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Roodee II

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

14. The Watergate part I

Watergate II

New material added here April 2015

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Awatergate 1888pproaching the end of Nun's Road on the western section of Chester's city walls, we see below us the numerous and complex rooftops of the various buildings connected with the Racecourse on the Roodee.

The road before us dips down sharply to the traffic lights and busy junction with Watergate Street (take care here)- but the wall rises slightly to lead us on to the Watergate.

On the right we see the gate as it appeared in 1888, in one Francis Frith's fine views, and below in a postcard from 1940. Except that the fancy gas lamp atop the gate in the earlier picture has been removed- and an inevitable huge increase in traffic- this scene is little changed today. Compare it with the conjectural artist's impression of how the original Watergate looked, below..

As with the city gates previously visited on our walk, this is another example of an 18th century arch built to replace a fortified medieval gateway. At the time of its purchase by the corporation from the Earl of Derby in 1788, it was considered so "dangerously ruinous" that it had to be immediately demolished and the present arch, designed by Joseph Turner, was erected the following year.

Turner also designed the Bridgegate and the elegant row of houses in Nicolas Street, known, because of the number of doctors who lived and practised there, as 'Pill-Box Terrace'- which we will visit shortly. His home was in nearby Paradise Row, of which more below...

watergate in 1940On the western front of the Watergate may be seen the following inscription:


The Watergate was closely guarded until well into the 18th century, and had been ably protected by a heavy double door, portcullis and drawbridge.

Tolls were levied on all goods entering the town, not just here but at all of the city's gates, a portion of which were taken as murage, a tax to fund the maintainance of the defences, carried but by an order of masons by the name of the Murengers. What remained went into the ample pockets of the noble families who paid huge sums to the King for the right to collect the dues. Due to its proximity to the busy harbour, the Sergeancy of the Watergate had long been regarded as a coveted and lucrative position and was held by the Stanleys, Earls of Derby, whose fine, black & white timber town house, Stanley Palace (1591) still stands, a little way up the hill, on the right hand side of Watergate Street.

Their employee, the Keeper of the Watergate, to quote the ancient records, "takes of every cart entering with firewood: one branch; of every horseload of fish: five fishes; of every boat coming to the aforesaid gate with large fish or salt salmon: one fish; with herring, fifty".

old WatergateIn 1615, referring to the status of the Watergate and its neighbourhood, it was said "which gate is less than any of the other three, serving only for the passage to the rood-eye and to the banks of the river, where are brought into the city all such commodities of coal, fish, corn and other things; which barks and other small vessels bring up so far upon the waters of Dee".

We regret to say that visitors walking our City Walls today will observe that the Watergate is rather a sorry sight. It remains passable but is covered in scaffolding and has, remarkably, remained in this condition since as long ago as September 2012. Remedial work had been carried out a few years before this but evidently proved to be less than satisfactory and the current distressing situation is the result. It remains a mystery to caring locals as to why there has been such a long delay in carrying out the necessary repairs; responsibility for maintaining Chester's historic infrastructure falls to Cheshire West and Chester Council, advised by English Heritage, but they say there is no money to address the problems, not just here but also at the Northgate, Abbey Green and the City Walls adjoining the Groves among others. Meanwhile, half a million pounds has been found to restore Chester's best known entrance, the Eastgate and its famous clock- for the third time in the last quarter century. Watch this space for news of future improvements..

Beyond the Watergate
Looking out here from the City Walls, beyond the nearby Watergate Inn and main entrance to Chester Racecourse, the modern view of busy New Crane Street, with a large car park to its right, is fairly uninspiring. Consider, however, that where we stand was for centuries the main gateway to the wharves and quays of the largest, most important seaport in the region and ancient Watergate Street once its 'dock road'.

detail of braun map of watergate16th and 17th century maps, such as that by Braun here (see the whole of his impressive 1571 map of the city, and many more, here) - show the River Dee approaching right up to the Watergate, allowing just enough room for a quay where goods were loaded and unloaded to and from waiting ships and from where heavily laden carts and trains of pack horses laboured up the hill, carrying the goods via the Customs House to the safety of the merchant's houses in the town.

Later, as the River Dee silted and receded and, followed the canalization of the lower river in the first half of the eighteenth century, new quays and shipyards were established along the newly aligned riverbank standing further out from the Watergate in the area we still call today 'The Old Port'.

