Cheshire between 1550 & 1750

Cheshire between 1550 & 1750

For Cheshire, as for the rest of north-west England, the years after 1550 were a time when changes of immense long-term significance were set in train, a process of development which culminated in what is generally known as the Industrial Revolution. That industrial and urban growth had started to accelerate by the 1550s, long before the dramatic changes of the late 18th century, is now generally recognised. The commercial and economic structure of the region were becoming more complex and sophisticated, the population was increasing at an ever-greater rate, and new industrial and commercial centres challenged the pre-eminence of older market towns—though in many cases the upstarts were in fact developing around an ancient core. Chester, for centuries the leading town in the North West, began to lose its dominant place as Manchester and Liverpool grew.

Government and Administration

The administration of Cheshire lost most of its distinctive identity in the early 16th century, as its palatinate status became increasingly irrelevant and the nature of local government changed. By 1620 the gentry, the justices of the peace, were playing the leading role in county administration. There was a powerful tradition of the extreme antiquity of the leading local fami­lies, a local pride expressed by Daniel King, Cheshire’s first historian: ‘there is no county in England more famous for a long continued succession of Antient Gentry’. The Massey, Venables, Mainwaring, Davenport and Legh families could authentically trace their ancestry back to Domesday, and all but 16 of the leading 106 families in mid- l7th century Cheshire were well-established before the Reformation.

There was thus an unusual stability in the upper reaches of Cheshire society, and this gave ‘solidity’ to county government. In the late 1630s, among the active JPs, there were represented 28 ‘ancient’ families and seven ‘rising gentlemen’—five of those from old Cheshire families—and only two families, the Cottons of Combermere and the Brookes of Norton, were relative newcomers, both having bought monastic lands after the Dissolution. The stability was reinforced by constant intermarriage between the leading families. Between 1590 and 1640 almost two thirds of all marriages by members of the Cheshire gentry were with other members of this group.

The magistrates, drawn exclusively from this circle, met and administered civil business and lesser criminal justice at the quarter sessions, held four times each year. The meetings circulated around Cheshire so that Knutsford, Nantwich, Northwich and Middlewich were sessions towns as well as Chester itself. The city, though, was in a specially privileged position. Its charter of 1507 made it legally a county in its own right, independent of Cheshire and with its own sheriff. As a large and ancient borough it had the full panoply of mayor and aldermen, councillors and officials, its own courts—which had wider powers than most English borough courts—and many liberties and privileges which it jealously guarded and sought to extend.

Of the other boroughs only Congleton (1584) and Macclesfield (1595) were granted charters of incorporation, which created corporate councils with a separate and self-perpetuating existence. Stockport, though it had a mayor and aldermen, was in important matters under the control of its manorial lords, the Warrens of Poynton—their manor courts conducted the real business, and the council of Stockport did not achieve corporate independence. A similar situation prevailed in Altrincham, where the mayor­alty and borough status were largely nominal, and all real power rested with the manorial officers of the Booths of Dunham Massey. In the other Cheshire boroughs, such as Middlewich and Frodsham, the forms of govern­ment did not advance even to this extent, and their administration eventually became largely indistinguishable from that of other communities.

The very limited number of corporate boroughs—only three in the county—is paralleled by the small parliamentary representation. Until 1543, because palatinate status involved a degree of autonomy, the county did not send representatives to parliament. After that year Cheshire, like any other county, elected two knights of the shire to Westminster, while the city of Chester sent two burgesses, but no other borough was represented. There were thus only four MPs in total, and Cheshire was grossly under­represented in comparison with most other counties. The incorporation of Macclesfield and Congleton in the late 16th century was not accompanied by the granting of parliamentary representation, perhaps because of the absence of a suitable patron and, in Congleton’s case, because the known desire of the borough to be liberated from its manorial lord, the duchy of Lancaster, smacked of insubordination.

War and Peace

The Civil Wars of 1642-49 shattered the framework of this society and had a profound effect upon ordinary people, for military service, religious passions, and the physical destruction caused by warfare, reached all levels. Recent work on the Civil War in Malpas and Northenden has highlighted the way in which communities not directly affected by the grand military events were the scene of skirmishes, and could not possibly remain detached and isolated from the powerful pressures of war.

The Cheshire gentry were divided in their allegiances, although before the war most played little part in organised opposition to the king. An exception was Sir William Brereton of Handforth, the most active of the justices and the dominant figure in Cheshire’s political life. Nevertheless, by 1640 low-key discontent was widespread and, though disunity was not yet public, the common ground was being broken by faction and contention. During the next two years Brereton emerged as the radical leader, yet most of the gentry sought to remain moderate and uncommitted, seeing him as a dangerous disturber of peace and order.

As the slide towards war continued, many were forced by circumstances to take sides. During the spring of 1641 there emerged a core of over forty gentlemen who stayed as loyal supporters of the king. Another group spent eighteen months striving, and failing, to prevent the fracturing of county society and to stem the increasing disorder. Of this group, torn between local interests and national issues, 16 eventually went over to the king, 25 to parliament. In the summer of 1642 both sides were drilling trained bands of militia, and there were armed confrontations at Stockport and Nantwich. Local government disintegrated, as the moderates lost control of the magistracy to their extremist colleagues during the autumn of 1642.

