A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

'The Honorable Incorporation of the King's Arms Kitchen'

Reminiscences by 'a frequenter' 1881-97

As you look at the Eastgate from within the Walls, on the left-hand side, immediately next to the gate is a narrow passageway. At the end of this, in what is now the premises of a bank, formerly existed a public house called the King's Arms Kitchen, also known as Mother Hall's.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it housed a drinking and gambling club going by the splendid name of The Honorable Incorporation of the King's Arm's Kitchen. This came about as the result of an order by King Charles II that the ancient custom of electing the mayor and his officers was to end. Sir Thomas Grosvenor was appointed as mayor, thus spawning an oligarchy between Eaton Hall (the Grosvenor residence) and Chester Corporation that would last until the Election Reform Act of 1832. The city's people were, unsurprisingy, increasingly unhappy with this imposition of an unelected mayor and Corporation, and one evening around the year 1770, a group of tradesmen met in a room in this pub and decided to form a City Assembly of their own, which was organised (a wonderful idea) as a complete shadow assembly, a satirical imitation of the Corporation, with its own elected mayor, recorder, town clerk, sheriffs, aldermen and common councilmen. They even had a replica of the mayor's sword and mace made for them. In the course of time, the serious, satirical point of the King's Arms Kitchen was largely lost and it degenerated into a drinking and gambling club. The regulars, however, did not forget the old rules and regulations, such as that which declared that if a stranger sat in the mayor's chair, it was his duty to buy drinks for all present. During the Second World War, many an American GI was invited to sit in the mayor's chair!

The fittings of the room where this worthy institution met, complete with wood panelling upon which was inscribed the succession of member's names, was preserved when the pub closed in 1978, and was transferred to the Grosvenor Museum, where they were imaginitively incorporated into the decor of the museum's teashop, and may still be seen there today. But now we invite you to read the fascinating reminiscences of an anonymous 19th century 'frequenter'...

"I have been asked to write a few recollections of the manners and customs appertaining to the King's Arms Kitchen, and have pleasure in complying with the request although probably it may be in a somewhat disjointed manner as one scarcely knows where to begin and where to leave off, to recall to mind a fact, a characteristic of Chester which, for all the present writer knows to the contrary, is absolutely unique. That is, the existence in our midst for the period of at least 130 years of a mock corporation, if by that profane name one can fitly describe an "Honourable Body" which annually during that long period of time elected its Mayor, its Sheriff, its Recorder, its Aldermen, and its Town Clerk, which regularly issued decrees, and jealously saw to their enforcement by fines and penalties.

When the Chester King's Arms Corporation came into existence it is difficult to ascertain, but the official minutes at present preserved go no further back than 1770. To become a member it was necessary to be proposed, seconded and elected by a certain number of members, and even then a man could not regard himself as a member of the Honourable Body unless he qualified by the payment for glasses round for all members present, and the making of the following declaration:
"I do declare that I will be faithful and true to His Majesty King George the Third, the Mayor, Aldermen, Sheriffs, and other members of this Corporation, their lawful commands obey, and will endeavour to prove myself a worthy member of this Honourable Body".

My recollection of the room dates back to 1881 when I went with Mr. John Humphreys, organist of Matthew Henry's Unitarian Church in Trinity Street. Matthew Henry was a celebrated preacher and "Bible Commentator" and there still exists in the church a "chained Bible" and the pulpit from which he preached. Incidentally I may say there is a monument to his memory in Grosvenor Road which was erected 150 vears after his death. (Today it rests in the middle of the traffic island near the Castle!)

Mr. Humphreys was a member of the Kitchen which at that time numbered about 40, and they used to hold an annual dinner (in an upstairs room) on which occasion after dining they marched back in procession, headed by the Mayor for the time being and the regalia. The room was very exclusive and none of the general body of citizens would think of entering unless accompanied by a member. Everyone practically occupied the same seat, one near the mantelpiece being used by Mr. Sandy, a retired lay clerk at Chester (and formerly of Wells) Cathedral. Being next to the bell it was always "Ring the bell Mr. Sandy" and he was kept well occupied.

