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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Evidence for the origins of the city's population and workforce is scanty before 1851. In the 18th century the most obvious newcomers were those participating in Chester's fashionable social scene. A well established winter season attracted landed families from their estates to town houses in Chester, and the May races and assizes were highlights of the calendar, but social activities for such people continued throughout the year. (fn. 1) The city also drew permanent settlers from Cheshire, Wales, and Ireland. There were small waves of Irish migrants around 1730 and 1748, (fn. 2) but the numbers seem to have declined in the later 18th century despite the importance of the Irish linen trade. Because of its location Chester was always likely to receive many Irish people at times of heightened migration to Britain, (fn. 3) and new influxes occurred from 1798 to 1808 and in the 1820s. The main Irish district in the city throughout the 19th century was around Steven Street in Boughton, (fn. 4) but Irish people were always to be found elsewhere in Chester, and were not confined in a ghetto. (fn. 5) In 1834 they were reportedly employed mainly in farm work and roadmaking. (fn. 6)
Chester's social character was influenced by its historic traditions and even more strongly by its economic base. Hemingway concluded in 1831 that the absence of factories 'and the crowds of the lowest rabble they engender' gave the city an unusually large resident gentry, though they tended not to be remarkable for their opulence. The middling ranks had to make their money slowly and carefully and were characterized by 'solidity'. The poor formed a smaller proportion than in manufacturing or commercial towns and were mainly employed in domestic service. (fn. 7) The corollary was a social structure polarized between a prosperous bourgeoisie and a working class overdependent on unskilled and often casual jobs in the service sector or in decaying manufactures. Chester's economy gave only limited opportunity for a skilled working class to emerge, although the development of more modern manufactures in the mid 19th century widened the social base somewhat.
Where people lived was determined to some extent by occupation and status as well as by housing type and cost. In the early 19th century the rich, the middle classes, and the poor often lived in close proximity, but there were also areas of distinct segregation, for example the tobacco pipe makers of Love Lane and the watchmakers of Gloverstone. (fn. 8) Even before 1800, however, such residential traditions were disappearing along with the trades they reflected. In 1831 Hemingway offered a summary of Chester's social geography, identifying Eastgate Row as an area of particular elegance and commenting favourably upon Queen Street, Egerton Street, Stanley Place, Nicholas Street, Paradise Row, and Liverpool Road. (fn. 9) The environs of Frodsham Street, Love Street, Steam Mill Street, Watergate Street, Northgate Street, Commonhall Street, Cuppin Street, Pepper Street, and Lower Bridge Street were all of inferior grade or worse, while Handbridge as a whole was dismissed as 'almost exclusively inhabited by the lower orders'. (fn. 10)
Although Chester's population doubled between 1841 and 1911, its social character changed little. The city was polarized between a middle- and upper-class population whose income came from land, agriculture, trade, and, increasingly, inherited wealth, and a working class employed in declining manufactures or in unskilled and casual jobs in the service sector. The distinctive economic base meant that Chester lacked both a significant class of industrial capitalists and a sizeable skilled working class employed in modern industries. (fn. 11)
Natural increase ensured that Chester's population rose continuously, but between 1841 and 1871 and again in the 1890s it was augmented by migration. Large numbers of Irish people came to Chester during the Famine, in 1851 forming 7.3 per cent of the population. The Irish were, nevertheless, a minority among the newcomers to Chester. In 1851 over 30 per cent of the city's population had come from the surrounding counties and another 20 per cent from further afield in Great Britain. The proportions had not altered greatly by 1911. (fn. 12) There seems to have been some correlation between geographical origin and the type of job undertaken after arrival in Chester. The city did not attract many unskilled workers from beyond its immediate region, apart from the Irish, since for such people it was not worth coming from afar to enter an already overcrowded labour market. Not all the Irish were unskilled: in 1861 only half of those living within the walls were labourers, the rest being spread across other occupations. (fn. 13) Female domestic servants were a large unskilled group of mainly local origin, about 85 per cent of a sample in 1881 having been born in Cheshire, Flintshire, or Denbighshire. At the other extreme, nearly 40 per cent of skilled male workers had been born outside that area. For some employers, recruitment beyond the city may have been a necessity, given the limited skills of the local workforce. Most of the skilled engineers at the Hydraulic Engineering Co. in 1881 had been recruited from firms outside Chester. Labourers, on the other hand, were predominantly local in origin. The size of the firm's labour force fluctuated rapidly and markedly, reflecting the volatility of demand in the engineering industry. (fn. 14) Long-term job security was largely unknown in Victorian Chester, even for skilled workers, but in that the city was not unusual.
Chester's restricted size in the later 19th century gave it great social variety over very small areas. Where people lived was, nevertheless, conditioned to some extent by the jobs they did, and there were distinct variations in the occupational structure of different parts of the city. Within the walls the inhabitants of the main streets and Rows still included a strong proprietorial and professional element, but most of the intramural population were artisans, unskilled, or engaged in shop work. In 1861 there were still sizeable enclaves within the walls, particularly on the western side, which were inhabited by the wealthy élite, and it could be said of the cathedral precinct that 'much of the city's life lapped against but did not enter this area'. The better off, however, were tending to desert the city centre by then, and shopowners increasingly abandoned accommodation over their premises to live in the more salubrious suburbs. Eastgate Street and Bridge Street continued to be affluent, but Northgate Street, Watergate Street, Whitefriars, King Street, St. Martin's Fields, Grosvenor Street, and Nicholas Street, among others, were more mixed, and behind many of the frontages lurked the huddled, impoverished occupants of the courts. Much the same mixture was found in Foregate Street and Boughton. Indeed, the central core of the city as a whole continued to be characterized by social diversity, and although shopkeepers, shopworkers, and others in commerce formed the largest single class of residents, building workers also seem to have favoured the city centre, perhaps because of the mass of cheap courtyard housing. North of the canal, and especially in Newtown near the railway station, transport and manufacturing workers predominated, each making up nearly a quarter of the labour force. The streets around Garden Lane and Cheyney Road tended to be of low social status, but beyond the fork of Liverpool and Parkgate Roads lay a wedge of generally high-status residents and their servants. South of the Dee the influence of Saltney meant that manufacturing workers, labourers, and others working in industry made up over 40 per cent of the workforce, concentrated in Saltney itself and Handbridge. The genteel suburbs of Queen's Park, Hough Green, and Curzon Park were home to upper-middle class and professional residents whose obtrusive properties belied their quite small numbers.