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.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
THE ECONOMY, 1762-1840: THE DEMISE OF OLD CHESTER
Between 1762 and 1840 key elements of Chester's traditional economy withered and finally died, and the city struggled to find new roles. Previously important manufacturing trades vanished and were replaced only in part by new industries. The port declined so drastically that by 1840 Chester's wharves were of little importance, and the city also suffered problems with its road and canal traffic. The Irish linen trade reached its zenith and then disappeared rapidly, and the traditional fairs and markets were undermined by changes in the patterns of distribution. By the 1830s Chester was heavily dependent on its role as a retailing, social, and administrative centre. (fn. 1)
Industry and Transport
From 1831 census data begin to shed light on the city's occupational structure (Table 8). In the pre-industrial economy the distinction between making and selling goods was blurred, but most of Chester's manufacturing workers were employed in the traditional trades of clothing, wood, metalworking, and building which could be found in all similar towns and cities. By the late 18th century the manufacturing trades more distinctive to Chester were in decline or nearly extinct. The city's historian Joseph Hemingway, former editor of both local newspapers, observed in 1831 that skindressing and tanning had 'greatly declined', while glovemaking had 'chiefly migrated to Worcester'. (fn. 2) By 1810 the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes, which had been exported in great quantities as late as the 1770s, was also 'in a diminished state', and in 1831 employed only eight men. (fn. 3) Clockmaking declined in the late 18th and early 19th century. (fn. 4) The Napoleonic Wars provided some stimulus to shipbuilding, but the industry was modest. (fn. 5) Between 1814 and 1826 as many as 133 vessels were built and registered at Chester, with an average size of 126 tons. (fn. 6) Only one shipyard was in operation by 1831; (fn. 7) although it built some large vessels, the staple product from 1820 to 1850 was Mersey flats. (fn. 8) The related activity of ropemaking survived throughout the 19th century, but only 42 men worked in the trade in 1831, and the important ropewalk of Jonathan Whittle and Sons closed in 1834. (fn. 9) By 1840 most of Chester's traditional industries had thus disappeared or were of limited economic significance.
Milling occupied the middle ground between the traditional and modern sectors and was still growing in importance. At the Dee Mills there were five distinct units in the early 19th century and tenancies tended to be granted separately for each, a disincentive to modernization. (fn. 10) In 1828 the proprietors of the Ellesmere and Chester Canal took a lease over two and most of a third, subject to a stipulation preventing the introduction of steam engines. (fn. 11) Although the restrictive clause was probably a response to the fire of 1819 which gutted the whole premises, (fn. 12) it further hindered modernization. The fire also forced T. A. & J. Frost to relocate their milling business to a disused cotton mill in Steam Mill Street, a move which was the springboard for Frosts' emergence as Chester's premier milling concern. (fn. 13)
Brewing grew significantly from 1800. In the late 18th century there were three large breweries, the Seller family's in Foregate Street, the Whittle family's Lion Brewery in Pepper Street, and one in King Street. Two smaller concerns stood in Foregate Street. After 1800 breweries were started in Lower Bridge Street and Northgate Street, and by 1831 the latter was an extensive business in the hands of the Eaton family. (fn. 14) The liberal provisions of the Beerhouse Act of 1830 produced a rapid increase in the number of beerhouses in Chester during the 1830s, and the total number of licensed premises reached at least 230 by 1840. The number of breweries grew too, from 10 in 1834 to 15 in 1840, but the new arrivals seem to have been small enterprises behind public houses, offering little competition to the established firms. (fn. 15) Growth in Chester's breweries seems largely to have reflected a rise in local demand rather than any wider factors, and it was dominated by old-established families.
