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There is no city in England that can equal Chester for interest and curiosity. It is not indeed a happy hunting-ground for artists, as there are few picturesque combinations of buildings, and the Cathedral lies low. The stately minsters of Norwich and York and Lincoln soar above the roofs and gables of the cities and form a hundred picturesque groups with the buildings below them. There is another drawback to the proper appreciation of the ancient city. There are many Hanoverian fronts that conceal panelled rooms and quaint chimney pieces and ceilings, which the stranger never suspects. Below the present level of the streets, also, there are many monastic remains, and far below these lies buried a Roman city. This was strikingly illustrated not long ago when excavations were made for re-erecting a house in Whitefriars Street; some four feet below the surface of the soil the workmen came upon many encaustic tiles, and the remains apparently of an abbot’s or prior's parlour; this belonged to the Carmelites, or White Friars, whose buildings have long disappeared. And below this, at about four feet, were Roman remains of great beauty — an atrium and massive columns.
But the features which distinguish Chester from all other cities are the walls, and the rows. The walls are quite complete, and form a very pleasant promenade of about one mile and threequarters. They follow the line of the old Roman walls, and there are many remains of Roman work, at the Northgate there is a long Roman cornice built over massive masonry which is in a very complete state.
But the rows are the chief glory of Chester, and these have no parallel in any other city. The entrance to the Choir School, which is shown on the next page, is of comparatively recent construction. The Deanery faces the front of the school, and one of the Chester Deans had a. passage made through it in order to shorten his approach (which it did only by a very few yards) as he left the Deanery preceded by the verger with the ancient mace.
It was the desire of the late Dean Howson to do away with this passage and restore the room to its former dimensions. This was the ancient refectory, and there is a stone pulpit dating back to the thirteenth century, where a monk read aloud some homily or chapter to prevent the brethren from dwelling too much on the delights of the table. These in Chester must have been of a very superior quality and compared favourably with such fare as the recluses in the Midland Counties could command. Salmon abounded within ﬁve minutes walk of the Cathedral, and just outside the walls is an ancient salmon weir. Even now we may indulge on a summer's morning in a walk along the walls and seeing a couple of men with a boat securing a goodly harvest of these ﬁsh. I have sometimes seen as many as six ﬁsh taken in half an hour, which, as they weighed from ten to fourteen pounds each and were worth at least a shilling a pound, must have been very proﬁtable work.
Game also abounded in the woods of Cheshire, which were among the most extensive, and the best stocked of any forests in England; indeed, red and fallow deer could be found within a mile of the city gates.
This refectory was afterwards used as the King’s School, but a. new building has recently been erected in its place.
The total length of the noble room of which three bays are shown here, was ninety feet, and the width was thirty-four. It was the wish of Dean Howson to extend it to its former dimensions as the wells are still standing and strong, and to let it be converted into a public library.
Old House in Watergate Street by Herbert Railton
If when we leave the cathedral we proceed down Northgate Street we shall arrive at what is called the Cross, or the place where the four principal streets in the city meet each other. Here the high cross used to stand and all proclamations were read. If we turn to the right we shall ﬁnd ourselves in Watergate Street, where the third sketch admirably shows an ancient gabled house that clearly belongs to the early part of Elizabeth’s reign. Of this dwelling I have never been able to obtain any history, but it must have belonged to some very noble residence. The part shown can be little more than the great hall, and though it is cut up into rooms with boarded partitions we can trace the grand ceiling with its pendants. There is a great ﬁreplace in this hall which reaches to the springing of the roof, but it is boarded up, and I have never been able to get a sight of it; the tenant refuses permission and has never seen it himself. It is believed, however, to be very ﬁne indeed. Here we may be said to come to the very middle of this quaint city: a narrow passage runs by this house and leads to a quaint old mansion now unoccupied, and it is not too much to say hardly known, except by tradition, to the inhabitants of Chester. It is a most tenantable place, and might be rented for a nominal sum by any one who was not very particular about an approach to his residence. There is an immense stained glass window in the hall that has been ﬁlled from some of the ecclesiastical buildings, and in an upper room there is a chimney piece that is intensely interesting, not only to an antiquary, but to a naturalist. The monks of Falaise had a branch of their body in Chester, and they imported ﬁg plants which grew and prospered amazingly, indeed, so much as to have conﬁrmed a supposition that some few hundred years ago the climate of England was warmer than it now is. Still, however, in some old farm gardens that were on the estates of the monasteries in Cheshire there are remains of ﬁg trees that yet ﬂourish, and perhaps have become acclimatised. In the chimney-piece already alluded to there are two birds with their beaks deep in green ﬁgs, and often I have tried to ﬁnd a solution to this (for this quaint residence was at one time occupied by the writer), but when I saw a beccaﬁco the mystery was solved. These two birds are good representations of the beccaﬁcoes, or ﬁg peckers, and almost a conclusive proof that this supreme delicacy arrived at ﬁg time in Chester, and doubtless contributed to the bill of fare of the Benedictine monks of St. Werburgh. The ﬁg still is cultivated in Sussex, and there these birds are common visitants in the ﬁg season. There are hawking scenes, and many quaint panels in other parts of the same house, and close by, as these lines are written, an excavation has brought to light some interesting Roman architecture.
