Cheshire 1750 to 1900: Part 1

Cheshire 1750 to 1900: Part 1

After 1700 Cheshire experienced dramatic changes, familiar from any general history of the age and shared by some other English counties—most notably neighbouring Lancashire. The population, hitherto living mainly in rural areas and small towns, became increasingly urbanised, as new towns appeared and existing centres expanded rapidly. The economic base of the county, for centuries rooted in agriculture, altered as industrialisation gathered pace. Webs of new roads, waterways and railways were spun across a rural landscape which was being transformed by new agricultural practices, and much of the county came within the orbit of Manchester and Liverpool, for Chester was no longer the regional capital. Immigrants came from other parts of the country and beyond to work in Cheshire’s industries, and within the county the rural areas became suppliers of labour for industry and of citizens for the growing towns.

Administration and Government

The government of the county and its towns also altered during this period. Party identities became a key factor in local and national politics, and in the city of Chester the decades after 1710 were marked by the pre-eminence of the Grosvenor family, who by using their prodigious wealth exerted a profound influence over social and political life. The corporation, from local pride, loyalty to aristocratic patrons, a shared belief in arch-Tory values, and a very obvious material advantage, co-operated willingly. Grosvenors sat as MPs for Chester in every parliament from 1715 to 1874, and for 42 of those years they occupied both seats.

In the other boroughs similar rule by a few prevailed, although political unanimity was far from certain. In Congleton, for example, a bitter split between Tories and Whigs on the corporation carried on for decades, sometimes spilling over into public demonstrations of faction. In 1714 the Tories, loyal supporters of the High Church and sympathisers with the Jacobite cause, forbade the ringing of church bells to celebrate the accession of George I. The dissenters and Whigs forced their way in and rang them and a riot ensued, in which a Tory mob ransacked the nonconformist meeting house and burnt the pews on a bonfire.

There was growing radicalism in the newer industrial areas by the late 18th century as working-class political agitation developed, exacerbated by food shortages and high prices. Civil unrest was endemic—in Macclesfield the weavers rioted because of the scarcity of food in 1757 and 1762, and across Cheshire there was serious unrest from 1795 onwards, with riots at Stockport, Congleton, Northwich, Nantwich and Chester. In 1800 rioting again flared up, this time affecting rural areas such as Bunbury, and north­east Cheshire was swept by protests at Stalybridge, Bredbury, Stockport and Macclesfield in 1812 when near-starvation threatened. The radical leader Samuel Bamford noted how ‘the Stockport borders of Cheshire’ were the scene of numerous meetings in 1817 and 1818, when the weavers were notably restless, and in June 1819 a crowd of perhaps 20,000 people gath­ered in Stockport for a political meeting. Such events were indicative of the simmering discontent across much of the region in the years leading up to Peterloo.

The gross under-representation of Cheshire in parliament was ended by the 1832 Reform Act. Two county constituencies were created, each returning two MPs, and Macclesfield and Stockport were made new parliamentary boroughs with two members each. With the existing two seats at Chester the county therefore returned 10 members after 1832, and the number increased gradually during the rest of the century as further franchise re­forms were enacted.

Local government was also reformed. Under the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act the borough councils of Chester, Macclesfield, Stockport and Congleton were reordered on democratic principles, and after this date other towns could petition the crown to be granted borough charters. This goal was eagerly pursued by the larger industrial centres, for whom borough status was a crowning glory; Stalybridge received its borough charter in 1857, Crewe and Birkenhead in 1877, Hyde in 1881, Dukinfield in 1899. In 1888 the democratically-elected Cheshire County Council was established, superseding the previous system of administration by the county justices. At the same time Birkenhead, Chester and Stockport were given county borough status, making them fully-independent of the county and with equal powers. Other large authorities campaigned for this privilege, among them Wallasey, which was granted its first borough charter in 1910 and a mere three years later was elevated to a county borough.

Lower down the administrative ladder, the mid-19th century saw efforts to reorganise the structure and role of local government. The 1848 Public Health Act provided for the creation of local boards of health in seriously-unhealthy urban areas, and these were established in many Cheshire towns, often as the prelude to incorporation as a borough. After 1872 even quite small places could become urban sanitary districts, and—because this status gave a modicum of local independence—a large number of such bodies were created, many with tiny populations, before the government became more circumspect. Compstall near Romiley, with only 875 people, was one of the smallest urban authorities in the country at the start of the 20th century.

The new authorities were considered particularly appropriate for suburban and industrial communities which were too small to justify borough status. The creation of these local authorities was more than just an administrative device, since many fast-developing communities saw it as a tangible symbol of identity. Pride in local government was also a strong motive; another was the desire to keep down the rates. Between 1881 and 1901 urban authorities were created at, among other places, Cheadle and Gatley (population in 18915 8,252); West Kirby with Hoylake (6,545); and Hazel Grove and Bramhall (9,79 1), all of them fast-growing suburban communities. Ellesmere Port & Whitby became an urban district in 1902, with a population of 4,082—by 1911 that had grown dramatically, to 10,366. The reverse process also operated—in 1901 Stockport annexed Reddish, across the Mersey, and all county boroughs made regular efforts to acquire new territory.

