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Watergate part I

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

14. The Watergate part II


Welcome to the second part of our exploration of the Watergate area

Site Front Door
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Check out the Route Map
A brief introduction to Chester

The Northgate
The North Wall
The Phoenix Tower
The Kaleyard Gate
The Cathedral
The Eastgate
The Newgate & Wolfgate
The Amphitheatre
/ gallery
Amphitheatre Comments

St. John's Church
The 'Roman Garden'
River Dee & Grosvenor Park
The Bridgegate
The Castle
The Grosvenor Bridge
The Roodee
The Watergate
The Infirmary
The Watertower
Tower Wharf
St. Martin's Gate
The Bridge of Sighs
Chester's visitors through time
The Rows of Chester
The Chester Gallery
Old Maps & Aerial Photos
Old photos of Chester & Liverpool
Vanished Chester Pubs / gallery
Lost Chester Cinemas
The Old Port
The Chester Canal
The Royalty Theatre
Chris Langford Gallery
Mystery Plays Gallery
Chester Anagrams!
MickleTrafford Railway Stroll
Letters about the CDTS Busway
Letters about our site
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iyacht inn f we look up Watergate Street, on the right is one of the few examples of a town house by Thomas Harrison, builder of the Grosvenor Bridge, Northgate and Castle: Watergate House was built in 1820 for Henry Potts, Clerk of the Peace for the County of Cheshire. Harrison's villas were usually stuccoed but his use of brick with stone dressings may have been used here to allow the house to blend in with the older houses in Watergate Street.

In 1907, it became the first headquarters of the Army Western Command. Western Command stretched from Hadrian's Wall on the Scottish border to Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire and included Lancashire, Cheshire, wales and the West Midlands and, from 1907 to 1972, the garrison city of Chester was its HQ. The Army eventually outgrew Watergate House and moved into temporary premises in Boughton in 1935 until a vast, purpose-built neo-Georgian building was completed overlooking the River Dee at Handbridge in 1938.

A little further on we encounter the traffic noise and stench of Nicolas Street, now part of the modern Inner Ring Road. On the right-hand side once stood the ancient Yacht Inn (of which more below)- seen above in a photograph of c.1900, which shows the view up the street towards Chester Castle. It is hard to believe that only forty ago, this vista remained almost unaltered. But then the Yacht, the venerable Church of St. Martin and every other bulding seen on the left hand side of the photograph was demolished for road widening and today this quiet scene seems difficult to imagine.

The fine row of town houses that still extend along the western side of Nicolas Street were designed by Joseph Turner, who also built the Watergate and Bridgegate, and erected in 1780-81. They were formerly known as Pill-Box Terrace because of the number of doctors residing and practicing there- Chester's Harley Street.

(Joseph Turner's massive tomb is in the Overleigh Cemetery, Handbridge. Today it is shamefully neglected, virtually invisible among the undergrowth but here is a photograph of it by the author, taken about 20 years ago when it was somewhat more accessible...)

Watergate Street was always a place of great bustle and business as it was the main entrance to the wharves and crane on the river, which formerly approached much nearer to the city. As the Dee silted up, so the importance of the port declined, but nevertheless, in 1637 there was still sufficient business to justify building, opposite the Yacht, a new Customs House.

Bear in mind that the Port of Chester- which technically still exists- at that time stretched from Barmouth on the west coast of Wales to Morcambe Bay in northern Lancashire. Flintshire landowner and travel writer Thomas Pennant (1726-98) wrote that "In this tract are several other ports, subordinate to the comptroller of Chester, and even Liverpool is styled a creek of the Port of Chester".

The Customs House still exists, and having been used for a number of purposes over the years, today houses a restaurant. Our photograph (below) shows the stone coat of arms atop the building and behind it, the tower of Holy Trinity Church, also known as The Guildhall.

Should you find yourself in need of refreshment at this point, you will find, just across the road, an establishment that, though it may share its name with the long-defunct Customs House, is very much alive and well. During our researches into the vanished pubs and inns of Chester, we found over and over the situation of ancient hostelries being extensively rebuilt during the 19th century but retaining their old names and licences. Some, however, escaped, and here is one- a genuine 17th century pub, the splendid Customs House Inn. It was originally a town house built in 1637 for Thomas and Anne Weaver (after who the little lane next to it, Weaver Street, is named) and you can still see their initials carved on the front. Once called The Star Inn, the pub was extended in the 18th century to incude the old Row and the house next door. Our photograph shows it in the 19th century- is that the landlord standing proudly in its doorway?- but it looks much the same today and serves some of the best-kept beers in town.