Lower down in the street, and within three minutes of the racecourse, that has caused so many pangs of sorrow, is Bishop Lloyd's house.
Left: Bishop’s House. Right: Chester Row under Bishop Lloyd’s [Interior of Watergate Street Row].
This has also been excellently shown by the artist, and the interior is almost as little known as the secluded residence just described. But there is a noble dining-room in it, richly ornamented, and quite ﬁt in splendour and size for any magnate in the kingdom to entertain his guests in. The panels in the fronts of this house are, to say the least, very quaint, indeed it is Christian charity itself to include one of them in the adjective.
The next illustration is of a Chester row (see above), where the system of rows may be seen in its perfection. It is the carved row under Bishop Lloyd’s house, and this will convey as good an idea of a Chester row as can be given by pencil.
The origin of the rows is not only involved in obscurity, but in all human probability will continue so to the end of the chapter. All theories are hopelessly wide of probability, and we may just refer to the two which have gained the greatest number of adherents.
One supposition is that they were constructed as a defence against any sudden attack of the Welsh horsemen when they had forced the gates of the city; but against this theory we may say that in other towns, such as Shrewsbury, which was much more exposed to the Welsh frontier, we should have had some similar arrangement, whereas there is nothing at all resembling it any where. Then there were the walls and gates which the Welsh never forced through, be sides which the “mountain squires," as Pistol calls them, had no cavalry.
Equally wide of the mark is the supposition that claims a Roman origin—for other cities and towns where Roman traces are left behind would surely have afforded some parallel instance of architecture; and then again, though Stukely in his Itinerary in 1724 says, “The rows or piazzas are singular” through the whole town, giving shelter to the foot-people. I fancied it a remain of Roman porticoes," he should have added that they bear no resemblance to anything of the kind we know of in ancient Rome. The original form of the rows may yet be seen in Bridge Street. They were low galleries supported by heavy oak beams, on which the over hanging gables of the houses rested and projected far over the footwalk; a few of these are left, but as a general rule when an alteration is made the row is made much higher, and light columns are substituted for the heavy oak standards. The heavy wooden rows would hardly point to a Roman type. And then indeed if we remember that the Romans were succeeded by barbarians of whom we know little or nothing — though we call them Picts and Scots — and these demolished the Roman city to make way in later years for Ecclesiastical buildings, which in their grace and beauty covered Chester when Gothic architecture was in its glory, we shall be further than ever from accepting the Roman theory. Not long ago, the fourteenth century encaustic tiling which overlay the Roman atrium, to which allusion has been made, was covered up, and the rows in no instance can date back to the fourteenth century, though it is not at all improbable that there may have been some indication of them then, though there is nothing at all to substantiate such a theory even as that. But as for any Roman remains we have, or even know of, accounting for the rows, these had been in ruins 'for a thousand years before any row we know of was built.
Antiquity a pears to have begun
Long after thy priemval race was run.
There is indeed one theory that commends itself as the one that has the fewest objections, though it is a very homely one, and that is — that the construction of the rows is the result of accident. We cannot ﬁnd any actual remains that date farther back than the beginning of the ﬁfteenth century, and in a securely walled city it is evident that the rows made the very most of the space for commercial purposes; besides this they afforded the best protection from summer heats and winter snows and rains, and as an American who saw them for the ﬁrst time said, “They are the best forms for a county town that have ever been devised by the skill of man.” We may then, at any rate, get clear of our difﬁculty concerning the origin by admitting that the designers chose the best models that could be found, and the excellence of their plans recommended itself to successive builders; for if a model county town had now to be laid out, the system on which Chester is built would be incomparably the best. There are some magniﬁcent rooms in Bishop Lloyd's house, now put to humble purposes.
