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.
TOWN PLANNING AND THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT, 1918-39
The council's commitment to providing municipal housing led it to accept the principle of urban regulation through town planning. In 1917 it commissioned Professor Patrick Abercrombie to consult with the city engineer on the preparation of a town planning scheme, necessary for the development of the Buddicom housing estate and to regulate land use, (fn. 1) and from 1918 began to set up such a scheme. By 1919 it had resolved to develop Chester as 'a residential town, a shopping and business centre, a social meeting ground, a recreational resort and a focus for artistic effort'. (fn. 2)
Permission was sought to extend the planning zone to include areas outside the municipal boundaries, notably Hoole urban district, parts of Chester and Tarvin rural districts, and Hawarden rural district (Flints.), on the grounds that they were inextricably linked with the city's economy. (fn. 3) Regional planning was needed to build a ring-road and so relieve the city's traffic congestion, and to improve the Dee by preventing flooding, deepening the channel, and reclaiming land for industrial development. The Ministry of Health set up a joint committee of local authorities in 1920, and in 1923 approved the Deeside Regional Planning Scheme, but Chester was allowed to include in its own plan only those parts of Hoole and the rural districts which were already built up. (fn. 4)
Little positive action came out of Chester's early planning initiatives except the designation of areas of the city as residential, commercial, recreational, or industrial; by 1926, maps showing 'zoning' had been prepared, confining shops to the city centre and excluding them from residential areas. (fn. 5) A further attempt by the council to control development over land outside the borough boundaries, in the wake of new town-planning legislation in 1928, was unsuccessful. (fn. 6)
A preliminary planning scheme, approved by the government by 1933, contained little that would prevent environmentally destructive building projects within the borough. Despite growing local concern about environmental damage to the historic city, (fn. 7) constructive proposals for its development were slow to emerge. In 1940 a draft development scheme confined itself to generalities, except for a proposal to develop high-value land in the city centre made available by the clearance of the Princess Street slums. Further planning was then abandoned because of the war. (fn. 8) In 1941 Chester was described by one embittered citizen as an example of 'unplanned, greedy development at its worst', its streets 'airless, narrow, overhung, traffic-bound, bottle-necked alleys' fronting 'an agglomeration of slums'. (fn. 9)
Traffic. The most serious threat to Chester's environment was motorized traffic, the volume of which was increasing rapidly. By 1914 the number of vehicles had grown to the point that the coroner thought that a speed limit of 10 miles an hour ought to be imposed. (fn. 10) On bank holidays there were frequently long queues of traffic attempting the journey through the city centre to the seaside resorts of north Wales. Local traffic also increased because of the concentration of commercial and business premises at the heart of the city. Traffic on the main roads doubled between 1925 and 1928. (fn. 11) Modest measures to ameliorate traffic problems included the introduction of pedestrian crossings and traffic lights at the Dee Bridge in 1934. Traders, however, successfully resisted all attempts to restrict parking in the city centre, or to introduce one-way traffic systems. (fn. 12)
By 1920 it was recognized that the only effective remedy was to build an outer ring-road to divert through traffic away from the city centre altogether. Such a solution was expensive and required the cooperation of Cheshire and Flintshire county councils, on whose territory much of the new road would run. (fn. 13) Even so, by 1924 a complete route had been mapped, controversially cutting across the avenue leading from Overleigh to Eaton Hall, the home of the duke of Westminster. A start was made on the Flintshire section in 1929, when the government provided 75 per cent of the cost, but in 1931 the financial crisis halted the project. In 1935 work was resumed on the same terms. Hopes of a rapid conclusion were, however, dashed by the outbreak of war. (fn. 14)
By the early 1920s there was an additional proposal, attributed to the town clerk, for an eastern inner bypass to relieve traffic congestion at the Cross by cutting across the grounds of Dee House to connect Vicars Lane with Pepper Street. In 1926 the Ministry of Transport agreed to find a third of the cost. (fn. 15) Work had begun when archaeological investigations revealed the remains of the Roman amphitheatre in the path of the proposed road. Reluctantly the city council's improvement committee was forced by central government to change the route so that it followed the curve of the amphitheatre's outer wall along a widened Little St. John Street. Controversy over the route and the design of the new gateway cut in the city wall, and the effect of the Depression on government funding, delayed completion of the scheme until 1938. (fn. 16)