In accordance with the scheme of development the site of the old wharf immediately outside the Water Gate was levelled, and an open space, then and now called Watergate Square, was formed. From this point three new roads, Paradise Row, Middle Crane Street, and New Crane Street, were laid out to give access to various parts of the riverside. Subsequently, one or two minor cross streets and a number of courts came into being. All of these streets were constructed after 1745, when the only way between the Water Gate and the wharves was an indirect track alongside and across an extensive timber yard that then occupied much of the later residential area. This track started at the Watergate and, after following a part of the course of what is now New Crane Street, passed through the middle of the timber yard and reached the Old Crane along the lower end of what became Middle Crane Street.

The houses that soon arose along these new thoroughfares were, doubtlessly in the first instance inhabited by people specially interested in the new port and its facilities, such as merchants, shipbuilders, mariners, customs officials, etc. As time went on and the temporary prosperity of the port declined, most of the original tenants gradually drifted away and their places were taken by others unconnected with the maritime affairs of Chester. These later inhabitants considered the area to be a convenient and not undesirable place of residence, and those who selected Paradise Row would appreciate the attractive outlook over the Roodee. It was described as "a street of genteel houses" according to the 1792 directory. Near here also existed in the eighteenth century a building known as 'The Pentice on the Roodee' at which, presumably, the business of the Corporation in connection with the port was dealt with.

detail of old portThe author of an anonymous work, A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester, published around 1800, has this to say regarding the area, "On the north east side (of the Roodee) is Paradise Row, a street built within these few years; beyond that, Crane-street. By an ancient map, in the Editor's possession, the deepest part of the river, two centuries back, was formed in the centre of these streets and the channel flowed to the entrance of the Gate-way".

This aerial view- a detail from John McGahey's famous View of Chester from a Balloon- shows the Old Port and its surroundings as they appeared in 1855.

Despite the canalisation of the River Dee years earlier, it continued to silt up and the boom years of the commercial port were not to last. J. H. Hanshall, the second Editor of the Chester Chronicle (first published in 1775 and still around today), wrote, “As the years go by it is clear from the newspaper and other records that the trade of the Port of Chester is drifting desultorily but inexorably into the silting sand. But if the bigger ships of the day can no longer reach her, the history of former times repeating itself, the old Port can at least build ships for others".

He described the area as he saw it around 1816: "Beyond the Watergate are Crane-street, Back Crane-street, and Paradise Row, the whole of which lead to the wharfs on the river. For a number of years Chester has carried on a considerable business in shipbuilding. Within the last ten years the trade has wonderfully increased, and even now it is not unusual to see ten or a dozen vessels on the stocks at a time. In fact, there are nearly as many ships built in Chester as in Liverpool, and the former have always a decided preference from the merchants. Indeed, Chester lies particularly convenient for the trade, as by the approximation of the Dee, timber is every season floated down from the almost exhaustless woods of Wales, at a trifling expense and without the least risk. The principal shipwright in Chester is Mr. Cortney, but Mr. Troughton’s is the oldest establishment. There were lately nearly 250 hands employed in the business, two-thirds of whom were in Mr. Cortney's yard, but the trade is at present flat. Six vessels of war have been built by him, and within the last two years (1814-15) two corvettes and two sloops of war, The Cyrus, The Mersey, The Eden, and The Levant, from twenty to thirty guns each. The firm of Mulvey and Co., formerly of Frodsham, have established a yard near the Crane. Cortney's yard launched a brig in 1804, an East lndiaman of 580 tons in 1810, and in 1813 a West India-man of 800 tons, in addition to the corvettes and war sloops mentioned by Hanshall.”

1795 old port advertismentWriting in The Cheshire Sheaf, one ‘J.H.E.B’ described the area as he knew it in June 1945, “Middle Crane Street. This street, originally known as Crane Street and later as Old Crane Street, was the first of the roads to be laid out. its course is in a direct line from the Watergate to the Old Crane, and its construction necessitated the removal of the large timber yard to a site immediately under the Walls to the north of the Watergate. It appears to have been constructed shortly after 1750 and certainly before 1782. A glance at the houses of Middle Crane Street indicates that those at the upper end, at least, were intended for occupation by people of some stability, and that they were built towards the close of the eighteenth century. Some of the houses on the south side of the street have gardens in the rear that extend as far as Paradise Row and thus afford an excellent view of the Races and other events held on the Roodee.

