A History of Chichester

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to Belinda Russell

Roman Chichester

In 43 AD the Romans invaded Britain and about 44 AD they built a fort on the site of Chichester. It was by a source of water (the river Lavant) and close to a harbor so supplies could be brought by ship from France. Soon the Roman army moved on.

The king of the local Celtic tribe, Cogidubnus, cooperated with the Romans rather than resist them. The Romans left him as a puppet king of Sussex. After the Romans had left the fort Codignubus decided to take it over and make it into a town. The Romans called Chichester Noviomagus, which means new marketplace.

Roman Chichester was built on a grid pattern. The main streets formed a cross, which remains today as North, South, East, and West Streets. In the center of the town was the forum, a marketplace lined with shops and public buildings. People in Roman Chichester used cesspits and obtained their water from wells but in the streets, there were drains for rainwater.

In the late 2nd century a ditch was dug around Roman Chichester and earth ramparts were erected with a wooden palisade on top. Early in the 3rd century stone walls were built. In the 4th century, they were strengthened with bastions (semi-circular towers). A ballista, a form of a giant crossbow, could be mounted on one.

About 80 AD an amphitheater was built beside Roman Chichester. It would have had tiers of wooden seats for about 800 people. On special occasions, gladiators fought to the death but usually, the entertainment consisted of cockfighting and bear-baiting. (The animal was chained and dogs were trained to attack it).

Another pastime was going to the public baths, which stood near Chapel Street. In Roman times going to the baths was not just to get clean but was also a way to socialize, the Roman equivalent of going to the pub. In Roman Chichester, there was also a temple to Neptune and Minerva at the junction of North Street and Lion Street.

In Roman Chichester, rich people lived in houses with glass windows, mosaic floors, painted murals on their walls, and even a form of central heating called a hypocaust. Of course, most people were very poor and had none of these things.

In Roman Chichester, there were carpenters, blacksmiths, bronze smiths, potters, and leather workers. Some people made combs and boxes from bones. In the 4th century, Chichester declined along with the rest of Roman Britain. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD.

Chichester in the Middle Ages

What happened to Chichester after the Romans left? No one knows for sure. It may have been abandoned or it may be that some people continued to live there and the town limped on with a much smaller population.

In the late 5th or early 6th century, the Saxons arrived. Chichester is named after a Saxon called Cissa. The Saxons called any group of Roman buildings a ceaster. They called this town Cissa’s ceaster. It changed to Cisscester then finally to Chichester.

Nothing is known of what happened to Chichester till the late 9th century. At that time Alfred the Great created a network of fortified places across his kingdom where men could gather when the Danes attacked. Often he used old Roman towns or forts. Chichester was made a burgh.

The strategy worked. In 894 the Danes landed in West Sussex but men from Chichester and the surrounding area went out to meet them. They routed the Danes, killing several hundred men and capturing several ships. This was Chichester’s finest hour.

However, the burgh of Chichester was not just a stronghold. It was also a flourishing town with a weekly market. In the 10th century, there was a mint in Chichester so by then it must have been an important community.

At the time of the Norman conquest, Chichester probably had a population of fewer than 1,500 people. That seems very small to us but remember that most people lived in tiny villages of about 100-150 people. Any settlement with over 1,000 inhabitants was a fair-sized town. By the 13th century, Chichester had probably grown to about 2,500 people. Still very small by our standards but it would have been a lively place, especially on market days.

The Southeastern part of Chichester belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury. This area was called the Palatine. The word palatine means ‘of the palace’ because this area belonged to the ‘palace’ of the Archbishop. In time the name became corrupted to Pallant.

The Normans built a motte and bailey castle in Chichester in what is now Priory Park. This was a wooden fort on an artificial hill (a motte) surrounded by a ditch and rampart with a wooden palisade (a bailey). Later the castle may have been rebuilt in stone.

In 1216 there was a civil war and some barons invited a French prince to come and be king of England. His French soldiers occupied the castle. The French prince was eventually persuaded to go home and the castle was demolished.

In 1075 the local bishop moved his bishopric from Selsey to Chichester, changing its history forever. Chichester Cathedral was built after 1091 and was consecrated in 1108. Unfortunately, this building was severely damaged by fire in 1114 and it was rebuilt.

