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THE PORT OF CHESTER

 
The Chronicle of Chester The 200 Years 1775 - 1975 By Herbert Hughes ( Macdonald and Jane's London )

In the fourteenth century the Watergate Quay had an accession by the construction of the Water Tower, at a cost of £100, extending out from the City Wall to the river. But the silting of the estuary went on, and although the Port of Chester held jurisdiction over the entire coast from Barmouth to Solway, the navigation, civil and military - armies and navies as well as merchandise moved in and out and were steadily impeded by the shifting sand, the 'loose, light, white, skittering sand constantly drifted by wind and tide into the channel. Presently ships could not reach Chester at all and the merchandise of the Port, including the valuable import of Gascony wines, had to be landed lower down at anchorages at Shotwick, Neston, Dawpool, the Redbank at Caldy, and rowed ashore from the Hyle Lake at Hoylake. The Merchant Venturers of Chester obtained an Act of Parliament in 1733 authorising a 'New Cut' under the supervision of the marine engineer Nathaniel Kinderley. There were doubts from the start whether this project of narrowing, deepening and confining the channel within artificial boundaries over a length of some ten miles from Chester down to Connah's Quay on the Welsh side was the right solution to the silting. There were particular fears that the 'natural flow' at Hoylake would be irreparably obstructed rather than improved. But the work went ahead and was completed in 1737 and the River Dee Company incorporated........


Shipwreck and plunder and the moods of the river notwithstanding, the 'merchant adventurers' of the Port of Chester continued confident in the security of the New Cut, and with the American war over and the peace treaty signed, the Chronicle of September 2, 1785 (number 534) reported the launching at Parkgate of the first of two packet-boats to replace the lost Trevor and Nonpareil. She was The King, Richard Hammond master, burthen about a hundred tons, 'fitted up with every elegant accommodation.' A companion ship, The Queen, then building, was to be launched within two or three months. 'These two packets, we hear, are to be one joint concern with a packet called The Prince of Wales, commanded by Captain Heird, who has been for some months past in the passage trade between Dublin, Holyhead, and Parkgate. . . It is not doubted that the passage trade will regain what it has for some years back (for want of such packets) been deprived of by a neighbouring port', said the newspaper. Trade with Ireland prospered, particularly in fine linen, and the Linenhall was built in 1788 to accommodate it. But the competition of Liverpool was growing, side by side with a rapid rise in population there, 78,000 inhabitants Liverpool 14,142 inhabitants Chestrer ) as we shall see. Broster's Guide to Chester in 1795 describes Crane-street as 'lately built' below the Watergate and there '( at a small distance are the quays, port, and crane, where vessels of 350 tons load and unload, carried by the tides along the New River. On the wharf are large warehouses, and here vessels are built of 300 and 400 tons burthen.' The Port was still busy, exporting cheese, coal, and lead, and importing Irish linen chiefly. At the same time the River Dee Company was reclaiming Sealand from the Dee - a measure to be looked upon later with suspicion and recrimination as the real object of the New Cut. 'Several thousand acres of fine land have already been enclosed,' says Broster, 'and good farm houses now stand where the tides flowed a few years ago.' And there were two ferries, about which there were complaints in the Chronicle. A correspondent of the paper said they were so carelessly served that he waited at each of them upwards of half an hour and called till he was hoarse, 'and all to no purpose, although the boatmen came out and saw me'..........

As the years go by it is clear from the newspaper and other records that the trade of the Port of Chester is drifting desultorily but inexorably into the silting sand. But if the bigger ships of the day can no longer reach her, the history of former times repeating itself, the old Port can at least build ships for others. And so, from the pen of J. H. Hanshall, second Editor of the Chronicle, we have a contemporary picture of the Crane boat-yards about 1816. 'Beyond the Watergate are Crane-street, Back Crane-street, and Paradise Row, the whole of which lead to the wharfs on the river. For a number of years Chester has carried on a considerable business in shipbuilding. Within the last ten years the trade has wonderfully increased, and even now it is not unusual to see ten or a dozen vessels on the stocks at a time. In fact, there are nearly as many ships built in Chester as in Liverpool, and the former have always a decided preference from the merchants. Indeed, Chester lies particularly convenient for the trade, as by the approximation of the Dee, timber is every season floated down from the almost exhaustless woods of Wales, at a trifling expense and without the least risk. The principal shipwright in Chester is Mr. Cortney, but Mr. Troughton's is the oldest establishment. There were lately nearly 250 hands employed in the business, two-thirds of whom were in Mr. Cortney's yard, but the trade is at present flat. Six vessels of war have been built by him, and within the last two years (1814-15) two corvettes and two sloops of war, The Cyrus, The Mersey, The Eden, and The Levant, from twenty to thirty guns each. The firm of Mulvey and Co., formerly of Frodsham, have established a yard near the Crane.' Cortney's yard launched a brig in 1804, an East lndiaman of 580 tons in 1810, and in 1813 a West India-man of 800 tons, in addition to the corvettes and war sloops mentioned by Hanshall. Shipbuilding was the last positive activity of the Port of Chester and continued into the second half of the nineteenth century. The Gitana, a barque of 1,367 tons, was built at Chester in 1861; and until the 1920's Crichton's yard at Saltney was building ferry boats, river craft, and tugs.

