Tag Archive: History

Sep 03 2017

Book review: Chester AD400-1066 by David Mason

chester400-1066adI couldn’t resist more Chester history, so now I am reading Chester AD400-1066: From Roman Fortress to English Town by David Mason. I’ve just read Jane Laughton’s book on late medieval Chester covering the period 1275-1520 (review here), and read David Mason’s book on Roman Chester (review here) towards the end of last year. This book fills most of the gap between those two books, but not quite.

Evidence for the early part of the period is sparse, particularly in the earlier years between about 400AD and 600AD – it isn’t known as the “Dark Ages” for nothing. During this time, after the Roman withdrawal, no durable mass-produced items such as coins or pottery were being produced. Elsewhere, in nearby Wroxeter, archaeological evidence suggests that the early Britons built wattle-and-daub huts within substantial Roman buildings. In Chester there is little such evidence. The various Roman buildings in Chester would have decayed at different rates. The baths under the now Grosvenor Shopping Centre had metre thick walls and would have only fallen down slowly, whilst the barracks in the north east quarter of the city were less substantial. At the barracks there are black deposits, possibly pigeon droppings, deposited between Roman and later date-able layers. It would seem that for most of the period from 400AD to 900AD Chester was a Roman ruin with some desultory farming and living taking place within its walls.

A little after this earliest period to 600AD there are are some written records, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and Bede’s History which were written some time – dozens, even hundreds of years – after the event. There are songs and poems from Wales, transmitted orally, which refer to the period.

Chester enters the historical record of the period with the Battle of Chester in AD616, for which there is archaeological evidence in the form of a mass burial at Heronbridge, just south of the city. Here 120 skeletons were found dating to the same period as documentary evidence for the battle and with wounds consistent with dying in battle.

St John’s church, founded in 689AD sits next to the old Roman amphitheatre from whose remains it was built, although there is some suggestion that Christians were martyred at the amphitheatre, so it wasn’t simply a case of being unwilling to carry heavy stones further than necessary!

In common with the Roman period, and the later period covered by Laughton’s book Chester holds a key strategic position between Wales and Ireland on the one hand and the rest of England, variously inhabited by Dane’s and Anglo-Saxons on the other. I found some of the discussion here confusing with what I would refer to as “Celts” from Wales, the West Country, Scotland and Ireland described as “British” and those from Mercia and Wessex as “English”.

The final third or so of the book is devoted to Chester as a burh one of the network of fortified towns set up by King Alfred – Chester was established in 907AD. It’s at this point that Chester appears to turn into a proper town, and a moderately important one at that. In the years after its establishment as a burh Chester had “moneyers” – effectively a mint, twice the size of London. This is reflected in the discovery of coins minted in Chester being found in Ireland and around the Irish Sea. The establishment of the burh mandated taxation and physical labour to build its defences and bridges – it’s likely in this period that the modern circuit of the walls was constructed. There is more archaeological evidence from this period and the start of some form of systematic written records, rather than the non-contemporaneous writing alluding to previous periods.

It is during the period after the establishment of the burh that King Edgar holds his coronation in the city, in 973AD. By the time of the Norman conquest and subsequent Domesday census Chester had 431 houses and a further 56 belonging to the Bishop (presumably of St. Werburgh’s church which was founded by in Edgar in 758AD). It also had a system of laws and taxation detailed in the Domesday book.

The book ends with Chester suffering a setback in the years after the Norman conquest as a result of its part in rebellion against the incoming King William.

Chester AD400-1066 is a fairly slender volume but more readable than Roman Chester. As a result of the sparsity of the archaeological and written records for the period it is wider in its scope than books set before and after this period.

Aug 28 2017

Book review: Life in a late medieval city by Jane Laughton

medieval_chesterI’m back to local history with my next review. A while back I read Roman Chester by David J.P. Mason. I have his book Chester 400AD –1066AD on my “to read” pile but instead I am jumping forward to Life in a late medieval city: Chester 1275-1520 by Jane Laughton.

The book starts with some definitions and background. How do we define a city? What was the hierarchy of settlements in Cheshire and indeed the rest of England and Wales? This information can be inferred from various charters, and the like.

The book is laid out thematically, so having covered definitions of towns it then goes on to provide an overview of the historical background to the period. This is generally revolves around what kings were doing (invading Wales, crushing rebellions) but also mentions the rise and fall of Chester with famine and the Black Death.

Chester was an important location in Roman times, acting as a forward base for the Roman invasion of northern England and a potential jumping off point for Ireland. So it was in the late medieval period. The start of the time span of the book coincides with the time Edward I’s invasion of Wales when Chester was used as a garrison for the invasion force.