The king visited the county just after war began in September, attempting with some success to bring waverers to his side, and by the end of the year the split was complete. Statistics are of doubtful reliability, but among those Cheshire gentry and nobility whose allegiance can be confidently stated about two thirds of those in the upper ranks, holding a similar proportion of the wealth, were royalist; parliament, on the other hand, had the support of most of the active justices of the peace and of the middle-ranking gentry.

Chester, the royalist stronghold, was a strategic point throughout the war, and the king’s men also held a number of fortified manor houses, but the main market towns—Stockport, Nantwich, Northwich, Knutsford, Middlewich and Congleton—were garrisoned by parliamentary forces. Royalist tactical errors allowed parliament free rein in most of rural Cheshire during the early months of the war, and the result was stalemate. The royalists could do little but hold Chester itself, the parliamentary commanders could not muster the strength to take it. The warfare which later inflicted such damage upon the county was therefore largely the result of intervention by external forces on both sides. Brereton, appointed par­liamentary commander in chief in Cheshire, gradually gathered together enough men from outside the county to tip the balance at Chester, but was unable to capture the city until the third attempt, in February 1646.

In late January 1643 parliamentary forces routed the local royalists at Nantwich, and in response Chester’s royalist garrison was reinforced with troops from north Wales. Nantwich became the main parliamentary base for attacking royalist forces in the northern Welsh borders, and in early November 1643 Brereton marched from the town to seize Holt, Wrexham and neighbouring centres. On 18 November, however, his army was threat­ened by a large royalist force which had landed from Ireland. He and his troops immediately abandoned their gains and retreated to Nantwich, followed by the royalists who took control of west Cheshire. On 26 December the parliamentary garrison holding Barthomley church was massacred, and the royalists pressed on to Nantwich, where they laid siege to the town. For a month Nantwich held out, while the parliamentary general Fairfax advanced from Manchester to break the siege. In late January thawing snow caused the Weaver to burst its banks, splitting the royalist forces in two, and taking advantage of this Fairfax joined battle on 25 January, gaining a sweeping victory and inflicting heavy losses upon the royalist forces. Cheshire, apart from Chester itself, was now safely in parliamentary hands and remained so.

After the king’s defeat at Naseby in June 1645 parliament’s efforts were directed towards crushing the remaining royalist resistance. In the late summer Charles moved northwards up the Severn valley and on 22 Sep­tember he entered Chester (which for several months had been besieged by parliamentary forces) using the unprotected approach from Wales. The royalist commanders hoped to attack the besiegers from the rear, but this plan was frustrated by a parliamentary army which had been in hot pursuit of Charles up the Welsh borders. On 24 September, a day of great confu­sion, the parliamentary troops besieging Chester turned on their royalist attackers at Rowton Heath, within sight of the city and its defenders, and were victorious. The remnant of the royalists fled back to Chester, and only succeeded in gaining its relative sanctuary after a second round of fighting, this time with those enemy troops still besieging the city. Chester, one of the last royalist strongholds in England, continued to hold out until it finally fell to Brereton in February 1646.

The war in Cheshire was traumatic. In Nantwicb and Chester the sieges and pitched battles caused widespread devastation. Many buildings outside the walls of Chester were destroyed, and much damage done within the city. During three expeditions which Prince Rupert made through Cheshire there was extensive destruction of property, as royalists ravaged the county because it was in parliamentary hands. In other Cheshire towns, such as Stockport, where there were minor skirmishes and local engagements, physical damage was also inflicted. Local administration broke down completely, while financially the war, and the retributions which followed, were disastrous for the many leading royalists in the county whose estates were seized and sold. And for the ordinary people, who lost family and friends in battle, whose crops were destroyed, whose tax burden shot up to pay for the fighting, war was a disaster, as it always is.

The years after the war saw growing disillusionment even among the loyal adherents of the parliamentary cause. The administration of the county by the justices continued, and they seem to have provided reasonably effective and efficient government, but discontent and the growth of opposition gradually developed. Cheshire was peaceful on the surface, but strong tensions built up during the 1650s and erupted in 1659. There was comparative stability in the membership of the magistrates’ bench, but research suggests that the number of justices who actually did any work was dwindling—a malaise and disenchantment had set in. Old royalists and present parliamentarians rediscovered the common ground of socialising and county interests—in 1658, for example, Thomas Mainwaring, a parliamentary supporter, entertained at the same dinner William Brereton, who had won the siege of Chester for parliament, and Lady Gamull, widow of one of the most heroic of its royalist defenders.

There was growing opposition from all sides to extremism and to the involvement of the army in local affairs: in 1650 troops, ‘ther muskets loded in affront & threat to the civill government & ancient privileges of the city’, had intervened in the Chester mayoral election, a worrying portent. Irrespective of their beliefs in the war years and before, most Cheshire gentlemen shared the view that interference from the centre was a bad thing. From 1654 England was placed under military rule, divided into regions each headed by a major-general. Cheshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire were governed by Charles Worsley, son of a Lancashire merchant. He had an unenviable reputation as an informer and a zealot, and was ruthless in pursuit of apparent threats to the regime. His severity towards suspected royalist sympathisers, and the harshness of the penalties which he imposed upon them, made him bitterly unpopular. Uniquely among his colleagues, he sought out potential royalists even at the bottom of the social scale-40 per cent of the 472 Cheshire men whom he listed as suspects were small farmers and labourers, dismissed as unimportant by all others.