There is the Mayor's chair with Sword and Mace, a replica of the city's regalia and boards round the room contain the names of the Mayors and Sheriffs of this 'mock corporation' with special seats for them as well as the Town Clerk, the Recorder and other officials. Beautiful oak panelling surrounds the room, diamond headed in shape, and it is said, quite truly I believe, that it came from the old pew doors of St. John's Church when the pews were replaced with modern seats. St. John's is the oldest in the city dating from about AD680 and has been both a Cathedral and a Collegiate Church in the days when the diocese embraced Coventry and Lichfield, the Bishop dividing his residence between the three places. There is also an oil painting on wood of the Royal Arms- the Lion and the Unicorn, surrounding which is the inscription: "This picture is the property of the Incorporated Society of the King's Arm's Kitchen." It was painted by a Mr. Clowes, a heraldic painter in the city, and presented by him as a gift to the Incorporation.

The entrance to the King's Arms Kitchen and the narrow passageway that led to it from Eastgate Street- photographed by the author long after the pub closed.

In the centre of the roof is a circular panel with the words Persevere under the Rose, implying that whatever took place in that room was to be considered secret. On each side of the fireplace is a cupboard for the keeping of 'churchwardens', long clay pipes, each member who indulged in the fragrant weed marking it with his monogram, and replacing it until wanted again. There is also a clock, underneath which is a space about a yard square, which is pointed out as the actual spot where King Charles hid himself after witnessing from a tower on the City Walls the defeat of his army at the Battle of Rowton Moor, three miles out of Chester. On this (Phoenix) tower a tablet states: "King Charles stood On this tower on Sept. 24th, 1645, and saw his army defeated on Rowton Moor."

The legend is that King Charles was hidden for a month after the Rowton battle in the kitchen of a cottage next to an hotel, that the spot was marked as sacred, and the room was utilised by the gentry and tradesmen who used to meet for discussion on lines recorded later in their minutes, and that they were served with drinks through an aperture in the wall- this aperture under the clock- until it became merged in what is now known as the "King's Arms Kitchen". Whether this is actual truth or tradition I can only conjecture.

The 'Mayor' for the time being was supposed to be responsible for the conduct of the room. He did not necessarily occupy the chair every night, and sometimes if a stranger found hls way into the precints he was urged to occupy the seat, the penalty for which was "drinks all round", which was invariably paid. Being a musical house, much frequented by those "in choirs and places where they sing", it was a very ordinary thing to find sufficient talent to sing trios such as "Life's a bumper", "Fair Flora decks", "With a jolly full bottle" and quartettes such as "By Celia's Arbour," "When Evening's twilight," "As the moments roll," "Strike the Lyre," "Here's Life and Health," as well as songs. This, I say, might occur on any 'ordinary night', but it was invarably so on 'birth nights'. I should explain that on the mantelpiece was a tablet on which was recorded the name of any member whose birthday occurred in the current month, and it was customary for any such member to say as a fore-word, "I hope you will turn up in good numbers to support me on my birthday." At nine o'clock it was the custom to hand round the "Infirmary Box," when it was the member's privilege to stand drinks round, and contribute a shilling to the box; and each member a copper or two. In this way the year's total to the Infirmary funds generally realised about £8.
kitchen 1948
I ought to say that over the door is the motto "God Save the King," which stood unaltered through the 60 years of Queen Victoria's reign, when the matter righted itself by the accession of King Edward. That reminds me that it was a tradition of the room that women and soldiers in uniform were not allowed to enter. In those days, I suppose, private soldiers were not quite what they are today. Arising out of this rule came a circumstance which nearly led to the breaking up of the institution. When Chester became the head quarters of the North-Westem Military Command, three N.C.Os in uniform found their way into the room and asked for drinks. A waitress informed them that soldiers could not be served there, and asked would they mind going into another room. Of course, they declined, and left the house.

Photographed here in 1948, this wooden sign on the Eastgate for many years directed visitors down a dark passage to the Kitchen's entrance.