1795 seaman advertismentParadise Row appears to have been constructed shortly after Middle Crane Street. It was in existence in 1782 and it provided a more direct access to the considerable works that stood on the site now occupied by the Gas Company. Paradise Row, flanked by its neat looking houses and lengths of garden walls, is a quiet highway except at the times of the annual races. Most of its present vehicular traffic is bound to or from the Gas Works, but in its early years it served timber yards, iron works, and part of the shipyards, as well as the Old Workhouse.

It has had some notable residents, such as Joseph Turner, the architect who designed the Bridgegate and a number of other buildings in Cheshire, Denbighshire and Flintshire.

New Crane Street was made between 1782 and 1795 and as the name suggests, it provided direct access to the later but more enduring New Crane. With one or two exceptions the older buildings along its course are of a humbler character than those in the other streets.”

Earlier, Chester author and guide Joseph Hemingway, writing in 1836, stated that "the river here is navigable for ships of 350 tons burthen. From the quays are exported some of the richest cargoes of that excellent commodity which affords to the taste of the Londoners the most grateful flavour, and presents the Cockney with what he calls "The fattest Velsh rabbits in the Vorld"- good old Cheshire Cheese.."

To the left, between here and the Roodee, stood 150 years ago the previously-mentioned workhouse or House of Industry asit was called at the time. Hemingway again: "That asylum for age and indigence, whose inmates are provided with all necessities of food and clothing; it is regularly visited by a clergyman and a medical man, and contains a school and an establishment for insane paupers".

painting of old portThe author of A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester wrote of it in 1800, "on the west side of the Rood-eye stands the general Work-house, or House of Industry, where the poor of the several parishes are employed, and provided for in a proper manner. It is a commodious building and contains generally two hundred persons. It receives the poor from distant parishes, by agreement between the governor and parish officers."

This area, today known as 'The Old Port' (illustrated left as it was in the 19th century) a few years ago underwent a major redevelopment. New houses, apartments, young people's accomodation and other valuable facilities were built, but a plan to demolish the historic Victorian Electric Light Building led to a spirited, two-year campaign of opposition from local people- which resulted in at least the facade of this important building being saved and incorporated within the new development. Read more about it in our chapters devoted to the Old Port area here.

Within the City Wall, Watergate Street rises steeply to where the spire of Holy Trinity Church- also known as The Guildhall- stands, near to which was the West Gate of the Roman Fortress- the Porta Principalis Dextra- and from that point lies the line of the Via Principalis, the present-day Watergate and Eastgate Streets. Could the Saxon founders of Holy Trinity have ulitised a ruined gatehouse connected with the West Gate for their first church? A very similar situation existed in what is now the middle of the busy junction of Bridge Street and Grosvenor Street, where for centuries there stood a church dedicated to St. Bridget, which was founded around the year 797 by King Offa on the site of the vanished Roman Southgate, or Porta Praetoria.

Another ancient church once existed in this part of Chester, one dedicated to St. Chad. One source stated that the church, "stood in the croft over against the Black Friars on the north side of Watergate Street near to the Watergate". A document of 1388 makes mention of a garden situated close to it, but other than that, we have virtually no further information about the church, or of when and why it disappeared. Its approximate site is today occupied by The Queen's School, which we will visit a little later in our walk around Chester's walls.

The Grey Friars
All of the land bounded by today's Watergate Street, Bedward Row (which we will pass just before we reach the Infirmary), St. Martin's Way (the Inner Ring Road) and the City Walls once formed the precinct of the Franciscan Friars- the Grey Friars. We learned a little of their neighbours, the Dominicans or Black Friars and the nuns of St. Mary's in our previous chapter.

The friary was founded in 1237-8, only a year or so after the Dominicans- who actually opposed their foundation on the grounds that they feared there would not be enough alms forthcoming in the small town to support both institutions.

Having overcome these early difficulties, for the three centuries of their existence the friars seem to have gone about their business uneventfully and history tells us little of them. The Franciscans were always the smallest and poorest of the religious foundations in Chester and indeed, by 1529, they had become so impoverished that they were compelled to let out the nave and three aisles of their church to the merchants and sailors of Chester, as a place for storing and repairing sails and other things requisite for their ships, on the understanding that the merchants undertook all necessary repairs to the church.

Together with the other two Chester religious houses on this side of the city, the unfortunate Franciscans finally surrendered their house to Henry VIII's commissioners on 15th August 1538 after which time the estate passed through the hands of several owners including, in 1588, the Warburtons. They sold it to the Stanleys, Earls of Derby, in 1622 who retained the lands until 1775 when they were purchased by the Linen Merchants, who erected their new Linen Hall on part of the site and sold the rest for residential development. On this western half of the site arose during the 1770s Watergate Flags (the area immediately outside the Watergate), Stanley Place and Stanley Street. At the time of the sale the entire area was known as the Grey Friar's Close or, alternatively, as the Yacht Field. We will discuss this area further in our next chapter...