Before the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act Cheshire had no fewer than 452 separate poor law authorities, an exceptionally fragmented and cumbersome system. By the 1834 Act townships were grouped into large poor law unions, to be served by a central workhouse accommodating all their paupers, and defined on ‘rational’ boundaries based on a central market town. Where necessary these crossed county boundaries to make a geographically coherent unit—Cheshire had nine unions, and three others in neighbouring counties included some Cheshire territory. The central workhouses built after 1834 became characteristic of the system. Thus the workhouse which survived until 1996 at Arclid, at the geographical centre of the Congleton Union, was opened in 1844 and replaced a large number of smaller local workhouses and poorhouses. When, in 1894, rural district councils were created to complete the democratisation of local government, union boundaries were used as the basis of the new divisions.

Religious Life in 18th- and 19th-Century Cheshire

Earlier improvements in church administration were sustained under Bishop Dawes (1708-14)—the frequency of whose pastoral visitations raised eye­brows among his fellow-bishops—and by the arch-Tory Bishop Gastrell (1714-26), who determined to discover more about his diocese and in 1722 ordered the Notitia Cestriensis, a comprehensive investigation into schools, officials, revenues, church fabric and customs. But the poverty of the diocese remained a major problem—in 1704 ten of the twelve chapeiries in Prestbury parish were worth less than £5 per annum. On Gastrell’s death the govern­ment appointed a devout Whig, Samuel Peploe, whose effectiveness was greatly hindered by his extremely bad relationship with just about every­body, and by the middle of the century the earlier progress was wiped out. The fast-rising population accentuated the total inadequacy of church provision, but in the years from 1752 to 1772 only two new churches were consecrated in the whole of Cheshire.

In the early 18th century the older-established nonconformist groups were becoming weary. Cheshire had become a separate Presbyterian ‘classis’ or circuit in 1691, but after 1725 numbers dwindled to such an extent that in 1765 the classis was amalgamated with Manchester because it was too small. Quaker meetings at Eaton by Congleton and Malpas, the oldest in the county, closed in the 1740s, and in 1783 the Cheshire Quarterly Meet­ing was joined with Staffordshire as it was no longer viable. In 1773 it was said of the county that ‘dissenting interest.. .is in a very languishing state’, but the Methodists, in contrast, were flourishing. In 1744 John Wesley began a series of preaching tours, visited Woodley, Rode, Shrigley and Mellor and attracting many followers. There was some persecution—in 1752 the Chester meeting house was destroyed by a mob—but chapels were built at Stockport in 1759 and Chester in 1764. Numbers grew fast, from 2,909 in 1771 to 6,123 in 1808, and in east Cheshire, the stronghold of older nonconformity, Methodism was received with enthusiasm—in 1794 Macclesfield had 460 adherents, five per cent of the population and allegedly the highest proportion in any English town.

The Anglicans remained paralysed. Although Bishop Porteus (1777-87) was an early advocate of Sunday schools, little was done to carry the message to the urban population. In 1818 Chester was the most populous English diocese, but only 12 per cent of its town dwellers attended services and Stockport, with 34,000 people, had only 2,500 church seats. New churches were built at Alsager (1789) and Altrincham (1799) and in the 1810s, using government grants, at Delamere, Threapwood and High Legh, but this sporadic effort did not touch the pressing problem of the towns. One valuable improvement, however, was that whereas in 1778 40 per cent of Cheshire clergy were absentees, by 1825 the diocese had an unusually high proportion of resident clergy: at least the vicar was likely to live locally by the 1820s.

Catholicism, relatively unimportant in the county during the 18th century, increased in strength from the 1790s. The relaxation of the Penal Laws allowed resident priests to be appointed to towns such as Macclesfield (1792), Chester (1794) and Stockport (1799), and at this time there began the Irish immigration which transformed the Catholic communities of north­west England. In 1811 there was a priest at Edgeley in Stockport specifically to minister to the Irish weavers, and in 1825 missions were established at Congleton and Dukinfield. Numbers rose sharply long before the mass migration from Ireland after 1845: in the area of Dukinfield chapel the number of adherents increased from 4,000 in 1825 to 13,000 in 1837.

The sub-division of the diocese of Chester 1836 - 1856
The sub-division of the diocese of Chester 1836 – 1856

Faced with competition such as this, the Church of England was at last galvanised into action. Bishop Sumner (1828-48) was an evangeli­cal liberal, zealous in promoting new church building and in securing administrative reforms. His sprawl­ing diocese was much-reduced by the creation of the dioceses of Ripon (1836) and Manchester (1847) and the transfer of large areas to Bangor. (1849) and Carlisle (1836 and 1856). Between 1829 and 1865, 111 new churches were built in Cheshire, an impressive reversal of the previous lethargy, and another 89 during the next 25 years. Some, such as Bodley’s Eccleston of 1899 and Pearson’s Norley (1878), were by architects of national reputation and are fine examples of 19th-century church architecture. Others were less costly, but the impact of this massive building programme upon the townscapes of Cheshire, as well as its spiritual life, is clear.