The City Centre. The taste for mock half-timbered buildings persisted in Chester well into the 1920s, even though they were going out of fashion in most other town centres. (fn. 17) Not all Chester's buildings of that kind were of poor quality, notwithstanding the comments made in 1929 by the dean of Chester's son, Francis Bennett, who deplored the replacement of 'decent, honest Georgian' by 'wretched, ill-designed black and white'. (fn. 18) For example, the Manchester and District Bank (later Royal Bank of Scotland) at the corner of Foregate Street and Frodsham Street was built to a well detailed design of 1921 by Francis Jones. (fn. 19) Nor did all new buildings in the centre conform to the black-and-white idiom. Several national chain stores built shops in their own house styles at the east end of the town centre, including the neo-Georgian Marks & Spencer, designed in 1932 by Norman Jones and Leonard Rigby of Manchester, and the cautiously Art Deco premises of Montague Burton, designed by Harry Wilson of Leeds in 1928, both in Foregate Street. (fn. 20) Many shops received alterations, such as the steel-framed third storey added to Browns in Eastgate Street by Forbes and Tate of London in 1929, (fn. 21) and during the mid 1930s the centre was transformed at street and Row level by dozens of new shop fronts. (fn. 22) The most unashamedly modern buildings were the cinemas built on prominent sites in the main streets, particularly the Odeon, designed by Harry Weedon and opened in 1936, which was unavoidable in the view down Northgate Street. (fn. 23) The Regal, designed in the same year by the A.B.C.'s architects in a more subdued Art Deco style, filled the corner of Foregate Street and Love Lane. (fn. 24) Only a few new buildings, such as Maxwell Ayrton's St. Werburgh Row of 1935 in St. Werburgh Street, were designed in a manner consciously sympathetic with their surroundings. (fn. 25)
The corporation's town planning not only failed to ensure that most new buildings enhanced the environment, but also made low cost rather than quality the motivation in its own projects. The council's attitude was apparent in 1929 in the controversy about the design of a new gate in the walls to connect with Pepper Street. The Chester Archaeological Society spearheaded a campaign, supported by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, for a sympathetically designed gateway and for keeping the land surrounding it as public open space. Its case was that 'the city's greatest asset, even in a narrow financial sense, is its historic character'. (fn. 26) It is unlikely that the council, whose improvement committee had initially wanted a simple postern gate, (fn. 27) would have heeded such admonitions had the walls and gates not been scheduled under the Ancient Monuments Act of 1913. (fn. 28) The Office of Works, whose permission was necessary to breach the walls, pressed the council to commission a design for the new gate from Walter Tapper, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tapper's original plan, a large gateway with posterns, gardens outside the walls, and a large piazza within, was rejected by the improvement committee as much too expensive, and work started on the road before the matter was resolved. Renewed pressure from the Office of Works ensured that Tapper was consulted on two further occasions, the last in 1935. (fn. 29) Although he died before giving his advice, his son Michael produced a design for a gate with simplified medieval references which was officially opened in 1938 as the Newgate. (fn. 30) The largest public building planned in Chester between the wars, the neo-Georgian extension to County Hall designed in 1938 by the county architect E. Mainwaring Parkes and completed after 1945, was a meagre affair unworthy of its historic site and riverside setting. (fn. 31)
Conservation. The city's existing reputation for neglecting or destroying its historic architecture was reinforced after 1918. (fn. 32) Not only were Georgian buildings replaced, but genuine timber-framed houses were allowed to fall into disrepair. The council delayed, for example, over the restoration of Stanley Palace, purchased by the Archaeological Society but then sold to the earl of Derby, who presented it to the city in 1928. When work eventually began in 1932, it was greatly criticized as overzealous and undertaken at the behest of 'council reactionaries'. (fn. 33) There were also allegations that Chester's 'meagreness of civic pride' led it to neglect the walls, described as 'squalid and depressing' and unfit to be open to the public. (fn. 34)
