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Old Photographs & Drawings of Chester

When bad things happen to good cities: the sorry story of Chester Market Hall

market hall and town hall

Markets are historically seen as the hub of the community and Chester Market is no exception, for centuries playing a central role in the business and cultural life of the city, a regular market having taken place here since at least the year 1139. The farmers and country folk would drive their livestock and carry their goods into the town and many set up their stalls in what has long been known as Market Square, but now more commonly Town Hall Square. The famous watercolourist Louise Rayner captured something of the atmosphere of these events during the nineteenth century in her fine painting of the then-new Town Hall.

Around that time, though, some were expressing unhappiness at the less-than-orderly nature of the market, as may be read in this extract from 1836 edition of The Chester Guide..

the old exchange"The state of the markets was until very lately highly discreditable to the City of Chester. The meat market consisited of a collection of covered wooden stalls crowded together on the north of the Exchange (the former Town Hall, illustrated left, which burned down in 1862. Learn more about it here) - and universally kept in a very filthy condition; and a similar nuisance on the south side of the Exchange served for a fish market, whilst vegetables, fruits and flowers were scattered in complete confusion throughout the piazza and along the front of the building. The dealers in poultry and butter displayed their commodities in Eastgate Street, occasionally shifting from the street to the rows according to the state of the weather, very much to the invonvenience of the inhabitants and passengers. But the frequent complaints of citizens have induced the corporation to accomodate the city with markets befitting this wealthy and antient town- the erection of the new markets was commenced in 1826... the fish and vegetable market is in the south side, that for butter on the east and the meat and poultry on the north. It is also intended to erect a market for potatoes nearer to the Northgate. The new markets are built of brick and roofed in and lighted from the top, and open on all sides. When finished, they will no doubt prove an ornament to the city".

The various Chester Improvement Acts of the 1840s led to further changes and soon these 'ornamental' market buildings had given way to a more centralised structure, the original Chester Market Hall- seen in our photograph at the top of the page- built in a cheerful baroque revival style in 1863, replacing three venerable inns that had long occupied its site- The White Lion (for over two centuries Chester's premier coaching inn), The Saracen's Head and The Boot Tavern.

Its presence doubtlessly influenced the design of the new Town Hall, commenced two years later, in 1865, with which it harmonised wonderfully (see top photograph). You may be interested to see these pictures of the market's interior in its final years, sometime during the 1960s (we will be adding more of these when time allows...)

building the market hall 1863
A rare photograph of the Market Hall's construction in 1863

chester marketHere is possibly one of the last photographs taken of the Victorian Market Hall, just before it was unforgivably demolished in 1967, to be replaced by the truly abominable structure illustrated on the right, known as The Forum, designed by Michael Lyall Associates, and seen here just before it in turn was partially demolished a mere quarter of a century later, in 1995. It comprised shops on the ground floor and council offices above.

What could have possessed the planners and politicians of the time to allow such a monstrosity to be erected directly opposite a medieval cathedral in the heart of one of Europe's most historic cities? The comments of a contributor to the Cheshire Sheaf, way back in 1879, still seem apt:

"In some cases the architectural name which Chester has owned for years will soon be obliterated and become a sore subject to future antiquaries and students. These cases are those of tradesmen [and doubtless, politicians] whose chief aim, in this money-making age (and wishing to retire from business to be "the gentlemen”), is to keep the cost down. Such men care not an atom about the outside, so long as the inside of the premises be enticing. These restorers employ a builder to throw together a structure of the meanest external character: the builder has his dummy who, for a consideration, manufactures drawings, I was going to say designs, by the dozens; one, most likely the cheapest, is selected by the client, and the building is put together...”

Dummies indeed. Further fine views of both the old and new buildings may be seen here, here and here is a 1930s photo of a military parade outside the old Market Hall.

It was ironic that the building's name was designed to provide a link with Chester's Roman origins when so much of the city's Roman heritage was destroyed during the course of its construction- most notably the so-called Elliptical Building, a structure the like of which has never been found anywhere else in the Roman Empire.