When Catholic dioceses were created in 1850 Cheshire was placed in the see of  Shrewsbury even though its churches and chapels outnumbered those in the rest of the diocese. In 1853-60 there was strong pressure for the building of a cathedral at Birkenhead, where Catholics were most numer­ous and, although this failed, Bishops Knight (1882-95) and Singleton (1908­34) resided there rather than at Shrewsbury. There was anti-Catholic feeling in mid-19th-century Cheshire with serious rioting and destruction of property in Stockport in 1852, but by 1900 the faith had some 45,000 adherents and over forty churches.

The churches were the leading providers of education until the 1870s, although in some rural areas of Cheshire enlightened landowners provided school facilities. A wealthy farmer near Audlem with an enthusiasm for technology told an inspector that he wanted schools so that his dairymaids could read a thermometer and his men could understand steam engines. Other educational philanthropy was directed towards the least fortunate.. In 1852 two ragged schools opened in Chester, and comparable institutions were founded in industrial towns such as Stockport (1854) and Macclesfield (1865). Statistics for the Chester schools reveal the social role which was played: in 1852-70, 2,551 children were taught, a majority being girls; only: one third had both parents living, over one third were orphans, 53 per cent were illiterate on admission, and 23 per cent were still illiterate on departure—there was much work to be done.

The mid-19th-century educational crisis was greatest in the new indus­trial centres such as Hyde and Birkenhead, where the numbers of children swamped existing provision and where there was no tradition of philanthropic involvement. Cheshire’s first Sunday School was, oddly, at Prestbury in 1747, but after 1775 the movement was town-based. Perhaps the finest Sunday school in England was the immense building opened at Roe Street, Macclesfield in 1813: as the prominent inscription across its pediment states, it was Erected by voluntary contributions and in its first year it taught 2,451 pupils. The role of Sunday schools should not be underestimated; for many children they provided a rudimentary education, and they were cheap to run because they used volunteer labour.

Free day schools were a different matter. In 1812 the Diocesan Central School was founded in Chester, and the church authorities began to train teachers, but in 1830 Stockport, with over 20,000 people, had only two elementary schools—one Anglican, the other Wesleyan. Congleton had none, Macclesfield only one. From 1833 the churches could use government grants to operate schools, and this helped to reduce the pressure, but provision was still inadequate. A few mill owners gave part-time schooling to child workers—for example, Saxbys provided a small schoolroom at their Waterhouse mill in Disley—but this was less widespread than their apologists sometimes claimed.

After 1833 some older schools were absorbed into the state system. A few small grammar schools con­verted themselves into elementary establishments, as at Acton by Nantwich, Malpas and Witton, while others stayed as grammar schools but accepted state support—for example, Audlem, Frodsham, Bunbury and Wallasey. Some of these eventually became primary schools when education was reorganised in the early 20th century. Other older schools carried on as before, those with large endowments seeing no reason, financial or otherwise, to surrender their independence. Macclesfield Grammar School was one of the richest in the entire country—at the other end of the scale the income of Marple school was just £3 per annum.

This range of educational initiatives and funding eventually provided a reasonable service in many towns—by 1870 Chester had some 7,000 elementary places, Stockport 12,000 and Stalybridge 2,250—but coverage was erratic. Bramhall, with 2,000 people in 1871, had no schools at all. After 1870 provision was compulsory, which made expenditure from the rates inevitable, and some Cheshire towns did their utmost to evade their responsibilities. In 1879 Stockport was said to have the lowest expenditure on education of any large borough in England, a derisory 1d per head of the population, because it relied on denominational and charity provision, but in Congleton, Dukinfield and Macclesfield expenditure was even less. Only gradually did levels of provision rise, and results improve.

Agriculture and Rural Landscapes

By the late 18th century, when parliamentary enclosure began, the scope for extensive change was limited to the former Delamere forest and the Pennine uplands, and to the surviving lowland commons such as Cranage and Kelsall. At Delamere the idea of enclosure, mooted occasionally in the past, was seriously proposed in 1812, but claims for compensation from those who held common rights meant that the implementation of the scheme—involving the allotment of new land to proprietors—took six years and was not completed until 1819. It produced a new landscape covering several square miles, with large geometric fields and straight enclosure roads, but much of the land proved to be of little worth for farming, and by the early 20th century a great deal had reverted to woodland or had been deliberately planted with trees.

The reorganisation of large estates gained momentum in the early 18th century, and most were affected to some degree. At Norton the Brooke family gradually reduced the properties in Norton village, extending their own park and amalgamating holdings. In 1757 there were 12 dwellings but by 1811 only six remained, and the smallholdings and strips had been re­placed by larger units—the 29 small fields of 1545 had become 11 large ones by 1844. A far more rapid and more thorough reorganisation took place at Peckforton, where in 1846 the Tollemache estate had 45 tenants whose holdings ranged from fragments to a farm of 450 acres. After 1850 drastic changes swept away most of these and replaced them with a small number of new units, while simultaneously many cottages were demolished and others rebuilt or altered in the very distinctive estate style. In total the Tollemache estate built over 50 new farms and hundreds of cottages in various mid-Cheshire townships, and was run ail a latter-day feudal demesne.

The process of change was far-reaching and general. For example, in mid-19th-century Malpas, where there were no great estates, the amalgamation of units was no less important—between 1839 and 1851. the number of holdings of 15 acre or more fell from 30 to 17, a reduction which, widely repeated in other south Cheshire townships, meant that many smallholders were forced out of business, while a limited number of more active or efficient farmers rose up the social scale and acquired considerably larger properties.

