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Old Photographs & Drawings of Chester

The Old Exchange

The Exchange in Northgate Street, Chester was built between 1695 and 1698 and destroyed by fire on 30th December 1862.

Also known, at least in its early years, as the New Common Hall, the costs of its construction were shared between the town corporation, the King, William III, and a number of prominent local gentlemen. Its architect is unknown.

Built of brick with stone quions, its ground floor was originally an open piazza but, after sixty years, the building started to sag and was judged to be in imminent danger of collapse so the ground floor area was supported with strong pillars and the space between filled in with rows of small shops. The space was changed again in 1801-2 when the eminent Chester architect Thomas Harrison (builder of the Northgate and Grosvenor Bridge and rebuilder of the Castle) adapted it to accomodate courtrooms and offices.

The main apartments were on the upper floors; these housed a series of courts, assembly and banqueting rooms and a council chamber. They were described as "extremely ornamental, wainscotted with oak and adorned with figures of carved work".
A life-sized statue of Queen Anne in her coronation robes, "curiously gilt and painted" was added above the south front's entrance in 1712 and may clearly be seen in all of our illustrations.

Regarding this statue, the Cheshire Sheaf of June 1878 contained the following enquiry from one C. O’Donnell, "Many years ago, while passing through Chester to Ireland, I stayed a night at that comfortable hostelry, the White Lion Hotel [Chester's principal coaching inn, which long stood where the Forum entrance is today]. From my bedroom window, next morning, I saw a STATUE OF QUEEN ANNE under a lofty niche on the south front of the Town Hall. The other day when in Chester I found that both statue and town-hall, and even my old hotel, had vanished: so, having ascertained the existence of the CHESHIRE SHEAF, and indeed seen one or two of the earlier numbers, I write to enquire whether the Statue is still in being, and whether it is known who was the sculptor ? He was manifestly, to my mind, a man of considerable ability; and something ought surely to be known of him".

This reply came from the historian, author and first editor of The Cheshire Sheaf, Thomas Hughes, "In The Stranger in Chester, 1816, p. 941, I find that there lies buried in the south aisle of St. John's Church, John Tilston, sculptor, of this city, who died September 27, 1723, aged 52. To this is appended the following statement : "He carved the figure of QUEEN ANNE and the armorial shields which adorn the front of the Exchange."
I believe the present habitat of the statue is the Corporation store-yard in Canal-street".

Mr Hughes wrote the following month, July 1878 that he had personally inspected the statue in that council depot.

statue of queen anneAt some point during the 130 years since that letter was written, the statue was transferred, complete with its original round-topped niche, to Bonewaldesthorne's Tower (illustrated left) where it remained on display until the 1960s, when it mysteriously vanished. The niche remains in situ, however. Information upon its present whereabouts would be gratefully received!

John Tilston, incidentally, was also the sculptor of the ornate (and today, sadly eroded) plaque mounted on Pemberton's Parlour, which bears the Royal and City Arms and records the remarkable (and probably unique) conversion of the war-battered City Walls into the pleasant elevated promenade which millions of visitors have enjoyed ever since.

In 1852, just eight years before its destruction, the Exchange underwent a radical restoration, Thomas Hughes of Aldford being the contractor and Benjamin Baylis the architect. Queen Anne was included in the work, "the statue of Queen Anne is to be restored, painted and regilt, and securely fixed to the building by a copper bar one inch square, with nuts and screws; also the pedestal the statue rests upon, and the moulding around the niche".

The anonymous author of the early 19th century work, A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester, wtote that "The Exchange is a large handsome pile, supported by five columns in the centre, and has a row of shops on the west side. It was built around the year 1698, in the mayoralty of Colonel Robert Whitley, who gave his toll toward defraying the expences of the building. The length is 126 feet, and the breadth 46 feet. The courts of Justices are held in a large commodious common hall over the exchange. In this place the Mayor, assisted by the Recorder, holds the courts of crownmote, portmote and sessions. Here the body corporate hold their assemblies for making bye-laws and other public business. The elections for Mayor, and other annual Officers, as likewise for Members of parliament, are held here; also the mansion house, where the Mayors have their entertainments, and the citizens their assemblies during the winter.
The interior of this bulding has recently been considerably improved under the direction of Mr. Harrison, a very elegant and commodious Justice's room, offices for the Town-clerk, &c. which together with the Town-hall and entertaining room, form a convenient and handsome suit of rooms for every purpose required.
Below is the Public Library, in which is an extensive collection of books. By a recent regulation shares are purchased for five guineas, and one guinea is paid annually. The books are the property of the subscribers."

