Picture of George Head

George Head

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THE very ancient city of Chester, where the scale of perfection ascends in proportion to antiquity, is certainly entitled to unbounded pre-eminence. It is the most strange-looking place in all England. Within its walls the most inconvenient and clumsy forms of architecture are held in preservation, in defiance of the light of modern knowledge and improvement in the arts. It would, at all events, puzzle a builder or architect to render, without the assistance of a model, an intelligible plan of such premises, among the byways and alleys, called rows, where a man must turn completely round, and look above him, in order to ascertain whether he is in the house or out of it; and where the inhabitants pass backward and forward among each others' dwellings, after the fashion of rabbits in a warren, or a race of primitive troglodytes.

During the short period I remained at Chester, I may fairly say I suffered from the inclemency of the weather. As regards the inns, the prejudice in favour of old houses has been turned to advantage, and a stranger is consequently ushered into an apartment which, in other towns, would be called a garret or a cockloft. Not but that in other places some instances may be adduced where a sagacious landlord, finding contiguous to his house a barn, throws both under one roof, and raises, before the eyes of the public, a stately elevation; and this principle has been frequently applied in the town of Chester, where alterations and repairs have followed, century after century, till it is difficult, in many parts of it, to determine whether one is the inhabitant of what was originally a single house, or of two or three knocked into one.

In the mean time the town of Chester, though in possession of an outlet (by the canal passing through from Ellesmere) to the Mersey, may be fairly said to be fed, in great part, by the crumbs which fall from the town of Liverpool's table, the independent traffic bearing no proportion whatever to its importance as a point of thoroughfare between the metropolis, Ireland, Wales, and the latter great city.

The ancient wall, which entirely surrounds the town, affording an excellent promenade along the whole circumference, is a noble and dignified model, worthy certainly of being handed down to posterity, and preserved in secula seculorum. In making the circuit of this walk, the new stone bridge struck me as being a beautiful modern specimen of masonry, and I imagine of the largest span (240 feet) of any stone bridge in England. It is a single segment arch, a beautiful curve, quite a rainbow in symmetry, substantial in the highest degree, at the same time light and airy in appearance. The old bridge, about a quarter of a mile still higher up the river, is on five arches, no two of which are alike. One large arch is elliptical, a small one a segment, and the other three are pointed, and of different sizes.

Besides the new bridge, the new buildings of the courts of law and county jail are erected in a style of improved taste, that renders a contrast with the old part of the town still more obvious.

The interior of the criminal court is really beautiful, contrived so as to economize space in an extraordinary degree, and exhibit a highly wrought specimen of architecture. The ground plan is a semicircle; the roof a flattened dome, containing a skylight in the centre. The judge's seat is on the flat side of the semicircle in the middle; the windows in the wall above him, the whole area of the court in front. Immediately before, and, as his seat is somewhat raised, below him, are the compartments for the juries and counsel, the witness box, and the dock for the prisoners. From the latter, an under-ground communication reaches to the jail. Opposite the judge, on the curved part of the semicircle, the public are accommodated, under a colonnade supported by handsome stone pillars, from the base of which broad shallow steps descend into the body of the court. The walls and ceiling are richly ornamented.

The jail is on the new construction, the governor's house being iu the centre, from which vistas radiate in every direction. The house is elevated above the cells, whose roofs spread beneath in I he foreground, and in the distance a superb view appears of the surrounding country. On entering the turnkey's door, the healthful airiness of the prospect, and the cleanliness and tidy arrangement within the building, render it difficult to reconcile to the mind the contrasting emblems of solitude and imprisonment.


Two canals, converging to a point, communicate with the river Dee under the walls of Chester; the one, leading by Nantwich to Ellesmere, in Shropshire; and the other, being a straight cut of nine miles in length, to the Mersey. By this latter, a daily communication is held with Liverpool, whither passengers are conveyed in a steamer from Ellesmere Port, a village on the banks of the Mersey, where warehouses, to a considerable extent, have lately been built.

I made one voyage by this canal, from Chester towards Liverpool, by the packet boat, which started from the canal basin at eleven o'clock in the morning. Notwithstanding that the bad navigation of the river Dee necessarily tends to increase the traffic on this canal, the indications of business, both in the office and on board the packet boat, were fewer than might be imagined; that is to say, there were not more than twenty or thirty passengers, and the inland produce chiefly consisted of live fowls. The cheeses from Chester are usually trundled on board vessels of about two hundred tons, which latter are towed up and down the Dee by a steamer called the Dairymaid; although the period when such a vessel as the former can make her way upward must be extremely near high water. On walking by the side of the river upon the Dee Cop, as it is called, (the large embankment by which some thousands of acres of reclaimed land were formerly enclosed,) one is inclined to wonder at the shallow channel of this river—thus constrained by artificial means within a narrow compass. At the same time considering the extreme flatness of the whole of this little peninsula, occupying its position between the Dee and the Mersey, the former river might be expected, when left to itself, to have laid the greater part of the land under water.