Finally, in 1659, Cheshire was the focus of a major royalist uprising. Sir George Booth of Dunham Massey, a loyal parliamentarian during the war, was totally disillusioned by the mid-1650s despite serving as MP for Cheshire. During 1658 he negotiated secretly with the exiled court, planning a rising to take place in August 1659. By inciting separate revolts in different coun­ties he hoped to paralyse army decision-making. The plots were discovered and in most areas the risings were cancelled, but Booth decided to go ahead in Cheshire. On 1 August 1659 royalist forces mustered at Warrington and then moved on to Chester, where they were admitted by the mayor and governor. Booth and his forces quickly took control of south Lancashire, north Wales and most of Cheshire, but the government then took action (since no other revolts had materialised) and at a short but bitter battle at Winnington Bridge the rebels were defeated.

Agriculture and the Rural Landscape

A gradual conversion from mixed farming to dairying continued in the early modern period. The evidence of probate inventories from Wirral suggests that by the late 16th century 60 per cent of the value of larger farming estates was invested in livestock, and some 30 per cent in grain crops, a proportion which remained relatively constant well into the 17th century, but this was an area which retained a greater proportion of arable than any other—in Macclesfield hundred, for example, there was little large-scale arable farming by the mid-17tb century. Over much of central and southern Cheshire the familiar pastoral landscape was begin­ning to emerge.

The changes were of course relative—even in south Cheshire 15-25 per cent of the agricultural land remained in arable use as late as the 1820s, and the survival of numerous working windmills and watermils until then in all parts of Cheshire demonstrates the continued role of cereal crops in the local economy. However, the production of cheese was becoming crucial to Cheshire’s farming economy, and specialisation within the dairying sector was geared increasingly towards this commodity. Celia Fiennes, that most observant of travellers, noted in 1695 that ‘this shire is remarkable for a greate deale of greate Cheese and Dairys [it is] the custome of the country to joyn their milking together of a whole village and so make their great Cheeses’—cooperative dairying was evidently well-known in 17th-century Cheshire. Daniel Defoe, two decades later, was told that ‘there is about four thousand ton of Cheshire cheese only, brought down the Trent every year.. .to Gainsborougb and Hull’ for shipment to London, a figure which may have been exaggerated but even so indicates a very sizeable trade.

Improving transport links during the 17th century, and the increasing efficiency of the marketing system, helped in the development of the cheese -trade. In turn, the cheese-makers of Cheshire were influential voices press­ing for new transport projects—they were, for example, regular petitioners in support of proposals for-making rivers navigable. The growing markets of the industrial towns of south Lancashire and the west Midlands, and to some extent of Cheshire • itself, provided an additional stimulus to the expansion of commercial cheese-making. From about 1700 the farms on the Mersey lowlands from Eastham to Ince, and in north Wirral, began to produce increasing quantities of cheese for sale on Liverpool market.

Comparable evidence from other parts of north Cheshire emphasises the importance of dairying and cheese-making. Inventories from the Altrincham area imply that milk cows were the largest single category of livestock, and that large quantities of cheese and butter were being made for sale to Manchester and other urban markets. At Altrincham the lord of the manor, Lord Delamer, had sufficient confidence in the trade to order the building of a buttermarket in 1684. Here and in neighbouring townships as early as the 1650s there were cheese factors who specialised in commercial dealing—William Lupton of Altrincham, a pedlar or chapman, had two hundredweight of cheese when be died in 1701, and was probably a travelling cheese-vendor.

In the hills of east Cheshire cattle were comparatively less important, and sheep grazing was of greater significance. Until the mid-18th century there was a large woollen textile industry in south Lancashire and this, together with local manufacturing, provided a market for Cheshire wool. Spinning and weaving took place at home, since mechanisation was a long way in the future, but documentary evidence suggests that in areas such as Longdendale a high proportion of the farming families were weaving on a commercial scale, and that this in fact represented the major part of their income: at Werneth above Romiley in 1575, for example, Reginald Bennettson, although described as a husbandman, had ‘looms belonging to his own trade’—he was a weaver who also farmed.

Flax and hemp were grown throughout the county except on the mid-Cheshire ridge and the Pennine slopes, and these supported a variety of textile trades producing linen and canvas and mixed-thread cloths such as fustian, a wool and flax mixture. In 1594 Hugh Briscoe of Little Budworth, a tinker, also had a substantial farm and owned looms, flax and hemp seed, linen yarn, teasels for raising the nap on cloth, shears, and fuller’s earth for cleaning. Here, too, the manufacturing of yarn and cloth was domestic but the market was commercial in scale and organisation. The great textile industry of the North West was clearly foreshadowed two centuries before the Industrial Revolution.

The unenclosed commons of Delamere Forest, surveyed in 1772
The unenclosed commons of Delamere Forest, surveyed in 1772

Enclosure of the remaining open fields and waste to make pasture also continued during the 16th and 17th centuries, carrying on the trend initiated two centuries before. At Aldersey, in the Dee valley, grants of land in 1546 referred to open unenclosed fields, still farmed on the medieval strip system, but by 1658 the same lands had been enclosed and converted to hedged  fields. The conversion to pasture was often associated with the depopulation of hamlets, a process identifiable in many parts of England from the 1350s onwards. People gave way to animals: the hamlet of Middle Aldersey survived in the 16th century, but a survey of 1698 does not list a single dwelling in the pasturelands of the area.