The Mayor (Mr Chas. Stanyer), after consulting the members asked to see the landlord, who sent a message back that he was busy at the bar. The Mayor then said: "Gentlemen will you all rise and follow me out of the room, never to enter again?" This was considered too drastic, so two of the members (Mr. Humphreys being one) were deputed to acquaint the landlord with the gravity of the situation. Ultimately he came in and pointed out that it was a rule of their own making that soldiers in uniform were not to be served, and that he was only carrying out their instructions. If they cared to waive their rule he would be only too pleased to serve them. This explanation was considered satisfactory, and it was decided to send a letter of apology to the three N.C.Os. A happy ending to an unpleasant incident. A stranger who happened to be present, as he left the room, remarked to the Mayor: " I have been an interested listener, and am glad you came to the decision you have, for I noticed the motto over the doorway, 'God Save the King,' and had you not done so I was going to suggest that you altered the words to 'God Save the King without soldiers.' " This broke down another barrier. Many members of the Kitchen, who attended the room nightly, were also volunteers, and after attending drill in uniform, had to be content with a drink at the bar; after this the penalty was relaxed.

In addition to the singing mentioned on birth-nights, we had many members who could sing songs and recite. Mr.Stanyer was a marvellous entertainer. He could recite Shakespeare from memory by the yard- whole scenes from several plays: could whistle the melody and sing the bass part of a hymn or glee at the same time. Had the largest fund of anecdotes (local experiences) of any man I ever met. Had the largest collection of music of any private imdividual in the city or county. Had two pipe organs- a Snetzler and a Willis, and always raised his hat at the mention of the immortal Handel, whom he made a god of. Was organist at Eccleston Church- two and a half miles out of Chester- for 40 years, where he went twice on a Sunday and once in the week to choir practice, counted the steps from his house to the church door, and could gauge it to the half-dozen. Did space permit, I should like to tell you some of his anecdotes- nearly always against himself.

The first of three colour photographs illustrating how the fixtures and fittings of the old Kings Arms Kitchen appear in their new home in the Grosvenor Museum.

What struck me about the Kitchen was that nearly all the customers drink stout all the year round, and I venture to think that not another house in England can boast of being served by the same firm (Barclay and Perkins) for a period of 150 years, long before railways were made, and when it had to be conveyed by sea or river. And still going strong. Of course, the room had a World-wide fame, no visit to Chester being complete without a look at the 'Kitchen'. I remember on one occasion an Aderman, and Mayor of the city, bringing some friends to view it. He greeted the host with "I'm just going to show my friends your sanctum sanctorum." "Look here, Mr. Mayor," he said, "I don't mind you showin' 'em round, but I won't have my house called nicknames." In course of time the room began to lose its exclusiveness, and owing to the difficulty of finding a Mayor willing to act, there was a little lapse. An attempt was made to revive the glorious traditions of the past, but interest gradually waned, and the last Mayor to be elected was in 1897. Of course, it is as largely attended as ever, but entirely of a changed character, and one cannot help feeling a certain amount of regret at the passing away of such an ancient and honourable institution.
One may wonder how the penalties referred to in the minutes were enforced, but the following poem, recently unearthed from the minutes, will explain:


"Sir, I am commanded by the Worshipful the Mayor to demand your presence before the Court assembled, and in failure of compliance my Esquire will announce to you my challenge." The Esquire then throwing down the gauntlet shall say:

"If you show any airs,
And don't come upstairs,
You are now in a damnable hobble
There's my glove, mind your eye,
You can't from us fly
Or I'll give you a whack on the noddle"

He then again throws down the gauntlet and proceeds:

"I see you look pale,
We are boys who ne'er fail;
Only look at this shovel and poker;
Come, budge, my old cock,
Or I'll give you a knock.
I tell you, you bloke, I'm no joker."

(The Esquire then seizes the delinquent by the collar and carries him before the Mayor, followed by the champion.)

During all the years I frequented the Kitchen, a very distinctive feature was the quietness of the conversation, even lf the room was full. There was no cross-talking, no noisy discussion about football, cricket, politics or religion, and the same peculiarity exists to-day, the old traditions of the room being faithfully observed.
The 'Honorable Incorporation' came to an end in 1897, though the rituals associated with the establishment were fondly remembered for years after- many a local is said to have enjoyed a free drink after American servicemen were lured into sitting in the 'Mayor's' chair and then told of the tradition".

