Late Georgian and Victorian Chester 1762-1914: Economy and society

Pages 171-172

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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In 1762 Chester was still a regional metropolis despite the decline of its port over the previous 150 years. (fn. 1) By 1914 it had sunk to being a medium-sized market town, albeit one with some industry, a wide catchment area, significant administrative functions, and social pretensions which reflected its long history and architectural merits.

Chester was located in a region of early and rapid industrialization which encompassed the north Wales coalfield to the west and south-west, the chemical industries of the Cheshire saltfield 15 miles to the east, and industrial south Lancashire and the port of Liverpool only slightly further away to the north. Dynamic growth in the region, however, was reflected only weakly in Chester itself. For reasons discussed later it suffered disadvantages in comparison with areas near by. Industrial entrepreneurs had better places in the region in which to invest, a characteristic which set Chester apart from other old but more isolated cities, such as York and Lincoln, which experienced considerable industrial growth. Although Chester did not grow significantly as an industrial town, it adapted rather successfully during the industrial revolution to its relatively disadvantaged situation, though was left increasingly vulnerable to trends in its hinterland. The coming of the railway was the only major boost, stimulating a boom in the mid 19th century. Other than that, the city was beset by difficulties which the gloss of town-centre rebuilding tended to obscure.

Population growth and migration reflected the main trends in Chester's development. In 1774 a survey by Dr. John Haygarth, physician to the infirmary, revealed a population of 14,713. By 1801, including the suburbs, it had grown to 16,095, an increase of 9.4 per cent in 27 years. (fn. 2) That was slow in relation to the rate across Britain, and suggests that many people were migrating away from Chester. The picture after 1801 is clearer, the city and its suburbs trebling their population by 1911. The increase was less than that of the immediately surrounding region of Cheshire, Flintshire, and Denbighshire, though the trend was not uniform over time (Table 7). The pattern of migration amplifies the picture. (fn. 3) From 1801 to 1841 more people left Chester than settled there except in the decade 1811-21. Between 1841 and 1871 there was sustained migration to the city, but after 1871 the flow reversed, and was staunched only in part during the 1890s. Although the actual population always grew because of natural increase, Chester was evidently finding it difficult to adapt economically for most of the period.

Demographic and other evidence examined later suggests that Chester's economic and social history

TABLE 7: The population of Chester in its regional context, 1801-1911
Decade Population at end of decade Percentage increase Percentage increase in region Chester's increase relative in region
1801-11 17,344 7.8 15.8 0.5
1811-21 21,516 24.1 18.7 1.3
1821-31 23,029 7.0 19.3 0.4
1831-41 25,039 8.7 15.5 0.6
1841-51 29,216 16.7 12.0 1.4
1851-61 34,209 17.1 9.6 1.8
1861-71 39,757 16.2 9.8 1.7
1871-81 42,246 6.3 12.1 0.5
1881-91 44,002 4.2 10.5 0.4
1891-1901 47,975 9.0 10.9 0.8
1901-11 50,220 4.7 13.7 0.3

Notes: Population is that of Chester, associated extra-parochial places, and Great Boughton, Hoole, Upton, Newton, and Bache townships. The region is defined as Cheshire, Flintshire, and Denbighshire. In the final column, 1.0 = same as region.

Source: Census, 1801-1911.

between 1762 and 1914 can be divided into three periods: the demise of the traditional economy between 1762 and 1840, a reorientation and economic boom 1841-70, and finally a period when the limits of reorientation were revealed between 1871 and 1914.

TABLE 8: Adult males employed in retail trades and handicrafts, 1831
Sector No. No. % %
Retail Trades 509 20.2
Retail/Wholesale 30 1.2
Processing Trades 171 6.8
Brewing 86 3.4
Clothing 8 0.3
Leather 77 3.1
Crafts 1,524 60.5
Metal 179 7.1
Leather 281 11.1
Clothing 171 6.8
Wood 343 13.6
Building 332 13.2
Fine Crafts 99 3.9
Maritime 81 3.2
Miscellaneous 38 1.5
Innkeeping and Transport 211 8.4
Miscellaneous 74 2.9
Total 2,519 100.0

Note: Arithmetical corrections have been made to the figures.

Source: M. J. Kingman, 'Chester, 1801-61' (Leic. Univ. M.A. thesis, [1970]), 18.


  • 1. C. Armour, 'Trade of Chester and State of Dee Navigation' (Lond. Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1956), passim.
  • 2. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Population.
  • 3. Below, this chapter, Appendix.