Another fire devastated the cathedral in 1187 and it again had to be rebuilt. Chichester Cathedral originally had a bell tower but in the early 15th century this was moved to a separate tower called a campanile. The cathedral was given a spire to replace it.

There were weekly markets in Chichester but from 1108 the bishop was given the right to hold a fair. (A fair was like a market but was held annually and attracted buyers and sellers from all over Southern England). The fair was held for 8 days each October. It was called the Sloe Fair after a sloe tree, which grew in a field by Northgate.

In 1125 King Stephen gave Chichester its first charter (a document confirming its rights and privileges). In the Middle Ages, merchants were organized into bodies called guilds that looked after their interests. In Chichester, the merchant’s guild owned underground vaults where perishable goods could be stored in a cool environment. These vaults still exist.

In the 13th century, it is recorded that wool was exported from Chichester (from Dell Quay). At that time wool was by far England’s most important export. The king tried to control the trade by only allowing certain ports to export wool. These ports were called staples.

In 1353 Chichester was made a staple port. It might seem surprising now but in the Middle Ages Chichester was one of England’s most important ports. Chichester Harbour was deeper than it is today. (It has since silted up). Until 1800 ocean-going ships could sail up to Dell Quay.

There were many cloth workers in Medieval Chichester. After it was woven wool was cleaned and thickened. This was done by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills. This was called fulling. The watermills were called fulling mills. There were several in Chichester on the River Lavant. There were also weavers and dyers in the town.

There was also a needle-making industry in Chichester in the Middle Ages. There were also the same craftsmen found in any town. These included brewers, bakers, and butchers. Crooked S Lane was once called The Shambles and was full of slaughterhouses. To us, it would seem very unhygienic. Butchers threw offal into the street.

Other craftsmen in Chichester included blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, wheelwrights, cobblers, and other leatherworkers who made saddles and gloves. There was also a tanning industry in Chichester. Tree bark was soaked in fresh water to extract tannin to tan leather.

In the 13th century, the friars arrived in England. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach and help the poor. In Chichester, there were Dominican friars (called blackfriars because of the color of their costumes). They lived in the South East of the town where St John’s church is today. They owned the land around the friary from the town wall up to where Baffins Road and Friary Lane are today.

From about 1230 Franciscan friars (known as grey friars) lived in buildings in St Martins Square. In 1269 they moved to the site of the castle. The site in St Martins Square was taken over by St Mary’s Hospital. This establishment previously existed on South Street. (In the Middle Ages the only hospitals were manned by monks who cared for the sick as best they could).

There was also a leper hospital outside the Eastgate. Spitalfields Road is named after some fields it owned. (It was originally called Hospitalfield Lane). In 1497 the Prebendal School was founded (although a school attached to the cathedral had probably existed much earlier).

A view of Chichester Cathedral

Chichester in the 16th century

In 1501 Bishop Storey erected the Chichester market cross. If you wanted to sell goods at the market you had to pay a toll. Some poor peasants only had a few eggs or a few vegetables to sell. The bishop said anyone could sell things at the market and not pay a toll provided they could stand under the cross.

In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries in Chichester and sold their property. A mansion was built on the site of the Black Friary in East Street and the surrounding land became its gardens. The Grey Friary was demolished but its church survived and in 1541 it was sold to the corporation and made the Guildhall.

During the 16th century, Chichester declined in importance. The wool trade declined. The main exports became wheat and malt. Malt is used in brewing. It is made from barley. The barley was soaked in water then laid out to dry then baked. Malt from Chichester was ‘exported’ along the coast to other parts of England. Other industries in Chichester were brewing and tanning.

There is a story that when Queen Elizabeth visited Chichester she said: ‘it is a little London’ and one of the streets in the town has been called that ever since. It isn’t true as Little London is shown on 15th-century maps. It may have got its name because merchants from London lived and worked there.

In 1578 the streets of Chichester were paved for the first time by an Act of Parliament.

In 1588 the people of Chichester provided a small ship called The John to fight the Spanish Armada.