In the late 18th and early 19th century Chester was not a propitious place in which to establish new industries. It was not on a coalfield, and water power was restricted to the weir on the Dee, which was affected by the tide. The hinterland was mainly rural and was poorly served by transport. There seems also to have been a lack of enterprise on the part of Cestrians, and the residual power of the city guilds may have restrained development. (fn. 16) It was observed in 1814 that 'corporate privileges are not often calculated to foster commerce, and in this city, although we mark the infancy of several manufactures, few arrive at maturity'. (fn. 17) The influence of the guilds did not ebb as quickly as in other towns, due mainly to their subvention by the Owen Jones charity. Their final decay came about in part because of restrictions on membership imposed in order to maximize existing members' benefits from the charity, (fn. 18) but their authority was destroyed finally in 1825 when an unsuccessful case was brought against a tanner for trading when not a freeman. (fn. 19)
Among the new industries, there were two cotton mills, but both had closed by 1847 and little is known about either. (fn. 20) A pottery was established c. 1757 but it was unable to keep up with developments in Staffordshire and had closed by 1776. (fn. 21) The city's ironfounders mainly made small-scale products for rural consumers. (fn. 22) The exception was the Flookersbrook foundry, set up in 1803 by Cole, Whittle & Co., a firm which was later transformed into Chester's most important engineering concern. (fn. 23)
Lead was the only other modern manufacturing industry to be established successfully between 1762 and 1840. In 1800 Walkers, Maltby & Co. set up a leadworks on the banks of the Chester and Nantwich canal. The proprietors were not freemen of Chester and the business was initially in jeopardy from a reassertion of old restrictions, which it was able to evade because some of the owners were freemen of the City of London. (fn. 24) The works made white and red lead for paints, and had a shot tower. By 1812 a rolling mill for sheet lead and machines for drawing lead pipe had been added. The site was convenient for manufacturing lead products from ores mined, smelted, and refined in north Wales and Spain, and their onward distribution to the industrial Midlands and North-West. (fn. 25)
An important aspect of the growth of the leadworks was thus the availability of water transport, but the history of Chester's maritime and waterway links between 1762 and 1840 was otherwise one of unfulfilled potential and eventual decline. By 1800 the port of Chester had already fallen hopelessly behind Liverpool in serving the North-West and Midlands, and Chester's own wharves were eclipsed by the Dee outports. Foreign trade dwindled, and most of Chester's shipping was involved in the Irish and coasting trades. (fn. 26) The most important commodity in the early 19th century was cheese. (fn. 27) The River Dee Company failed to maintain an adequate navigable channel to Chester, but even if it had, it is questionable whether any significant challenge to Liverpool could have been mounted, not least because the city lacked a merchant community with enterprise and overseas links. (fn. 28) The opening in 1777 of the Trent and Mersey Canal together with continued improvements to the river Weaver channelled inland trade from the Potteries and mid Cheshire decisively towards the Mersey and Liverpool. (fn. 29) Chester counter-attacked with the Chester and Nantwich canal, opened in 1779, but it was thwarted from linking with the Trent and Mersey, and the canal was a dead end unable to serve the industrial areas which were its goal. (fn. 30) Only with the opening of the various sections of the Ellesmere Canal between 1795 and 1805 did Chester have satisfactory inland waterway links, (fn. 31) but by then the city's wharves had become merely an intermediate point on the route to Ellesmere Port and the Mersey. The failure to complete a direct link between Chester and the Denbighshire coalfield may have helped to prevent the growth of industry in the city using cheap Welsh coal and iron. The opening of the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal in 1835, together with the long-sought connexion to the Trent and Mersey at Middlewich in 1833, finally placed Chester on the trunk canal system, (fn. 32) but by then any chance of the city's becoming a nodal point for water transport had passed.
Chester's role on the road network was initially rather healthier, but it deteriorated after 1800. The coaching and carrying trade was centered on the city's many inns, the years 1775-1832 being regarded as the 'golden age of coaching from Chester'. (fn. 33) Most of the main roads to the city were turnpiked between 1743 and 1787, (fn. 34) improving connexions with the hinterland, particularly north-east Wales, but in the early 19th century long-distance services dwindled in relation to regional ones. Chester lost its rank as a nationally important coaching town with the rise of Liverpool and the progressive rerouting of Irish traffic through Shrewsbury after 1808 (Table 9). (fn. 35) Telford's improvements to the Shrewsbury-Holyhead road were largely complete by 1818, (fn. 36) and the last through Royal Mail service from Chester to London was abandoned in 1829. (fn. 37) The growing importance of road transport nationally after 1800 nevertheless enhanced Chester's regional importance both as a coaching centre and, though the evidence is more limited, for goods carriage: the city was served by a number of longdistance fly waggon services by 1823, and had a comprehensive network of carrying services to its local hinterland. (fn. 38)
Source: Willshaw, 'Inns', 62.
