Local government and public services
Municipal buildings

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Victoria County History

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A T Thacker and C P Lewis (editors), J S Barrow, J D Herson, A H Lawes, P J Riden, M V J Seaborne

Year published

2005

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15-20

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'Local government and public services: Municipal buildings', A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 part 2: The City of Chester: Culture, Buildings, Institutions (2005), pp. 15-20. URL: http://british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=57302 Date accessed: 20 August 2014.


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MUNICIPAL BUILDINGS

Common Hall

The first common hall was probably built shortly before 1250, the last year in which the guild merchant met in the selds. (fn. 1) It certainly existed by 1337, (fn. 2) when it lay behind the selds, west of Bridge Street and just south of Moothall or Commonhall Lane, itself in existence as a thoroughfare by the 1290s. (fn. 3) Later a second means of access from Bridge Street was provided a little further south by Pierpoint Lane, which may have become the main approach. (fn. 4)

Almost certainly the common hall was built as a meeting place for the guild merchant under the presidency of the mayor. Later, perhaps only after 1300 when the mayor became chief judicial officer, it seems also to have housed the principal civic court, the portmote, and to have become known as the moot hall. (fn. 5) In 1394 the assize of wine and in the mid 15th century full sessions of the portmote and mayoral inquests were held there. It also became the location of civic assemblies: in 1398, for example, the city treasurers presented their accounts there, and by 1506, and probably long before, it was where civic elections were held. (fn. 6) It was later remembered as the setting for 'the pleas of the city, and the courts thereof, and meetings of the mayor and his brethren'. (fn. 7) Described as the 'common hall of pleas' in the early 16th century, (fn. 8) it was then a modest two-storeyed building, of which the principal chamber on the upper floor was c. 24 ft. long and 18 ft. wide. (fn. 9)

A common hall continued in use on the site until c. 1510, when the building was converted into a chapel for the newly founded fraternity and hospital of St. Ursula. (fn. 10) In 1547, when the fraternity was dissolved, the chapel reverted to the corporation and was sold to the mayor-elect. (fn. 11) By 1592 it had become the meeting house of the Smiths and Cutlers' company, in whose possession it remained until 1778. It served as a nonconformist chapel from 1768, was converted into a dwelling house in 1806, (fn. 12) and was demolished in 1874. (fn. 13)

It is not certain where the mayoral courts were held in the earlier 16th century. (fn. 14) A building designated the common hall was in use for sessions of the portmote in 1540, (fn. 15) and the former chapel of St. Nicholas at the south-west corner of the abbey precinct was perhaps already being used for that purpose when the corporation leased it from the abbey in 1539. (fn. 16) At all events, in 1546 the Assembly determined to reconstruct the chapel as a new common hall. The profits of a recent common bargain of 52 tons of iron were devoted to the work, and the mayor, an ironmonger, also contributed towards the cost. (fn. 17) The chapel was converted by the insertion of a floor, creating an upper chamber for use as a 'stately senate house' and a ground floor for the marketing and storage of wholesale goods. (fn. 18) In the upper chamber were held the meetings of quarter sessions, the fortnightly sessions of the portmote, and from 1551 many of the corporation's assemblies. In 1573 the thrice-weekly meetings of the sheriffs' court were transferred there from the Pentice. (fn. 19)

The new common hall was maintained by a keeper or clerk, generally a substantial citizen, who delegated the actual care of the building to an underkeeper. (fn. 20) It played a varied role in civic life. Foreign merchants were required to transact business there, and for a while it housed the King's school and the shambles for the country butchers. (fn. 21) In the early 17th century it also functioned as a playhouse. (fn. 22)

