The City Club

The Club

There are only twelve clubs in existence in this country (excluding Scotland) whose foundation dates back earlier than the Chester City Club. Of these, eight are in London, two in Liverpool, one in Macclesfield and Manchester respectively. But, of the twelve, only three in London and the Chester City Club occupy their original premises.

Stimulated perhaps by the example of their near neighbour of Liverpool, where news rooms had been established several years previously, a group of Chester citizens got together and considered ways and means of establishing similar premises in Chester, and in October 1806, it was decided, provided sufficient support was forthcoming, to erect a news room to be called the “Commercial Coffee Room”. The site contemplated was that on which stood the Three Crowns public house, the Sun Tavern and some small shops, near to St. Peter’s Church at the South end of Shoemaker’s Row in Northgate Street.

On the 4th November, 1806, a meeting was held with Alderman Doctor Larden in the chair and subscriptions of thirty guineas were invited from “respectable inhabitants of the City”. The original response to this invitation was evidently insufficient to carry on with the somewhat ambitious project, as some weeks later a public advertisement appeared in the Chester newspapers appealing for an increase in the number of Subscribers. Apparently this had the desired effect.

The joint owners of the site, Chester Corporation and Earl Grosvenor, were thereupon approached and after some little delay the site was acquired.

The petitions to “the Mayor, Aldermen and Common Council of the City” and to Earl Grosvenor mention that the subscribers to the Public Library had intended to erect a building on the same plot of ground but the project had been abandoned. This abortive intention was mentioned probably to illustrate the general need for a place of intellectual recreation in the City.

Consequent upon the success of the petitions Mr. Timothy Whitley (agent for Lord Grosvenor) and Mr. Thomas Rathbone, Mayor, were proposed and admitted as members-to-be of the new institution. The Secretary writes, “attended upon Mr. Rathbone and Mr. Whitley to inform them of their having been admitted, which they declined to become for the present”.

On January 13th, 1807, the first general meeting of the Subscribers was held.Nine trustees were appointed and an architect was commissioned to draw up plans. Shortly afterwards the old buildings on the site were demolished and on May 1st, 1807, the foundation stone of The Commercial News Rooms was laid by one George French. A brass plate with the follwoing inscription is said to have been placed underneath the foundation stone:- “This building was erected by Subscription for the accomodation and convenience of the inhabitants of this City as a Commercial News Room in the fourty-seventh year of His Majesty George the Third”.

Silver and other coins in a basin were also fixed under the first stone, at a cost of 7/6d. This must have been a thirsty job, for the accounts contain a further item of “Liquor for workmen £5 3s. 4d.”.
1807. A year which saw the abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire.
Incidently this gave rise to considerable apprehension regarding the future of the Port of Liverpool, which had been extensively concerned in the Trade, but all fears on this score proved to be unfounded.
A year of outstanding international events, and the Napoleonic War in full
blast.

A year in which oil and candles were the only illuminants of Chester; when the Rows (and possibly the streets as well) were, in all probability, infested after dark by footpads, and wives had good cause for alarm if husbands tarried too long at the Three Crowns, or some other hostelry. The day of the “Club” had not yet arrived.
Little difficulty seems to have been experienced in getting rid of the unfortunate occupiers of the properties on the site. The earliest cash account shews that the two shopkeepers were each paid five guineas to quit their premises and one good lady vacated her dwelling-house on receipt of one guinea.
The Sun Tavern on the site was replaced by a new tavern named the “Commercial Inn” destined later to become a thorn in the flesh of the News Room proprietors.
By September it was reported that everything was in a “state of forwardness”.
On the twenty-third of June 1808 the premises were completed; a Ball and Supper were held to commemorate the event and, on the following day, the News Room was opened for the first time.
The building and equipping of the News Room and Commercial Inn was a costly business, considerably more so than was originally estimated. The total outgoings for the News Room was £2,711 and for the Commercial Inn £1,377. The architect’s fee was 100 guineas.
The earliest Minutes record that tenders for the work were issued to individual tradesmen, which was the general custom of the time. Among the items so recorded we find:-

Brickwick W. Boden £ 350.00
Stonework R. Jones £ 250.00
Carpenter G. Boden £ 690.00
Plasterer J. Rowland £ 150.00
Painter R. Morris £ 25.00
Mantelpieces F. Webster £ 31.00
Chairs and Tables J. Gardner £ 82.00

The News Room was illuminated by a 4-burner lamp, specially made, at a cost of £47.

