Twentieth century Chester 1914-2000: The economy, 1945-74

Pages 254-256

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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THE ECONOMY, 1945-74

After the war Chester's prosperity remained broadly based. (fn. 1) In the early 1950s the city still had some oldestablished manufacturing concerns like the leadworks and two tobacco companies, alongside newer, larger, and more modern enterprises such as Brookhirst Electrical Switchgear and two makers of metal window frames, Williams and Williams of the Reliance Works and Rustproof Metal Windows Ltd. of Saltney. Whereas the last three firms employed over 3,500 workers between them in 1951, the first three had only 500. In the same year there were some 2,000 railwaymen and 1,000 employees at Crosville Motor Services, the regional bus company based in Chester. Much employment was generated by the city's role as the regional centre for most of west Cheshire and parts of north Wales. Farmers used its agricultural suppliers and financial services, and shoppers came in from a wide area. Retail sales per head of population in the county borough were far higher in 1950 than for any other town or city in an area stretching as far as Liverpool, Manchester, and Shrewsbury; they were higher, too, than in comparable county and resort towns elsewhere in the country, in part because of the revival of the tourist trade after the war, and its later expansion. Retailers employed over 5,000 people, and retail-type services such as catering and garages another 2,000. The premier department store, Browns of Eastgate Street, had a staff of over 600. Other services were also very important. The proportion of the workforce engaged in local and central government administration (the latter including the Inland Revenue and the headquarters of the Army's Western Command) (fn. 2) and banking was regarded as 'extraordinarily high': over 3,000 and 800 people respectively in 1951. There were also 1,000 Post Office and telecommunications workers. Although many city-centre workers lived in the suburbs outside the borough boundary, or further afield, the city also provided a great deal of labour for industry in the wider region, especially in aircraft manufacturing at Broughton, at the Shotton steelworks, and in the chemical industry, mostly at Ellesmere Port.

Between 1951 and 1971 the workforce increased from 30,000 to 37,000, but only because more women came into full- or part-time employment. (fn. 3) By 1971, indeed, women formed 46 per cent of the city's workers. The character of employment in Chester also changed markedly. Jobs in manufacturing fell sharply for men in the 1960s and for women throughout the period. Whereas manufacturing and construction had employed 32 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women in 1951, twenty years later they accounted for only 24 per cent and 6 per cent respectively. The decline was mainly due to the loss of jobs in engineering: Brookhirst Igranic Ltd. (formerly Brookhirst Switchgear) closed down at the end of the 1960s, while Williams and Williams, the city's largest industrial concern, was in difficulties almost throughout the decade. (fn. 4) Altogether, by 1971 there were some 2,500 fewer manufacturing jobs in the city than in 1951, two thirds of them for men. On the other hand the industrial sector in the wider region grew significantly and offered many opportunities for residents of Chester: in 1971 there were some 12,000 jobs at Vauxhall Motors in Ellesmere Port, 10,000 in oil refining and chemicals in the same town, 12,000 at the Shotton steelworks, and 4,000 at each of Hawker Siddeley in Broughton and Courtaulds man-made fibres at Flint. (fn. 5) Within the city the corporation provided a site for light industry at Sealand industrial estate in 1949, initially covering 30 acres and later extended. Eleven businesses were located there in 1960, and by 1974 it had 70 firms employing up to 2,000 people, but mostly in distribution and services rather than manufacturing. (fn. 6)

As the importance of manufacturing to the city's economy declined, so that of services grew, despite setbacks in certain areas such as the collapse of railway employment in the 1960s, from over 2,000 jobs in 1951 to significantly fewer than 1,000 in 1971. Services as a whole, including public utilities, transport, shops, financial services, public administration, hospitals, schools, hotels, and catering, already provided three in every five men's jobs and four in every five women's in Chester in 1951, much the same proportions as before the war; by 1971 the proportions had risen to 75 per cent of male employment and 90 per cent of female. (fn. 7)

Retailing was relatively stable. (fn. 8) The number of shops remained about the same at over 850, though as supermarkets became established there were fewer food shops and more selling clothes, household goods, and other non-food items. By 1971 far more jobs in shops were part-time and taken by women, and there had been a decisive shift in the relative significance of independently owned outlets and multiples: during the 1960s the share of sales in the former fell from 90 per cent to 45 per cent. By 1971 Chester had almost 1 million square feet of shopping space, most of it in the city centre. The city was absolutely the most important shopping centre in the region, with three times as much retail space as Ellesmere Port, a town of similar size, and more than Birkenhead, which had twice Chester's population. It placed Chester on a par with considerably larger county towns such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Exeter. Sales in 1971 ran at about £640 per resident, far outstripping other towns in the region and similar towns elsewhere in England, though not by as much as in 1950.