After an order of 1660 that the expenses for repair were to be borne by the keeper, the hall seems to have been neglected, and by 1686 its rebuilding was being considered. (fn. 23) In 1687, when it was allegedly 'ruinous and ready to fall down', the Assembly finally took action. A new lease was to be obtained from the dean and chapter, and money paid into the city treasury for the admission of freemen was to be appropriated to repair or rebuilding. (fn. 24) In 1692 it was decided to build a new common hall and a committee was appointed to prepare plans and estimates. (fn. 25) In 1694 the committee was authorized to sell the corporation's lease of the old building and in 1698 business was transferred to the new Exchange. (fn. 26) Though described as 'in great decay and unfit for use', the common hall survived and was thereafter put to various uses, including playhouse, music hall, cinema, and shop. (fn. 27)

Exchange

The Exchange, also known at first as the new common hall, was erected between 1695 and 1698 at the corporation's expense but with contributions from William III, Peter Shakerley (former governor of the castle and a Tory M.P. for Chester from 1698), Francis Gell (projector of a plan to improve the Dee naviga tion), and the estate of Thomas Cowper of Overleigh Hall in the southern liberties. It stood on the site of the old shambles in the wide middle section of Northgate Street almost opposite Abbey Gate. (fn. 28) The architect is unknown. (fn. 29) The building, of brick with stone quoins and elevated on pillars, was adorned in 1712 with a life-sized statue of Queen Anne 'curiously gilt and painted' placed over the main entrance in the south front. (fn. 30) The lower storey formed an open piazza with a coffee house, initially in the south-west corner, (fn. 31) but later moved to the north-east corner. (fn. 32) The main apartments were in the upper storey, which comprised a fine magnificent room styled the common hall of pleas', with to the south the portmote court, 'extremely ornamental, wainscotted with oak and adorned with figures of carved work', and to the north the sheriffs' court. (fn. 33) Those apartments later functioned as an assembly or banqueting room, a court room, and a council chamber. (fn. 34)


Figure 6: The Exchange, south side, c. 1850

In 1756 the Exchange, which had already been strengthened by the addition of 'several strong pillars', was showing signs of collapse. It was secured by enclosing the ground floor to house a row of shops, on which work continued until 1759, (fn. 35) and in 1801–2 was further adapted to plans by Thomas Harrison to provide for the court rooms and offices formerly in the Pentice. (fn. 36) In disrepair by 1839, it was destroyed by fire in 1862 (Fig. 7); most of the important contents including the city records and all except two large paintings were, however, saved. (fn. 37) The ruins of the Exchange were cleared after the fire and its site was taken into an enlarged Northgate Street. Until the new town hall opened on an adjoining site in 1869 the council met in the Chester Savings Bank in Grosvenor Street and its staff were housed in premises in Lower Bridge Street. (fn. 38)

Pentice

By 1288 the sheriffs held their court in a building called the Pentice, (fn. 39) known from later evidence to have been a lean-to attached to the southern side of St. Peter's church. (fn. 40) In the late Middle Ages the court room was on the first floor at Row level, above shops which abutted the church on both south and east sides. By the 1430s there were at least seven shops, (fn. 41) and in the early 16th century at least nine, four facing the High Cross to the south and five at the southern end of Northgate Street to the east. (fn. 42) Probably the arrangement was ancient, since shops are known to have abutted St. Peter's church from the 1230s. (fn. 43)

By the mid 15th century, as later, the Pentice probably consisted of two parts, the main, southwardfacing structure and a lesser northern section overlooking Northgate Street. In the 1460s there was a major reconstruction, probably of the larger southern range, which was levelled to the foundations and replaced with a new timber-framed building. (fn. 44) By then besides being the place where the sheriffs transacted their business, the Pentice was also used by the mayor, in particular to settle disputes between citizens and foreign merchants. (fn. 45)


Figure 7: The Exchange on fire, 1862

In 1497 the northern section was also reconstructed, and in 1573 there were further changes, comprising the heightening of the 'inner' and the reduction of the 'lesser' Pentice. (fn. 46) By then the structure had presumably assumed the form illustrated in the 17th century (Fig. 90, p. 156): a long timber-framed chamber, perhaps the inner Pentice, ran for much of the length of the south side of the church above a projecting undercroft, apparently built of stone. At the eastern end of the chamber was a higher building, of at least three storeys, perhaps the lesser or outer Pentice. At the western end was the timber-framed church house and rectory house of St. Peter's. (fn. 47) In the 17th century the Pentice was divided into three areas: an outer Pentice, 'open in day time for all persons to come into', a middle Pentice, 'where mayor and aldermen sit', and a further Pentice in two parts, one 'where the city officers are', the other, the inner Pentice, 'a place for private consultation'. (fn. 48)