The incidents of this short voyage were but commonplace, though it behooved each passenger to exercise some degree of watchfulness to prevent his brains being beaten out by the arches of the numerous bridges across the canal. These are so low as not to allow an individual to stand upright while passing underneath, and they are encountered at the rate of five or six in a mile. The boat was towed by three horses, of which a boy rode the hindmost, driving the other two before him without reins. The animals, free of control, were, nevertheless, like men in the same predicament, not quite so independent as might be imagined, the towing path being so straightened and narrow, that they were unable to turn round. And as the boy was what is called sharp, whenever the leaders were deaf to the crack of the whip, he jumped off and flogged them up to the mark.

I could not avoid paying some attention to the proceedings of a chicken merchant, who had under his charge upward of twenty baskets of live fowls. These a common observer might have thought he was treating in an extraordinary manner; and persecuting the poor creatures to such a degree, that, while the annoyance of their cackling extended to every corner of the vessel, those who sat to leeward were covered with dust and feathers. The entire object of his superintendence seemed to be to inflict torment on these miserable animals, being continually on the alert, and, as if possessed with a demoniac spirit, exulting in their imprisonment, as he poked them incessantly with a long stick, and grinned horribly at his victims through the wicker bars of their dungeons. But it was easy to perceive, on a more careful survey of this man's countenance, that such surmises were unfounded; that he was merely labouring in his vocation, and so far from meditating evil to his prisoners, all his acts tended to their good, at least so far as related to preserving them all alive. Nay, so anxious was he lest they should die, that the perspiration trickled down his forehead, while the birds' feathers stuck upon his broad red gums faster than he could possibly spit them out. As to his grinning at the birds, it proceeded merely from a nervous contortion of features, the effect of extreme earnestness, and was an involuntary effort by which the cheeks and upper lip were elevated by sheer force of the muscles of the sinciput.

The simple matter of fact was, that chickens, like human beings, act on selfish principles, and especially when a great number find themselves uncomfortable together, each individual tries to get on his neighbour's shoulders, not caring, so long as he himself obtains a little fresh air, whether or not the other endures suffocation. Thus the chicken merchant had necessarily recourse to a revolutionary process; and though he could not alter the nature of the animals, he found means to give each, in his turn, an opportunity to shake his ears, and exercise retaliation.

We arrived at Ellesmere Port, which is, I think, six or seven miles above Liverpool, and were met by the steamer, which conducted the passengers thither before two o'clock. The warehouses at the former place, before alluded to, were exceedingly well built, consisting of a triple row, with water cuts, passing through arches, among the buildings.



A COACH starts daily (waiting the tide passengers from Liverpool) from Runcorn to Northwich, at which latter town, a stranger, when arrived, may very reasonably, without being over fastidious, wish himself out of it. The streets are narrow, dark, and dirty; while some of the inns are rather below par. On the present occasion, I had availed myself of the above conveyance, for the purpose of seeing the salt mines in the neighbourhood.

It has been my lot to receive so much kindness from strangers, to whom, though quite unknown, I have made application to see their establishments, that I cannot, in fairness, draw an exception here, with regard to some difficulties which appeared when I set out on my present object in the morning; nor, in fact, were they of any consequence, although they might have dispirited and deterred, at the onset, any mere lukewarm adventurer. It is but reasonable to expect that such trifling impediments should be thrown in the way of the public at large, by a proprietor who is subject, day after day, to applications from all descriptions of people, attracted by a great natural curiosity. One can only wonder that permission should be granted to upward of a thousand people every year, in spite of interruption and detriment to business, to visit these mines.

It being my object to see the Marston Pit, the same formerly known as Burns's Pit, before it came into the hands of the present proprietor, I was informed, on inquiring, that I had nothing to do but go thither, and that permission would be granted by any of the principal people of the establishment who might happen to be on the spot. This I found not to be the case; for after having walked to the pit, which is a mile and a half from the town, on the Liverpool road, I found that nothing short of permission from the proprietor himself would answer the purpose. I was accordingly obliged to return to the town, find out and make personal application to the gentleman in question, by whom it was immediately granted.

Having provided myself with a paper of powder, prepared by a chymist in the town, to answer the purpose of blue light, I presented myself again at the Marston Pit, which consists of two levels, the lower of which is one hundred and twelve yards below the surface of the ground, and the other just halfway down the shaft. There were no men at work on this day on the lower level, and my conductor recommended me, by all means, to visit this, not only for that reason, but on account of its being more ancient, and exhibiting a far more extensive excavation. It had, as I understood, been worked for a period of about sixty years.

