A History of Chester

By Tim Lambert

Roman Chester

Chester began when the Romans built a fort next to the River Dee about 75 AD. The Roman fort was called Deva. At first, the fort was made of wood. It had a ditch outside and an earth embankment with a wooden palisade on top. At the beginning of the 2nd century parts of the fort were rebuilt in stone.

Soon a civilian settlement grew up outside the fort at Chester. The soldiers provided a market for the civilian’s goods. In Roman Chester, there were the same craftsmen found all over the empire such as potters, bakers, butchers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. Roman Chester was also a busy little port and luxuries such as wine and finely made pottery were imported.

In Roman Chester, there was a large amphitheatre where people were entertained by gladiators or by cruel ‘sports’ such as cock fighting and bear-baiting.

However, in the 4th century Roman civilization began to break down. In England, people drifted away from the towns like Chester and they were left almost or wholly abandoned.

Chester in the Middle Ages

What happened to Chester after the Romans left is not known for certain. There may have been a small number of people living within the walls of the old town, farming the land outside.

After the Romans left England and Wales split into rival kingdoms. Chester probably lay within a northern Welsh kingdom. However, the Saxons invaded eastern England and pushed westwards. By the 7th century, they had reached Cheshire. About 617 AD a battle was fought at Chester between the Welsh and the Saxons. The Saxons won and Chester fell into their hands.

The Saxons gave Chester its name. They called any group of Roman buildings a ceaster. In time this was corrupted to Chester.

In the 9th century, the Danes invaded England. In the winter of 893/94, a Danish army made use of the old Roman fort. They wintered there and were besieged by Alfred the Great.

In the early 10th century Chester was made into a burgh or fortified settlement. The Saxons had a policy of creating burghs across their kingdom as strongholds in case of a Danish attack. Streets were laid out in Chester and people were encouraged to come and live there. Soon Chester was a flourishing little town with a mint and a weekly market.

Chester was also a port. Wine was imported from France and Spain. Food was brought from Ireland and livestock from Wales. Chester was a thriving little town with a population of about 2,000.

In 1069 the north of England rebelled against n . In retaliation, he carried out the ‘harrying of the north’. In Chester, more than 200 houses were destroyed. In 1070 William built a wooden castle at Chester to hold the inhabitants in check. In the 13th century, it was rebuilt in stone. In 1092 a weir was built across the Dee. On both sides of the Dee, watermills ground grain to flour.

In 1071 King William made a man named William of Avranches Earl of Chester. The Earl had control of the town. However, from 1301, the king’s oldest son was the Earl of Chester.

Medieval Chester thrived. It still imported luxuries like wine and traded with places like Ireland and North Wales. In Chester the main industry was leather. There were skinners and tanners. There were also glovers, shoemakers, and saddlers. Some wool was also woven in the town and exported.

Chester had an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Cheshire to buy and sell at a Chester fair.

In the Middle Ages, craftsmen dug cellars under their houses and sold their wares from a room at the front of the house. In Chester, the bedrock is only a short distance under the soil so ‘cellars’ were built at least partly above ground. Craftsmen sold goods from balconies on the first floor. This is the origin of the Chester Rows.

The Kaleyard gate was built in 1274 so that monks could reach the yard where they grew kale. The Water Tower was built in 1322.

In the late Middle Ages, Chester may have had a population of about 4,000 (although a great many people died in the Black Death of 1349). However, in the 15th century, the port of Chester declined as the River Dee silted up.

In 1092 the Saxon church of St Werburgh was converted into an abbey. Then in the mid 12th century, a nunnery was built in Chester.

In the 13th century, the friars arrived in Chester. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. There were 3 orders of friars in Chester. The Dominicans arrived in 1236. They were known as black friars because of their black costumes. Franciscans or grey friars followed them in 1237. Lastly, the Carmelites of white friars came to Chester by 1277.

In the Middle Ages, the church founded ‘hospitals’. There were 3 of them at Chester including St Leonards, a leper hostel about 1 mile from the town.

Like all Medieval towns, Chester suffered outbreaks of fire. This was a constant hazard as most buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs. There were fires in Chester in 1115 and 1278.