Elsewhere in the service sector, numbers employed in hotels and catering fell in the 1950s and 1960s, but nearly every other type of job became more numerous. There were 1,000 more jobs in banks, insurance companies, and other financial services in 1971 than in 1951, and 4,500 more in education, medicine, the law, and other professions: both areas of employment had more than doubled in size. The Post Office (which still ran the telephone system in 1971) had 400 more employees in 1971 than in 1951, the regional electricity board, Manweb, nearly 1,000 more, local and central government some 1,400 more. (fn. 9) In financial services, the most notable success was the rise of North West Securities under the management of Sydney Jones (1948-79) to become a leading finance house. The company was established in Chester in 1948 as a subsidiary of a Colwyn Bay motor dealership set up to provide loans for buying cars. Expansion and diversification into industrial loans accelerated after it was bought by the Bank of Scotland in 1958. A small new head office opened in Newgate Street in 1956 and was replaced by a large one, of eight storeys, in City Road in 1963 (at the time the largest commercial building in Chester), as the company took over others and established branches nationwide. In the mid 1970s it began providing loans and other personal financial services in alliance with car manufacturers and high-street retailers, including Marks & Spencer and C & A. (fn. 10)

The rise in service employment depended very largely on Chester's position as a regional centre, whether of long standing, as for the Post Office, or newly chosen, as for the nationalized Manweb. The latter began building a new headquarters in Sealand Road in 1968 in a large group of buildings designed by Stroud, Nellis, and Partners dominated by a sevenstoreyed Y-plan block. (fn. 11) Although Western Command disappeared as an organizational unit of the Army in 1972, its buildings were reopened as the Army Pay and Records Office in 1975. (fn. 12)

Chester's workforce was increasingly supplied from outside the city. Commuters into the county borough accounted for 37 per cent of the total employed by 1961, rising to 51 per cent by 1971, though many of them lived in the suburbs immediately beyond the county borough boundary, especially Upton and Saltney. At the same time there was a daily flow of commuters who travelled from Chester to work elsewhere, especially in the industrial plants of Ellesmere Port and Deeside: 23 per cent of the employed residents of the county borough worked outside its boundaries in 1961, 31 per cent in 1971. By the latter year there were thus large movements of workers both into and out of Chester, amounting to 18,000 and 8,500 people respectively. (fn. 13) They were signs of a healthy local economy. The city's wealth was reflected in the fact that although it was one of the smallest county boroughs, nationally ranking 74th out of 79 in population, it was seventh in rateable value per head, the joint highest (with Blackpool) in the North-West. (fn. 14) Until the national economy began to falter in the mid 1960s Chester's unemployment rates were among the lowest in the country. In the 1950s employment was so buoyant that vacancies had to be filled from outside the area. In 1962 the Chester employment exchange area, which included parts of Tarvin and Chester rural districts and Hawarden rural district in Flintshire, had an unemployment rate of only 1.1 per cent, compared with 2.1 per cent nationally and 2.8 per cent in the North-West region. (fn. 15) Nevertheless, the dependence on a few large industrial plants for jobs in manufacturing made Chester very vulnerable in the recession of the mid 1970s. (fn. 16)

