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St John's House, Chester

st.john's house2
St. John's House
was a large 18th century town house with a Georgian neo-classical facade which formerly stood on the north-east portion of the site of Chester's Roman Amphitheatre.

Photographs of it seem to indicate that it retained its eighteenth century form with little or no alteration up to its eventual demolition in 1958.

Left: Front of St. John's House and Little St. John Street c 1950. St. John's Church may be seen in the background

Following the discovery of the amphitheatre in 1929, ways were urgently sought to raise sufficient money to fund the monument's excavation. The Chester Archaeological Society formed a Trust and astutely purchased St. John's House from its then owners, the Anglo-American Oil Company.

From May 1935, they leased it to Cheshire County Council for successive 3 year periods and invested the rents. The County Council's legal department occupied St. John's House for the next 22 years, but relinquished their tenancy in 1957, when the new County Hall next to the river near the Old Dee Bridge was completed.

By this time, the income generated from the rent of St. John's House was deemed sufficient to allow the consideration of large-scale excavation of the northern half of the amphitheatre, although considerable additional funding from the Ministry of Public Works was also necessary. The house was duly demolished in June 1958 and excavation of the amphitheatre commenced the following year under Mr. Hugh Thompson, Curator of the Grosvenor Museum.

st.john's houseDuring the course of demolition, evidence of an earlier building came to light, in the form of a stone inscription dated 1664. This house, whose plan was unfortunately not recorded, was probably built during the restoration of the area outside the Newgate following extensive devastation during the Civil War.

Right: a rear view of St. John's House just before its demolition in 1958. A corner of Dee House may just be seen on the far left

In 1892, the Rev Scott, incumbent and historian of St. John's Church, reproduced a plan of the church, "taken from two plans of 1589 in the British Museum" which showed an even earlier building on the site, 'Mr Marbury's house', which may have been in existence as early as 1470 but was presumably destroyed during the siege, when the neighbouring St. John's churchyard was occupied by Parliamentary troops who set up a gun battery there on 20th September 1644.`

The occupants of St. John's House over the years were many and various. It is first mentioned in the will of former Mayor, City Recorder and Alderman, James Comberbach, builder of neighbouring Dee House, being referred to there as "newly erected". James Slaughter Esq took the lease in 1751 and passed it on to his daughter Elizabeth in 1789.
In 1811, documents refer to Indentures of lease and release between this Elizabeth and George Brook, "a Shropshire gentleman". This dealt with "All that capital messuage (dwelling house) with coach house, stables, garden, orchard, court yard etc... and all that cottage in the garden theretofore occupied by the widow Roden lately deceased, all which except the cottage, were in the occupation of John Nicolls and his undertenants".
George Brook remained until 1840 but the Census of the following year names Mrs Hannah Brook as the occupant, who is described as 'independent' with three children and eleven servants. Two years later, however, in 1842, George Brook, then described as "late of Chester" is party to an Indenture to convey St. John's House to Dr James st.john's house3Edwards. The money was out up by his father-in-law, Robert Main, who, in 1844, sold the property to Thomas Reed. Dr Edwards and his wife were, however, permitted to remain in occupancy during their joint lives. It was then briefly occupied by a Miss Giles and Miss Kerr.

Left: St. John's House is in the centre background of this photograph, taken from the top of the Newgate and showing the mass of buildings that once covered the site. In the foreground you can see the lining walls which were all that was ever built of the city corporation's ill-conceived road scheme

In 1855, the house was occupied by John J Brez, an accountant with offices in Eastgate street, in which he had formerly resided, but the same year it was sold to Meadows Frost, resident of Richmond Bank, for the sum of £2020. Described as a merchant in 1864 and by 1871 as a Justice of the Peace, Meadows Frost stayed in the house until 1881 when he retired from business and moved to Hope, Flintshire, where he died two years later. This marks the end of St. John's House's service as a private family residence.

amphitheatre gardens 1958According to a book published by the Convent at Dee House to celebrate its Golden Jubilee in 1975, St. John's House was purchased by them in 1886 and the wall separating the properties taken down. However, it long continued to house a wide range of occupants so it is unclear if the Convent disposed of the house and its reduced gardens or if the purchase had merely been of part of these gardens.

Right: A view from July 1958 of the gardens which for a while covered part of the amphitheatre site. Behind may be seen the Grosvenor St.John's School, now the Chester Visitor Centre, and the remains of St. John's House, then being demolished by the Chester Archaeological Society to commence their excavation. The gardens, another view of which may be seen here- were to follow soon afterwards.

In 1892, the house was acquired by the Chester Conservative Club and then its history throughout the early 20th century was of subdivision between a variety of businesses. In 1902, Hugh Miller and Co., costumiers, were established here and by 1910, C E Luggard and Co., electrical engineers had an office which they occupied until after 1919.

Also in 1910, a photographer, J H Hammond, traded here but by 1914 had been replaced by the YMCA and Richard Dahl, a language teacher.

In 1919, they were joined by R W Roberts, milinery agent but by 1923 the two businesses in occupancy were the Anglo-American Oil Company and the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes; by 1928 they had been joined by George Lenthall & Sons, milliners.

In 1933, the latter, together with Callander's Cable & Construction Co Ltd and K C Edwards, accountants, were the tenants and the following year the house was purchased for £4000 by the Chester Archaeological Society, who, as recorded above, leased it to Cheshire County Council for the next twenty two years and then, in July 1958, finally demolished it to allow the excavation of the amphitheatre to commence.

A correspondent in the local press in August 2000 reminisced about St. John's House, saying the entrance hall, which was on the north side (top photograph), had attractive floor tiles and outside, on the east, was a huge well. There were some fine trees and, during the war years, when air raid shelters for St. John's school were dug, a NAAFI canteen adjoined the Georgian mansion.

Learn more about St. John's House- and much more of the fascinating story of the Chester Amphitheatre here

st john's house

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