The Exchange is shown above in an anonymous engraving and on the right in one of the earliest known photographs of Chester (or anywhere else for that matter) by Henry Fox-Talbot, the inventor of the negative-positive process, who visited the city in the 1840s. Our main illustration above gives a good impression of the bustle of the market which was held here for many centuries- alas no more- but the time necessary to expose Fox-Talbot's photograph meant that it failed to record all but a few ghostly images of the market traders and customers gathered around the Exchange.

Fifteen years later- and seven years before it was destroyed- the old Exchange was recorded in the remarkable aerial view below- a small detail from John McGahey's famous View of Chester from a Balloon in 1855. You can see it towards the top centre of the picture dominating a Market Square that is radically different from that we know today.

The Exchange is seen lengthways-on, showing it to have been a much grander structure than other surviving contemporary illustrations, which tended to show it as viewed from its southern end, would indicate. The narrowness of the street would doubtless have made it difficult for the artist to 'stand back' far enough to achieve a decent rendering of the building along its long side...

George Cuitt, writing in 1815, recorded that the statue of Queen Anne situated above the main entrance had been badly damaged- including the loss of the orb and sceptre she formerly held- as a result of being pelted with missiles by factions opposed to the Corporation during elections of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

After the fire, the statue was moved to the Watertower from where it mysteriously vanished sometime in the 1950s- although the round-topped niche within which she stood still remains there.

One of the ornamental plaques situated on each side of the Queen now resides in the small garden of the Grosvenor Museum and a column from the building- removed a century before the fire, when pillars supporting one side of the Exchange were found to be weakening and replaced by the shops- was presented by the city to "the gentlemen of Abbey Square". It was duly erected on the green in the centre of the newly-built square, where it remains to this day.

The large Georgian house to the left of the Exchange (in the upper illustration) was the city residence of the Massey family of Moston- the site is now occupied by the Shropshire Arms public house and adjoining shop- and down the street may be seen the market building which replaced the unhygenic wooden stalls of the meat shambles. Beyond that is Folliot House, formerly the home of the great architect Thomas Harrison, which, together with Harrison's Northgate- seen in the distance- are the only structures in the illustration to remain standing to this day.

The Cathedral is seen as its was before its comprehensive restoration and its churchyard is still full of tombstones. The City Wall runs along the bottom of the picture, below which are the Kaleyards.

white lion and exchangeThis interesting view of the south end of the Market Square shows the Exchange on the far right and behind it, The White Lion Hotel, (also visible in the picture at the top of the page) for two and a half centuries Chester's foremost and, by the standards of the day, most luxurious, coaching inn. Stages long departed from its door to London, Ireland and all parts of the kingdom.

The Lion's first landlord we can trace was William Pugh in 1605 and the last Peter Hilton, who was there in 1855-7, and perhaps a bit longer, but the venerable White Lion is absent from subsequent directories- unsurprisingly, as the splendid, and still much-missed, Chester Market Hall was built on its site in 1863.

Read more of the old White Lion and the hundreds of other hostelries that are no longer with us in our Lost Pubs of Chester chapters...

This view must have been made before 1862 because in that year a terrible fire destroyed the Exchange, but most of its valuable contents, including the city records and all but two large paintings were fortunately saved. After the fire, its site was cleared and an open space created which remains with us. All trace of the old Exchange was obliterated so efficiently that nobody visiting the spot today would have any clue that it had ever existed.

Within two years, work started on its replacement, the great Town Hall we know today, designed by W H Lynn of Belfast, which was built in 1864-9, inspired by the medieval Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium. You can see a couple of photographs of it here.

painting of old exchange

The Exchange in flames: 30th December 1862

fire at exchange

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