The Pentice apparently continued to be the meeting place of the sheriffs' court until the mid 16th century. (fn. 49) After the abandonment of the old common hall c. 1510 it became a more important location for the administration of municipal business, and by the 1530s it was the main, perhaps only, meeting place of the Assembly. (fn. 50) With the adoption of St. Nicholas's chapel as a new common hall the importance of the Pentice diminished. From 1550 the Assembly often met in the new building, (fn. 51) and in 1573 the shrieval court was also transferred there. (fn. 52) Increasingly the Pentice came under the control of the mayor. By the early 16th century he paid the salary and supplied the gown of the yeoman of the Pentice, (fn. 53) and in the late 16th century he was said to remain there most of the day transacting business. Besides the mayoral apartment it then included an adjoining room occupied by the mayor's clerks, in which judicial business was recorded and recognizances were taken. As later it probably housed the city records, (fn. 54) and by then too it had become the main venue for civic banquets. (fn. 55) In the late 16th and the 17th century it was the scene of other entertainments, including the 'shott', a drinking ceremony held each Sunday before the mayor and corporation processed to the civic service in St. Oswald's church and on other special occasions. (fn. 56) Gaming also took place there, and in the earlier 16th century the profits so made contributed significantly to the keeper's salary. (fn. 57)

In 1704 the south side of the Pentice was rebuilt, the late medieval timber-framing being replaced by a brick front with a stone balustrade and sash windows. (fn. 58) The new structure continued to incorporate shops at street level. (fn. 59) The northern section of the older building still survived and was used as a repository for the city's records, charters, and seal. Though no courts held formal sessions in the Pentice, it was the scene of a weekly public meeting of the mayor and J.P.s to hear complaints, make settlements, and redress grievances, and was also used for meetings of, and public entertainments given by, the magistrates. (fn. 60) Guests included the lord lieutenant of Ireland, who was feasted there on several occasions in the earlier 18th century. (fn. 61) After the rebuilding, however, no public balls were allowed without a special order of the Assembly. (fn. 62)

In 1781 the Pentice was reduced in size and partly reconstructed to designs by the local architect Joseph Turner. The northern or back Pentice was taken down to permit the widening of the southern end of Northgate Street, and the records kept there were transferred to a new record room at the west end of the inner Pentice adjoining the town clerk's office. (fn. 63) In 1800 the record room was moved to the Exchange, (fn. 64) and in 1803 the rest of the Pentice and St. Peter's rectory house were taken down to improve Eastgate Street. (fn. 65)

Town Hall

After the Exchange fire of 1862 a competition was organized for a new town hall; entrants were to submit designs which were 'substantial and economical' and in accordance with 'the general features of this ancient city', costing no more than £16,000. Some thirty designs were submitted in 1864 and the competition was won by the Belfast architect W. H. Lynn. (fn. 66)

The site chosen, occupied mainly by inns and alehouses, lay west of the Exchange, bounded by Princess Street to the north, the Saracen's Head Inn to the south, and the road to the new market hall to the rear. (fn. 67) Work began in 1865 and lasted some four years, prolonged by the increasingly strained relations between corporation and architect. The principal difficulty was that Lynn's scheme cost more than £16,000, and although the committee grudgingly accepted a tender of £21,610, it continued to consider various modifications. Nevertheless, in 1869 the new town hall was completed. Built of red and grey sandstone in a style best described as Venetian Gothic, its main facade was symmetrical, of ten bays with a central tower. The interior included a large assembly room, a court room for the city quarter sessions, and on the first floor, reached by a fine staircase rising in an apse, a council chamber, mayoral suite, and committee room. The basement was occupied by police offices, prison cells, and kitchens. By 1881 the principal floor also included a muniment room. (fn. 68)