The friary buildings, remarkably, survived right through from the Dissolution until this final splitting up of the lands for development and the tall steeple of their church long served as a guide to mariners entering the Port of Chester, and is marked on contemporary charts as such, before falling into private hands and finally being demolished. The antiquarian William Webb wrote of its removal, "It was a great pitie that the steeple was put away, being a great ornament to the citie. This curious spire steeple might still have stood for grace to the citie had not private benefit, the devourer of antiquitie, pulled it down with the church, and erected a house which since hath been of little use, so that the citie lost so good an ornament, that tymes hereafter may talk of it, being the only seamark for direction over the bar of Chester".

Our city, it seems, has suffered from the destructive ways of the property developer for longer than we realised.

Aside from the nuns of St. Mary's, the Blackfriars and Greyfriars, whose houses all were situated on this side of the city, and the Benedictine monks of the great Abbey of St. Werburgh (now the Cathedral), there was yet another religious community in Chester- that of the Carmelite White Friars. Their monastery and lands were situated on the other side of Nicolas Street, the modern Inner Ring Road and the narrow street called White Friars (formerly White Friars Lane) perpetuates their name to this day. The monks acquired further parcels of land as time went by and their estate in its final form was bounded by Commonhall Street to the north, White Friars to the south, Bridge Street to the east and Weaver Street to the west.

Left: The view from the Watergate along Nun's Road with the Roodee and buildings of Chester Racecourse on the right. The former Greyfriars' lands are on the left.

Their community had existed in Chester since around 1277 but it was only in 1290 that one Hugh Payn granted them land "in a suburb of Chester" on which to build their house. That this area, now very much in the heart of the city, was referred to as a 'suburb' indicates how undeveloped great areas within the Walls long remained and, indeed, this area did not finally become fully built-up until the late 15th century.

As with the other religious houses, the Carmelite's church was rebuilt and enlarged several times over the two and a half centuries of occupation and in 1495 the tower was rebuilt and furnished with a tall and graceful steeple.

When the Dissolution came in 1538, as with the other religious houses (except, of course, for the Abbey), the monks were dispossessed and the buildings and land passed through the hands of several owners, including the Duttons and Gamuls, who probably made their substantial mansion from the monk's former domestic quarters and buildings of the outer court. The large and impressive church, however, long remained in use- it may be seen on Braun's 1571 map of Chester- and became the burial place of several prominent local families. But, in 1592, it was sold to Thomas Egerton, the Attorney-General, who proceeded to tear down the church and spire, and possibly the other buildings as well, and built his mansion on the site. This in turn disappeared and was replaced by the large private house, 'The Friars', which remains, standing in its extensive grounds, with us today.

Of more recent times, the site of the old Greyfriar's monastery was occupied by a complex of utilitarian Government offices by the name of Norroy House. After these were vacated, they were extensively restored and enlarged to house a brand new hotel which opened for business in April 2015.

Back in Watergate Street, this 19th century engraving shows the ancient Yacht Inn (named after the Yacht Field upon which it was built) and the view up Watergate Street towards the centre of the city and The Cross. On the left, Holy Trinity Church is yet to be rebuilt and acquire the tall spire we see today- which work was carried out in 1865-9 by James Harrison.

chester guided walksAs we stand atop the Watergate, the late 18th century houses nearest to us on the north side of the street occupy the site of the legionary bath houses which were situated here outside the fortress to minimise fire risk and be nearer to the water source.

That side of the nearby corner house which runs parallel with the wall still has as its foundation part of the west wall of the ancient bath house, which is pierced by the furnace arch of a hypocaust. Also found on the site were the remains of a sudatory (sweating bath) and many tiles stamped with the wild boar motif of the XXth Legion, considerable amounts of coins of the reigns of Hadrian and Trajan and- most importantly- a carved altar, dedicated to 'Fortune the Home-bringer, to Aesculapius and to Salus'. One of the sculptures on the side of the altar is a staff entwined with a snake, the distinctive symbol of Aesculapius who was the greatest Greek and Roman healing god (a similar motif is still used today in medicine). Salus was the goddess of health. Another carving on the side is a rudder, symbol of life's course, which was set by the goddess Fortuna.