In 1871 the county had 23,720 owners of freehold property, but of these 74 per cent held less than one acre, their holdings amounted to a mere 0.7 per cent of the total area. The remaining 26 per cent held 98 per cent of the land, the balance being made up of commons and waste. The predominance of great landed estates is even more apparent if these figures are considered in more detail: the top 42 landowners, those who owned more than 2,500 acres each and who constituted just 0.17 per cent of the total number of owners, accounted for no less than 43.7 per cent of the area of the county.

The largest landowner in Cheshire in 1871 was John Tollemache of Peckforton, with 25,380 acres, followed by the Marquess of Cholmondeley (16,842 acres), the Duke of Westminster (15,001 acres), Sir Henry Delves Broughton of Doddington (13,832 acres) and Lord Crewe (10,148 acres). Between them these five men owned 13.3 per cent of Cheshire. Thus for much of Cheshire great estates were still the rule, and the structure of local society, the character of agriculture, and the location and design of build­ing were all determined by the policies of landowners. The imprint of this is still fundamental to the Cheshire landscape, even though many of the estates have been broken up or reduced in size, many of the families no longer live in their ancestral homes, and some of the houses are themselves no more.

Cheshire has one of the finest collections of 18th- and 19th-century country houses in Britain, and a rich legacy of landscaped parks and grounds, a reflection of the growing wealth and sophistication of county society before 1800, and of the ambitions of Manchester and Liver­pool industrialists to become country squires thereafter. At Tatton, for example, the outstanding but some­what solemn house was built by the Egerton family, in a series of inter­rupted stages (each marked by changes in design) between the 1760s and the 1820s. It is set in a magnificent park, one of the largest and most beautiful in England, which was started in the 1730s and completed by the end of the 18th century and involved the creation of the great mere and the removal of the shrunken village of Tatton.

Here the old hall was neglected but still survives, whereas at Dunham Massey the early 17th-century house, set in a remarkable landscape of formal avenues and gardens, was completely encased in a new shell between 1732 and 1740 to conceal the earlier work with a more up-to-date exterior. A comparable adaptation of an older house is apparent at Lyme, where the interior includes work of the 1570s and 1670s, but the exterior is the result of ambitious extension plans implemented between 1690 and 1735, giving the house the ‘monumental scale and texture of a European palace’.

In the early 19th century fashions began to swing towards medievalism, and Gothick styles appeared. In 1801 the Marquess of Cholmondeley personally designed his new castle in which pointed arches, battlements, towers and slit windows give a very impressive though very unauthentic atmosphere—though the marquess insisted that all the materials should be old-fashioned, to add authenticity. At Combermere in the years after 1815 the ‘exceedingly vain and self-important’ viscount disguised his partly medieval house, the former abbey, beneath a sham front of ‘pasteboard Gothick’. In marked contrast, John Tollemache built an astonishingly realistic medieval fortress at Peckforton between 1841 and 1850, where the workmanship is exceptional but the design is so stark and inhuman that for much of its history Peckforton has been unoccupied.

A county of gentlemen, parks and country estates between Knutsford and Macclesfield 1925.
A county of gentlemen, parks and country estates between Knutsford and Macclesfield 1925.

The last phase of country house building in Cheshire was the work of businessmen as well as landed gentry. Wealthy merchants, cotton magnates and shipping barons bought country estates and constructed small palaces, primarily for status and to mark their entrance into county society. Abney Hall near Cheadle was built by James Watts, owner of Manchester’s largest. drapery firm, in 1850-55. The exterior was unremarkable, but the interior was an extravagant display or the ornate richness of mid-Victorian furnishings and decoration. Pownall Hall near Wilmslow was transformed during the 1880s by Henry Boddington, of the Manchester brewing family, from a rather dull Georg­ian house to a remarkable showpiece for the Arts and Crafts movement. At the very end of the century Viscount Leverhulme began work on Thornton Manor, a huge and ambitious setting for entertaining and for his collection of objets d’art.

Perhaps the most spectacular 19th. century Cheshire house, not least because its owners were richer than any other, was Eaton Hall, where the comparatively modest pre-1840 house was overwhelmed between 1850 and 1870 by the ‘most expensive and most lavish of all Gothic revival country houses’, a dramatic demonstration of the immense wealth and status of the dukes of Westminster—though it was so elaborate and so immense that even the 1st duke, who built it, wrote: ‘now that I have a palace, I wish I lived in a cottage’. It was pulled down, with the exception of the huge detached tower, in the 1960s.

The landed estates depended on agricultural wealth and income from farming and rent. By 1800 dairying was achieving dominance over most of the county, and even smaller farmers were treating it as a commercial business. Thomas Furber, a farmer near Audlem in the 1760s, kept a large dairy herd for milk and raised bull calves for veal. He made some butter, but most of the milk was used for cheese, which was sent either to Chester or the Midlands. Pigs were kept for their meat, fed on the whey which was the by-product of cheese-making, and there was some arable, producing cereals for household use and a little for sale. Sales of livestock could be essential to the farm economy, since the extensive raising of cattle for dairying gave a large surplus of bull calves and these, with pigs, were an important trade throughout the 19th century. According to one 1837 source, up to 500 calves each week were sent from Cheshire to Liverpool alone during the summer months.