Returning to the old Yacht Inn, it was described in the 19th century as "without exception the most picturesque and curious of all our Chester inns" and a century before that was considered "the premier hostelry in the city on its most important street". Both the London and Ireland stage coaches called at its door and it was noted for its feasts, entertainments and good accomodation. However, the great churchman, satirist and author Jonathan Swift was somewhat less enthusiastic...

My landlord is civil, but dear as the devil:
Your pockets grow empty with nothing to tempt ye:
The wine is so sour, t'will give you the scour:
The beer and the ale are mingled with stale:
The veal is such carrion, a dog would be weary on:
All this I have felt for I live on a smelt.

Swift was a frequent visitor to Chester, passing through on his way to and from Ireland and his duties as Dean of Dublin Cathedral. He did not seem to greatly enjoy the experience, especially when his stay in the city was extended due to bad weather at the port- by his time the wharves in Chester itself had become unusable and he would have had to travel a few miles by coach to the satellite port of Parkgate along the Wirral coast. During one of these enforced delays, he invited a number of dignitaries from the Cathedral to join him for a meal at the Yacht, but none of them bothered to turn up. Infuriated and insulted, with his diamond ring he scratched into one of the windows:

Rotten without and mould'ring within, this place and its clergy are all near akin

Swift did not, however, confine his comments to Chester's clergy, as is hilariously illustrated in the following:

The walls of this town
Are full of renown,
And strangers delight to walk round 'em;
But as for the dwellers,
Both buyers and sellers,
For me, you may hang 'em or drown 'em.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the old inn had fallen on hard times; in 1853 it was described as "now reduced to very humble pretensions compared to its former character" and, a century on, had become just another street corner pub. Then, in 1965, the ancient Yacht, its windows and scratchings- together with every other building on the left-hand side of the photograph above- were bulldozed during the creation of the Inner Ring Road, and their foundations and cellars now lie beneath the left-hand carriageway of busy Nicolas Street. To learn much more about the vanished inns of Chester, go here- here is the old Yacht's own page.

In July 2000, Watergate Street has become the latest of Chester's main streets to be completely resurfaced- the old tarmac having been replaced by attractive stone setts.
While on the subject of road conditions, here's a final offering from Jonathan Swift concerning the state of the highroads he was forced to endure on his journeys between London and Chester...

When soon by every hillock, rut and stone,
In each other's faces by turns were thrown...
Sweet Company! Next time, I do protest, Sir,
I'd walk to Dublin ere I'd ride to Chester.

Just as the modern view from the Watergate provides rather a challenge to the imagination in evoking the scenes of yesteryear, so too the following short stretch of Chester's city walls. Very pleasant, but rather mundane- and in a sense providing a brief relief from the continuous magnificence of spectacle and history we have thus far experienced during our journey.
queens schoolSo, descending from the Watergate, we leave behind us the noise and traffic, and enter leafy City Walls Road.

Priory and Prison
In the middle ages, this entire area, from the site of the newly-completed HQ Building to the fine old towers on the northwest corner (which we will be visiting later)- and stretching back beyond the present Inner Ring Road- were occupied by the buildings and estates of various religious foundations, the area not becoming built up until the late 18th century. Indeed, when one studies old maps of the city, it is amazing just how much land inside the walls remained distinctly rural in character; used for grazing, agriculture and gardens, the Deanery Field at the northeast corner being the sole survivor today.

The wall here, as with the stretch along Nun's Road, is not readily apparent until we look over the parapet on our left and see the sheer drop down to the playing fields below and the massive sandstone buttresses that extend all along the outside of the West Wall. (They may be seen in an old photograph on the next page). These attractive playingfields and tennis courts belong to the Queen's School for girls, which you can see on the other side of the road. The school had been founded in 1878, "for the education of the daughters of the middle classes" and had originally occupied a large 18th century house- 100 Watergate Flags- on the corner of City Walls Road and Watergate Street, which, as we learned earlier, had been built on the site of an extra-mural Roman bath house. It was considered an ideal location for the new school, despite its reputation for being haunted.

In 1806-8, a new City Gaol and House of Correction was erected where the school now stands and its first prisoners were transfered here when the ancient Northgate Gaol was demolished. Designed by the prolific Chester architect Thomas Harrison, whose works we have encountered throughout our wanderings, it was built of brick at a cost of £3,500 and contained a gaol in the western half for remand prisoners awaiting trial and a house of correction on the east, for those found guilty of 'misdemeanours'- lesser crimes. Debtors also 'enjoyed' their own separate accomodation here. Each building was shaped like a cross with a square courtyard within each angle. Everything was surrounded by a high wall with two separate entrances, each with its stone porch on four Doric columns.

queens school advert 1897Until the gaol's eventual closure, those citizens so inclined could assemble along the City Walls opposite to witness public executions carried out on a scaffold mounted above the gaol's main entrance. No doubt the crowds would have attracted refreshment sellers, hawkers, and the like, shouting their wares- the resulting racket doubtlessly resulting in frequent fallings-out with the nursing staff of the Infirmary next door!

