Twentieth century Chester 1914-2000: Society and culture, 1918-39

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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'Twentieth century Chester 1914-2000: Society and culture, 1918-39', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography, ed. C P Lewis, A T Thacker( London, 2003), British History Online [accessed 14 July 2024].

'Twentieth century Chester 1914-2000: Society and culture, 1918-39', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Edited by C P Lewis, A T Thacker( London, 2003), British History Online, accessed July 14, 2024,

"Twentieth century Chester 1914-2000: Society and culture, 1918-39". A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Ed. C P Lewis, A T Thacker(London, 2003), , British History Online. Web. 14 July 2024.


Social Change. In the early 1930s a social survey of working families in Chester concluded, in line with national findings, that the factors which contributed most to their well-being, after wage and rent levels, were the strength of character of parents, their health, and the number of dependent children. In the sample of 13 families, the average size of family was seven. Of 12 surviving fathers, six were suffering from disabilities incurred during the First World War. None of the families had a 'clean bill of health'. Only one had a wireless and eight never went to the cinema or theatre. The diets of all were adjudged seriously deficient in green vegetables, fruit, fish, and dairy produce. One family had no milk at all; another lived almost entirely on bread and margarine. Overall, however, the medical officer of health believed that an increase in the weight and height of local school children since Edwardian times, also in line with national trends, was attributable to better nutrition. (fn. 1)

Dean Tubbs also noticed signs of social improvement. In 1937 he remarked on the smarter appearance of the city's young men and women, which he attributed to higher earnings, department stores, and the influence of the cinema. (fn. 2) Even so, there remained much poverty, partly because of high levels of longterm unemployment. The plight of the poor could not be ignored since the city's worst slums lay at its heart, just behind Town Hall Square. Little was done to remedy serious overcrowding there until the 1930s, when the city started to move slum dwellers to less visible housing estates in the suburbs. People from the clearance areas who could not afford council-house rents moved into formerly respectable neighbourhoods, where single rooms were sublet to whole families, so creating new areas of overcrowding. The results were evident in a complaint of 1937 that people in Watergate Street, Crane Street, Stanley Place, and Paradise Row stood in doorways with shawls over their heads, their children screaming, rolling iron hoops, and kicking footballs in the streets, or sitting in doorways. Such conditions, visible alike to shoppers and to tourists walking the city walls, were held to devalue Chester's attractiveness. (fn. 3)

In 1915 several charitable relief agencies merged to form the Chester Council of Social Welfare, membership of which included eight councillors and four employers. Its objectives were to relieve distress and focus public opinion; it organized mother and baby clinics, general advice agencies, and a juvenile welfare department, and advised on financial and housing matters. Chester was divided into four districts, each with its own visitor who reported to a local committee. Recommendations for action were sent from there to a central committee which administered the funds. (fn. 4)

The problem of unemployment varied in severity at different times. Male unemployment leapt from 500- 600 before 1914 to a level never below 1,200, and in 1931 it stood at 3,600. In the following year 22 per cent of 'responsible' council-house tenants were unemployed, partly through problems at the Shotton steelworks and the slump in the building trade. Short-time working affected many more. Unemployment benefits were deemed sufficient to cover current expenses, though with a shortage of food, but did not allow for boots and clothing. Mothers went out to work if they could. (fn. 5) For those unemployed not covered by national insurance the only recourse was the poor law. The union workhouse at Hoole, placed under the council's control in 1930, served the sick and the destitute in one building. The city had no mental hospital and sent most of its mentally ill and insane wherever costs were lowest, for instance Middlesbrough, Cardiff, and Worcester, but made increasing attempts to place them nearer the city in the county council's mental hospital at Upton. (fn. 6)

