A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
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THE ECONOMY, 1918-39
In 1919 the medical officer of health described Chester as 'chiefly residential', though he also noted the presence of industry within and just outside the city limits. (fn. 1) The city's dependence on visitors, whether shoppers or tourists, was highlighted in 1920 by the Daily Despatch, which described Chester as 'a trip town' with 'more shops than houses', and claimed that it served Wirral, Staffordshire, Shropshire, and south Lancashire. (fn. 2) Although the description was exaggerated, Chester's prosperity certainly depended heavily on the wealth and diversity of a large agricultural and industrial hinterland and on its ability to attract those living there to its shops, markets, and financial services. Railway communications were good, providing links with industrial south Lancashire, the Midlands, and north Wales. (fn. 3) The railway companies were also the main employers of male labour, with a workforce of 1,160 men in the city in 1921. (fn. 4) Several main roads also converged on Chester, and although the railway was still an important factor in locating industry within the city, as well as for carrying people to work outside it, trains became less significant as the use of motor vehicles increased. The General Strike in 1926 heightened people's perceptions of the trend and perhaps encouraged its intensification. (fn. 5)
By 1939 commercial use of the canal had ended and Chester had long ceased to be a busy seaport, though Crane Wharf was occasionally visited by seagoing ships until the 1940s. The Dee remained important to the region because of the docks at Connah's Quay and Mostyn and the wharf at Shotton steelworks, all in Flintshire, but Chester did not support any of the many schemes for improving navigation. The council opposed anything which it thought would attract further manufacturing industry to the city or diminish its attractions for visitors and shoppers. (fn. 6) It also resisted flood prevention schemes which might have necessitated the loss of its hydroelectricity works at the weir. (fn. 7)
The service sector created much employment in the city, notably in transport and the retail trades, but also in hotels and catering, domestic service, the professions, and public administration. (fn. 8) Between the World Wars half of all jobs for men, and three quarters or more of those for women, were in services. For men, the largest single area was transport (17-18 per cent of all men's jobs), followed by shops and financial services (rising to 13 per cent in 1931). Female employment was concentrated in domestic service (40 per cent) and shop work (15-17 per cent). The most important areas of expansion, for men and women alike, were in retailing and office work. That included employment in the public sector, which was reinforced by the county council's decision in the early 1930s to remain in Chester, where a new county hall adjoining the castle was begun shortly before the Second World War. (fn. 9) There were also economic benefits from remaining a cathedral city and a military town with a large staff of officers at Western Command. (fn. 10) Chester's prestige in educational matters was preserved when Bishop Geoffrey Fisher saved Chester Diocesan Training College from closure in 1933. (fn. 11)
With its good rail communications and favourable labour situation, Chester also had advantages for manufacturing. The firm of Pratt Levick & Co., which made precision-ground instruments, gave as a further reason for setting up in Chester the fact that it was 'a nice place to live', an early indication of awareness of the wider urban environment. There were factories within the county borough, in a belt stretching from Boughton in the east, across the north of the city, to Saltney in the west, (fn. 12) and the manufacturing sector, including the building trades, employed over 7,000 men and 1,000 women between the World Wars, accounting for over 45 per cent of men's jobs and c. 15 per cent of women's. (fn. 13) Metal workers in a wide variety of trades were more numerous than any other group, largely because by 1921 Shotton steelworks employed over 1,000 of the city's residents. (fn. 14) The foremost of several engineering firms within the county borough was Williams and Williams, makers of metal window frames and other products, who employed 1,200 in 1939. The council became increasingly uneasy about the impact of its factory on the environment, and created difficulties when the firm wished to expand on its existing site at Grange Road, off Brook Lane. (fn. 15)
Advised on planning and land use by Patrick Abercrombie, professor of civic design at the University of Liverpool, the city council adhered to a policy of concentrating on Chester's residential, commercial, and recreational roles, while hoping that the city would profit from the growth of industry outside its boundaries. (fn. 16) The hope was realistic: in 1921 over 3,000 Cestrians already worked outside Chester, (fn. 17) and the uncongested riverside sites on Deeside and at Ellesmere Port were ideal for the very large manufacturing and processing plants typical of much early 20th-century industrial development. The council's development and advertising committee gave a lukewarm welcome to enquiries from industry about opportunities within the city. Its main activity was cooperation with the Chamber of Trade and the railway companies in placing advertisements devised to attract day trippers. (fn. 18)
The most important test of Chester's resolve to put environmental factors before industrial growth came in 1919. The opportunity presented then demonstrates the city's potential to attract a large heavy industrial firm. A syndicate bought 30 acres at Curzon Park in order to construct a steelworks employing 4,000-5,000 at a time when the city had 1,000 unemployed. Abercrombie advised the corporation that industry in Curzon Park would be 'destructive to the health and amenities of the city and would pollute the surrounding residential areas', and after heated debate the proposal was rejected, a decision which led to a protest meeting reportedly attended by 3,000 people. (fn. 19) The council then quickly designated Curzon Park a residential zone and so prevented any reversal of the decision. The syndicate disposed of the land to two councillors who sold it to the borough on the grounds that it would be needed for council houses. Roads and sewers were laid but eventually the land was sold in lots for private housing. (fn. 20) The syndicate was offered an alternative site at Sealand Road, where the council wished to see industrial development, but turned it down on the grounds that it was unhealthy, too low-lying for a heavy industrial site, too near the sewage works, and had poor access. (fn. 21)
Chester did not suffer from serious labour unrest during the troubled years after 1918. The national railway strike of 1919, which locally affected 1,500 men, was said to be orderly and free of violence. (fn. 22) The city was also mostly peaceful during the General Strike of 1926. (fn. 23)
Because so many male Cestrians were employed in large factories, albeit outside the city boundaries, Chester was profoundly affected by the difficulties experienced by manufacturing industry between the wars. Despite high unemployment and reduced business in the shops, it was recognized locally that conditions would have been much worse if there had not been so much service employment in the city. (fn. 24) By the late 1930s the number of tourists was increasing. They included day trippers, holiday-makers, and foreign visitors, among whom Americans were especially numerous. (fn. 25) Responding to complaints that visitors were being harassed and exploited by unqualified self-appointed guides, the council initiated a scheme for training official personnel. (fn. 26) The increase in day trippers, for whom the Little Roodee was laid out as an omnibus park, highlighted the potential of the Dee as a tourist attraction. Pleasure boating was on the increase from 1920, and after 1934 the corporation organized one or sometimes two weeks of illuminations each August. (fn. 27) In 1937 an historical pageant was staged with over 6,000 participants, (fn. 28) and in 1938 there was talk of reviving the Chester mystery plays. (fn. 29) By then provision for tourism had become an acknowledged public service.