The next chapters cover the topography of the city and the built environment. The central streets of Chester, Eastgate, Bridge Street, Northgate and Watergate play a key part here – as they do to this day. In the period covered by the book these streets provided the key administrative divisions of the city, when citizens interacted with the bureaucracy they were labelled with their name and home street.

I am intrigued by the Pentice, which was a lean-to structure built against St Peter’s church at the Cross in the centre of the city which served as the base for administration for many years (you can see a picture of the Pentice on this page) – it was finally demolished in the early years of the 19th cenutry. The “Rows” are a key feature of the built environment even now, as they were in the late medieval period. For those that haven’t visited Chester the Rows are an arrangement whereby walkways runs through the first storey of the shops on Eastgate, Bridge Street, Watergate and Northgate (to a limited extent). Towards the street from the Row there is a flat, slightly sloped “stall” which was used to lay out goods in the past, beyond which is open to the street at first storey. Opposite the stalls are shops, and beneath the “Rows” are undercrofts. You can see pictures of the rows here, they haven’t changed a great deal over the years.     

Laughton makes it clear that the book is based on the records of courts and taxation within the city. So we know, for example, that the tanners in the city worked outside the Eastgate because there are court records of them being charged with blocking the city ditch with their cess pits. We know of the types of trade taking place in the city through taxation, rental and customs records.

Sometimes the relationship with the underlying records feels a bit direct. We are introduced to messuage with no explanation, a messuage is a dwelling and its land. And also pavage, murage and even pontage – these are taxes raised for the purpose of building and maintaining roads, walls and bridges respectively. The portmote, crownmote and piepowder courts are similarly introduced with little ceremony. Portmote are essentially courts in port town, crownmote are courts which cover the most serious offences and piepowder courts cover justice surrounding traders coming in from outside the city. Similarly a range of now obscure occupations such as corviser, souter, barker are introduced with little explanation. On the plus side I have learnt a host of new words for which to find application!

The book goes on with chapters on the hierarchical society and urban government. There is some overlap here with men moving through positions in the government of Chester, more rapidly if they are nobility.

This history of Chester is quite distinct from my readings in the history of science, the period it covers lies before the main developments in Western science. Copernicus (1473-1543), Mercator (1512-1594) and Galileo (1564-1642) are the earliest I’ve read about, most of the history of science I’ve read is post English Civil War. Science does have an equivalent to the administrative records in this book but they are impersonal records of the locations of stars and planets, and the like. Reading Life it strikes me that Chester (and undoubtedly the rest of England) had quite complex systems of law, ownership, trade and so forth from a very early time – science is something of a latecomer.

It feels like a book a bit more for the specialist than the general reader but I found it pretty readable and enjoyed the link it gave me to the medieval inhabitants of the city I live in.

Apr 23 2017

Book review: Man of Iron by Julian Glover

This review is on man-of-ironMan of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover. Telford fits in with my interest in the Industrial Revolution, which are longstanding – in my very early teens my first stay at a hotel was in Ironbridge for a weekend of visiting the museums in that area. More recently I moved to Chester which is not that far from the famous Pontscysyllte Aqueduct and the Menai bridge and London to Holyhead roads, all works Telford was involved in.

Telford was born in Eskdale in the Scottish Borders in 1757, a tightknit rural community from which a number of great names have emerged  – William Pulteney (formerly William Johnstone) key amongst them, as an early patron of Telford. His father, a shepherd, died shortly after he was born.

He originally apprenticed as a stonemason in Eskdale before travelling to Edinburgh and London, where he worked on the refurbishment of Somerset House. He next worked in Portsmouth where he started to be involved in architectural design. He moved to Shropshire to become (eventually) county surveyor in 1786, where he was engaged in a wide range of projects.

As we head into the 1790’s the projects he is involved in expand enormously. Starting with the Ellesmere Canal, which includes the Pontscysyllte Aqueduct. Originally it was intended as a lower level, stone structure with locks taking the canal into the valley, at one point it was proposed that it should carry a rail-way. However, when the moment came the economy and lightness of iron led to the high level structure we see today.

Telford then went on to an enormous construction project in Scotland including harbours, the Calendonian Canal, numerous bridges and roads which necessitated extensive biannual visits over a period of 20 years or so. This project was put in place by the government, keen to see development in the Highlands, and later in the period having more cash to fund such work having finished fighting the French.

In common with William Smith, who made the first geological map of Britain, and Erasmus Darwin he was tremendously mobile forever travelling at a time when travel was hard. (Both of these men were his contemporaries). Telford knew the Darwin family and admired Erasmus Darwin’s “The Loves of Plants”, an epic scientific poem (a genre that has long fallen into disuse). In his earlier years Telford turned his hand to (not particularly good) poetry in the manner of Robert Burns who again was also a contemporary and was born not far from Eskdale.