Upon the completion of the town hall the corporation purchased the old butter market and, after some argument, the then vacant and derelict Market and Saracen Inns to the south of the town hall. The butter market was soon demolished to provide a dignified open space in front of the new building, but the inns did not finally disappear until 1882 when they were replaced by an extension, adorned with a suitable frontage by Lynn, linking market and town halls. (fn. 69) The council chamber was rebuilt to designs by T. M. Lockwood in 1897 after it had been seriously damaged by fire. (fn. 70) In 1967, with the demolition of the market hall and extension, there were considerable changes. The city police removed to new buildings and part of their premises was used to house the city's record office, thereby moved into close proximity to the strongroom constructed in the basement in 1935. (fn. 71) In 1973 most council departments moved to new offices in the Forum, recently built on the site of the market hall. (fn. 72)


Figure 8: Town Hall, c. 1880

In 1995 the furnishings included eight late 16thcentury painted boards depicting the Norman earls and Edric Sylvestris (Eadric the wild), supposed ancestor of the Sylvesters of Storeton in Wirral. Formerly in the possession of the Stanleys of Hooton, they were purchased by Sir Thomas Gibbons Frost and presented by him to the city during his mayoralty in 1883. (fn. 73) The civic paintings also included a Diana by the 17th-century Dutch artist Jan van Oost, and portraits of George III, several members of the Grosvenor family (two by Benjamin West), and various recorders and mayors of the city. The mayoress's parlour contained nine portraits of the founders of local charities painted on wainscotting rescued from the council chamber of the Exchange. (fn. 74) The regalia included a civic sword dating from the 15th century, a mace given by Charles Stanley, earl of Derby, during his mayoralty (1668–9), and a silver oar dating from 1719–20, symbolizing the mayor's authority as admiral of the Dee. The corporation began to accumulate silver plate in the early 16th century, its first acquisition being a goblet given by Hugh Aldersey, mayor 1528–9. In 1602, when a detailed inventory was drawn up, it possessed c. 28 items. By the outbreak of the Civil War there were considerably more. With the exception of the sword, however, all the ancient plate disappeared during the siege of Chester and the Interregnum. The corporation started to acquire plate again in the 1670s, and in 1995 possessed a fine collection dating from the late 17th century to the 20th. (fn. 75)


Figure 9: High Cross

Crosses

The High Cross, a focal point of the city markets and set up by the later 14th century, stood next to the entrance to St. Peter's church on a square pedestal with three or four steps. A new cross was made in 1476 and comprised an octagonal pillar surmounted by a head carved with images, 'tabernacle work', and a crucifix. Freshly gilded in 1603, it was pulled down after the fall of Chester in 1646. (fn. 76) After long remaining in private hands the surviving fragments from the head and base were erected with a new shaft in the Roman Garden near the Newgate in 1949 and restored to their original location at the Cross in 1975. (fn. 77)

Crosses were set up in other public spaces within the liberties. At Hough Green there was a hexagonal pillar surmounted by images of the Crucifixion and Virgin and Child, destroyed in 1646. A stone cross by a public way outside the Northgate was pulled down in 1584. Other crosses stood on the Roodee and by the road from the Bars to Spital Boughton, as well as in various ecclesiastical precincts. (fn. 78)