The buildings were insured for £1,800 and £700 respectively. The selection of the insurance agent was determined by drawing lots, presumably between the gentlemen tendering for the agency.
Local comment was very favourable towards the new Commercial Buildings.One cannot do better than quote from T. Poole’s “History of Chester”, published in Chester in 1815:-

“The Commercial News Room and Buildings are situated in Northgate Street, adjoining St. Peter’s Church. The beautiful and highly finished stone front is of the Ionic order, after the designs of Mr. Harrison; on a line with the street are two very excellent shops, above is the News Room, forty-five feet long by twenty-six wide, with a fire place at each end; it is a remarkably light and pleasant room; all the best London, and many of the Provincial newspapers, are taken, also the various Magazines, Reviews, Journals, Lists and Public Records. Of this establishment there are one hundred Proprietors; no annual subscribers are admitted, but the utmost facility is given to the introduction of strangers by proprietors. According to the original rules, the Right Hon. Robert Earl Grosvenor, and the Mayor of Chester, are honorary members, and have the privilege of introducing as many strangers as they think proper. Also the Members of Parliament for the City and County; the General commanding the district, and his staff, have full liberty of frequenting the room. The entrance to it is from the west, with the committee-room on one side, and on the other the apartment where the papers are filed, and the keeper of the room attends. Above these two and the entrance, is a very excellent room, let to the Public, or City Library. On the opposite side of the court is the Commercial Tavern, also belonging to the Proprietors of the News Room &c.

The City Library consists of a very large and choice selection of books, and is now, as above stated, contained in an excellent room of the Commercial Buildings, having been removed there from its former situation in Whitefriar’s Street, in the spring of 1815. The number of proprietors is at present a hundred and twenty, many of them are also proprietors of the News Room &c. underneath, but the two establishments are kept perfectly distinct, and are managed by different committees”.

It is interesting to note that the same passage, in identical words, appears in Hemmingway’s “History of Chester” published in 1831.

The late C. J. Vincent also quotes the identical passage (relating only to the Commercial News Room Buildings) in his booklet on the Chester City Club and ascribes the authorship to “a History of Chester published in 1815 under the initials L.M.B .P.”

THE SITE

Excavations by archaeologists have established beyond doubt that the Principia or Praetorium-the administrative centre of the Headquarters of the XXth Roman Legion in Chester during the first four centuries A.D.-occupied the site on which now stands St. Peter’s Church and the Chester City Club (and its adjoining property).

How regrettable that excavations have not yielded copies of Legion orders, or the like, issued by any of the Garrison Commanders ! One speculates also whether any of the Roman wives had reason to complain of the late detention of their husbands at the Praetorium!

Three and a half centuries of ceaseless watch, and government of the British! Needs must go back to Henry the Eighth to cover a similar period.

And then followed the greater gap between the Roman evacuation and the Renaissance of Britain five centuries later under Alfred the Great. How was this gap filled in Chester? What happened to the vast Roman buildings covering the major part of the City within the walls in that tremendous interregnum?

It is claimed that about A.D. 907, after a short Danish occupation of the City, the Saxons built a church, subsequently dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul by the Normans, on part of the site of the old Roman Headquarters.

Very little else is known of Chester’s history in that time. Vague conjectures and curious speculation are useless. We can only feel a great pride in our occupation of a site teeming with history, and in the knowledge that the period of the Club’s occupation approaches nearly half that of the Roman occupation.

A few words about our nearest neighbour-St. Peter’s Church (now celebrate its 1050th anniversary) and its churchyard-would be appropriate here.

St. Peter’s must be unique in its close association with licensed premises, so close in fact that the Victoria Hotel, formerly known as the Fox and Goose and reputed to be of great antiquity, is actually built on to the Church. Add to this the Commercial Hotel and City Club (with the Deva Hotel in the immediate vicinity) and one has the extraordinary situation of four licensed premises on the perimeter of a churchyard. A churchyard partly paved with grave stones, the lettering on which is, in a few cases, still faintly visible, but which will soon be completely obliterated by the ceaseless tread of passengers through the churchyard. The church is one of three Chester churches men¬tioned in the Domesday Survey, where it is referred to as St. Peter’s “Templum”. At one time the Mayor visited both St. Werburgh’s (now the Cathedral) and St Peter’s in State.
In “The Cheshire Sheaf” published in the “Chester Courant” of 6th December, 1944, appears some extracts from St. Peter’s Church accounts and some Notes relating to the Churchyard. It is stated that “in the early years of the nineteenth century the Churchyard appears to have been used as a dumping ground. In 1823 a large fire occurred in the neighbourhood of Eastgate Street, and S1. Peter’s Churchyard and other vacant spaces in the City were subsequently crowded with heaps of goods of all descriptions that had been salvaged from the fire”. What the News Room proprietors said about this encroachment upon their property is not recorded in the Minutes!