The reforms of 1929-30 transferred the workhouse, later renamed the City Hospital, from the poor-law guardians to the management of the corporation's public assistance committee. (fn. 7) Although there were bitter exchanges between the committee and the unemployed, the city's social survey team found little demand for radical social and economic change. As unemployment rose and the government imposed the means test, the city's unemployed organized themselves into an association and held public meetings to protest. In 1932 the Labour members of the public assistance committee resigned. (fn. 8) The extent of unemployment during the 1930s Depression undermined local voluntary efforts such as the opening in 1933 of a recreational centre and canteen in the Blue Coat School, and the provision of allotments and residential holidays. (fn. 9) In 1937, when the national economy was beginning to recover, 20 per cent of council-house tenants were still unemployed and a further 20 per cent lived on wages of less than £2 a week. (fn. 10)

Health. (fn. 11) Army service led to an increase in the incidence of tuberculosis during the First World War. Advanced cases were taken to a T.B. pavilion established at the isolation hospital at Sealand Road in 1915; others were treated at the sanatorium which Chester shared with Cheshire. By then the council's commitment to slum clearance allowed the medical officer of health to speak publicly about the connexion between bad housing and poor health. He demonstrated that in 1914 the average death rate in Chester was 15.7 per thousand people but in the slum courts reached 27.3 per thousand. The ward with the highest death rate, St. Oswald's, had the worst overcrowding. In 1919 some 300 houses were recorded as unfit for human habitation, and a further 150 as needing repair, but those figures were probably a gross underestimate, since in 1933 over 1,000 houses were recommended for demolition. Overcrowding and poor sanitation encouraged the spread of tuberculosis and diphtheria. By then most zygomatic diseases had begun to retreat, but diphtheria remained intractable. Between 1930 and 1942, when immunization was voluntary, there were 1,269 cases and 83 deaths in Chester. After compulsory vaccination was introduced in 1942, deaths from diphtheria ceased. While the overall death rate in Chester was not much higher than the national average, it always exceeded that for small towns, the category in which the city was classed. The infantile death rate gave especial cause for concern. Before 1914 it had reached 106 per thousand live births, and although after 1916 it never again exceeded 100, it still remained high, often reaching the upper 70s.

Legislation making medical officers of health responsible for maternal and child welfare entailed Chester's officer in close co-operation with voluntary agencies. Since 1909 there had been a Ladies Health Society which organized a baby clinic to help and advise mothers in need. During the war the government encouraged the council to provide better premises, and the clinic began weekly inspections of babies from poor families. (fn. 12) The Local Government Board also required the council's health visitors to spend more time in maternity and infant welfare work. (fn. 13)

From 1925 an eight-bed maternity hospital was run by the Chester Benevolent Institution. By 1934 it was thought overcrowded, but by then the City Hospital also dealt with maternity cases. The latter provided 36 specialized maternity beds in 1936 but failed to appoint a resident gynaecologist, obstetrician, or specialist nursing staff. Shortly afterwards, in 1938, the Institution's maternity hospital closed. (fn. 14)

Although children's health had improved since Edwardian times, there was still malnutrition in Chester. In 1929, out of a school population of 6,000, 80 had rickets and 77 anaemia. The council stopped providing milk during the period 1921-30 when the government grant was reduced, and there were no school meals before 1937. In the latter year 134 cases of malnutrition were reported out of a school population of 5,500. Ninety children were then given meals at a number of centres; by 1939 eighty children were being fed at Lache council school alone. (fn. 15)

Culture and Leisure. (fn. 16) A massive growth in cinema attendance contributed to the decline in theatre and music hall as popular recreations. The family-owned Royalty Theatre survived in the 1930s survived only through the introduction of summer repertory catering in part for visitors to Chester. (fn. 17) The Music Hall became a cinema in 1920, after playing host to both Jennie Lind and Nellie Melba; it converted to talkies in 1929, the first in Chester. (fn. 18) Cinemas increased both in number (to seven in 1939) and capacity, and their standards of comfort and decoration improved. (fn. 19)

Chester's social year was punctuated by the horse races and the County Agricultural Show, held on the Roodee in May and August respectively; in 1925 the Royal Agricultural Show was held in Chester and was visited by George V. (fn. 20) Football was becoming an important spectator sport and enthusiasm increased when Chester were elected to the Football League in 1931; a new stand was built at the club's stadium in Sealand Road. (fn. 21) Informal popular recreations included ice-skating when the Dee froze above the weir, as in February 1929. (fn. 22)