The Yacht Inn Where Dean Swift Stayed by Herbert Railton
After passing Bishop Lloyd’s we come to the “Yacht Inn,” a ﬁne gabled hostelrie opposite to the great quadrangle where the cheese fairs are held every month. There it was that Dean Swift stayed on his road to Dublin, and he invited the dignitaries of the Cathedral to have supper with him, but they declined, so he wrote with a diamond ring on a pane of glass in the window:—
Mouldy without — rotten within,
The church and its clergy are all near akin,
and this inscription remained for many years.
Between the “Yacht Inn.” and Bishop Lloyd’s house is a very beautiful example of black and white architecture, called the “Custom House Inn,” the exterior of which seems not to have been altered or “restored,” and opposite this is a ﬁne old mansion connected with which there is a story so dramatic, that it owuld require no embellishment to convert it into a sensational three-volume novel.
At one time Chester, like other county towns, contained the town houses of the principal county families, who retired here for the “season.” London was a pilgrimage to reach, and even to the end of the last century, the society was exclusiveness itself. Merchants and bankers were hardly admitted, even slave owners, who were considered perhaps to follow the most respectable branch of business, could only with diﬂiculty gain admittance. Into the middle of this exclusive region, Mr. Joshua Horton, a gentleman from London, was freely admitted with his family. He occupied the house spoken of, and rented a county seat called Cotton Hook four miles from Chester for three lives [sic].
His hespitalities were great, and indeed it became quite a privilege to have the entrée of his mansion, though he was courtesy itself to all comers. There were many surmises as to who the stranger might be, but his prompt payments and affluence, and his distinguished bearing pointed him out to be someone superior, and surmise even went so far as to say that he belonged to the ill-starred family of Stuart; and his money came from Fra
His next door neighbour was Alderman Mainwaring, the head of a great Cheshire family, and at the time about to be alluded to, the city was full of the aristocracy of the county. The Egertons, and Leighs, and Wilbrahams, and Cholmondleys, and many others, had houses there, and these were occupied by the families. One night in the early part of the year 1700, there had been the usual festivities, and torch men, and sedan-chairmen were conveying the revellers home, when a curious light was seen in Mr. Horton’s house. A cry of ﬁre was raised, and the volunteers to help were astonished to ﬁnd the door barricaded; and they heard people moving inside. An entrance was forced, and there was a great scramble to escape; every one did except Mr. Horton, who turned out to be the chief of a desperate gang of coiners. The crucibles were there full of metal, and one which had upset caused the conﬁagration. Dies and everything were found. On the 8th of April, 1700, Chief Justice Jekyll opened a special assize in Chester to try this late addition to the ranks of the county aristocrats. He was of course, found guilty and condemned to death. Some legal points were however raised in his behalf, and these were referred to London; and taking advantage of the delay he seems to have managed to make his peace with the sheriﬁ who doubtless had often enjoyed his hospitality, — for his career extended over some three or four years, — and he made his escape, for which the sheriﬁ was heavily ﬁned. This worthy must have made friends when he had the opportunity, for he lived and died in obscurity, and was never called on to expiate his crimes.
The house where his operations were carried on was altered, if not almost rebuilt, shortly after his trial and until recently was used as the “Judges' lodgings" for Chester.
In Watergate Street also is the celebrated Stanley Palace, where Lord Derby, who was concerned in the rising to restore the worthless representative of the Stuarts in 1655, spent his last night before he was taken to Bolton for execution. There is some beautiful work about the front, but it is unhappily falling into decay for want of due care. The staircase of the Stanley Palace is very unequal to the exterior, and one almost wonders to see it in connection with such a ﬁne piece of architecture, but the whole house, of which only a portion can be left, is completely denuded of every kind of enrichment, as though it had been left open to plunder after the execution of the adventurous Earl. His journey to Bolton and his leave-takings of his family are full of painful interest. There are many incidents of it recorded in Chester that, are not generally published, and one only regrets and wonders that so noble a man should have suffered himself to be so very far misled.
The Staircase of the Stanley Palace.
Before leaving Watergate Street we must narrate one other circumstance which has a lurid interest, since the attempts that have been comparatively recently made to destroy property in England by means of dynamite. If we revert to the picture of the row under Bishop Lloyd’s house, we shall notice some road-ways on the right-hand side that lead up to alleys, all of which are inhabited. The ﬁrst one is called “Puppet-show Entry,” from an appalling accident which happened there in 1772, on the 5th of November of all days in the year.