Such reorganisation of holdings and land use over the period from 1500 to 1800 had a profound effect upon the Cheshire landscape. The expanses of empty pastureland which are now characteristic of, for exam­ple, the area around Christleton and Tarvin were not always so devoid of people and habitation, and the change was not the result of accident but of deliberate action on the part of landowners. At Chowley the enclosure of the open fields began before 1533 and lasted in piecemeal fashion until the early 18th century, latterly under the auspices of the lord, Sir Richard Grosvenor, of whose work it was said that ‘the particular fields and closes time out of mind held to the said houses are so disposed of and the whole so new modelled that no one tenement is the same as it was before’. In east Cheshire unfenced hill grazings were being enclosed and turned into new sheep farms during this same period, reducing the area of common waste very considerably.

These processes were of long duration, but by the mid-18th century, when enclosure by act of parliament became general, there was comparatively little common waste and virtually no open common field left in Cheshire. Only two Cheshire enclosure acts involved open field—those at Frodsham and Chester itself—and across the county documentary sources suggest that the second half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th saw a great deal of piecemeal enclosure which eliminated the residue of the common fields, often by the exchange and consolidation of strips (whereby owners or tenants swapped land to produce single units of property). Examples of this process are noted from Nether Knutsford (1663), Grappenhall (1709) and Wallasey (1733) among many others.

The north Cheshire mosses surveyed in 1772.
The north Cheshire mosses surveyed in 1772.

At the same time agricultural reformers were introducing improved methods of land drainage and from the 17th century onwards the ancient practice of dressing with marl to improve soil quality was supplemented by more scientific approaches to manuring and fertilising. Better-quality grasses were introduced to give richer and more nourishing pasture: in the Wythenshawe area in the mid- l7th century, for example, long ley farming was employed, involving deeper ploughing followed by a period of arable use, with manuring and further ploughing, and then putting down to good-quality grass.

The majority of Cheshire country houses were rebuilt or altered during the 16th and 17th centuries, but new houses were comparatively rare: between 1580 and 1820 only about 36 completely new sites for country houses were chosen. However, around 130 houses either declined into farmhouses or disappeared altogether during the same period. In other words, the total stock of Cheshire’s functioning country houses actually declined significantly.

Some of the loss may be attributed to the Civil Wars and Common­wealth, when many older gentry families suffered from military action or punitive financial retribution, although most were restored to their lands after 1660. Inevitably, too, some estates were badly-managed and became financially exhausted, shrinking in area and prosperity while others actively expanded and prospered. Factors such as the failure of male lines and the consequent disintegra­tion of family structures must also have played a part. Adlington Hall provides an example of the effects of the Civil War; its owner, the royalist Thomas Legh, inherited in 1644 but the house was twice besieged and damaged. After 1649 the property was sequestrated by parliament and was recovered by the Leghs in 1656 only after the payment of very heavy fines.

Cheshire houses in the early modern period betray an uncertainty about architectural fashion—county society was wary of new styles and only adopted them when they were commonplace elsewhere. For example Crewe Hall, among the most important but least known buildings of its date in England, was built on a new site between 1615 and 1639 by Sir Randuiph Crewe, who became Lord Chief Justice in 1625. It was intended as a grand showpiece, but stylistically it was already old-fashioned–it resembles Long­leat, half a century older. At Peover Hall, the home of the Mainwaring family, the building of a new H-shaped house began in 1585, but financial problems required it to be truncated to a T-shape. If completed it would, in the words of a recent writer, have been a ‘formidable and ambitious structure’, but the same author notes that the architecture is ‘strikingly unsophisticated’. Brereton Hall near Sandbach was started in the same year by Sir William Brereton. It was fashionable and showy, but even here the other great houses which were its inspiration dated from the 1540s.

The vernacular buildings of Cheshire survive in large numbers from the later Middle Ages onwards. The traditional building method was timber-framing, and the county still has many hundreds of cottages, farmhouses and inns in this style, as well as manor houses and even a handful of churches—for example, Crewe & Nantwich Borough has 167 surviving timber-framed properties from the 14th-18th centuries. Some places in Cheshire are classic examples of the quintessentially ‘English’ image of half-timbered villages, as at Great Budworth, with its mixture of brick-and-timber and black-and-white types.

Timber-framing continued into the 1700s, and some have detected a decline in the quality of design and ornamentation after the mid-17th cen­tury, but this may well be simply because a larger number of more humble buildings survive from that period. In the Pennines the use of timber-framing was less common, and stone construction was widespread from an early period. Many of the small farmhouses in the east Cheshire hills and Longdendale, as well as cottages in places such as Mottram, Kettleshulme and Disley, date from the 17th century

Industry and Transport

Many of the industries of Cheshire before 1600 were derived from agri­culture, but between 1500 and 1700 the expansion of others laid the foundations of a new economic system. In east Cheshire, on the coal­field which runs south from Stockport and up into the Pennines behind Buxton, small collieries were already operating by the end of Elizabeth’s reign. They developed rapidly in the 17th century to meet the increasing demand for coal in industrial pro­cesses, such as salt-boiling, and for domestic use in the growing towns of the region. There was a coalpit at Worth in Poynton by 1589, and deeds of 1612 refer to newly-sunk mines there. Later 17th century mining agreements from Poynton refer to baskets and windlasses, indicating that shaft-working was in operation, and the mines seem to have reached depths of 60 or more feet by 1700. Coalpits at Norbury, Lyme Handley and the upper Dane were also work­ing by the end of the 17th century.

