A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 2, the City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2005.
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Estimating the size of Chester's population at the time of the Norman Conquest is no easier than for other large towns. In 1066 there were reportedly 487 houses there, of which 431 paid tax and 56 belonged to the bishop of Lichfield. In 1086 there were said to be 205 fewer, a total of 282. The 21 belonging to St. John's and St. Werburgh's minsters (fn. 1) were probably included in those totals. (fn. 2) An average household size of five would give a population in 1066 of 2,435 and in 1086 of 1,410. Those totals seem too low. (fn. 3) There were almost certainly other houses exempt from tax, especially in 1086, when the reduction by 205 since the pre-Conquest number probably represented a tax concession rather than an actual count of occupied dwellings. A more realistic estimate of the population would be up to 3,000 in 1066 and still 2,000 or more in 1086.
The six small rural manors south of the river at Handbridge, Overleigh, and Netherleigh had 13 tenants in 1086, perhaps c. 65 people in all, and there were two oxmen in 'Redcliff' besides the bishop's tenants enumerated with the urban population. (fn. 4)
The county's palatine status, exclusion from parliamentary representation, and consequent exemption from national taxes make it particularly difficult to estimate Chester's population later in the Middle Ages. (fn. 5) If the city was about the same size as Shrewsbury (as it was in both 1086 and the early modern period), its population may have been 4,000 or fewer in 1377, after the ravages of the Black Death, (fn. 6) though a different means of calculation has placed it as high as 4,600 or more. (fn. 7)
The only medieval date for which a more informed estimate can be made is 1463, when a total of 480 'inhabitants' (meaning male householders) paid a tax levied by the mayor. The figure included residents of Handbridge and Foregate Street as well as people living within the walls, but excluded several other categories. (fn. 8) Of those excluded, the abbot's tenants outside the Northgate can be estimated at 35 (as in the 1390s), (fn. 9) the nuns' tenants at 75 (as, plausibly, in 1526), (fn. 10) the householders of Gloverstone at 20, (fn. 11) the secular clergy at 70, (fn. 12) and the staff of the castle garrison at 10. (fn. 13) Poor households, exempt from the tax, may have constituted a fifth of the total. (fn. 14) There were thus in the order of 740 households in all, amounting to perhaps 3,000 people if the average household size was four, or 3,700 if it was five. In addition there were some 70 monks, nuns, and friars, (fn. 15) perhaps with servants not already reckoned.
Epidemics swept Chester regularly in the 16th century and probably ensured that the population fluctuated markedly over time. The more serious episodes were those of 1506–7 (when 'sweating sickness' killed 91 householders in three days), 1517–18 (described as 'plague'), 1528 (when 41 died in one day and night of the 'sweat'), 1537, 1550, and 1556 (all 'plague'), 1558 ('Stubb's bile'), 1563 (plague again), and 1574. (fn. 16)
Chester's population in the 1520s may have been, like Shrewsbury's, around 3,500. (fn. 17) From the 1560s much more reliable data are available. (fn. 18) By 1563 the number of people had risen to at least 4,700, continuing to grow quickly and peaking at over 6,000 in 1586 before falling almost as sharply to c. 5,200 in 1603. The double epidemic of 1603–5 killed almost 2,000 people but the population had recovered by 1610 to its level of before the plague, and grew vigorously to reach 6,500 before 1630 and over 7,500 in 1644. At the end of the siege in 1646 there were still 6,000 civilians in Chester. Recovery from the plague of 1647–8, which killed over 2,000, was slow to start but the population reached c. 6,750 in 1660, over 7,000 in 1664, and over 8,000 in 1725.