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the revivified Archaeological Society lobbied the council hard on conservation issues, (fn. 35) but government intervention was the principal means of preserving the city's historic fabric. Indeed in 1927 a local inspector of ancient monuments, reporting that the walls were in disrepair, commented that 'the city will do nothing worth doing unless it has to, and no one but the Office of Works can protect what remains from decay'. (fn. 36) Although the Dee Bridge and by 1938 the amphitheatre were also scheduled, many historic buildings remained neglected. The problem was of great concern to Greenwood, the city surveyor, who in 1933 sought to make a list of those worthy of preservation. (fn. 37)
One seriously endangered historic building was the Blue Bell Inn in Northgate Street, which dated from the mid 15th century and was reputed the oldest domestic building in the city. In 1930 it was bought by the improvement committee for demolition as part of a plan to widen Northgate Street. (fn. 38) Abandoned for six years, it fell into serious decay despite protests from the Chester branch of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the Chester Archaeological Society, and the duke of Westminster. Eventually the Office of Works intervened, asking the council to reconsider, and pointing out that the plan to widen Northgate Street was impracticable since the Northgate itself was a scheduled monument. (fn. 39) Although the council was thus prevented from destroying the Blue Bell it refused to spend money preserving it and the building remained unrepaired in 1939. (fn. 40)
The state of the Watergate Street Rows also caused anxiety and public debate, and in 1938 the council bought several buildings apparently in order to preserve them. By then the improvement committee, which declared that 'we depend very largely on our antiquities for our prosperity', may have had a change of heart about the city's historic buildings. (fn. 41) Local conservationists, mindful of its past record, remained sceptical. (fn. 42)
Archaeology. The controversy over the design of the Newgate coincided with an even more contentious issue, the fate of the Roman amphitheatre. Interest in Roman Chester had already been stimulated by the excavation of Roman barrack blocks in Deanery Fields by Robert Newstead, curator of the Chester Archaeological Society's collections and the dominant figure in the city's archaeology between the wars. It was greatly heightened by the accidental discovery of the amphitheatre in 1929 in the grounds of Dee House. Excavation in 1930-1 by Newstead and J. P. Droop, professor of classical archaeology at Liverpool University, was financed by the Archaeological Society and made a pioneering contribution to Roman archaeology in Chester. (fn. 43) The improvement committee, some of whose members attempted to deny that the remains were those of an amphitheatre, nevertheless continued with its original plan to build a road across the site. The Office of Works responded by offering to pay the costs of excavation and preservation. Together with the Ministry of Transport, which was providing financial support for the road, it insisted that the road should be diverted round the amphitheatre, arguing that it would be a unique addition to the city's attractions and result in 'a large and permanent increase in the number of visitors'. (fn. 44)
The council, which owned only the land needed for the road, refused to buy the rest of the site. A campaign was mounted to raise sufficient private funding to buy it, but national and international interest was greater than in Chester, partly perhaps because there was little to see above ground. An Epstein sculpture, Genesis, was lent to the Grosvenor Museum to help raise money, and Mussolini sent his good wishes for the project to the Archaeological Society. By 1934 the society had collected sufficient funds to buy St. John's House on the northern half of the site, which could therefore be excavated. The rest, perhaps better preserved because the ground level was higher there, was to remain buried in the grounds of Dee House. (fn. 45) There matters rested until after the war.
Open Spaces. In 1919 Chester had high levels of environmental pollution more usually associated with industrial towns, largely caused by smoke from closely packed domestic chimneys and perhaps by emissions from the gas works. (fn. 46) Although there was some improvement in the 1930s, mainly because of slum clearance in the city centre, such conditions made the need for public open spaces particularly important. There were, however, only 186 acres of open space, well short of the 518 acres required by the accepted standards of the day. The shortage was worse than it seemed, for some of the existing space was not laid out for recreation and the total included the Roodee, which was not always available to the public, and Earl's Eye or the Meadows, which was subject to serious flooding. In 1929 the city acquired 64½ acres of the Meadows, but shrank from the expense of providing drainage and access. (fn. 47)