The history of the Dee and its ships reached a tragic climax on the night of October 26, 1859, when the Royal Charter was dashed aground by a hurricane of unexampled ferocity off Moelfre on the coast of Anglesey. She was returning from Melbourne with 388 passengers, a crew of 112, and a cargo of gold valued at £300,000. Only twenty passengers and eighteen crew survived. The same night many other smaller ships were lost and a factory at Flint was destroyed by the gale. Pages of the Chronicle of October 29 (number 4487 ) were filled with the first detailed news of the wreck and for weeks and months afterwards the paper devoted many columns to the recovery and burial of bodies - many of them totally unidentifiable - the salvage of gold, and the verbatim reporting of official inquiries into the cause of the disaster. The hurricane, the gold, the temptation of plunder, the evidence as bodies were washed ashore that they had been battered to death, not drowned - all combined to create a legend that the wrecking of the Royal Charter was a judgment of the sea..........

From the 1820's to the middle of the century the New Cut proved powerless to resist the silting of the channel at the Port of Chester. A reading of the Chronicle at this time reflects the disenchantment of the citizens with the River Dee 'adventurers', suspected of being more concerned for the profitable land-grab of the sands of 'the Dee than for the reclamation of the river itself. The experience of thirty years or so caused John Broster in 1821 to blame the speculators of the River Dee Company whose title to the reclaimed acres induced them to 'conduct the river in a circuitous course, which has now nearly choked our navigation.' As the century wore on the effect of silting became disastrous. In 1850 the Hoyle Bank was described as cut in two, the Hoyle Lake choked with sand, and Parkgate and Dawpool deserted: the packet-boats had not sailed for twenty years: it was the end of Brighton-on-the-Dee. Frank Simpson, P.S. A., who contributed much to the Chronicle in the 19205, wrote in 1907: 'From 1743 to 1899 the original company of undertakers founded by Kinderley did little to improve the navigation of the river. . . During the eighteenth century families of nobility were brought to the verge of ruin by investing in Dee stock; many sold their shares at 90 per cent loss . . . Millions of money have been spent, and today the river is in a worse state than when the so-called improvements commenced.' By 1910 few vessels were able to reach Chester and such sea trade as continued was lower down on the Welsh shore at Hawarden Bridge, Connah's Quay, Flint, Bagillt, and Mostyn. The colliery at Talacre, Mostyn ironworks and colliery, and Halkyn lead mines kept these harbours in business for small steamers and coasting schooners, and Connah 's Quay, developed by the River Dee Company as a harbour in went on to build a tradition of hardy and resourceful seafarers. For some time from 1817 the paddle steamer Regulator ran a regular crossing service for goods and passengers between Parkgate and Bagillt. At Flint vessels discharged into lighters up to about 1876. Shotton Steelworks came to the Dee in 18954, when Henry Hall Summers bought ten thousand acres of marshland and started the plant which became a household word as the family firm of 'Summers's' and today, after employing generations of local people faces partial shut-down in the reorganisation plans of the British Steel Corporation. Until 1917 ships of up to 300 tons could reach Connah's Quay, but the trade gradually withered away and now the last surviving arm of the Port of Chester is Mostyn Dock.

Mostyn Deep is the true old name, and ships of a maximum tonnage of 700 are still able to go in and out of the dock on the full tide. The wheel of history comes full circle, and the Chronicle of May '1, 1973 (number 10,291) commented on the irony and the nonsense of little Mostyn's modest profits being levied, under the proposals of an official report on dock workings, to subsidise, say, the uneconomic activities of the Port of Liverpool. The paper said: 'Mostyn may only be a minnow in the docks business, but it is profitable. The idea of some of these profits being channelled off to help much bigger fish does not appeal to either the Flintshire County Council or the firm which runs the docks, Mostyn Docks and Trading Ltd. There is something faintly ludicrous about Mostyn's being asked to support a port like Liverpool, which handles a bigger tonnage in two or three days than Mostyn handles in a year . . . Mostyn is big enough to stand on its own feet, but not big enough to help others stand on theirs.' The Mostyn Docks company provides work for eighty dockers and clerical staff, and the port handled 259 ships, a total of about 200,000 tons of cargo, in 1972. Imports include wood pulp, timber, sulphur phosphates, hardboard, tinned milk, PVC plastics, ferromanganese, and marble chippings, mainly from the Continent. Among exports are steel turnings to Spain, steel rails to France, waste paper to Spain and Italy, and aluminium .......