In addition to this he directed the construction of the London to Holyhead road including the Menai Bridge, and with spurs along the North Wales coast to Conwy. He also planned the Göta Canal which crosses Sweden from the North to the Baltic Seas. The book includes a lengthy appendix listing his works (and the resident engineers on those projects, where relevant), I did consider mapping all these works but decided the list was too long!

Much of his inner motivation we learn from his correspondence with Andrew Little, a boyhood friend which sadly ends in 1803 with the death at age 48 of Little. Telford never married and there is scarcely a hint of any relationships with any women, Glover suggests in passing that his relationship with Little may have been very deep.

In his correspondence with Little we see Telford’s voracious appetite for continuous learning, but also a degree of cunning in his ambitions. He is not just a skilled technician in his fields but also a skilled worker of contacts, and project manager. He had a keen eye for his progress.

There’s some discussion in the book as to how much we should consider the projects he was involved in as his individual successes or as part of a team. This seems to me to be something of a trap, we tend to seek out the hero, the individual in any venture rather than truly appreciate the team effort. Think for example the way in which individual footballers are adulated. This carries over into histories of science and engineering, much of popular history of science is about the “great man” rather than the broader sweep or the group effort. Telford was no doubt technically able across a wide range of topics, he knew how to work his patrons, and he seems an excellent project manager. It’s clear there were often others like William Jessop who were notionally his superior for projects such as the Ellesmere Port canal and some of the Scottish work and likewise he had strong independent subordinates, particularly in Scotland, who delivered the work. Often biographers seems to fall into the trap of considering their subject “not sufficiently recognised”.

Telford died in 1834, a somewhat diminished figure. By that time the railways were starting to spread across the country and they would soon displace the canals and roads that had been his life’s work. I can’t help thinking that the projects that he worked on such as the Menai Bridge, the London – Holyhead road and the Ellesmere Canal demonstrated that the railway lines which were to come were feasible, if not always economically viable. Many times whilst reading this book I googled for the bridges he had built and found them still standing, sometimes still in use, sometimes by-passed by newer versions built to carry traffic unimaginable 200 years ago. Nevertheless they represent an impressive legacy. 

Apr 08 2017

Book Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

hidden_figuresHidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of Africa American women who worked as “computers” at NASA and its predecessor NACA during and after the Second World War.

In a first, this means I am currently reading both fiction and non-fiction by African-American women. (I’m also reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler)

The Hidden Figures worked initially in the West Area Computing Group at the NACA Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia, which did reseach on aircraft and then rocket design. The Computing groups carried out calculations at the behest of engineers from around the Centre, this was at a time when calculation was manual or semi-manual compared to today. Over time they were co-opted directly into research groups, some of them to ultimately become engineers. The West Computing group was mirrored by the East Area Computing Group – comprised of white women.

There is some history for women acting as “computers”, and the necessity of World War II led to the government taking on Africa American women for the job, in face of historic segregation. For African American women this was a rare opportunity, until then the only recourse for African American woman with advanced training in maths was teaching. For a very few the Computing group ultimately acted as a stepping stone to working as an engineer.

Shetterly sees these women as a vanguard to the African Americans in the modern US who have every opportunity open to them. This jars a little to me when I see constant news from the US of, for example black people being more likely to be killed by the police, or a senior African American being brought together by the President with the policeman that aggressively interviewed him on his doorstep because the house looked too nice to belong to a black man. Or African Americans being purposefully disenfranchised.

The shocking thing to me, as a Brit, was the degree to which US society was absolutely, formally segregated on racial grounds. In Virginia, where this story is set, segregation was preserved by the Democratic Party (perhaps some explanation as to why African Americans are not necessarily whole-heartedly Democrats). In Prince Edward County, Virginia they went as far as shutting down all the public schools for 5 years in order that black and white children would not be educated together – white children were given grants to study at private schools. Britain may have been racist in the past, it may still be racist today but it never enshrined it so deeply and widely into law.

In response to this Africa Americans ran a parallel community, segregation didn’t end because the segregation laws were repealed. It ended because African Americans saw the end of those laws as a door ajar which needed a serious push to pass through. Thus when Rosa Parks sat on the bus, Katherine Goble (from this book) went to university and Ruby Bridges went to school they didn’t do so entirely alone. They had the support of their community and the organisation of the NAACP to help them. They had to be twice as good as a white person to get the same job. At the same time they also saw themselves as representatives of their race, and examples to their children.

When you look at a man the age of Donald Trump, 70, it’s worth bearing in mind that his teenage years were spent during the end of segregation by law and his parents were the white generation which fought so hard to keep it.