Retailing and Services
Changes in Chester's significance for transport had a counterpart in its reorientation as a service centre. Its importance in national trade declined greatly, but its local role in west Cheshire and north-east Wales was strengthened with the development of more modern forms of retailing. (fn. 39) In the 1760s and 1770s Chester's fairs were dominated by the Irish linen trade but were also the focus for wholesale and retail traders of many types. (fn. 40) Imports of Irish linen cloth reached their peak between 1761 and the early 1770s, (fn. 41) and a new linen hall was opened in 1778. The linen trade had declined steeply by 1814, however, and had disappeared by 1830. Its demise was due to competition from Liverpool, the penetration of the Irish manufacturing areas by English merchants, and an increase in orders placed directly with Irish manufacturers. (fn. 42) It also reflected the decline of the rural Irish linen industry centred on Dublin and its shift north to factories around Belfast, a move resulting in turn from the competition of machine-spun English and Scottish yarns and substitution by cheap cotton goods. (fn. 43) In other words, a traditional Chester trade was destroyed as an indirect result of industrialization elsewhere in Britain. The fairs retained some importance for other goods until well into the 19th century, though the building of new trading halls in 1809 and 1815 may have represented an ultimately abortive attempt to sustain the fairs in the face of more modern modes of retailing. (fn. 44) The livestock and food markets remained significant in themselves and as a source of income for the city corporation. The new flesh shambles built in 1827 for over £4,000, for example, was yielding a rental of over £660 a year by 1832. (fn. 45)
Retailing from permanent shops grew rapidly in importance in the early 19th century. Although many retailers were also craft producers, by 1815 there were also specialist town-centre retailers whose skills were commercial rather than manufacturing. (fn. 46) Their shops were of increasingly modern appearance, notably through the introduction of glass windows to display their wares. Hemingway dated the beginning of the change to the late 1780s and observed that Chester's shops were 'equal in elegance to those of Manchester or Liverpool', claiming that 'there is at least one in Eastgate Row, that of Messrs. William and Henry Brown, silk mercers and milliners . . . which would not suffer by a comparison with the magnificence of Regent-street'. (fn. 47) Browns, Chester's leading retailer throughout the 19th century, expanded and diversified between 1791 and 1828. (fn. 48) Increased investment in retailing produced more specialized businesses and changes in their spatial distribution. Higher-grade and luxury shops were tending to locate on the south side of Eastgate Street, especially on the Row, and more heterogeneous businesses on the north side. Watergate Street was associated with craft activities, while butchers were moving away to Cow Lane (later Frodsham Street). (fn. 49)
The number of businesses grew rapidly in the first third of the 19th century (Table 10), accompanied by changes in the business structure. In 1781 food and drink concerns formed 48 per cent of the total, rising by 1834 to 56 per cent. The increase suggests that food and drink were bought less from the markets and fairs and more from fixed shops. That is confirmed by a fall in the number of people per retail food outlet from 187:1 in 1797 to 113:1 in 1840. (fn. 50) The growth in other types of business was less marked, but in all except the luxury trades the rise in their number between 1781 and 1834 was greater in proportion than the rise in population.