The kindest thing Cestrians have had to say about this recently-erected third attempt- courtesy of the Scottish Widows insurance company and designed by one Leslie Jones- is that "At least it's better than the last effort".

One wonders. It already looks dated, rather shabby and as grossly inappropriate to its surroundings as its predecessor. The impertinent manner in which its frontage has been thrown forward over the pavement has destroyed the building line and thus the harmony of the Town Hall Square itself.

In the face of such mediocre modern architecture, who can blame our older citzens for still speaking fondly of the needlessly destroyed facade of the Victorian hall?

Today, Town Hall Square is cluttered up with pointless concrete planters, a traffic barrier and attendant's hut, a motley collection of Roman stumps and the sculpture by Stephen Broadbent seen in the foreground. To compete the mess, a pointless row of flagpoles sprouted in front of the Forum and Town Hall. To complete the picture, and in the face of great local opposition, a branch of MacDonald's has now opened in the premises on the extreme right.

Our next picture, however, shows the square as it appeared around the year 1910.

It seems indicative of the quality of those currently entrusted with the guardianship of Chester's fine buildings that, referring to the Forum at a public lecture in Summer 2000, the city council's former 'Conservation Officer', Peter de Figueiredo (by then moved on to a senior position with English Heritage, but less-than-fondly remembered locally for such splendours as the roof and perspex window needlessly added to the medieval Thimbleby's Tower, the bollards that now clutter much of the city centre and, of course, those flagpoles here in Town Hall Square)- declared that "Chester may come to regret the loss of this bold building"...
About as much as Chester will miss him and his fiddling 'improvements', we suspect.

market hall cherubIn July 2000, we had the first confirmation of further great changes hereabouts. The city council had first announced in April 1998 a plan to "Improve the layout and appearance of Town Hall Square and its surroundings" and a series of public workshops were held to gain some idea of what people would like to happen in the area. Go here to learn more...

Left: When the Victorian Market Hall was demolished, this pathetic remnant was suffered to survive- tucked between the Dublin Packet pub and the horrible Scottish Widows Forum frontage- tauntingly reminding us of former splendours. Whether it will also survive the long-promised Northgate Development Scheme is anybody's guess.

Soon after we learned about the redevelopment proposals for the area, it was reported in the local press that one of the stone cherubs that long adorned the top of the old Market Hall had been discovered in a private garden and acquired by the City Council. It is hoped that the statue (right) will eventually be displayed somewhere within the new development. You can see them in situ in a photograph at the bottom of the next page...

In March 2001, the Independent newspaper produced a free supplement entitled "Best of Chester: the Top 50 Places to go in Chester", penned by local girl Lucy Gilmore. The work succeeded in producing a minor stink within the city's tourism and publicity departments as a result of its reference to the market as "originally atmospheric, the entrance is now through a tacky shopping centre".

Correspondents to the local press, however, seemed to agree with Ms Gilmore; "Yes, the Forum is very tacky!", "I can't think of a better description of it", etc- and this despite the author's rather surreal claim that visitors to the Market Hall would be entertained by "strapping stallholders singing Jerusalem as you sample ripe Stilton Vintage..."

At the time of writing, the Forum has begun to resemble something in a far less affluent place than Chester, the majority of the shops, including T J Hughes and the Somerfield supermarket, having closed down. Even ING's development information office has fled! Upon the advice of the inevitable consultants, the Market Hall itself has been reduced in size, so as to allow it "to look busier". Hard to credit... Nontheless, and against the odds, Chester's ancient market continues to flourish. Visit its excellent website and see what's there for yourself- history, a directory of traders and news of the forthcoming redevelopment. Of course, the best way to support the place is by doing your shopping there! The story continues on the next page...

new market hall
A lantern slide showing the newly-erected Market Hall in 1863: a source of great civic pride

chester market hall
Just before the end: bustle outside the Market Hall in the 1960s

demolishing the market hall 1
The demolition of Chester Market Hall in 1967: civic vandalism of the worst kind

demolishing the market hall 2

demolition of chester market

demolished market

demolition of chester market 67

demolition of chester market

remains of market hall

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