Footnotes

1 C.C.A.L.S., ZCR 469/542, f. 14v.
2 B.L. Add. Ch. 50142.
3 Ibid. Add. Ch. 50058.
4 Morris, Chester, 256; J.C.A.S. xxxii. 119.
5 B.L. Add. Ch. 50152.
6 C.C.A.L.S., ZCH 32; ZMB 1, ff. 16v., 41v.; ZMB 4, f. 7v.; ZMB 5, f. 174v.; ZMB 6, f. 35; ZSB 3, ff. 19, 60, 63, 67v., 91v., 97v.; ZSB 4, ff. 10, 30, 48, 51, 72v., 90, 95v., 97, 110, 118v. Thanks are offered to Dr. Jane Laughton for the references.
7 King's Vale Royal, [ii], 24.
8 P.N. Ches. v (1:i), 31.
9 J.C.A.S. xx. 34, 60; xxii. 118-20.
10 Ibid. xxii. 118–20; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 184; C.C.A.L.S., ZCHD 2/11.
11 J.C.A.S. xxxii. 123–4; C.C.A.L.S., ZCHD 2/11.
12 Lysons, Ches. 582; J.C.A.S. xx. 56–67; xxxii. 123—4; below, Protestant Nonconformity: Early Presbyterians and Independents.
13 J.C.A.S. xx. 67.
14 There is a hiatus in the portmote records, only three rolls surviving from 1507–50: C.C.A.L.S., ZMR 110–12.
15 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 48 and v.
16 3 Sheaf, xxx, p. 2; cf. below, Medieval Parish Churches: St. Oswald.
17 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 76v.; Morris, Chester, 398–9.
18 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, ff. 77, 79; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603–42, p. xxv.
19 King's Vale Royal, [ii], 39; Morris, Chester, 202–3; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603–42, 79; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, ff. 80 and v., 83, 85, 89v., 91v.
20 Morris, Chester, 203–4; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, ff. 106v., 133, 184v.; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603–42, 21, 42n., 79, 137, 150.
21 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, ff. 77, 79, 211, 219; Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603–42, 2, 79, 203; Morris, Chester, 203, 297; V.C.H. Ches. iii. 230.
22 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 331v.; ZQSF 51, nos. 55, 57–8.
23 Ibid. ZAB 2, f. 125v.; ZAB 3, f. 9.
24 Ibid. ZAB 3, f. 13.
25 Ibid. ff. 34v., 35v.
26 Ibid. ff. 46 and v., 67v.
27 Below, Places of Entertainment: Theatres and Music Halls, Cinemas.
28 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 3, ff. 13, 35v.–36, 46 and v., 48v.–49v., 54v.–59, 62–64v., 67v.–68, 74, 83–4, 85v.–86, 113; ZAF 47a/4; ZML 6/195; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1694–5, 461, 495; Cal. Treas. Bks. 1693–6, 1350; Lavaux, Plan of Chester.
29 Unlikely to have been Nicholas Hawksmoor, whose sketch for the embellishment of the 'townhouse' at Chester seems to date from after 1701: Wilton House, MS. F 6/27; cf. below, Cathedral and Close: Cathedral Church from 1541. Thanks are due to Mr. R. B. Hewlings for supplying a copy of the drawing and for comments on Hawksmoor's involvement.
30 C.C.A.L.S., DCC 16/120, pp. 46–7.
31 Ibid. ZAB 3, f. 94; cf. ZAB 4, ff. 48, 143, 175v.–176, 305, 311; Diary of Henry Prescott, i. 2, 16, 21, 30–4.
32 J.C.A.S. [1st ser.], ii. 102–3.
33 C.C.A.L.S., DCC 16/120, pp. 46–7.
34 Lysons, Ches. 382; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 363; Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 186; C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 3, f. 268; ZAB 5, pp. 120, 239.
35 C.C.A.L.S., DCC 16/120, pp. 46–7; ibid. ZAB 4, f. 168; ZTAV 2/42–3; Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 185–6.