Probably the population was growing steadily throughout the 18th century, and certainly by 1800 it had embarked upon a period of sustained growth. In 1774 Dr. John Haygarth counted 14,713 people in 3,428 families in the nine city parishes and the cathedral precinct, but it is not clear whether his figures covered only the town, or also included some or all of the rural townships which belonged to some of the Chester parishes. (fn. 19) The count of 15,174 for the 1801 census was for the town alone, but had evident (if minor) defects in the omission of the cathedral precincts and in a figure for St. Mary's parish which had to be adjusted later. Its figure of 3,377 for St. Oswald's parish seems too low in comparison with Haygarth's of 4,027. (fn. 20) Smaller falls in the numbers of residents in St. Olave's, St. Mary's, and St. Peter's parishes between the two dates can be explained by wealthier families' abandoning the city centre, especially Lower Bridge Street, in the later 18th century, (fn. 21) but the discrepancy for St. Oswald's cannot be easily explained unless Haygarth had included the inhabitants of its rural townships.
The number of people living within the liberties of Chester rose to 16,140 in 1811, (fn. 22) sharply to 19,949 in 1821, and more steadily to 21,344 in 1831 and 23,115 in 1841, part of the last increase being due to the boundary extension into Great Boughton effected in 1835. (fn. 23) The growth in population over the next thirty years was strikingly more rapid, to 27,766 in 1851, 31,110 in 1861, and 35,257 in 1871, representing more than a doubling of the number of people in the sixty years since 1811. It then almost levelled off, adding less than 20 per cent more in the next sixty years: 37,208 in 1881, 37,354 in 1891, 38,539 in 1901, 39,252 in 1911, 40,965 in 1921, and 41,668 in 1931. (fn. 24)
At the same time, however, the suburban areas outside the city boundary were growing more rapidly than the municipal borough (from 1889 county borough) itself, even though only relatively small numbers were involved. Hoole township contained only 177 people in 1801 but there were c. 5,900 in the smaller Hoole urban district during the period 1911–31; Upton had 173 in 1801 and 2,667 in 1931; Newton 141 and 2,581 at the same dates; Great Boughton 544 and 2,690; (fn. 25) the whole of Saltney (Flints.) 156 in 1821 and the built-up civil parish of East Saltney 2,642 in 1931. (fn. 26) Even Blacon, not seriously affected by new building before the Second World War, had a population of 788 in 1931. (fn. 27) Not all the inhabitants of those townships lived in suburban Chester, but the total urban population clearly exceeded 55,000 by 1931, and another estimate for the same date, covering a wider urban fringe, put it at 61,500, (fn. 28) compared with fewer than 42,000 within the county borough alone.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 people continued to live in suburban Chester but outside the town's local government boundary until the county borough was abolished in 1974. The absorption of Blacon, part of Newton, and other areas into the city in 1936 transferred a population of well over 4,000 to Chester, helping to take its figure to 48,360 in 1951, when Hoole U.D. (including the rest of Newton) contained 9,058, Upton 6,343, Great Boughton 3,165, and East Saltney 4,144. (fn. 29) Most of Hoole was added to Chester in 1954, taking the county borough to 60,006 in 1961 and 62,919 in 1971. East Saltney was static in that period at c. 4,100 but Upton continued to grow to 7,708 in 1961 and 10,441 in 1971, when it was exceptionally populous for a mere civil parish, while Great Boughton had 4,673 people in 1961 and 7,832 in 1971. The county borough and those three satellite civil parishes together with the small civil parish of Bache included 71,138 people in 1951, 76,431 in 1961, and 85,447 in 1971. A wider definition of the urban area made in the 1960s put Chester's population at 78,000 in 1951 and 84,300 in 1961. (fn. 30)
From 1971 Chester's population, however defined, was falling. The 15 urban wards of the new Chester district created in 1974 had housed 82,678 people in 1971 (of whom 19,759 were outside the county borough boundary), falling to 77, 384 in 1981, and 75, 984 in 1991. The last two figures were for those people in Chester on census night; the population normally resident was only 75, 422 in 1981 and 75,458 in 1991. (fn. 31) All those figures excluded East Saltney, which contained 4,455 people in 1981 and 4,530 in 1991. (fn. 32) The continuously built-up 'Chester urban area' (as defined for Census purposes), which extended further into Wales to include West Saltney and Broughton as well as the Cheshire villages of Moston, Rowton, Christleton, and Waverton, had 89,848 inhabitants in 1981 and 89,628 in 1991. (fn. 33)