The focus of the book is mainly the personal lives, and ambitions of the women. There is some description of the work they, and the Research Centre did, but not in any great depth. The book highlights again the transformative effect of, particularly, the Second World War on society in the US. The seeds of theses changes could be seen after the First World War. This mirrors similar changes in society in the UK.

Once “computing” became the realm of high capital machinery the importance of women as computers waned, high capital machinery being the preserve of men. We see the consequences of this even now.

The book finishes with the part Katherine Johnson, in particular, played in John Glenn’s first trip into orbit and her subsequent work on the Apollo moon landing and Apollo 13 recovery. Shetterly emphasises the legacy of this group of women that normalised the idea that Africa American women could ultimately become engineers, scientists or any other sort of professional.

Interestingly my wife and I disagreed on the prominence of the men on the cover of the book (see above). She thought they were central and thus important, I thought they were small and thus unimportant. In the text the men are bit-part players, they are husbands and sons, or drift in and out of the narrative having spoken their line.

Dec 24 2016

Book review: Roman Chester by David J.P. Mason

roman_chesterI recently realised that I live in a city with rather remarkable Roman roots. Having read Mary Beard’s book, SPQR, about the Roman’s in Rome, I turn now to Roman Chester: Fortress at the Edge of the World by David J.P. Mason.

The book starts with a chapter on the origins of the study of the Roman origins of Chester, and some background on Roman activities in Britain. The study of the Roman history of Chester begin back in the 18th century, with the hypocaust under the old Feathers Inn on Bridge Street a feature promoted by its owner. The Spud-u-like on the site now similarly boasts of its Roman remains. The original Roman east gate was still standing in the 18th century, and there exist several drawings of it from that period. The Victorians were keen excavators of the Roman archaeology, and formed the Chester Archaeological Society in 1849, and built the Grosvenor Museum in 1883.

A recurring theme of the book is the rather wilful destruction of substantial remains in the 1960s to build a couple of shopping centres. The Roman remains on the current Forum Shopping Centre site were destroyed after the rather fine Old Market Hall had been knocked down.

The core Roman activity in Chester was the fortress, established in 75AD under the reign of Vespasian. The fort is somewhat larger than other similar forts in England and the author suggests this was because it was, at one time, intended as the provincial governors base. Vespasian died shortly after the building of the Chester fortress started and the work paused. At the time of its Roman occupation Chester had a very fine harbour, the local sandstone was suitable for building, a brickworks was setup at Holt, further up the River Dee, and there was metal mining in North Wales and there was salt sourced from Northwich – all very important resource at the time.

Standing on the river Dee meant Chester could serve as a base for the further conquest of Britain and Ireland – although these plans did not come to fruition.  The evidence for this is some unusual buildings in the centre of the old fortress, and the rather more impressive nature of the original walls than the average Roman fort, and the discovery of rather classier than usual lead piping.

The book continues with a detailed examination of the various parts of the Roman fortress and the buildings it contained: the public baths, granaries and barracks. This is followed by a discussion of the surrounding canabae legionis, including the amphitheatre, the supporting Roman settlement and the more detached vicus. This includes the settlement at Heronbridge which was excavated relatively recently.

The third part of the book travels through time, looking at the periods c90-c120 in which the fortress was rebuilt, c120-c210 when the legion stationed at Chester was sent elsewhere to fight leaving the fortress to decline significantly. c210-c260 when the original impressive buildings at the heart of the fortress, not initially completed, were finally built. c260-c350 when the fortress fell and rose again. To finish in the period c350-c650 when Britain became detached from Rome, and fell into decline. The Roman fortress was robbed to provide building stone for the medieval walls and other structures including the cathedral.

Roman remains are visible throughout modern Chester. The north and east parts of the modern city walls follow the line of the walls of the Roman fortress. Some pillars are on display in front of the library, the hypocaust found under the Grosvenor shopping centre can now be found in the Roman Gardens, the amphitheatre is half exposed, parts of the walls particularly near Northgate and parallel to Frodsham street are contain Roman elements, the mysterious “quay wall” can be found down by the racecourse.

The book finishes with some comments on the general character of the investigations of Roman remains in Chester, and suggestions for further investigations and how to better exploit Chester’s Roman history. On the whole Chester has done moderately well in its treatment of the past, study started relatively early but much material has not been published. These days archaeology is mandated for new developments in the city but these tend to be rapid, keyhole operations with little coherent design.

Roman Chester is a rather a dry read, it is written much I would expect an article in a specialist archaeology journal to be written. The book could have done with a full double page map of modern, central Chester with the archaeological sites marked on it. As it was I was flicking between text descriptions and Google Maps to work out where everything was. Perhaps a project for the Christmas holiday!

If you are a resident of Chester then the book is absolutely fascinating.


I’ve started making a map of Roman Chester on Google Maps.

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