36 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 5, pp. 148–9, 158, 160, 182.
37 Ibid. ZAB 6, p. 352; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 363–4.
38 H.T. Dutton, Chester Town Hall and its Treasures, 6.
39 Cal. Ches. Ct. R. p. 154; cf. B.L. Harl. MS. 2162, f. 58; C.C.A.L.S., ZSR 5.
40 King's Vale Royal, [i], 39; B.L. Harl. MS. 2073, f. 88; Morris, Chester, 200.
41 B.L., Harl. MS. 2158, ff. 31v., 32v.–34v.
42 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 54; cf. B.L. Harl. MS. 2158, f. 40 and v.
43 B.L. Add. Ch. 49975; J.C.A.S. n.s. x. 17.
44 B.L. Harl. MS. 2158, ff. 49v.–50.
45 C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 6, f. 36 and v.
46 B.L. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 32; Morris, Chester, 200.
47 B.L. Harl. MS. 2073, f. 88; below, Medieval Parish Churches: St. Peter.
48 B.L. Harl. MS. 7568, f. 136v.
49 e.g. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 48 and v.
50 Ibid. ff. 48, 61, 62, 65v., 67 and v., 69v., 73v., 74v.
51 Ibid. ff. 76v.–77v., 78v., 82v., 86 and v.
52 Morris, Chester, 200, 203; B.L. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 32.
53 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 45v.
54 King's Vale Royal, [i], 39.
55 e. g. C. C. A. L. S., ZAB 1, ff. 253- 336; B. L. Harl. MS. 2125, f. 42; Harl. MS. 2133, f. 47v.; Harl. MS. 2150, f. 186 and v.; Add. MS. 11335, ff. 23v.–24; Add. MS. 29780, ff. 63–4, 161–2; REED: Chester, 139, 194, 259, 304–7.
56 Tudor Chester, ed. A. M. Kennett, 20; C.C.A.L.S., ZTAR 1/18.
57 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 91v.
58 Ibid. ZAB 3, ff. 126, 128.
59 Ibid. f. 200 and v.; ZAB 4, ff. 51, 58v., 68v., 86, 225v.
60 Ibid. DCC 16/120, pp. 47–8.
61 Ibid. ZAB 3, ff. 152, 236, 264, 278v.; ZAB 4, ff. 2v., 82, 113.
62 Ibid. ZAB 3, f. 128.
63 Ibid. ZAB 4, ff. 339v.; 340v.; Lysons, Ches. 582.
64 C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 5, f. 149.
65 Ibid. ff. 102v.–103; Lysons, Ches. 582 (gives date wrongly as 1805); Hemingway, Hist. Chester, i. 407–8; J.C.A.S. [1st ser.], iii. 375–6.
66 C.C.A.L.S., ZCCF 7; R. C. Gwilliam, 'Bldg. of Present Town Hall, Chester', J.C.A.S. xlvii. 21–3; Chester Town Hall (Chester, 1979).
67 Para. based on C.C.A.L.S., ZDS 5/3; ZDS 6/1–17; ZCCF 7; J.C.A.S. [1st ser.], ii. 100–3; N.S. xlvii. 23–32.
68 J.C.A.S. lxii. 110–12.
69 C.C.A.L.S., ZDS 5/16–30.
70 Ibid. ZDS 6/18–35; Chester City Cl. Mins. 1896/7, 230–2; 1905/6, 848–9; J.C.A.S. lxii. 108.
71 C.C.A.L.S., ZDS 6/36; J.C.A.S. lxii. 110–12.
72 M. Lewis and S. Harrison, From Moothall to Townhall, 18; Official Opening of the New Cl. Offices at the Forum (pamphlet at C.H.H.).
73 Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 186–7.
74 Hemingway, Hist. Chester, ii. 186–90. A tenth portrait described by Hemingway appears to have been lost.
75 C. N. Moore, Silver of City of Chester.
76 B.L. Harl. MS. 1944, f. 91; Harl. MS. 2073, f. 104; Harl. MS. 7568, f. 130; C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 6, f. 33v.
77 Hemingway, Hist. Chester, i. 404; Harris, Chester, 41.
78 B.L. Harl. MS. 2073, ff. 98–9; Harl. MS. 7568, f. 130; Cal. Ches. Ct. R. pp. 162–3; P.N. Ches. v (1:i), 33, 62–3, 67, 78; below, Collegiate Church of St. John; Sites and Remains of Medieval Religious Houses: Benedictine Nunnery.