The increasing importance of shops was paralleled by the development of other service activities. Local banking became established, though it was risky. Thomas & Hesketh's Bank became insolvent in 1793 and Rowton and Morhall's lasted for only a few years until its failure in 1810, (fn. 51) but Owen Williams established the Chester Old Bank in 1792 and it survived to become Chester's premier bank for much of the 19th century. It was joined in 1813 by Dixon & Co., which had strong Liverpool connexions. William Wardell joined the bank from Liverpool in 1829 and remained a leading figure in the commercial and political life of Chester until his death in 1864. (fn. 52) The Chester Savings Bank was established in 1817. (fn. 53) The city reached its peak as a printing and publishing centre at the end of the 18th century, but although the trade continued to expand in numbers, the trend was towards more jobbing local printers who often produced poor quality work. (fn. 54) Chester's second local newspaper, the Chronicle, was started in 1775, and despite severe difficulties in its early years, after 1800 it became a successful rival to the older Courant. (fn. 55) Chester's hotels and inns also formed a distinct and sizeable economic sector. As early as 1781 there were c. 140 licensed premises in the city. (fn. 56) The inns and hotels carried out a range of functions beyond providing accommodation, sustenance, and transport. The main hotels, notably the Blossoms and the Talbot, were centres of social and political life. The Talbot was sold in 1787 and its premises merged with the new and grander Royal Hotel built next door in 1784 and later acquired by Earl Grosvenor. (fn. 57) The inns were used for sales of property, luxury goods, horses, and agricultural produce. Medical and administrative activities also took place on their premises, and they were sometimes centres of small-scale production by craft workers occupying outbuildings in their yards. (fn. 58) The inns and hotels continued to derive trade from Chester's position as county town, garrison town, and bishopric, roles little changed in the period 1762-1840, though Chester was especially significant as a garrison town and recruiting centre during wartime, the 1798 Irish rebellion, and the period of heightened radical activity in the industrial areas after 1815. (fn. 59)
Notes: Excludes 70 butchers attending the market in 1834. Businesses operating in more than one field are counted for each, so that the table overstates the total number of separate businesses.
Source: Mitchell, 'Urban Markets', table 8.7.
Chester and its Region
It seems likely that Chester's regional sphere of influence expanded in the early 19th century at the expense of other towns. The city already dominated west Cheshire and adjacent areas of north-east Wales, and Chester traders had customers over a catchment area bounded by Warrington, Macclesfield, Nantwich, Shrewsbury, and Denbigh. The city's newspapers circulated even more widely. (fn. 60)
Though Chester's administrative functions remained and its commercial services were modernized and expanded, the demise of the port and traditional manufactures left a large hole in the city's economy after 1800. The only exception to its stagnation was the decade 1811-21, noticed by Hemingway as one of rapid growth which he fully expected to have continued to his time of writing in 1830-1. In the late additions and corrections to his book, however, he reported the actual results of the 1831 census, but made no comment on the slackening of growth which they revealed. (fn. 61)
The reason for the sudden spurt in the 1810s may lie in the agricultural economy of the hinterland. Inclosure in Cheshire was limited by comparison with other parts of England, and only small and gradual changes took place in farming practice. (fn. 62) Even so, farming in the county was affected by the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. During the wars prices for farm products were high, and both landlords and tenants enjoyed a period of prosperity which presumably increased their consumption of the goods and services provided by Chester. In contrast the labourers suffered, and the inclosure of commons and waste in Cheshire may have pushed significant numbers from the land with little option but to migrate to the towns. (fn. 63) Chester is likely to have received its share.
Chester's marked growth between 1811 and 1821 thus probably reflected on the one hand increased prosperity in the service sector brought about by sharply rising purchasing power in the rural hinterland, and, on the other, migration to the city brought about by distress among the rural poor. Some probably found jobs in the growing service sector, and some at the expanding leadworks. After the wars ended, however, agriculture nationally fell into depression, and although Cheshire farming was not hit as severely as elsewhere (thanks to rapid urbanization across the North-West), the price of wool, cattle, and horses dropped heavily at the fair of 1816 and local land rents fell sharply. (fn. 64) Purchasing power in the hinterland probably declined, which may explain why the city's population growth slowed down during the 1820s.
By 1840 Chester's older and wider trade connexions had withered and it had been forced into a diminished role servicing the local region. Modest new industries had appeared in the leadworks, steam milling, and ironfounding, but the heavy reliance on providing services for the hinterland implied a dependence on its fortunes and the need for improved transport connexions. From 1840 the railways provided the means by which that could be achieved.