The demand for building stone and roofing slabs was stimulated by the rebuilding activity and by urban growth, and some of the many quarries in areas such as Kerridge and Mow Cop were operating by 1700. There is no reliable evidence of mining at Alderley Edge until 1693-6, when small workings were undertaken, and the copper ores of the Peckforton hills may also have been worked in this period.

In the mid-17th century an important iron-working industry developed in Cheshire, providing forged rods for nail- and chain-making and other crafts. The earliest known forge was working in 1646 at Betley, on the Staffordshire border, but the main expansion seems to have been in the 1660s. In 1658 John Turner of Stafford built a furnace and forge at Church Lawton, and at Cranage near Holmes Chapel a forge was built in about 1660, probably supplied with iron from Church Lawton. Ironworks in ruggedness of the land-Cheshire were using haematite ores from Furness as early as 1664, and this trade was one of the reasons put forward for promoting the Trent Mersey Canal as late as 1766, having been an important traffic on the Weaver navigation earlier in the century.

There were other forges and ironworks in the late 17th and early 18th centuries at Warmingham, Street near Alsager, Disley, and Vale Royal. Street produced salt pans, frying pans and saw blades, but evidence from elsewhere in mid-Cheshire suggests that the change from lead to iron pans in the saltworks may have stimulated the industry. Much of the output from Cheshire forges went to the metal-working areas of the Black Country and the Leigh district in Lancashire, but as well as the making of saltpans there were other local needs—for example, nailers are recorded at (among other places) Church Lawton in 1663, Macclesfield in 1667 and Tushingham in 1678, and there were locksmiths at Nantwich in 1633.

The furnace at Vale Royal, over fifteen miles from the nearest source of iron, was probably built there because the Weaver allowed the importing of Cumbrian ores, but its isolation meant that it was always a risky venture.

Small coalpits are dotted across the landscape from Norbury south through Poynton and Pott Shrigley on this 1772 Map
Small coalpits are dotted across the landscape from Norbury south through Poynton and Pott Shrigley on this 1772 Map

Not long after 1716, when it was taken over by the celebrated Abraham Darby of Coalbrookdale, it was closed. Other Cheshire forges were run down in this period, and in the late 1730s output was only about half of its 1720 level. The main exception was the works at Warm­ingham, which under the manage­ment of the Vernon family expanded to become one of the largest in the country. Nevertheless, later in the 18th century the industry could not survive in the face of vigorous competition from coalfield-based furnaces, and most of the Cheshire works had closed by 1785.

The salt industry also began to expand from the late 16th century, when technological changes made extraction from brine more efficient and cost-effective. The most important change was the use of coal as a fule for the evaporation process, although the salt springs were not themselves on a coalfield there were pits within ten miles or so, around Macclesfield and north of Newcastle under Lyme. Another advance was the substitution of iron for lead in the evaporation pans. Iron was stronger and could be used to make larger vessels which did not melt or buckle in the higher temperatures of coal fires. Analysis suggests that the use of coal for boiling brine from springs was at least six times more efficient than its use for sea-water, so the Cheshire industry had a new advantage over competitors.

Salt-making at Nantwich was described in 1656: ‘it hath one Salt Spring.. .from whence they carry the Brine to the Wich-Houses … Within the said Houses are great Barrels set deep into the Earth, which are all filled with Salt-Water, and then when the Bell ringeth, they begin to make fire under the Leads, every house hath six Leads, wherein they seeth the said Salt-water; and as it seeths, the Wallers (which are commonly women) do with a wooden Rake gather the Salt from the bottom, which they put into a long Basket of Wicker, which they call a Salt-Barrow’. Figures quoted in 1682 show that about 21,000 bushels of salt were being produced each week, some 58 per cent from Northwich and the rest shared roughly equally between Middlewich and Nantwich.

At this time, however, the prospects of the industry were transformed. The change in fuel encouraged active exploration for new coal seams in mid-Cheshire, in the hope that reserves would be found in the salt-producing area itself. This proved to be over-optimistic but in 1670, during the course of these explorations, a trial boring at Marbury near Northwich revealed beds of rock salt—the reason for the existence of the Cheshire brine-springs had never before been appreciated. Mining quickly followed, and by the early 18th century it was more economical to raise rock salt and refine it near the coalfield than to import coal for the refining of brine. The owners of the brine pits protested, but to no avail, and for several decades there­after rock salt mining was the mainstay of the industry.

Most was carried overland to Frodsham Bridge, the bead of navigation on the Weaver, and then sent by sea to Ireland, south Wales and northern Europe, or across to Dungeon, near Hale on the north bank of the estuary, where England’s first salt refinery was fuelled by Widnes coal. An unknown proportion of the output continued to be sent overland into Derbyshire and Yorkshire, as it had been for centuries, using packhorses on the old salt routes through the Pennines. However, as the industry expanded during the late 17th century, the high cost of overland transport prompted the revival of older projects for making the Weaver navigable into the heart of Cheshire, and in 1721 such a scheme was authorised by Parliament.

