bridgegate Tower and three for fulling cloth- that is, for beating new cloth to cleanse and thicken it.

If you would like to know more about how these operations were carried out, George Skene's description of the workings of the mills, written in 1729, makes fascinating reading.

"If thou hadst the rent of Dee Mills thou would'st spend it". Cheshire proverb concerning extravagence: 15th century

old painting of dee bridgeThe weir was the source of many problems, notably that it made made navigation of the full length of the river impossible and that it caused flooding to the lands upstream. It was thus the subject of numerious legal disputes. In 1608, for example, it was decreed that "one full third of the said Weyre be pulled down and the river there made open", but the interests of the wealthy mill owners would have suffered by this and the order was not carried out. Welsh landowners at the time were particularly incenced at this and threatened to march on Chester to do the job themselves.

Just after the end of the Civil War, the city authorities, concerned with the declining state of the river, ordered that the weir and mills should be demolished, so that the water could flow rapidly out to the estuary, sweeping with it the silt that was continually clogging up the Dee's channels. The following petition, dated April 1647, the first year after the city had been taken by the Parliament, was addressed to the House of Lords, and is preserved among its records:

"Petition of the Aldermen, Merchants, and Citizens of the City of Chester. The River Dee is choked up and made unnavigable by reason of the stone causey erected near the city, to serve the Dee Mills, which for many years has occasioned a great decay of trading, and frequent inundations on the Welsh side. The Commissioners of Sewers for these parts during King James's reign resolved that the causey should be demolished, but this resolution took no effect in regard of the power of those whose private interest in the mills was concerned. Petitioners pray that they might have an ordinance for taking down tne causey and mills, and that the materials may be used for erecting tide mills for the service of the city."

Like so many local authority decisions- down to the present day- that clash with private interests, no action was taken. Silting continued apace and the Dee continued to be the source of much local anxiety. As late as the 1890s, proposals were made to raise the height of the weir to prevent high tides from reaching the upper river- and even to build a second weir downstream- but, once again, nothing was done.

In April 1895, the Dee Mills, seen in their final form in the old photograph above, were purchased by the Corporation, only to sustain serious damage a month later in the last of a long series of fires, after which they were closed. There was a brief revival in 1902, when Messrs. Rigby of Frodsham Mill temporarily resumed production in the workable remaining portion of the mill. As an experiment in the commercial use of the river, they carried a cargo of wheat in a Swedish ship, which was piloted to the Mill Wharf and successfully discharged. The experiment was not repeated, however, as the berth against the mill did not give sufficient depth of water for the vessel, which had to be moved to mid-channel for several hours, resulting in a loss of valuable time between the tidal high waters. Soon after, the Dee Mills closed for good and demolished after more than 8 centuries of continuous service.

Left: the tranquil sight of the Old Dee Bridge and fishing craft viewed from upriver in late January 2008. Photograph by the author.

Above is a fine watercolour by the matchless Moses Griffith (1747-1819) showing the bridge before it was widened. The Bridgegate may be seen, surmounted by a tall octagonal water tower- of which more later. To the left is the ancient church of St. Mary-on-the-Hill, and left again may just be seen the cupola of the Shire Hall, sadly demolished along with the rest of the medieval Castle at the end of the 18th century.

Chester's original power station was built in New Crane Street in 1895. It still stands- or at least part of its facade does- having been saved thanks to a two-year campaign of public opposition to a proposal to demolish it.

By 1911, a dramatic increase in demand for electricity meant that the old steam-powered station had reached its maximum load so, in the same year, the City Electrical Engineer, S E Britton proposed a scheme for the construction of a hydro-electric station to be erected on the site of the recently-removed Dee Mills. His plans were criticised by the Chester & North Wales Architecural Society, who declared that the proposed building was out of harmony with the Old Dee Bridge. The society offered their advice, suggesting that the building should be in a style more in keeping with that of the bridge and this was accepted. When the station was opened in 1913, it was the only hydroelectric plant in Britain that could handle both tidal and headwaters and the design was taken up in York in 1923. It ceased generating electricity in 1950, but soon after extraction of water from the Dee was authorised, and the station was taken over by the West Cheshire Water Board, who leased it to the council in 1958, from when the former hydro-electric power station was used as a water pumping facility, a practice which continues to this day.

Now go on to part II of our story of the Bridgegate...

chester guided walksCuriosities from Chester's History no. 17

  • 1602 The Bubonic Plague broke out in St. John's Lane; 60 a week died; no fairs held. Plague cabins were erected for the infected between the Watertower and the river.
  • 1603 Queen Elizabeth I died and was succeeded by her cousin James VI of Scotland, who became James I (1566-1625) of England. The High Cross was re-guilded. Eight hundred and twelve persons died of the plague in Chester. Tudor House in Lower Bridge street built (despite it saying 1503 above the door!)
  • 1605 Thirteen hundred and thirteen out of a population of about seven thousand died of the plague in Chester; County Courts held at Tarvin on account of it. Romney attributed a major cause of the pestilential visitations to the "stagnant filthyness of streets, accumulated filth, neglected public dunghills and open drains, due to the unpaved streets... (for example) the puddle which had formed at the Eastgate which became so deep as to require the Mayor's orders to remove it".
  • 1604 The most ancient of the Cathedral bells, inscribed "I sweetly tolling, men do call, to taste the meat that feeds the soul"- dates from this year.
  • 1605 The Plague very violent this year. It is said that not a house in the city was spared except one in Watergate Street, which still stands (although rebuilt in 1862)- and known as 'God's Providence House'. On its front it carries a beam from the original building inscribed "God's Providence is Mine Inheritance". The Gunpowder Plot: Guy Fawkes arrested in cellars of Parliament and accused of trying to blow up House of Lords during James I's state opening of Parliament.
  • 1607 Great exertions made to have the Dee causeway removed (see above) in order to prevent the overflow of the meadows, and that the river being scoured, ships might pass again close to the city.
  • 1608 Another Plague in the city. Extensive repairs carried out to the City Walls between the Watergate and the Watertower, apparently to a poor standard, for within a year, they had again fallen into disrepair.
  • 1613 Entry in city expenses: "Paid to Stammering Davye for clearing the watercourse at Newgate, vi d." The plaque above the doorway of the Phoenix Tower, carved by Randle Holme III, commemorating its use by the Painters, Glaziers, Embroiderers and Stationers was put in place this year.
  • 1614 Pocohontas, American Indian princess, marries John Rolfe
  • 1615 Moreton, Bishop of Chester died. "He was a great scolar and writer against the Papists, but no great housekeeper, and therefore did not obtain the love of the clergy..."
  • 1616 Prince Charles (soon to be the ill-fated King Charles I) invested as Earl of Chester
  • 1619 William, Earl of Derby, had a Cockpit erected under the Cty Walls near St. John's Church. First Negro slaves in N. America arrive in Virginia
  • 1620 The Pilgrim Fathers sail from Plymouth in the Mayflower. Oliver Cromwell is denounced because he participates in the "disreputable game of cricket"

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