The Notes referred to continue with the statement that “in 1850 the City Surveyor called upon the Churchwarden of St. Peter’s to immediately repair the flagging of the passage between the Church and the Commercial News Room and directed attention to the filthy state of the passage. The Vestry of St. Peter’s contended that they were not liable but the result of the correspondence is not disclosed”. Nor is there any mention in the News Room minutes of this nuisance or of its abatement.
Although the Church accounts for 1633-4 refer to the “buringe of 34 heads and dead menes bonse in the churchyard” it is doubtful whether the churchyard itself was ever a consecrated burial ground.
Objections have been voiced in some quarters to the use of “St. Peter’s Churchyard” as the postal address of the Chester City Club (possibly on the grounds of the address being premature!). It would seem rather that the Club should cling with all its power to the retention of an address with such historic associations.

THE BUILDING AND THE ARCHITECT

As has been said by contemporary commentators, “the beautiful and highly finished stone front is of the Ionic order”, and the monolithic Storeton stone columns are unique.
The ground floor was originally designed as two shops, and the upper floors contained the news (i.e. reading) room and the other rooms at the proprietors’ disposal. The news room was noteworthy for its barrel roof and apsed end, and was decorated for the most part in the Regency style of the period.
What impelled the architect to erect a building of classic design (lovely as it is) in a city so very English in character? Was it his intention to introduce something violently antagonistic in appearance, in juxtaposition to the city’s half timbered buildings, in order that it might achieve the greater notice by its incongruity? Whatever the motive the result was clearly accepted as a noble .addition to the City’s architecture.

Thomas Harrison, the architect, was born in 1744 at Richmond Yorks, the son of a carpenter. He was sent to Rome to study there with Cuitt, which may account for his predeliction for the classical style evinced in so many of his buildings. Some of his most ambitious designs for the Pope and Magdalen Col¬lege were never carried out. It is believed however that his drawings for Mag¬dalen College are preserved at the College.

At the time of his engagment to build the News Room he was already famous on the Continent, as well as throughout England. Hemmingway, in his history of Chester maintains that it was owing to the representations of this Thomas Harrison that the Elgin Marbles were brought to England.

Some of his principal works in Britain were:-

  • The Lune Bridge, Lancaster-the first bridge in England with level surface.
  • Rebuilding of Lancaster Castle for its present uses.
  • Chester Castle, Assize Courts etc., 1793-1820, built in Greek Doric style, entirely of stone with no iron or timber. (This work was won in competition).
  • Grosvenor Bridge, Chester-at the time the largest span in Europe–built in 1827.
  • Chester Northgate-1808-1810.
  • Skerton Bridge, Lancaster.
  • Derby Bridge (over Derwent).
  • Whittington Church Nave, Salop.
  • Theatre Royal, Portico Library and Royal Exchange, Manchester.
  • St. Nicholas Church Spire, Liverpool.
  • Athenaeum, Liverpool.
  • Lyceum, Liverpool.
  • Trinity Church Spire, Chester.
  • Lord Hill Column, Shrewsbury.
  • Anglesey Column, Plas Newydd.
  • Magdalen College, Oxford-completion of new buildings.
  • Tabley House, Knutsford.
  • Obelisk on Moel Fammau to commemorate the Jubilee of George Ill.
  • A house in Chester for Mr. Potts-there is a drawing of his own Chester house in the British Museum. His nephew, John, was in practice as an architect in Chester in the 1860′s.

It is recorded that Richard Cumberland, an Alderman of London, on a visit to Chester Castle with Harrison stated:-”I reserve the number of England’s architects, as a separate class, that I may for once break in upon the general rules by indulging myself in a prediction (upon which I am willing to stake all my credit with the reader) that when the modest genius of Harrison shall be brought into fuller display, England will have to boast a native architect which the brightest age of Greece would glory to acknowledge”.

Thomas Harrison was shy, reserved and abrupt and never a public figure, but his friends regarded him as almost, if not quite the first architectural genius in the country. He died at Castle Field, Chester, on March 29th, 1829, aged 85, and was buried in St. Bridget’s Churchyard.

There is a bust of Harrison in the Lyceum, Liverpool, copies of which are with the R.LB.A. and Chester Museum.
The perspicacity and boldness of the News-Room founders in obtaining the services of such an eminent architect was completely justified by events. And we too of the present generation, are grateful for it.
A noble fabric as befits the place on which the Legion builded, lived and died, a thing of dignity and Grecian grace, fashioned no doubt with much artistic pride; and yet, when giving it a Grecian face, did he, who learned his art in Rome, decide what fun if all the Harrys, Toms and Dicks of Chester’s Legion howled across the Styx.

Reproduced from Chester City Club An Historical Sketch by Frank Maddocks 2nd edition