Right: an advertisment for the Queen's School from the Chester Courant, 1897: "the school course is carefully modified to suit deliacte or backward girls"..

In 1856, the local author Thomas Hughes, in his Stranger's Guide to Chester wrote, "Surely the day is not far distant when 'death by the hangman' will be a punishment unknown to the criminal code of England! What adds to the evil, as far as Chester is concerned, is that the authorities of the City are compelled, by some antediluvian charter, to see execution done on every condemned criminal within the County, though for what reason this especial 'honour' was first conferred on the citizens, is an enigma susceptible of no clear solution".

(Another 113 years were to pass until Hughes' wish was granted and capital punishment was finally done away with in Britain in 1969- except for Northern Ireland, where they had to wait until 1973. Go here for a grim history of the subject).

A 1940s contributor to the Cheshire Sheaf, when a small boy, overheard a friend of his father relating that, while a passenger on the railway (which can still be seen crossing the viaduct on the far side of the Roodee), he had seen the body of a criminal suspended on the gallows erected on this gaol.

Left: the Coat of Arms of the City of Chester on top of the old Customs House with the tower of Holy Trinity Church- the Guildhall- behind.

A rather less serious crime was reported in the pages of the long-defunct Chester Courant in 1833: "Thomas Andrews, William Hughes and John Harding, three children of larger growth, were charged with a breach of the peace on Sunday afternoon. The youngsters have lately spent their Sabbaths at the brick kilns in Newtown, where they play at marbles, pitch & toss, and other amusing and interesting games: they were so engaged on Sunday last when they were disturbed by Worrall, the constable, who deposed that they made a great disturbance. As governor Jepson’s spacious yards- at the city gaol- afford excellent accommodation for such instructive games, the Mayor politely directed that they be admitted and remain there until they can find some person to promise on their behalf that they shall not again disgrace themselves by playing on the Sabbath".

You can see what the place looked like in an old illustration on the next page. It was demolished in 1872. The old prison fire bell, which once hung over the debtor's yard, was long displayed at the Pied Bull Inn in Northgate Street. What later became of it is unknown.

chester guided walks• Cheshire West & Chester Council's excellent Archive & Local Studies System allows free access to some remarkable databases of information, including the City Gaol registers 1808-42. These list criminals, their crimes and- often brutal- punishments: "3rd Jan 1816. Disobeying an Order in Bastardy of a female bastard child for 2s per week belonging to the Parish of St Olave in Chester. Committed as above for same in case of a male bastard". "16 Oct 1815. Breaking and entering warehouse of Edward Roberts and William Roberts in said city and stealing 2 pieces of sugar value £6. Tried 26th Oct 1815 and found guilty. Sentenced to transportation for 7 years." "Insulting several well dressed women about 3pm on City Walls by indecently exposing and shaking at them his private parts against common decency and breach of the peace. (punishment not recorded)".

The site of the old gaol was acquired by the Duke of Westminster, who offered it to the rapidly-expanding school for the erection of a new building. Designed in the Tudor Gothic style by A. E. Oulde of Newgate Street, it was opened by the Duke on March 7th 1883. Above, you can see the architect's original design drawing for the building- the Infirmary may be seen to its left.
Up to the opening of the new building, the school had gone under the title of 'The Chester School for Girls' but the Duke had a quiet word in the ear of Queen Victoria, who commanded that "the school in question shall be styled the Queen's School".

In 1997, the school had high hopes of being able to expand into the disused 1761 Infirmary building- which we will visit soon- but were gazumped by property developers at the last moment. Instead, they acquired the former City Walls Hotel, just in front of us, where they have successfully developed their new sixth form centre.

Just before the Queen's School is Stanley Place, a group of fine houses facing each other across a small cobbled street and dating from the 1780s. The Chester Courant of May 1778 advertised the development thus, "There is now to be let for building on, several hundred yards of land in the Yacht-Field, near the Watergate, within and adjoining the City Walls, being a most convenient, dry and healthy situation, commanding a very pleasing prospect of the Flintshire hills and River Dee, with a great part of the enclosed lands recovered from the sea. Its extent will admit of erecting elegant houses, that may be formed into a square that will open to the City Walls, and its situation may, with great propriety, be considered as in the country".

The aforementioned Yacht Field had, in pre-Reformation times, formed part of the estates belonging to the monastery of the Franciscan Grey Friars, of whom we learned in our previous chapter. When the grand houses were eventually built, a private garden was laid out between the two sides of the street where cars park today.