Until the early 19th century much of the Cheshire cheese output, estimated in 1823 at about 10,000 tons per annum, was sent to London. From the 1720s some went down the Weaver and then by sea, and from the 1760s the Trent and Mersey Canal gave a direct waterway link. Smaller quantities went to Yorkshire and Lancashire, but after the 1820s sales to industrial Lancashire out­grew all other markets. At first this area took the poorer-quality cheeses, but by the mid-l9th century an early‑ripening Cheshire had been developed to suit local tastes and this became a speciality. The growth in the rail network encouraged the establishment of cheese fairs: in 1900 these were being held weekly in rotation at Chester, Nantwich and Whitchurch.

At Malpas in the 1830s cattle were the staple and cheese the main product, but about 23 per cent of the parish was under the plough as late as the 1840s. The reduction in this area since 1800 had meant that less male labour was needed—though women could find work in dairying relatively easily—but in 1841 farming was by far the largest employer in the district: over 40 per cent of the adult males in south-west Cheshire were engaged in agriculture, and many others worked in trades which depended largely upon farming, such as the blacksmiths and wheelwrights.

In north Cheshire the proximity of the conurbations encouraged the development of market gardening, fruit farming and potato-growing. The Wirral supplied Liverpool, there were market gardens around Chester, and the Altrincham and Carrington area grew produce for Manchester.

Vegetables such as celery and lettuce grew particularly well on the peat soils of the mosses, fertilised by nightsoil from the cities which was brought into the country along the Mersey and Irwell Navigation and the Cheshire Lines Railway, and carried out to the moss by narrow-gauge railways. This was a deliberate policy of Manchester Corporation, which in 1886 bought Carrington Moss from the Earl of Stamford and in 1890-99 used 600 acres for nightsoil dumping. By 1900 some 995 acres of the moss had been let for market gardens, manured by a total of 640,000 tons of Manchester’s human waste.

From the 1850s the dominance of cheese-making was challenged by the trade in liquid milk, which had not hitherto been feasible except on a purely local basis because of transport difficulties. By 1845 liquid milk was being produced on farms along the Bridgewater Canal around Altrincham and Dunham Massey and sent into Manchester by water, and farmers in Seacombe and Wallasey were supplying Liverpool. The development of railway milk carriers and fast early morning milk trains to city centre depots revolutionised the trade after 1860, and over much of north and mid-Cheshire milk became the main output of dairy farms. Cheese production was abandoned—by 1882, for example, the herds grazing the Frodsham and Helsby marshes, which had been an important area for cheese-making as late as the 1850s, were kept solely for milk.

The pattern of country markets began to alter in the late 18th century. Transport improvements had greatly benefited those markets in favourable positions on turnpike roads and canals, and would-be competitors often failed. At Neston a town began to develop from the 1550s when regular shipping started to use the quay, but in the 1590s a proposal to establish a market had been defeated by the opposition of Chester and Liverpool Corporations. However by the 1720s an informal market was being held and in 1728 the town was very belatedly granted a charter for markets and fairs. Neither flourished and in the late 18th century the market was almost; moribund. The lesson was clear—without special advantages new markets would probably fail.

A 1787 survey listed 10 major urban markets in Cheshire, and another, four—Neston, Malpas, Tarporley and Altrincham—which were insignificant or doubtful; thus only 13 of the 23 known medieval market centres were still functioning. A list of 1810 records the same names, but adds a note which shows how the changing patterns of economic activity and settle­ment were producing new outlets: ‘there is a weekly market for provisions at Winsford-bridge, on the Weaver, in the parishes of Over and Middlewich, of late become populous in consequence of the extension of the salt trade in that neighbourhood’.

Country fairs survived, but as the railway network spread during the mid-19th century these, too, began to decline and dwindle in number. White’s 1860 directory lists no fewer than 38 Cheshire fairs, some in traditional rural locations, such as Actonbridge, Astbury, Four Lane Ends (Tarporley) and Preston Brook but others, significantly, in new urban centres, such as Birkenhead, Crewe and Hyde, where they operated in conjunction with cattle markets and railheads.

In east Cheshire the rural landscape was dramatically altered in the 19th century not only by industrial and urban growth, but also by the increasing thirst of the major cities. The first reservoirs were built in the Pennine valleys after the 1760s, to power the mills and supply canals, and by the 1830s some substantial lakes were being impounded. Bosley Reservoir, a mile in length, was built in 1830 to supply the Macclesfield Canal, and at Compstall the Etherow was dammed to provide a series of millponds stretch­ing 1 1/2 miles along the valley. The great phase of reservoir building was, however, after 1840, when concern for public health and the need for pure drinking water prompted the municipal authorities to look for supplies from further afield. In 1848 Manchester Corporation began work on the great series of five reservoirs in Longdendale which, by the time of their completion in 1862, had flooded six miles of the valley. Other reservoirs included those of Macclesfield Corporation at Langley and Stockport Corporation at Fernilee (1937).