During the next twelve years the river was improved as far upstream as Winsford Bridge, but schemes to extend the navigation to Nantwich, and up the Dane to Middlewich, were never implemented. Their failure was a major factor in the decline of salt production at those two towns, because their output became significantly more expensive when transport costs were included. Northwich thereafter enjoyed a built-in advantage, while the Winsford area, previously of little significance for salt but now at the head of navigation, quickly began to develop as a centre for the industry. The navigation also made the import of coal from south Lancashire to mid-Cheshire very much cheaper, reversing the earlier position, and the in situ refining of rock-salt to produce very high quality ‘white salt’ began in the 1730s. The Weaver Navigation carried 30,000 tons of salt down from Winsford and Northwich in 1744, and in 1763 the river carried a total of 76,952 tons of goods, mostly coal and salt.

The leather trades were important in many towns—for example at Nantwich, where glove-making was a mainstay of the economy by the early 17th century as numerous entries in the parish registers testify—but the centre of the industry was Chester where, in the century after 1550, 20 per cent of all newly-admit­ted freemen of the city were leather workers. This group included hatters, glovers, shoemakers and cord-wainers, saddlers and tanners, and it has been argued that leather crafts­men represented by far the largest employment group in the Elizabethan city. The trade was essential to the prosperity of the port of Chester, for though it drew most of its raw materials from the surrounding countryside, it satisfied an international market.

The textile industries, later of such overwhelming importance in towns such as Macclesfield, were still small in 1700. Nevertheless, there are many references to cloth being produced for more distant locations—for example, in 1610 George Chetham, a Manchester textile merchant, sold ‘linen cloth, commonly called Stopport cloth’ on the London market. Instances such as this indicate a developing national market, and also point to the key role which Manchester played even at this stage. Coarse woollen cloths were the most important product of north-east Cheshire, and 17th-century sources. note fulling mills in Macclesfield, Rainow and Congleton among other places. There were local specialities—at Sale and Ashton on Mersey the weaving of garthweb (‘girtbweb’, the coarse fabric used for saddle-girths) was a mainstay of the economy by the early 18th century, and parish register entries suggest that over 25 per cent of adult males were engaged in this trade in the period 1706-30.

By the early 17th century the Macclesfield district was already notable for the production of buttons, made from padded wood or horn and embroidered with silk, linen thread or horsehair. The highly specialised trade was so vital to Macclesfield that in 1655 the corporation considered it to be as important as the blessings of God in explaining the fact that the inhabitants were ‘much bettered in their livelihood and estates than heretofore’. The trade in buttons was national, even international in its scope—Stephen Rowe, a merchant who died in 1617, had links with the Netherlands—but much of the output was probably sold in Cheshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire by pedlars and chapmen who hawked buttons from village to village.

The button merchants had a sophisticated network of trading and financial interests which, together with their surplus capital, was available when they began to develop silk-manufacturing. By the mid-17th century silk was being handthrown (that is, twisted to make a weavable thread) in several areas of east Cheshire, including Rainow and Macclesfield, and there appear references to silk weavers at Stockport, Congleton and Macclesfield. The weaving of specialised fabrics, such as ribbons and narrow-silks at Macclesfield by the 1690s, is also recorded, while Congleton was locally-important for lace-making.

Towns and Trade

The project to make the Weaver navigable, although implemented in the 1720s, was first planned in the 1660s during a wave of enthusiasm for such schemes. Most were abortive, largely because of cost and lack of techno­logical expertise, but the principle of improving rivers did not lose its appeal. As industrial and commercial expansion created a demand for better transport—especially for bulk commodities—the possibility of extending navigations was still pursued, and in the mid-1690s the tidal stretch of the Mersey from Runcorn to Warrington was improved by dredging and other works promoted by Thomas Patten, a Warrington landowner and merchant. An extension upstream to Manchester, the

Mersey and Irwell Navigation, was authorised in 1720, and for the first time the tremendous economic potential of the Manchester basin was opened up to waterway traffic.

In the last years of the 17th century comparable schemes were put forward for improving the Dee to Chester and above, with the aim of easing access to the city and making a navigable waterway into south Cheshire and Denbighshire. The silting of the river, and its shallowness, were perpetually a problem, and it was hoped that a straighter and wider artificial channel, regularly dredged, would eliminate this. Although the upper section was never implemented, the improvement of the Chester channel was completed after 1698 when Francis Gell, a London merchant, built modest navigation works as far as the Roodee in Chester, where a new wharf was constructed.

By the 1730s, though, the shifting sands were once again causing trouble and in 1735-6 a completely new channel was cut through the sandbanks on the Welsh side from Chester to beyond Flint. This was not particularly successful in assisting the port of Chester, and it damaged the access to the outport at Parkgate, the main passenger port for Ireland in the 17th century.

However, it did allow the reclamation of the estuary above Shotton, and the tracts of flat polderland (on the Cheshire side of the river but in Wales) around Sealand and the former steelworks site at Shotton are the result. In retrospect it is clear that the shallowness of the river was not the real problem. The increasing size of vessels meant that no amount of dredging could make the city accessible to modern ships, while in the long-term the lack of an industrial hinterland reduced the need for large-scale commercial traffic on the Dee. Although until the late 17th century the trade of the port of Liverpool lagged far behind that of Chester, its growth thereafter can be linked not only with its deeper waters but also with the industrialisation of south Lancashire.