The distinctive porch seen on the end of the right-hand terrace is Chester's last surviving example (and one of very few in the entire country) of a Sedan Porch. The sedan chair was carried by two servants into the centre of the open porch, thereby allowing the occupant to enter or leave the house without being exposed to the elements. A Miss Piper wrote of them: "They came into the parlour and got full of warm air, and nipped you up and carried you tight and cosy into another warm room where you could walk out without having to shew your legs by going up steps or down steps".

Cheese and Linen
At the far end of Stanley Place stood between 1235 and 1538 the monastery of the Franciscan Greyfriars and later Chester's Linen Hall occupied the site. This was built in 1778 by Irish linen merchants as a depot containing many shops in a spacious area from which their cloth- to the measure of millions of yards- was distributed by wagon and pack horse throughout the kingdom.

Here we can see the Queen's School and the large area the Linen Hall once occupied in this detail from the 1896 Chester OS map and a photograph of it is below.

Linen fairs were held on 5th July and 10th October and even though a heavy duty of twopence on every 100 yards was imposed, it was a profitable import through the Port of Chester.

After the linen trade declined, the building was utilised as a cheese store and market, trading in the world-renowned Cheshire cheese. It was said to have been a sleepy and quiet place except during the Cheese Fairs, when in a few hours thousands of pounds could change hands. The cheese was sold by the hundred-weight and only under exceptional circumstances could a single cheese be bought.

(Traveller and writer George Borrow was, however, less than impressed with the Cheshire cheese and ale he was served when staying at the Pied Bull Inn in Northgate Street 150 years ago...)

photo of linenhallIt is said that local cheese making originated with the Romans, but it has certainly been made here for many centuries, and delicious Cheshire Cheese was shipped to the world in special 'cheese ships' which departed from the 'Cheese House Quay' in Crane Street, just up the road from the Watergate. Towards the end of the 19th century, these quays of the so-called Old Port went into decline as the River Dee continued to silt up and the trade was transferred to the railways.

A very similar- if somewhat grander- structure in Halifax, West Yorkshire- the magnificent Piece Hall- will give you a strong idea of how Chester's Linen Hall once looked. Theirs remains as a thriving commercial centre and leisure facility and is, in fact, a Grade I listed building, but Chester's is sadly long gone. When it was demolished, the cheese fairs were transferred to the Market Hall in Town Hall Square.

From 1919, the site of the old Linen Hall had been occupied by stables used to accommodate horses taking part in the races on the Roodee. In May 2001, however, the Chester Race Company announced plans to demolish them in order to allow the development of new housing on the site. Nearly two years later, in May 2003, we learned that developers Taylor Woodrow were aspiring to build 144 apartments in 4 and 6-storey blocks on the site. Their architects say the new properties will 'reflect' features of the windows and brickwork of neighbouring Georgian buildings but will include "contemporary timber panels and rendering".

There is currently little demand for any more apartments to be built in Chester but the stables were nontheless demolished in May 2009 as, it was claimed, vagrants and 'undesirables' were living in them and the area has, for the moment, been transformed into a car park, awaiting a future time of prosperity when buildings may once again rise there...

And now, moving just a short distance, we see on our right the old
Chester Royal Infirmary...

Curiousities from Chester's History no. 23

  • 1707 Morgan's Mount rebuilt. The Act of Union: England and Scotland join together under the name of 'Great Britain'
  • 1712 Last execution for witchcraft in England.
  • 1714 Queen Anne died; succeeded by George Louis, Elector of Hanover, as King George I (1660-1727)
  • 1715 The Jacobite Rebellion; Jacobites defeated at Sheriffmuir and Preston; 'Pretender' James III arrives in Scotland from France, but returns the following year- and is forced to leave France in 1717. The 'Old Dock' in Liverpool built
  • 1717 The Blue Coat School outside the Northgate built on the site of St. John's Hospital which was destroyed during the Civil War.
  • 1719 A silver oar, the material symbol of the Mayor's title (dating to the Black Prince's grant of 1354) 'Admiral of the Dee' was made. The previous oar would probably have been melted down along with the rest of the City Plate during the Civil War. First bank notes in England- and first recorded cricket match: "Londoners v Kentish Men". Daniel Defoe publishes Robinson Crusoe
  • 1723 The remains of Hugh Lupus, Chester's first Norman Earl, were found in the Chapter House of the Cathedral, after lying undisturbed for over 600 years. Gin drinking becomes popular in England.
  • 1725 The Groves by the riverside were laid out and planted with lime trees by Charles Croughton, Swordbearer of the city.
  • 1726 Jonathan Swift publishes Gulliver's Travels
  • 1727 George I died and his son, George II (1683–1760) succeeded. Quakers demand abolition of slavery
  • 1730 A Roman tombstone found in Watergate Street, dedicated by a master in memory of his freed slaves and their children. 10 Downing Street built.

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