Transport improvements were a key to the growing pace of economic development, both a cause and a consequence of industrial and commercial growth. Turnpike roads, which at least in theory were suitable for heavier traffic, were being developed by the early 18th century with the principle of ‘user pays’ as the solution to the problem of finance; they were approved by parliament and administered by trustees. Cheshire’s first turnpike, authorised in 1705, covered the short stretch of the Chester and Whitchurch highway between Hatton Heath and Barnhill where, it was said, the road was ruined by ‘great and many loads and heavy carriages of cheese and other goods.

There was then an interval until 1724, when the important trunk road from Manchester via Stockport to Buxton was turnpiked. The route did not follow the present A6 along Wellington Road—that, as its name suggests, was a town centre relief road constructed in the 1820s—but instead used Lancashire Hill over Stockport Bridge, through the Market Place and up Hiligate, the winding alignment of which betrays its early origins. Other early turnpikes in Cheshire included the Manchester to Saltersbrook and Barnsley road, the ancient route up Longdendale, in 1728; Lawton to Cranage, part of the main road from the Midlands to Carlisle, in 1731; and Woore to Chester, the modern A51, in 1744. Here, too, the older turnpike alignment was later superseded: the 1744 route followed the medieval highway from Duddon into Chester through Christleton, over the fine packhorse bridges at Hockenbull Platts.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries turnpike projects became more ambitious, with long stretches of new construction and serious attempts to tackle such problems as steep gradients and sharp bends. The Macclesfield and Buxton turnpike of 1821 illustrates this, climbing some 1,250 feet in 6 miles between Macclesfield and the Cat and Fiddle. The older route, a turnpike of the 1730s, swoops steeply up hill and down dale but by the 1820s the ideal was an even gradient for horsedrawn vehicles. Distance was less important than the smoothness of ascent and descent, so the new road was longer than its predecessor but beautifully engineered with long bends for easier gradients. The succession of corners as the road climbs the slopes of Shining Tor, such a frustration to the modern motorist stuck behind a lorry heading for Buxton, was less of a problem almost two centuries ago.

The turnpike roads of Cheshire
The turnpike roads of Cheshire

During the first decades of the 19th century a network of turnpikes focusing on Stockport was built to provide new routes connecting the fast-growing textile towns of north-east Cheshire. In the Manchester region roads such as these remained very important until the mid-19th century, complementing the canal network and even continuing as major industrial arteries after the growth of the railway system. Other key routes turnpiked during this last stage of road development included those from the Mersey ferries at Birkenhead across the north Wirral to Hoylake and West Kirby, a network of particular interest because here passengers—early commuters—were the main intended traffic.

The last important turnpike in Cheshire was the road from Hooton to Queensferry, built in 1838-9 when railway expansion was underway. It was planned as a shortcut on the road from the Wirral ferries to north Wales, and its almost straight and entirely new alignment slashed through the existing landscape for six miles. In total some 582 miles of road in Cheshire were turnpiked between 1705 and 1835, and the county was comprehensively served by a well-integrated and effective network—almost all of today’s ‘A’ roads were turnpikes.

The old and new turnpikes between Macclesfield and Buxton, 1882.
The old and new turnpikes between Macclesfield and Buxton, 1882.

By the 1750s completely new canals were technologically feasible and a network of waterways was constructed across Cheshire between 1755 and 1832. Some visionaries planned coherent waterway schemes, but the reality was that competing companies built routes piecemeal, giving a network which was neither logical nor adequate and was therefore badly-placed to counter the threat posed by the rail network after 1830. Cheshire had several lucrative sources of trade for the canal companies—the Poynton coalfield, the textile industry of Stockport and Hyde, the agricultural traffic, and above all the salt industry, while coal, building materials, lime and manufactured goods had Cheshire markets. But much of the speculation in Cheshire canals centred on the county’s geographical position rather than its intrinsic attractions—Liverpool and Manchester were prime objectives for canal promoters, so Cheshire routes were inevitably involved.

Initially the proposals emphasised the opportunities for linking existing waterways—the Mersey, Weaver, Severn, Dee and Trent—but these rivers already had navigation trustees, who were regarded as obstructive and greedy, and the canal promoters soon opted for routes which deliberately bypassed the navigations. The first Cheshire canal, the Bridgewater, was opened in 1762 to link the Worsley collieries with the Mersey at Runcorn, avoiding the Mersey and Irwell Navigation and allowing coal to be sent direct to Liverpool at minimum cost. It was an immediate success, attracting intensive coal traffic and also heavy general freight and agricultural business. The contemporary project for building a canal to join the Mersey with the Trent came to fruition in the 1770s, bypassing the Weaver Navigation and joining the Bridgewater Canal at Preston Brook. Most of it was completed in 1775, although the central portion, with tunnels at Barnton and Saltersford, was delayed until 1777. In 1807 the Weston canal was built, extending the Bridgewater round the headland at Runcorn and giving access to deeper water in the Mersey.

Trade on the Weaver fell sharply after 1777 and the navigation trustees responded by improving the river and seeking a connection with the Trent and Mersey canal. The most suitable point was Anderton, where an inclined plane was constructed between the canal and the river in 1799. Thereafter traffic levels on the river held up well, and after 1866 the trustees under­took a costly programme of widening and deepening the river and building new locks. Business then grew again, much of it abstracted from the (by then outdated) Trent and Mersey using the extraordinary Anderton Canal Lift, which in 1875 replaced the inclined plane.