The importance of tourism to the city's prosperity was more fully appreciated in the 1960s. Tourists included day trippers, overnight visitors on their way to resorts in north Wales, and foreigners for whom Chester was the country's third most important tourist destination, after London and Stratford on Avon. The number of hotel bedrooms grew from 700 in 1960 to 1,300 twenty years later. Visitors were drawn by the antiquity of the city and by the shops in the Rows, whose character after 1947 was preserved by planning legislation. The river was also popular: motor boats were available for hire from the Groves after 1945, and by 1970 annual licences were being issued for over 650 vessels, including privately owned ones, more than three times as many as in 1950; three quarters of boat owners lived outside Chester. In 1964 the city's attitude to tourism could still be condemned as 'passive and uncertain': the council had no publicity officer or tourist information bureau, and had done nothing to develop potential attractions such as the river frontage. Only ten years later, in a rather different economic and political climate, the council had admitted past failings and was budgeting £10,000 a year to promote tourism. (fn. 17)

The notion that a university might be an economic asset emerged more slowly. When the government planned to build several new universities, the county council took the initiative and in 1961 invited Chester to send representatives to its working party. A site was identified but proposals made to the University Grants Committee were rejected in 1964. (fn. 18) Chester College remained a relatively small but expanding teachertraining institution. (fn. 19)


  • 1. Para. based on Census, 1951, Industries, pp. 17-18, 122; Occupations, pp. 168-75, 360-1; Board of Trade, Census of Distribution, 1950, i, p. 107 and figs. calculated from data at pp. 2-11; Geography, xxxvi. 51-5; Scientific Survey of Merseyside, ed. W. Smith, 283-4.
  • 2. C. P. Dryland, 'Headquarters, Western Command: Hist. Survey, 1971' (TS. at C.H.H.).
  • 3. Para. based on Census, 1951, Industries, pp. 17-18, 122; 1961, Occupations and Industries: Ches. pp. 16-20, 22-4; 1971, Econ. Activity: Ches. pp. 29-34. Figs. for 1961 and 1971 were based on a 10 per cent sample.
  • 4. Kelly's Dir. Chester (1969), 325; (1970), 327; e.g. Chester Chron. 13 Jan. 1962, p. 18; 3 Oct. 1964, p. 8.
  • 5. Census, 1971, Econ. Activity: Ches. pp. 41-2; Flints. pp. 8-13.
  • 6. C.C.A.L.S., ZDS 3/1282; Kelly's Dir. Chester (1954), 19; (1960), 19-20; (1974), 168, 221, 236, 322; Greater Chester District Plan: Technical Rep. (1977), pp. 41-2.
  • 7. Census, 1951, Industries, pp. 17-18, 122; 1961, Occupations and Industries: Ches. pp. 16-20, 22-4; 1971, Econ. Activity: Ches. pp. 29-34.
  • 8. Para. based on Board of Trade, Census of Distribution, 1950, i, p. 107; 1961, p. 11/20; 1971, p. 11/65; for comparisons with other towns: 1950, i, pp. 2-11; 1971, pp. 12/38-72.
  • 9. Census, 1951, Industries, pp. 17-18, 122; 1961, Occupations and Industries: Ches. pp. 16-20, 22-4; 1971, Econ. Activity: Ches. pp. 29-34.
  • 10. [P. Holland], Memories of Chester (Halifax, 1997), [10-15].
  • 11. Pevsner, Ches. 172.
  • 12. Dryland, 'Headquarters, Western Command'; Chester Riverside Study, section FR5L.
  • 13. Census, 1961, Workplaces, pp. 5-6, 67; 1971, Workplaces, pp. 3, 30, 143 (both years based on 10 per cent sample).
  • 14. C.C.A.L.S., ZCA 11, replies to questionnaire; Rep. of Royal Com. on Local Government in Eng. I [Cmnd. 4040], pp. 332, 335- 6, 338-40.
  • 15. C.C.A.L.S., ZCA 11.
  • 16. Ches. Observer, 22 Jan. 1965; Greater Chester District Plan: Technical Rep. (1977), pp. 30-44.
  • 17. Chester Junior Chamber of Commerce, Rep. on Tourism (1964); Ches. Observer, 15 Nov. 1974; Chester Riverside Study, sections FR3E, FR4B, FR4C; Chester City Cl. Econ. and Tourism Development Unit, Chester Tourism 2000 (copy in Chester Public Libr. ref. colln.), 23.
  • 18. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1961/2, pp. 152-3, 175; 1963/4, pp. 792, 899-900; 1964/5, p. 968.
  • 19. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Education: Chester College.