Celebrating the 170th Anniversary of the Opening of Chester Railway Station

On 1st August 2018 Hoole History and Heritage Society had a stand at Chester Station at the Community Rail Day, held to celebrate the 170th Anniversary of its opening. The Society’s display was about the history and building of Chester Railway Station, and several other societies and railway operators were present.

During the day Phil Cook led three walking tours of the Station, starting with a morning tour arranged for Hoole Community Centre’s over 55s, which was very well received. Phil’s afternoon and evening tours were well supported by members of the Society and other visitors to the event.

The Railway Age at Chester started with the opening of the Chester & Birkenhead and the Chester & Crewe Railways, but it was the impending arrival of more railways at Chester that led to the suggestion that building a joint station, common to all Railway Companies using Chester, would improve the facilities for passengers.

In October 1845, the Grand Junction Railway Company, which had taken over the Chester & Crewe Railway, made a proposal to that effect, and, in December 1846, a Joint Committee was formed to draw up plans. At first, consideration was given to building the new station closer to the centre of Chester, but this would have entailed extensive approach track alterations, landowners to placate, buildings to be demolished, and payments of compensation.

The Joint Committee agreed plans for a joint passenger station, separate goods shed and a road bridge at the end of Brook Street within months. It concluded that the station would have to be built close to where the railways already existed. Parliamentary approval would be sought by the Companies to build the station on part of the Flookersbrook estate, close to Brook Street.

When the idea of a joint station was first mooted, three companies were affected: The Grand Junction; the Chester and Birkenhead; and the Chester & Holyhead. The Shrewsbury & Chester arrived in November 1846.

In 1847, two Acts of Parliament were passed which authorised the Shrewsbury & Chester and the Chester & Holyhead Railways to construct the station at Chester, to be managed jointly by the London and North West Railway (which had absorbed the Grand Junction Railway) and the Lancashire & Cheshire Junction Railway (which incorporated the Chester & Birkenhead Railway on 22nd July 1847) and the Shrewsbury & Chester Railway.

In a short period of time railways were rapidly developing a national network. With four busy routes meeting at Chester there would be a considerable interchange of passengers between trains.

Thomas Brassey was the chief contractor for the Station site. He started preparatory work in levelling and draining the ground on 22nd January 1847. The site covered some 60 acres, with 8 miles of track. (At the time of opening of the station in 1848, the land in front of it remained open fields, with a footpath leading towards Cow Lane Bridge.)

Bradshaw's Guide: artist's impression of the station in its setting. (about 1853)

Parliamentary approval for the station building work was given on 9th July 1847, the first stone was laid in August, and, although it was not yet quite complete, the official opening of the new station took place on 1st August 1848. The first train to call at the new Chester Station was ‘The Irish Mail’ which had left Euston at 8:45pm the previous evening.

The joint station building had been designed by the celebrated London architect Francis Thompson, who was commissioned by Robert Stephenson.

Exterior of Chester Station 1848: Illustration taken from Chester History & Heritage Newsletter Winter 2012. Cheshire West and Chester Council

Charles Grove, a civil engineer, under the direction of Robert Stephenson, supervised its construction.

The station block was built of dun-coloured brick, relieved with facings of Stourton stone. The centre two-storey section had all the usual station facilities at ground level, including a cloak-room with WCs, one of the first in the country. There were company offices above, numbering about 50.

The station façade proved to be one of Francis Thompson’s best. Both internally and externally the station building was regarded as a Noble Pile.

Behind a fine frontage of 1,050 feet there was a 750-foot-long departure platform with 290-foot-long arrival bays, backed by a large carriage shed, all covered with an iron and glass roof. The effect of the length was offset by pavilions with towers at the corners.

Inside, a 60-foot span iron roof was supported, opposite the platforms, on a brick arcade, behind which stood a large carriage shed.

At the time, the station was considered to be the most perfect in the kingdom. It was said to be the longest in England, with the longest platform.

The octagonal station master’s office on the central cross-platform, with its pagoda style roof, added a touch of whimsical charm to the station.