Chester in the 16th Century and 17th Century

In 1506 Henry VII gave Chester a great charter. It was made a county in its own right separate from the rest of Cheshire. In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries in Chester. In 1540 he closed the nunnery and the abbey and in 1541 Chester abbey was made a cathedral.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Chester was known for its leather industry. There was also still a wool industry. The wool was woven then fulled. In other words, it was pounded in clay and water to clean and thicken it. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills on the River Dee.

The port thrived although the Dee was no longer navigable as far as Chester and ships had to embark from downriver. Chester remained an important market town. In the early Middle Ages, there was only one weekly market but by the 17th century, there were several specialized markets in Chester.

Like all Tudor towns, Chester suffered from outbreaks of plague. There were epidemics in 1517, 1552, 1603, and 1605. Nevertheless, Chester grew rapidly and may have had a population of about 7,000 by 1600.

Stanley Palace was built in 1591 and from 1609 horse races were held on the Roodee.

In 1642 came civil war between the king and parliament. The people of Chester supported the king and earthwork defenses were erected around the town to protect the suburbs that had grown up outside the walls. Parliamentary troops attacked Chester in July 1643 but they were beaten back and retreated.

However, in July 1644, the king lost the battle of Marston Moor. In November a parliamentary army laid siege to Chester. The siege lasted for 6 months until May 1645. At that time the parliamentary troops were needed elsewhere and withdrew.

In September 1645 the king came with an army to Chester. The parliamentarians approached Chester and the royalists went out to meet them but they defeated at Rowton Moor. He is said to have watched the battle from Phoenix Tower, which was renamed King Charles Tower. The king then retreated and left Chester to its own devices.

The parliamentarians laid siege to Chester once again. The people stubbornly fought on although the parliamentary troops fired cannons over the walls damaging many buildings in Chester. However, the royalists were now losing the war and it was only a matter of time before Chester surrendered. Finally, in February 1646 the people of Chester bowed to the inevitable and gave in.

However, in 1647 there was a severe outbreak of plague in Chester. It returned in 1650 and 1661.

In 1650 9 almshouses were built in Chester. However, only 6 remain. God’s Providence House was built in 1652.

Chester in the 18th Century

During the 18th century, Chester grew rapidly and many new houses were built outside the walls. Chester Blue Coat charity school was built in 1717. In the 18th century, the old leather trade declined. Georgian Chester was a market town rather than an industrial center, although there was a huge variety of different craftsmen working in the town. Chester was known for silver working, lead working, and shipbuilding.

In 1735 the River Dee was deepened to make it navigable as far as Chester again. In 1797 a canal was dug to Chester. Then in 1657, the first stagecoaches began running between Chester and London. During the 18th century, Chester became a major stagecoach stopping place.

An infirmary was built in 1755 and the first theater in Chester was built in 1773. Furthermore, in the late 18th century the Medieval town gates were demolished as they restricted traffic. They were replaced by Ornamental ones. Then the Wishing Steps were built in 1785 and Chester castle was rebuilt in the years 1788-1822.

The Bridge of Sighs was built in 1793. It is said to get its name because condemned prisoners were taken from the prison to the Chapel of St John the Little for a final service. They were then taken back to the prison to be hanged.

Chester in the 19th Century

In 1801 Chester had a population of 15,000. By the standards of the time, Chester was a large and important town. By 1851 the population had risen to over 27,000.

Meanwhile, During the Napoleonic Wars 1793-1815 a shipbuilding industry in Chester boomed. Many ships were made for the navy. Lead working also thrived as so much lead shot was needed. The surviving shot tower was built in 1800.

Nevertheless, Chester was not transformed by the industrial revolution in the way other northern towns were. It remained a genteel place and it was very popular with well-to-do tourists. The Grosvenor Hotel was built in 1866.

From 1817 some houses in Chester had gaslight and in 1819 the streets were lit by gas for the first time. Electric light was introduced in 1896. Meanwhile, a water company was formed in 1826 to provide piped water.

Grosvenor Bridge was built in 1833 and the railway reached Chester in 1840. Central Station was built in 1848 and from 1879 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Chester.