Chichester in the 17th century

In 1625 a brewer named William Cawley built some almshouses for 12 ‘decayed’ (impoverished) tradesmen.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. At that Chichester was a town of about 3,000 people and their loyalties were divided. The bishop and most of the clergy supported the king while most of the merchants supported parliament.

At first, it was not clear which way Chichester would go. Then the local landowners, the gentry, decided the issue. A force of 600 men, 200 cavalry, and 400 infantry rode into Chichester and took it for the king. There was no resistance.

However, parliament quickly sent an army to besiege the town. They fired cannons from the North, then the West. Finally, they fired them from the East. At that time there was a little suburb outside Eastgate, around St Pancras church, where people made needles. (This is why the road there is called the Needlemakers today). The defenders set the houses in the suburb on fire but the parliamentary soldiers set up a cannon on a church tower and fired over the wall. Chichester surrendered and remained in parliamentary hands for the rest of the war.

Most of the houses in Chichester in the early 17th century were made of wood with thatched roofs. However, tiled roofs gradually replaced them. In 1687 a by-law banned thatched roofs because of the risk of fire. In the late 17th century people in Chichester began to build houses in brick. John Edes House was built in 1696. (It is sometimes incorrectly called Wren House. Wren did not build it).

Chichester in the 18th century

In the 18th century, the population of Chichester was around 4,000. It started to rise towards the end of the period but was still less than 5,000 at the time of the first census in 1801.

By the 18th century, Chichester had dwindled to being a quiet market town. In 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote that Chichester was: ‘not a place of much trade, nor is it very populous’. This quiet little town was largely rebuilt during this century. Many houses were rebuilt in brick. The bricks were made using local clay. Brickmaking became an important local industry.

Among the houses built at this time was Dodo House, which was built in the Pallant for Henry Peckham, a wine merchant, in 1712. It gets its name because Peckham wanted ostriches carved on columns (ostriches appear on his family coat of arms). However, the person who carved them had probably never seen an ostrich and they are said to look more like dodos.

In 1731 Council House was built in North Street. As it has a lion on its roof a nearby street became known as Lion Street. The old Guildhall then became a magistrates court.

To ease the flow of traffic into Chichester West, North and South gates were demolished in 1773. Eastgate was demolished in 1783.

There were some improvements to Chichester during the Georgian era. In 1726 four clocks were added to the cross. Chichester gained its first theatre in 1764. It opened in an old warehouse in Theatre Street. In 1791 a purpose-built theatre was erected there. In 1779 Chichester gained its first bank.

Then in 1791, an Act of Parliament set up a body of men called the Paving Commissioners. They had the power to pave and clean the streets and to remove ‘nuisances’ such as overhanging shop signs and bay windows that obstructed narrow alleys.

18th century Chichester was a town of craftsmen working in their workshops with an apprentice. There were carpenters, bricklayers, glaziers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, coopers, saddlers, tailors, and shoemakers. There were also bakers, brewers and grocers, gunsmiths, and clay pipe makers. On the other hand, the old industry of needle-making died out completely by the end of the century.

In 1750 a grocer named Mr. Shippam opened a warehouse in West Street. He sold cheese and meat to the navy in nearby Portsmouth. In 1782 he opened a shop in East Street.

In 1784 a new charity was formed in Chichester. A dispensary for sick poor people opened in Broyle Road. The poor were given free medicines.

Oliver Whitby School opened in 1702 for 12 scholars. It closed in 1950.

Chichester in the 19th century

In the very early years of the century, during the Napoleonic Wars, a barracks was built in Chichester. Although Chichester was a small town it grew in size in the 19th century simply because the population of Britain quadrupled.

In the first years of the 19th century, Somerstown was built outside the city walls. More building work took place in the southeast corner of the town. There was still a manor house with gardens till 1809 when the land was sold for building. The new area was called Newtown (today this is the name of a single street). St John’s Church opened in 1813.

In the early 19th century the market in Chichester was becoming very congested. On market days West Street was full of livestock for sale. There were also people selling food. To ease the congestion it was decided to erect a building where people could sell things like butter, cheese, and vegetables separately from the livestock market. In 1808 the Buttermarket was built for this purpose. At the same time, railings were erected around the market cross.