At each end of the main building, and projecting out from it, was a covered shed for cabs and omnibuses, each 290 feet by 24 feet, awaiting the arrival of trains. Both survive today, and the one at the east end is still very much as it was built, apart from the doors inserted in the side wall where it abutted the parcels office. (An 1883 official plan describes the West Pavilion as a Covered Cab Stand.)

‘The Illustrated London News’ described the station as ‘Italian’ or, more properly, ‘an English Railway building in the Grand Style.’

The Joint Companies wanted to make an impression on the local people and their shareholders, and the front of the station, facing towards Chester, achieved that.

The station and buildings had gas lighting and the railway had its own gasworks (and waterworks) on the Hoole side of the station site. There was also an electric telegraph office.

On the left-hand side of the main entrance, viewed from the roadway, there were 1st and 3rd class refreshment rooms with stores, scullery and a kitchen between them.

Inside the station the faded inscriptions of 1st and 2nd Class survive on the exterior brickwork.

The refreshment room manager at the time was a Mr Hobday who paid the Station Committee £500 a year for the right to operate it.

The timber and plaster work in the main refreshment room was worthy of note, and still worth going to see today.

Thomas Hughes, a writer of guide books at the time, praised the refreshment rooms, where: “If dinner a la mode lie uppermost in your thoughts- if you would enjoy an invigorating cup of coffee, unimpeachable pastry, a good glass of ale, or a fragrant cigar…the utmost wish of your soul will be gratified” 

The middle seven bays of the central station frontage contain carvings by John Thomas (1813-1862). Phil wonders how many people, hurrying into the station, have looked up to see them. (John Thomas sculpted the lions that stood at each end of the Britannia Bridge, and carried out commissions at Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster.)

The station clock was originally in the centre of the façade. It is by Joyce of Whitchurch and a man used to wind this clock, weekly, until an electric motor was installed. The clock was moved so that it could be clearly seen by potential passengers approaching along City Road. One report states that it was moved in the 1860s at the time that City Road was being constructed, when the central entrance onto the platforms was widened. However, Phil has seen photographs from much later, showing the clock in its original position, as late as 1936, he believes. Does anyone have any old photographs or other information about the clock?

On the inside of the station there was a two-faced clock, each face protruding at an angle from the brick wall so that the time could easily be seen from most parts of the station. Today there is a cavity above the entrance where these clocks once stood.

Interior of Chester Station: Illustration taken from Chester History & Heritage Newsletter Winter 2012. Cheshire West and Chester Council

When the station opened, the London and North West Railway company accepted W.H. Smith’s offer to sell newspapers at its stations, which would have resulted in a kiosk or stall being established at Chester Station. On plans examined by Phil, the first indication of a newspaper kiosk or stall on the station is from the 1860s. This, along with the availability of refreshments, meant that the station became a place to visit for purposes other than catching a train, and a focal point for people in the surrounding area.

The glass roofing over the concourse and the bay platforms at each end was designed and built by C. J. Wilde, the civil engineer, with input from Robert Stephenson.

The main building contained the offices of the four railway companies represented on the station committee on its upper floor. Each railway company had its own ticket office on the ground floor. There were also separate waiting rooms for first and third-class passengers.

(In the mid 1860s the station committee was reformed to become a joint committee of the London and North West Railway and the Great Western Railway Companies)

Opposite the main entrance was the goods shed, measuring 270 feet by 170 feet, built by Thomas Brassey.

The Chester West Loop was opened at the same time as the new station, and it allowed goods trains to and from the Shrewsbury & Chester Railway to travel direct to Birkenhead. It was useful for turning locomotives and complete trains.

‘The Stranger’s Handbook to Chester, 1856 ‘said the following: “Twenty years ago the grounds were but plain kitchen-gardens and uninteresting fields. But a marvellous change has been effected since then and, as if by enchantment, a suburban Flookersbrook has become the very life’s blood of the city” 

Article researched and written by Phil Cook and Linda Webb, January 2019, Hoole History & Heritage Society

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