A large room was taken for a “puppet show” entertainment, some sort of marionette performance, and this was ﬁlled with spectators, when suddenly there was an awful explosion that woke up the city. For in a grocery store below the show a barrel that contained 800 pounds of gunpowder blew up, and 106 persons were fearfully damaged. Of these 23, including the show man, were killed, on the spot, 53 were conveyed to the hospital, many of these succumbed, and 30 more were quartered in the city. There is one singular circumstance about this explosion, all the force was upwards, and though of course the whole of the ﬂoors, and the roof were utterly demolished, the walls were uninjured, and though, indeed, we may see how ancient the stacks of chimneys are, there was not a single one disturbed. The next illustration takes us to Bridge Street, which in strict parlance should be called Southgate Street, as it leads us to the south gate of the ancient city, but the circumstance of its being the road to the bridge which spanned the Dee overcame its more obvious appellation. There are many ﬁne remains here, and the shops are in numbers of instances built over splendidly groined and arched crypts, of which no history is preserved; some of these at the upper end of the street are connected with similar ones in Watergate Street. They are not exposed to view, but may be seen in most cases by a request being made to the shopkeeper under whose premises they are.
At the top of Bridge Street on the left hand side is a ﬁne old gabled house, on the front of which some very good carved work was recently exposed that had been covered up with plaster, and it is in excellent preservation. Unhappily the city fathers are moving for the demolition of this ancient pile, to widen the street, though indeed it has never been encumbered with too much trafﬁc since it was a street. A little lower down on the same side is all that remains of the old “Blue Posts” inn, about which there is another legend of undoubted authenticity, though it takes us farther back than either of the others, but documents are yet extant that attest to its accuracy.
In 1558 — the last year of the reign of Queen Mary — Dr. Henry Cole the Dean of St. Paul’s was sent to Chester on a special commission from the Queen to prosecute the heretics of Ireland who were beginning to increase alarmingly. This hostelrie was then kept by a Mrs. Mottershead, a singular name that yet survives in the street. The Mayor of Chester called at the inn to pay his respects to the Dean, and Mrs. Mottershead overheard the Dean say exultingly that he carried that which would “lash all the heretics in Ireland,” and then he took out a leather box and showed it exultingly to his worship. Now the landlady had a brother in Dublin, and anxious for his safety she took occasion during the night to abstract the commission from the leather box, and substitute a pack of cards tied together by a thread, with the knave of clubs uppermost. On his arrival at Dublin he presented his box to the Lord Deputy and the Privy Council, who were surprised to ﬁnd such an authority, and at once dismissed him. He returned to London to retrieve his loss, but on his arrival he learned that his Royal Mistress was dead, and Elizabeth granted Mrs. Mottershead a pension of forty pounds a year for the part she had taken in the transaction, a sum that would at least represent £500 of our money. The building which is called the “Falcon Inn" is directly opposite to the hostelrie where the adventure narrated occurred.
The Falcon Inn, Bridge Street. This is not the older etching mentioned immediately below but a drawing by Railton.
Since the etching was made, which gives an excellent idea of the place as it stood, the Duke of Westminster, to whom it belongs, commissioned the late Mr. Smith to repair and alter the building. He removed the plaster and discovered a front that had for years been hidden, and the building is so superior to anything that had been supposed, that it might be regarded now as the best “black and white” in Chester. So far as style gives any indication of age, it probably belongs to the reign of Henry VlII., though the stone archway points to a still earlier date. There is no record of it left or any thing to show what its original use was, but it probably was the residence of some comfortable burgess, and afterwards converted into the “Falstaff Inn.” Above this was the celebrated old Lamb Row which Cuitt has left one or two etchings of. It must have been one of the most picturesque buildings in England, or one might almost say in Europe at the time of its collapse. This building was not large, but the galleries and gables and hanging roofs must have stood almost alone for quaintness. The Chester Guide says, “The age of this row is pretty clearly determined by the inscription on a stone in the building that was discovered after the fall. Such a stone was indeed found, and perhaps yet exists. But it is clearly inaccurate to suppose that any date on any stone that may indeed have ﬁlled any capacity is to be taken as a voucher for the age of the building, yet this date is constantly quoted as the one when this remarkable structure was erected.
The real date of the building would be about two centuries earlier, and as the “Falcon” in Cuitt’s remarkable etching has in a less pronounced form the same features, we may conclude that the latter, which certainly dates to Henry VIII., is the more recent building. Old Lamb Row fell down without notice early in the present century, but nobody was hurt, indeed it is recorded that a very old woman who was smoking a pipe by a kitchen ﬁre miraculously escaped. In the etching of Cuitt the old quatrefoil panels in the “Falcon,” which have been only So very recently discovered, are shown as they appear at present. There was another inn called the “Falcon” in Northgate, which was the scene of several singular episodes.