Canals and river navigations of Cheshire in 1880.
Canals and river navigations of Cheshire in 1880.

Commercial and civic interests in Chester, anxious not to be bypassed by the waterway network, promoted a canal to the Trent and Mersey at Nantwich. Few other investors expressed interest, but the canal was opened from Chester to Huxley in 1775 and to Nantwich in 1779. There was little freight, because the expected salt traffic did not materialise, and by 1781 the company was almost bank­rupt. Nonetheless, plans for further canals across Cheshire appeared in the mid-1780s, including the Ellesmere, a system in two separate parts—from the Mersey to Chester and from the Chester Canal near Nantwich down into Shropshire and Montgomeryshire. In 1796 the first section was opened: its northern terminal, where the canal joined the Mersey, was at Whitby, but the name Ellesmere Port appears in canal records as early as 1796, and as the small canal community grew to a large town this name was retained. The Chester Canal was a pioneer of passenger traffic, operating fast comfortable boats from the earliest days, and passenger boats also ran from Chester to Ellesmere Port to connect with the Mersey ferries.

Not until 1805 was the rest of the Cheshire section of the Ellesmere Canal opened, but thereafter trade was very encouraging, as limestone and slate came from the Welsh hills and iron from foundries in the Ruabon area. In 1813, after years of close co-operation, the Ellesmere and Chester companies amalgamated. The Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal, linking Nantwich with Autberley in the West Midlands, was opened by a separate company in 1835, turning the Ellesmere & Chester into a through route and encouraging a growth in traffic to the industrial areas of Staffordshire and Warwickshire.

At the other end of the county canal development was also in progress by the 1790s. In 1792 the Ashton Canal was authorised from Manchester to Dukinfield to tap coal traffic from the Denton area and to serve the textile industries of the Tame valley. This scheme prompted a further project, the Peak Forest Canal, from Dukinfield along the Goyt valley to Whaley Bridge and Bugsworth, to carry limestone traffic from Dove Holes and to be the first stage in a waterway—which was never built—to Derby and Sheffield. The Peak Forest was opened in 1796, though the long flight of locks at Marple was not completed until 1798.

Proposed branches from the Marple area towards Poynton and Macclesfield did not materialise, despite frequent calls for canal links to the industrial areas and coalfield between Stockport and Congleton. The plans were revived in the early 1820s, although some argued that a railway would be more effective, and in 1826 the Macclesfield Canal was authorised, from Marple via Bollington, Macclesfield and Congleton to the Trent and Mersey at Hall Green near Stoke. The canal opened in November 1831 but immediately faced intense competition from railways and from the Trent & Mersey, which did not want to lose any of its lucrative Manchester traf­fic. For a few years it enjoyed a modest prosperity, but by 1840 through railway routes had reached Manchester, and longer-distance traf­fic had been lost, while by 1849 the towns served by the canal had their own rail connections.

After 1840 some Cheshire water­ways, despite railway competition, managed to hold their own. The North Staffordshire Railway bought the Trent and Mersey in 1845 and the Macclesfield in 1847, operating them as railway feeders to compete with its rival, the London & North Western Railway. Under its auspices business was maintained into the 1860s, but by 1874 traffic was de­clining. In 1846 the Ellesmere & Chester and the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction canals amalga­mated as the Shropshire Union, and the company was leased by the L.N.W.R. from 1849. However, its management pursued a vigorous independent policy, with serious attempts to keep up trade and find new sources of revenue, and dividends were paid into the 1860s.

The last and greatest of Cheshire waterways was the Manchester Ship Canal, born of the desire of the city’s civic and business leaders to break the Liverpool shipping monopoly and make Manchester an international port. In this it succeeded, for in the 1930s the port of Manchester was the fourth busiest in Britain, but in the long-term the prospects for the canal. were destroyed by a declining industrial base, the trend towards ever-larger, ships, and the changing technology of freight transport. The canal, authorised in 1885 and opened in 1894, was quite unlike any other British water­way. Its huge width and depth, great swing-bridges and major diversions of existing roads, railways and waterways made it a remarkable feat of engineering, and it is still a very impressive sight.

The canal ran along the Irwell and the Mersey, which were incorporated in the new waterway, but between Warburton and its entry into the estuary. at Eastham it was in an artificial channel on the Cheshire side of the valley—from Warrington westwards the county boundary was later altered to run along the centre of the canal. At Ellesmere Port new rail-served warehousing and storage was built by the Shropshire Union Canal at the interchange with the ship canal and trade here increased very rapidly, especially in iron, pig-iron and china clay, destined for the Potteries, earthen­ware and grain. In the longer term the canal attracted a range of major new industries—steel, chemicals, oil-refining, gas—and encouraged the development of a zone of heavy industry and warehousing which stretched from Manchester to the sea. The landscape and economy of north Cheshire were changed for ever by its coming.

The complex of docks, canals, and railways in Runcorn in 1882.
The complex of docks, canals, and railways in Runcorn in 1882.

