Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

Louise Rayner's Paintings of Chester

St. Werburgh's Mount

St. Werburgh's Mount stood opposite the south transept of the great Abbey of St. Werburgh (now the Cathedral, named after the 7th century saint whose remains were brought to Chester around 875). The house's last resident was Thomas Hughes who wrote The Stranger's Handbook to Chester, one of our city's finest Victorian guidebooks. Just before his old home was due to be demolished in 1873, Hughes commissioned Louise Rayner to paint this watercolour of it.

The buildings that replaced it, retained the old name, St. Werburgh's Mount, but comprised shops designed by the prolific Chester architect John Douglas and erected in 1874. To the left of this corner was later built St. Werburgh's Row, a further row of shops behind a street-level arcade, designed by Maxwell Ayerton in 1935, who (in partnership with Sir John Simpson) is better remembered as being the architect of the first Wembley Stadium, with its world-famous twin towers, built in 1923. (modern photographs to follow).

On the extreme right can just be seen what was, when this painting was made, the Music Hall. This remarkable building started life in 1280 as the Chapel of St. Nicolas, built by the monks of the nearby Abbey. Like the Saxon minster before it, the Abbey served the townspeople as a parish church, their services being held in the south aisle of the nave. When this was rebuilt in the 14th century, the monks moved them to the chapel across the road. The new accomodation seems to have proved unpopular as they soon returned to worship in the south transept of the Abbey, which was re-designated as the Parish Church of St. Oswald and actually walled off from the rest of the building to preserve the peace of the monastic community. This unusual situation continued until 1881, long after the monks had gone, when the newly-built of St. Thomas of Canterbury in Parkgate Road became the Parish Church of St. Oswald.

The abandoned chapel fell into disuse until the Abbey was dissolved in 1540, when it was purchased by the townspeople to serve as a new Common Hall. The lower room was used for the storage of bulk goods such as cloth, wool and grain and the upper room for "assemblies, elections and courts".
When the new Exchange was built nearby in 1695, the old chapel became the Wool Hall and thirty years later was adapted for the showing of plays, being greatly upgraded in 1773 to become the Theatre Royal, where appeared such superstars of their day as Sarah Siddons in 1786 and Edmund Kean in 1815.
In 1854 the building was enlarged- the new frontage being designed by James Harrison- and then became the Music Hall. Charles Dickens, who read here in 1867, described it thus: "The hall is like a Methodist Chapel in low spirits, and with a cold in its head".
In 1921, the Music Hall became the oldest building in the world to be used as a cinema and showed Al Jolson's 'talkie' The Singing Fool in 1929. It closed in 1961, then becoming a branch of Lipton's and the first supermarket within the city walls. Since that time, it has housed a number of retail businesses and today the venerable 13th century Chapel of St. Nicolas plays host to a branch of Superdrug.

The narrow lane next to it where a covered wagon may be seen in the painting still survives today. It leads down to Northgate Street and and bears the evocative name of Music Hall Passage. The fine house outside which the wagon is parked, St. Werburgh's Chambers, was designed by John Douglas and built in 1872-3, so was brand new when this picture was painted. It, too, is also still with us today.

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