However, having a market on East Street still caused a lot of congestion in the town and impeded traffic. Therefore, in 1871, a new cattle market opened outside the Eastgate.

In 1833 the Corn Market was built. In the late 19th century the front part of this building was used as a theatre and in the early 20th century as a cinema. Chichester gained gas light in the 1820s. Then, in 1826, the dispensary for poor sick people became Chichester Infirmary (forerunner of St Richard’s Hospital). Graylingwell Hospital opened in 1897.

Chichester gained its first police force in 1836. The first police station was by the Eastgate. At first, the town police force was separate from that of West Sussex but they joined together in 1889. In that year the police station moved to Southgate.

In Chichester, drunks were put in the stocks. The last person to suffer this punishment was sentenced to 2 hours in 1852.

Life in 19th century Chichester gradually improved. From 1875 Chichester had a piped water supply.

However, it was later than most other towns in building drains and sewers. Chichester had a reputation in the late 19th century as being an unhealthy and unsanitary place. Most people in the town used cesspits. Some used buckets, which they emptied into the River Lavant.

Yet many people in Chichester were reluctant to build a network of drains and sewers because of the expense. They were finally built in 1893-96. The worst area of Chichester was St Pancras. This was the poorest area and was full of poverty and overcrowding.

In 1846 Chichester was connected to Brighton by railway and in 1847 it was connected to Portsmouth. In 1881 a branch line to Midhurst opened. Then in 1897, a light railway to Selsey opened.

There was also a canal from Portsmouth to Arundel, which was completed in 1855. However the canal was not a success and the last section, from Birdham to Chichester, closed in 1906.

In 1850 Bishop Otter Teacher Training College opened.

In 1861 the spire of Chichester Cathedral collapsed during a thunderstorm and had to be rebuilt.

In 1892 Shippams opened a meat paste factory at Eastgate.

Chichester in the 20th century

By the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Chichester had reached about 9,000. It rose to about 12,000 by the time of the First World War partly because Summersdale was built North of the town. By 1939 the population of Chichester had risen to about 16,000.

In 1909 Chichester gained electric street lights. In 1910 Chichester gained its first cinema in West Street.

Chichester High School for Boys opened in 1908. The High School for Girls opened in 1910.

In 1913 the infirmary became The Royal Sussex Hospital. It moved to its present site in 1937.

In 1918 Priory Park, which was still private land, was given to the council for public use. In the 1920s the first council houses were built in Chichester. By 1939 481 of these had been built. A new police station was built in Kingsham in 1937. The same year Chichester bypass opened.

During the Second World War, there were 3 bombing raids on Chichester. Bombs were dropped on Basin Road in 1941, on Chapel Street and St Martins Street in 1943, and on Arndale and Green Road in 1944.

Furthermore in May 1944 after being badly damaged by enemy fire over France an American bomber crashed on the site of the old Roman amphitheatre (The pilot and crew managed to bail out in time but could do nothing to prevent the plane crashing).

After 1946 the Whyke Estate was built and, in the early 1950s, Parklands Estate was built.

In 1957 Chichester was twinned with Chartres. A new ring road was built in 1958-1966.

In the early 1960s, the area called Somerstown was demolished and rebuilt, as many of its houses were substandard. Yet this was controversial, as Somerstown was a self-contained community with its shops. The rebuilding broke up that community.

In 1962 Chichester peacheries closed and houses were built on the site. Houses were also built North of Bognor Road. By 1971 the population of Chichester had reached 21,000.

Meanwhile, Chichester Festival Theatre opened in 1962. In 1961 a new railway station was built and in 1965 a new bus station. Then in 1967, a new library opened. The same year a swimming pool opened outside Eastgate.

Bishop Luffa School opened in 1965. The same year Chichester College of Further Education opened.

In the 1980s shopping, arcades were built in Chichester, Northgate Arcade, and Almshouse Arcade. Westgate Leisure Centre opened in 1987. In 1989 a new record office opened in Chichester. Chichester livestock market closed in 1990 and a new Tourist Information Centre opened in 1993.

Chichester in the 21st century

In 2012 The Novium Museum opened in Chichester. Today Chichester is a flourishing town. In 2023 the population of Chichester was 31,000.