Life in 19th century Chester gradually improved. Grosvenor Park was laid out in 1867. A new Town Hall was built in 1869. The first free public library in Chester opened in 1877. Grosvenor Museum was built in 1885. Then in 1888 Chester was made a county borough. The Eastgate clock was erected in 1899.

Chester in the 20th Century

In 1901 Chester had a population of 38,000. The trams were electrified in 1903 but they were replaced by buses in 1930.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the first council houses were built in Chester at Lache and Handbridge. Many of them were needed to replace slums, which were demolished in the 1930s. Many more council houses were built at Blacon in the 1950s and 1960s. Chester Zoo opened in 1931. St Michaels Row was built in 1911. St Werburgh Row was built in 1935. Newgate was built in 1938.

A new shopping precinct was built between Eastgate Street and Pepper Street in 1965, Grosvenor Shopping Centre. St Martins Gate was built in 1966.

An inner ring road was built in 1972. Forum Shopping Precinct opened in 1973. Chester Heritage Centre opened in 1975. A new magistrates court was built in 1991.

A view of Chester Cathedral
Chester Cathedral

Shipbuilding in Chester ended in the 1930s and the last docks closed in the 1960s. Today the main industries in Chester are retail and tourism. There is also an antique furniture trade in Chester.

Chester in the 21st Century

In 2021 a new fire station was built in Chester. In 2023 the population of Chester was 88,000.

A Timeline of Chester

75 AD The Romans build a fort next to the River Dee. A civilian settlement grows up outside the fort.

407 The Roman army leaves Britain and soon afterward Roman towns are abandoned

617 The Celts fight the Saxons at Chester. The Saxons then captured Chester.

893/94 An army of Danes winters at the old fort at Chester

c. 910 The town of Chester is revived. It is made into a burh or fortified settlement. Soon the Saxon town of Chester is flourishing. It has a mint and a weekly market.

1066 Chester has a population of about 2,000

1069 During the ‘harrying of the North’ by William the Conqueror about 200 houses in Chester are destroyed.

1092 A weir is built across the River Dee

1115 Chester suffers a fire

c. 1150 Chester is a flourishing port. Wine is imported. Wool is exported.

1236 Dominican Friars arrive in Chester

1237 Greyfriars arrive in Chester

1274 The Kaleyard Gate is built

1277 White Friars arrive in Chester

1278 Chester suffers another fire

1322 The Water Tower is built

1349 The Black Death devastates Chester but the population recovers. Chester is a town of about 4,000.

1509 Henry VII gives Chester a charter

1517 Plague strikes Chester

1538 Henry VIII closes the friaries in Chester

1541 Chester Abbey is made a Cathedral. Chester is still a port although the River Dee is silting up.

1552 Plague strikes Chester again

1591 Stanley Palace is built

1600 Chester has a population of about 7,000

1642 Civil War begins between the king and parliament. Chester supports the king but in 1646 parliamentary forces capture the town.

1647 Plague strikes Chester again. The plague returned in 1650 and 1661.

1657 Stagecoaches begin running between Chester and London

c. 1720 Chester is now a market town but not an industrial centre

1755 An infirmary is built in Chester

1773 A theatre is built in Chester

1785 The Wishing Steps are built

1793 The Bridge of Sighs is built

1801 Chester has a population of 15,000. Due to the war with France shipbuilding in Chester booms.

1819 The streets of Chester are lit by gas

1826 A water company is formed in Chester

1833 Grosvenor Bridge is built

1840 The railway reaches Chester

1879 Horse drawn trams begin running in Chester

1867 Grosvenor Park is laid out

1869 A new Town Hall is built in Chester

1877 A public library opens in Chester

1855 Grosvenor Museum is built

1888 Chester is made a county borough

1899 Eastgate Clock is erected

1901 Chester has a population of 38,000

1903 Horse-drawn trams are replaced by electric ones

1930 The last trams run in Chester

1931 Chester Zoo opens

1965 Grosvenor Shopping Centre opens

1966 St Martins Gate is built

1968 The Gateway opens

1972 An inner ring road is built

1973 Forum Shopping Precinct opens

1975 Chester Heritage Centre opens