As a trading and commercial centre, though, Chester was predominant in the region until the mid-18th century. It had a wide range of specialised fairs and markets catering for large-scale dealing, and people visited these from far afield. For example, by 1700 there were four annual horse fairs. Sales records from the 1560s show that buyers came from places as distant as Cumberland, and that over one-third of all sales were to people from outside Cheshire. The Chester horse fairs were especially noted for pack beasts, and there were close commercial ties with the cloth manufacturers of Kendal, Blackburn, Halifax and Wakefield who regularly bought their animals there. Shropshire and north Wales were also significant areas of business.

The city records from the early 17th century reveal an overseas trade which, despite the problems of the port, was extensive and varied. The main connections were with Ireland (especially Dublin), France and Spain. Exports included cloth from Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire, for which Chester was a major outlet, together with hats, hosiery, gloves and clothing. Among exports, though, tanned calfskins far outweighed any other commodity following the granting of an export licence to the merchants of the city in 1584. Coal, lead and lead ore, and manufactured household goods were also sent overseas, and cereals and leather goods were sent to France and Spain.

Some of the goods imported from the Continent were later re-exported to Ireland. Spices, soap, sugar, glass, starch, and dried fruits were regularly handled, and Spanish iron was a leading import until the mid-17th century. The trade with France was predominantly in wine, especially from Bordeaux and La Rochelle, and goods brought from Ireland included fish, linen yarn, beef and cattle, wool and sheepskins, and rawhides. Although the level of trade fluctuated markedly from year to year, and there were always serious problems when political and military crises involving France or Spain reduced commercial contacts, the significance of the port to the city’s economy is clear. However, in national terms the port of Chester was comparatively small, even though it was dominant in the north west of England. In 1634 it paid £120 in export duties (and Liverpool a mere £18) but for comparison Plymouth and Cornwall paid £798 in 1631, and Bristol on its own paid £424.

The City of Chester 1818.
The City of Chester 1818.

The physical fabric of the towns also began to change, as the ‘English urban renaissance’ of the late 17th and early 18th centuries brought new architectural styles and fash­ionable building materials, and town authorities, public and private, acquired greater cultural sophistication and civic pride—the urban equivalent of the ‘great rebuilding’ already noted in connection with country houses. New construc­tion was often assisted by natural disasters—a major fire at Chester in 1709 had ‘the whole Town amaz’d with light and terror’ and threatened to ‘have spread and devourd a great part of the City’, while Nantwich was largely rebuilt after the great fire of 1583, only 140 years after it had been extensively damaged by an earlier fire. The town therefore has some exceptional examples of late 16th-century architecture, including the splendid Crown Hotel of 1584.

Religion and Education

The dissolution of the monasteries had comparatively little impact in Cheshire simply because of the modest scale of the county’s religious houses. Only in Chester was there a more extensive effect, in economic as well as spiritual terms, but here the traumas of the 1530s had a most important consequence. The government proposed to create additional dioceses as part of the reorganisation and enhancement of the new Church of England and, although most of the suggestions were not implemented, Chester was one of five which did come to fruition. A new diocese was created in August 1541, taking in the archdeaconry of Chester and (from the diocese of York) the archdeaconry of Richmond, with the abbey church of St Werburgh as its cathedral.

The creation of the diocese of Chester, 1541, from the pre-Reformation sees of Coventry & Lichfield & York
The creation of the diocese of Chester, 1541, from the pre-Reformation sees of Coventry & Lichfield & York

The diocese of Lichfield had been extremely difficult to administer, but the new diocese of Chester was no better—it stretched from Workington to Malpas, its cathedral city was geographically peripheral, and its financial resources were quite inadequate. In consequence the effectiveness of its administration was often lamentably poor, and its difficulties were exacerbated both by an exceptionally high level of clergy absenteeism—in 1541 only 20 of the 94 incumbents and curates in Cheshire were resident—and by the very low educational standard of its clergy. The problems were intractable, and successive bishops of Chester fought, with little enthusiasm, to tackle the huge difficulties of their diocese. Some were themselves totally inadequate—Bishop Downham (1561-79) was on several occasions publicly reprimanded by the govern­ment for the abject failure of his policies, while some of his successors were only slightly less lax and slapdash.

An issue of particular importance was the continuing strength of Catholicism, for in the 17th century Chester had far more Catholics than any other English diocese, and although their heartland was in Lancashire the government was in a constant state of anxiety about the situation in both counties. About 200 Cheshire Catholics were identified in the 1590s, and some 550 a century later, but these numbers must underestimate their true strength. Catholics were concentrated in west Cheshire—only seven per cent of those identifiable in Elizabeth’s reign came from east of the Weaver—and possible explanations for this include the higher standard of pre-Reformation spiritual care in and around Chester itself, proximity to Welsh Catholic strongholds, and the presence of several prominent Catholic gentry families who acted as protectors of the faith. Priests were known to be active in south Cheshire in the 1570s and ’80s, but the county received far less attention from the Catholic hierarchy than did Lancashire and Yorkshire.