Cheshire’s first railways were tramroads serving mines and quarries. There were waggonways at the Poynton coalpits by 1793, at the beginning of the 19th century a little-documented tramroad linked the quarries on Heisby Hill with the Mersey at Ince, and in about 1806 a colliery line was built from pits in the Mow Cop and Biddulph area to Congleton. By the 1820s ambitious plans for national and regional networks of horse-drawn lines were being suggested, and routes across Cheshire figured prominently in these, because both Manchester and Liverpool were prime destinations.

In 1833 the Grand Junction Railway line from Birmingham via Stafford to Warrington was authorised, connecting with the Warrington & Newton Railway and hence with the Liverpool & Manchester to give a reasonably direct through route between the four greatest cities of England. The line through Cheshire was opened in July 1837 and was fundamental to the later railway geography of the county; as it ran directly north-south it was inevitable that both Liverpool and Manchester would eventually be served by major branch lines, making a great junction at Crewe. The G.J.R. decided to build its main workshops at Crewe and that choice, too, was a major ingredient in the changing geography of Cheshire.

The railway network of Cheshire at its maximum extent.
The railway network of Cheshire at its maximum extent.

Once the line to Warrington was opened the priority was to provide direct links to Manchester and Liverpool. Among Mancunian interests promoting a line south from the city there was fierce rivalry between two groups, one supporting a line from Stockport to Crewe where it would join the G.J.R., the others favouring a separate route south to the Potteries,. Tamworth and Rugby. After much wrangling the Crewe route was selected, and in 1839 work began. The line from Manchester to Stockport, including the superb viaduct at Stockport which is one of the greatest triumphs of, Victorian railway engineering, was completed in December 1840, and the extension to Crewe was finished in 1842. The provision of direct southern access to Liverpool was far less straightforward because the Mersey estu­ary presented a major barrier, and for thirty years after the G.J.R. was opened trains still had to go via Warrington. Not until 1864 did work begin on the route from Weaver Junction through Runcorn and over the high level bridge across the Mersey to Widnes and Liverpool.

The railway network of the county grew apace, around the framework of the great north-south routes to Holyhead, Liverpool, Preston and Manchester. With the exception of salt, and the Birkenhead docks traffic, Cheshire itself offered comparatively few attractions to railway promoters, and one of the striking features of the railway map of the county at its height is the dearth of branch lines—most towns of any significance were instead directly served by one or more of the through routes. Nonetheless, the county was a battleground for competition between rival companies. The London & North Western Railway was ultimately the dominant power, but many others attempted to gain access to the area and some succeeded.

In 1840 the line from Crewe to Chester, the first section of what would eventually be the main route to North Wales and Holyhead, was opened by the G.J.R., and in the same year the quite separate Chester & Birkenhead Railway was completed, offering a potential short route to Liverpool via Chester and the Mersey ferries. The G.J.R., anxious to maintain revenues on the longer (and so more lucrative) Warrington route, made sure that no connections for Birkenhead were offered at Chester. The problem was eventually solved—for the Grand Junction—when it took over joint owner­ship of the Chester & Birkenhead.

Its co-owner was an alien power, the Great Western Railway, and the two companies operated the so-called Birkenhead Joint Lines, which also included the Chester-Warrington route. The G.W.R. had a long-term policy of trying to capture some of the Merseyside freight traffic, and its interest in the Birkenhead Joint fulfilled that aim to a considerable extent. From time to time the company tried to promote the Birkenhead line as an alternative route from London to Liverpool, but in reality there was little competition between the G.W.R. and the L.N.W.R., and the arrangement was mutually beneficial. In the south the North Staffordshire Railway, which had a tightly-knit network in the Potteries, operated a branch to Sandbach which sought to draw off some of the salt traffic and, more importantly, owned the Macclesfield- Congleton-Stoke section of the alternative main line from Manchester to the south, operating through services with the L.N.W.R.

The geography of railway competition in 1913: the tangle of duplicated lines built by competing companies in the Stockport area.
The geography of railway competition in 1913: the tangle of duplicated lines built by competing companies in the Stockport area.

But much more serious to the L.N.W.R., from 1845 onwards, was the desire of rivals from the east to penetrate deep into Cheshire and Lancashire and tap the freight traffic of the region. The L.N.W.R. fought a protracted battle to prevent such an eventuality, but was not entirely successful. One consequence was the formation of the Cheshire Lines Committee, a joint body owned by the Great Central, Great Northern and Midland companies. The C.L.C. network included the line from Manchester and Stockport to Chester via Northwich, where it controlled most of the important salt and chemical traffic. The Great Central already had a direct Cheshire interest, since it operated the Woodhead line to Sheffield and a series of local routes in the north east of the county. The Great Northern, in conjunction with the Great Central, wanted to gain access to Liverpool to take cross-country traffic over to its east coast line; and the Midland, which in 1863 reached Manchester from St Pancras and was the bitter enemy of the L.N.W.R., wanted to encroach upon the latter’s fiefdom.

All these companies, and others, competed for Cheshire traffic or regarded this as territory to be crossed to reach more desirable traffic centres. Throughout the period from 1830 to 1923, in the shifting world of railway politics, rivals joined forces and fell out again, promoted new lines to steal traffic from competitors, made alliances against common enemies. Whether all this produced a rational and effective rail network was very debatable.