About the year 1720 a man came from London and lodged here, he had a very large sum of money with him which he had robbed from a bank, where he was employed as a clerk. And one night he heard the constables come up stairs and try to enter his room, this of course was fastened inside, and he found time to make away with his plunder by throwing it out of the window into the yard. He was taken to London, but nothing could be proved against him, so he was acquitted, though he was afterwards arrested for some other offence, and executed.
One Mr. Jarvis had a small loom and a yard adjoining the “Falcon," and up to that time he was never in afﬂuent circumstances, but he appropriated the money, and laid it out to such advantage that he was soon able to purchase a large estate at Mollington, a beautiful country-place three miles from Chester, and here he built himself a ﬁne house. He became mayor of the city, when this ofﬁce was considered to confer great honour, and was even pricked for the higher honour of the shrievalty of the county, but he died before the appointment was conﬁrmed.
Below the Falcon are remains of many black and white houses, and some very ﬁne old mansions that were formerly the abodes of the aristocracy of Cheshire. There is a beautiful example of early Elizabethan architecture at the corner of Castle Street, a street so called from its leading to Chester Castle. This house is called the King's Head, and the exterior is in very perfect condition. The gable forms the heading of the present chapter. All remains of antiquity would appear to have been removed, as there is said to be nothing of interest inside.
Lower down the street on the same side is what is called Gamul House, a very unsightly pile, but there is some ﬁne work inside it. This building, which is now a school for the children of artizans, derives its name from its having been the residence of Sir Francis Gamul, who was Mayor of Chester in Charles the First's time, and here he entertained the king when he came to Chester to inspire the defenders with courage; and one of the sights that always interest visitors to Chester is the Phoenix Tower, in which there is an inscription setting forth that he stood on the leads of the roof there, and saw his cavaliers routed by the soldiers of Cromwell. Lower down the same side of the street is the very interesting inn called the “Bear and Billet.” This was the ﬁrst house that travellers to Chester came to in coaching times.
The Bear and Billet by Railton.
The front as will be seen is very ﬁne indeed, one mass in fact of enrichment and glass. This adjoins the ancient bridge, and the celebrated Dee mills. All this part of the city must at one time have revelled in beauty. The old watch tower and gate are preserved in more or less meritorious etchings of the period, but whatever these may be worth, they at least leave us enough to show that all the surroundings of old Chester bridge were incomparably beautiful.
Just below the bridge and almost adjoining it is the celebrated King’s Pool just below the ancient bridge that has spanned the river for centuries. Handbridge the abode of the ﬁshermen lies on the other side, and their occupation I I lies almost at their very doors.
There is in an old book of Chester that lies before me a curious statement of the plenty of salmon in old times. “In that useful article, salmon, no market in the kingdom did, some years ago, excel it, indeed such was the profusion of this valuable ﬁsh, that masters were often restricted by a clause of indenture from giving it more than twice a week to their apprentices!” A note of exclamation follows the statement, as indeed it may, for even if salmon were more nauseous than it is — and there are many to whom the ﬁsh is extremely distasteful—the fancies of the apprentices were not in those days sufﬁciently important to be humoured. But it is singular that a similar legend attaches to every salmon river in the country, and to some that, like the Mersey, have not seen a salmon for many generations. Every one has heard of them, but though indentures and copies of indentures can be found of great antiquity, there is not a single instance of such a clause being preserved, and one fears it must be consigned to the legendary cures effected by touching for king's evil, or the divining rod of the miners, for discovering the whereabouts of metals.
Since writing the above, I was induced to go and see if any trace of the “Blue Posts” where Mrs. Mottershead so successfully played the “card trick” upon the unsuspecting Dean of St. Paul’s was left. The memory still lingers about the spot, and it is now occupied by a boot and shoe shop. On making inquiry I was told that though the front was not a hundred years old, the ancient house lay behind it. And this is another instance of the ignorance of Chester men who are supposed to be well informed con cerning the antique treasures of their ancient, city.
The proprietor of the shop at once took me up stairs and showed me a magniﬁcent room with a quaintly panelled ceiling, which he said had from time out of mind been called the “card-room,” and then he told me the history of the commissioner and the pack of cards, differing in no material respects from the narration above. Tradition has, he said, for centuries pointed to this as being the actual room where Mrs. Mottershead saved the Irish heretics, and secured her own competence. There is nothing whatever in the red-brick front to the shop that would indicate such ancient treasure, and it is passed thousands of times by those who would be deeply interested in it, but have no knowledge of its existence.
Rimmer, Alfred. “Old Chester.” The English Illustrated Magazine. 4 (1886): 739-50. Hathi Trust version of a copy in the Pennsylvania State University Library. Web. 6 January 2021.
Last modified 6 January 2021