In the 1590s the Puritan movement in the diocese began to gather force and, according to the government and archbishops, was not met with sufficient counter-activity by the bishops of Chester, who were usually regarded as over-lenient towards dissenters of all colours. In the late 1630s archbishops Neile of York and Laud of Canterbury began to enforce stricter controls on Puritans in the diocese, but the collapse of church government in 1640 put an end to this. Puritan elements were in the ascendancy from the end of the 1630s—in Chester the altar rails and other high Anglican symbols were swept away in most city churches, and the cathedral walls were whitewashed and its stained glass destroyed. Later, after the parlia­mentary forces had occupied the city, the cross of St Mary was removed and this church and St John’s were badly damaged.

When the Church of England was restored in 1660 the huge problems remained unsolved. After 1662, under Bishop Hall, the vast, unwieldy and impoverished diocese had its most effective administration for decades. In that year about one hundred clergy with nonconformist leanings were ‘ejected’ from their Cheshire livings, as part of a national purge, and between 1660 and 1663 no less than three-quarters of all Cheshire churches had new incumbents, a clean sweep which allowed the diocesan authorities to appoint more loyal replacements of better quality.

But the ejected ministers provided an invaluable infusion of new blood and vigour to existing dissenting congregations, and in east Cheshire, always the more difficult and neglected part of the county in terms of church administration, this led to a major upsurge in activity. The Church of England chapels at Ringway, Chadkirk and Lower Whitley were taken over by the nonconformists. Several small radical sects had been active in the Mersey and Weaver valleys during the Commonwealth period, and there was an early Quaker meeting at Congleton (1654). The proximity of Manchester, a long-standing centre of nonconformity, and the presence of trade and industry, often associated with religious and political dissent, were significant factors in this east Cheshire bias. In July 1689, after the passing of the Toleration Act, 92 meeting houses were licensed in Cheshire, and by 1700 almost 250 had been registered; Nantwich, Macclesfield and Knutsford were notable centres.

In Chester itself nonconformity remained strong long after the Restoration, and the influential Mercers’ Company was a deep reservoir of anti-Anglican feeling. Nevertheless, within the Church of England the characteristic atti­tude of casual laxness returned under Bishop Wilkins (1668-72), who was tolerant of dissenters, and Bishop Cartwright, who was personally appointed by James II in 1686 and enjoyed excellent relations with the Catholic commu­nity. Despite official intolerance the city’s nonconformist community clearly and publicly flourished in the late 17th century, and there were said to be over 1,000 dissenters in Chester in 1700.

Official attitudes began to change at the end of the century. Cartwright’s successor from 1689 was Nicholas Stratford, a zealous High Churchman and leading member of the Anglican Tory establishment locally and nationally. He was appalled by the state of his diocese—’many things are seriously amiss and very much need correction’—and made strenuous efforts to improve the academic, moral and spiritual quality of his clergy. Stratford was closely involved in the detailed administration of the diocese, at the centre of a close-knit group of like-minded men. Under his rule, for the first time in its 160-year history, the diocese of Chester was admin­istered with something approaching competence.

References in wills confirm the existence of some Cheshire schools before the Reformation, and not only in the larger centres—Pott Shrigley had a village school and library from 1492. Grammar schools are identifiable at Chester by 1368, Stockport (1487), Macclesfield (1502) and Malpas (1527), and there were probably others which have left no documentary record. During the 16th and early 17th centuries, however, the demand for education increased sharply and there was a corresponding growth in the number and quality of schools, a process also seen in other northern counties. By 1600 at least 23 grammar schools can be traced in Cheshire, with an unknown number of less formal and less ambitious establishments.

Many charity schools, giving education to the poor, also originated during this period—twenty or more in the 16th century and another thirty-five or so in the 17th. However, there is clear evidence that enthusiasm for the founding of schools in general came to an abrupt halt with the social and economic disruption of the Civil Wars, and did not resume once calm was restored. After 1640 there was almost no new initiative at the grammar school level, though we cannot be sure what was being done to maintain less formal establishments.

Religious instruction played a prominent part in the teaching, and in most schools this, with the 3Rs, was all that was offered. Attempts to provide a classical syllabus, as at Thomas Lee’s school at Darnhall (1699), usually petered out, except in the largest and grandest of the grammar institutions. Most founders provided some form of endowment (usually land) to allow the school to draw income, and there were some very generous bequests—William Gleave left £500 in 1665 for a free school at Woodchurch, and a local clergy­man followed this up with a library of almost 400 volumes—but Audlem Grammar School had an annual income of only £4 9s. Od. and in the 1860s, when the Charity Commissioners investigated schools, only two of the 68 endowed elementary (that is, non-grammar) schools in Cheshire had an income exceeding the £100 minimum which was thought adequate for effective educational provision.

Much less is known about the local schools, the informal establishments which left—and indeed kept—few records. The case of Poynton may be typical. There was a school at least as early as 1703, but it had no endowment and by 1778 was apparently abandoned. In 1789 the nearest school was said to be a Sunday School at Norbury for over 100 boys and girls, and it was not until 1838 that, under the auspices of Lord Vernon, Poynton and Worth Village School was established. The experience of this one village highlights the erratic nature of educational provision in most rural commu­nities in Cheshire before the mid-19th century.