The Honorable Incorporation came to an end in 1897 due to lack of interest and its parlour incorporated into the King's Arms Kitchen pub. This in turn eventually closed for good in 1978 and the site now forms part of the Midland Bank's banking hall. The historic fittings were, fortunately, saved and transferred to the Grosvenor Museum, where once more they are the scene of drinking- albeit of a non-alcoholic variety: they have been imaginitively incorporated into the interior of the museum's refreshment room on the first floor. Take care if you sit in the Mayor's seat- you may find yourself having to fork out for 'coffees all round'...

The excellent Grosvenor Museum is open daily and admission is free.

Licencees: To date, we have traced the following licencees of the King's Arms Kitchen: In 1850 Susan Williams, in 1880-1 Barker Jones. He had been at the Alma Hotel in St. Anne Street in the 1871. In 1898 his widow, Mrs Ellen Jones ran the place, in 1902 Edwin Barker, (Barker has gone from Christian to surname!) In 1914 Mrs Annie Georgina Kate Roberts was in charge, during WW2, Jack Morris. Can you help us with any more?

In October 2002, this interesting- but sadly anonymous- reminiscience of the Kitchen appeared in the letters pages of the Chester Standard:

"Over 50 years ago, when we were 'young bloods', I frequented the King's Arms Kitchen on many an occasion. Being secreted up an alleyway adjacent to the Eastgate, it was a very quiet pub, and the 'Council Chamber' was very special being used only at the landlord's discretion.
As a lark we would invite visitors to occupy the 'Mayor's Seat' (in which no one sat normally) with the landlord's encouragement and permission. Once enthroned in 'the chair' we would then, and only then, inform the occupant that it was an old custom in Chester to pay for 'drinks all round' and invariably they gladly paid up for the honour of being mine-host, the 'Mayor' .

The bar was not large, hence the bill was always reasonable and anyone asking for spirits was frowned upon (beer was then about a shilling a pint!) It was always a pleasure to take visitors in, an 'historical occasion' for them, calling themselves 'Honorary Cestrians', plus a free drink and a laugh for us.

I don't remember the landlord ever inviting women into this bar. Come to think of it, very few women went into public bars in those days; how times have changed! There was invariably an 'outdoor' (a hatch in the passage) at the rear of most pubs where one could take a jug and get it filled to take home. The landlords often provided stools near the 'hatch' and women would sit there, 'unseen', rather than sit in the pub. When they 'modernised' (vandalised) the pubs, these hatches disappeared as did the snugs, which had open fireplaces for oldtimers who went in nightly.
When a boy, I sometimes (not often) carried a jug of ale from the hatch, covered with a saucer, along our terraced street. My father never went into pubs except when we were on long cycle rides, when he would nip into a village inn for a quick one. He would be out in seconds, bringing me a bottle of pop. Children were certainly not allowed inside in the 30s".

We received this letter from Eddie McNulty in February 2008..

"Just looking at the write up on the Kings Arms Kitchen. I had a wonderful night there in the early seventies a coach load of us came up from the Old Dyers Arms in Coventry. We were friends through the folk scene with an equally crazy crowd from Chester we all arrived in fancy dress and were promptly turned away from the Bear and Billet. We ended up in the KAK and a great night was had, I was dressed in an oversized evening suit complete with illuminated and revolving bow tie. I ended up in the "big chair" after buying about 50 halves of bitter for the privilege. Had a brilliant night and ended up with the prettiest girl in the pub.
I know this is a longshot but I wondered if you might know the whereabouts of the main Chester lunatic Billy Oultram AKA Superman AKA Mad Billie. I lost track of him over the years and wondered if you had ever heard of him? I really enjoyed the article on the pub and the photos brought back some happy memories."

Contact Eddie here if you are able to identify the present whereabouts of this gentleman.

Along with the Kitchen, many other Chester public houses have ceased to be. Here is an illustrated list of some of them. Your contributions, reminisciences and pictures are very welcome!

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