The council's contribution to the city's cultural life was limited. In 1928 the central library in St. John Street lacked open access and was condemned as 'everything a library should not be'; (fn. 23) although enlarged in 1929, it remained unsatisfactory. (fn. 24) There was no public art gallery. The collections in the Grosvenor Museum passed to the council only in 1938, even though it controlled the building from 1915. (fn. 25) Despite frequent campaigning by the Music Society, there was no large concert hall, and a building acquired for the purpose in 1927 was eventually used as council offices. (fn. 26)

It was left to the cathedral to provide a cultural focus for the city, the only place apart from the Gaumont cinema where large concerts could be held in reasonable comfort and with satisfactory acoustics. Until 1920 the cathedral had been rather remote from the life of the city, but thereafter the new dean, Frank Bennett, began to change it into 'the diocesan town hall'. Bennett abolished the entry fee, made himself accessible to visitors as well as those needing help and counsel, and turned the medieval monastic refectory into a public space. He also persuaded the bishop to move from his comparatively remote palace by the Dee to the former deanery in the close. (fn. 27)


  • 1. Ibid. ZCR 204/1; Annual Reps. of M.O.H (1938 and other years).
  • 2. Ches. Observer, 18 Sept. 1937.
  • 3. Ibid. 24 July 1937.
  • 4. Ches. Observer, 16 Feb. 1929; 26 Nov. 1932; C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 164, passim.
  • 5. C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 164/62-4; Ches. Observer, 26 Nov. 1932.
  • 6. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1914/15 to 1939/40, by indexed refs. to Mental Deficiency Act (to 1930/1) and Mental Treatment; Ches. Observer, 30 Sept. 1933.
  • 7. Ches. Observer, 6 Apr. 1930; 19 Dec. 1931.
  • 8. Ibid. 23, 30 Jan. 1932.
  • 9. Ibid. 7 Dec. 1929; 28 Jan. 1933; 26 Jan. 1935; C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 164/62-4.
  • 10. C.C.A.L.S., ZDHO 1.
  • 11. Para. based on Annual Reps. of M.O.H. (1914-45): copies in C.C.A.L.S., ZDH 2/5 (1914-20); ZDH 4/2-4 (1921-45); ZCR 388/1 (1930); ZCCF 9/15-45 (1937-42, 1944-5); and bound with copies of Chester City Cl. Mins. 1914/15 to 1929/30, 1931/2 to 1937/8, and 1939/40 at C.H.H. (1914-29, 1931-7, and 1939).
  • 12. Ches. Observer, 6 Feb., 13 Nov. 1915.
  • 13. Annual Rep. of M.O.H. (1915).
  • 14. Ibid. (1934); Ches. Observer, 28 June 1936; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medical Services: Maternity Care.
  • 15. Annual Reps. of M.O.H. (1929-31); Ches. Observer, 1 May 1937; 23 Mar. 1939.
  • 16. For fuller details, V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Leisure and Culture.
  • 17. Ches. Observer, 9 Jan. 1932.
  • 18. Ibid. 9 Oct. 1920.
  • 19. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Places of Entertainment: Cinemas.
  • 20. Ches. Observer, 11 July 1925.
  • 21. Ibid. 15 Aug. 1931; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Sport after 1700: Association Football.
  • 22. Ward, Chester in Camera, 4.
  • 23. Ches. Observer, 23 June 1928.
  • 24. Ibid. 12 Oct. 1929; Chester City Cl. Mins. 1928/9, 42, 607-8.
  • 25. Ches. Observer, 6 Nov. 1915; 18 Sept. 1937.
  • 26. Ibid. 16 Apr. 1923; 2 Aug. 1924; 1 Oct. 1927.
  • 27. A. Bruce, The Cath. 'Open and Free': Dean Bennett of Chester.