The altar was set up by the freedmen and slaves in the household of a Roman officer, perhaps because he was ill. This man, the extravagantly-named Titus Pomponius Mamilianus Rufus Antistianus Funisulanus Vettonianus, was the Legatus (Commander) of the 20th Legion at Chester, probably around the year AD 100. His unusually long name is similar to that of a friend of the younger Pliny, and they may be one and the same man, or near relatives..

Due to the lack of a suitable local exhibition place, the altar ended up 200 miles away in the British Museum in London, where it remains on show today.

Such was the casual attitude to antiquities at the time that one Philip Egerton had a large number of hypocaust pillars and Roman tiles from the site taken to his country mansion at Oulton Park (now a famous motor racing venue) near the Cheshire village of Little Budworth, where they were formed into the floor of a mock 'Druid's Temple' he was having built on the estate.

Somaltare of the pilae didn't make it as far as Egerton's home and ended up instead in the surrounds of Oakmere Lake. Tragically, all other traces of the extensive remains found on the site were swept away- "destroyed by the rude hand of ignorance"- when the present houses were built in 1799. The corner one, as we shall learn later, in 1878 became the original home of the Queen's School for Girls.

That 'rude hand of ignorance' is a phenomenon by no means restricted to times long gone. An even larger, and far better preserved, Legionary bath house- "Extending for almost 200 feet with walls standing up to 12 feet or more in height"- found during the construction of the Grosvenor Precinct was swept away for the construction of underground delivery bays, a mere thirty years ago.

The author recently photographed the well-preserved remains of a small Roman civil bath house in Prestatyn - a small seaside resort a few miles along the North Wales coast, and not otherwise noted for its antiquities. Still clearly visible in situ are tiles stamped 'Leg XX VV' and bearing the wild boar motif, probably made at the Legionary works depot at Holt on the River Dee. Shamefully, Chester, the great fortress of Deva, can boast of nothing like this outside of sorry remnants in the glass cases of the Grosvenor Museum.

There was a time when destruction came to Watergate Street in more violent ways. Randle Holme III wrote of the bursting of some grenados (mortars) here on December 10th 1645, during the Civil War Siege of Chester, "Two houses in the Watergate Street skip joint from joint, and create an earthquake; the main posts jostle each other, while the frightened casements fly for fear, in a word, the whole fabric is a perfect chaos, lively set forth in the metamorphosis: the grandmother, mother and three children are struck stocke dead and buried in the ruins of their humble edifice"...

Read more of Holmes' terse description of the great destruction caused to Chester during those troubled times here- or go on to part II of our exploration of the Watergate area...

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 23

  • 1693 A Roman altar found in Eastgate Street, which had been erected by Flavius Longus, military Tribune to the 20th Legion and his Son, Longinus from Samosata in honour of the Emperors Diocresian and Maximian "in discharge of a vow to the Genio Loci".
  • 1694 Queen Mary II died.
  • 1695 The Exchange commenced (completed 1698). The forerunner of today's Town Hall, it stood in the Market Square until it burned down in 1862.
  • 1696 New coinage in England carried out by John Locke and Isaac Newton (who up the post of Warden of the Royal Mint in this year) . Chester selected as one of six cities to be allocated an Assay Office- a mint being this year set up and coinage of money (which bore a 'C' under the monarch's head) began on the 2nd October. Old hammered silver coins were recalled, melted down and re-issued as milled coins. In charge of the Chester mint was the great astronomer Edmund Halley- he of comet fame. In 1697, he observed a rare triple rainbow from the Phoenix Tower.
  • 1699 The Bluecoat School outside the Northgate was founded by Bishop Nicolas Stratford. The 'Recorder's Steps' by the river were built as a compliment to Roger Comberbach, Recorder of Chester
  • 1700 William, Duke of Gloucester, only surviving child of Mary's sister, Anne died; Parliament passed the Act of Settlement 1701, which provided that the Crown would go to the nearest Protestant relative, Electress Sophia of Hanover and her Protestant heirs. When William III died in 1702, he was succeeded by Anne, and she in turn was succeeded by the son of the deceased Electress Sophia, King George I.
  • 1701 James II dies; Louis XIV of France recognises the 'Old Pretender', James Edward Stuart, son of James II, as King James III.
  • 1702 William III died and Queen Anne (1665-1714) came to the throne. The Quaker's Meeting House in Cow Lane (Frodsham Street) built, and Pemberton's Parlour was rebuilt.
  • 1704 The City Walls extensively repaired after their pounding during the Civil War and converted to promenades.

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