Having waited a few minutes, till the engineer had put a little steam on, we both stepped into a round tub, and standing upright, holding by the chains, were let down very easily. I cannot express the delight I felt at the scene around me, which surpassed anything I had anticipated; creating those sensations I remember to have felt when first I read of the pyramids and catacombs of Egypt. Here was a magnificent chamber, apparently of unlimited extent, whose flat roof presented an area so great that one could not help being astonished at its not having long since given way. Yet there was no apparent want of security, it being sound and durable as if formed of adamant. Here and there pillars, in size like a clamp of bricks in a brickfield, tendered their support, presenting to the view an array of objects that broke the vacancy of uniform space. My idea of the extent was, as if an area equal to the site of Grosvenor Square were under cover. In the mean time, the glistening particles of crystal salt on the walls, and the extreme regularity of the concentric curved lines, traced by the tools of the workmen, were very remarkable. Occasionally the mark of the jumper chissel was observable, where recourse had been had to blasting the solid rock. I made a few blows against the side of the mine, with one of the heavy pointed pickaxes in ordinary use, and found it as hard as freestone. Under foot the whole surface was a mass of rock salt, covered with a thick layer of the material, crushed and crumbled to a state that exactly resembled the powdered ice on a pond that has been cut up by skaters.

Experiments have been made, by boring to a depth of seventeen yards, but they have neither perforated the rock salt, nor do they at present know the thickness of the stratum. The I might of this excavation is about fifteen feet, within which space the salt is estimated as being of the best quality. Above it is somewhat inferior. I was informed that thirty-five thousand tons of salt were annually dug out of the different levels, and that the area of the whole together amounted to forty-eight statute acres. A considerable quantity of this salt is exported to Prussia.

At one part there is a vista of two hundred yards in length, which has been dignified with the name of Regent-street- Here occasionally picknick parties are celebrated; and on a large table of coarse deal boards were the evidences of deeds of wassail, performed at a feast of this description, which had taken place a few months before. An empty jug and sprig or two of evergreen lay forlorn and neglected, while I observed natural tokens, indisputable and abundant, of mice that had joined in the revelry. These little animals invariably establish their residence under ground, wherever men lead the way. At the coal pits at Whitehaven, for instance, they are plentiful at a depth of one hundred and forty fathoms, being brought there originally, probably, in bundles of horse provender. Were it possible, within this mine, to provide against the inconvenience of smoke, there not being any efficacious outlet for its egress, I cannot conceive a place better calculated, with proper appendages and decorations, to give effect to a fete on a magnificent scale. As it is, and as regards light and smoke, people must be content with a choice, either to have too much of the one, or too little of the other.

Every one who descends this pit ought to bring a good Bengal light, instead of the preparation vended by the learned chymist of Northwich. This is a yellow powder, a quantity of which being placed on the ground, and ignited by a piece of lighted paper, engendered for a few seconds a tantalizing glare, which sank exhausted before it was possible to take an adequate survey of the objects around. For ordinary purposes, we had recourse to common tallow candles.

Having wandered a long way, through vast space, but almost in darkness, we came again to the foot of the shaft. Previous to ascending, my guide went a little out of the way, in order to carry a pail of water to an old horse, which, as the workmen were absent for the whole day, was standing by himself in perfect solitude, and till we came, without any light at all. Alone and in darkness, he must, poor fellow, from necessity, live for many hours in the year, and pass thus neglected a very considerable portion of his time. He loudly expressed his. gratitude for the water, and I took an opportunity of examining his condition while he was drinking. I was surprised to find it particularly good; unlike the flaccid, though fine-coated state of horses in coal pits, his was that of a firm crest and perfect health, a fact I attribute specially to the salubrious effects of the salt. His stall was comfortable and dry, as was the whole space below contained in this pit. I saw no appearance whatever of water during the whole time I was below.

As we were drawn up, I failed to experience the joyous bounding sensation I felt at being whisked upward nearly three times the distance from the bottom of a Whitehaven coal pit. Whether it was that here they have a delicate way of treating sightseeing people, or that the steam of the engine was hardly up, I do not know; at all events, we rose exceedingly slowly, so much so, that it felt to me as if the powers of the engine were dying away, and that we were about to return, as the sailors say, "by the run." When within a few yards of the summit, the wheel made a few gentle oscillations, letting us down a little way, and then drawing us up again; so that I was truly glad the moment I could catch a firm grip above, and step out of the bucket. A certain degree of velocity in ascending is indispensable to impress the mind with a confidence in the power by which one is raised; and though I have heard of people who, when drawn up quickly, have been so seriously affected by the motion, as to be obliged to be rolled on the grass at the top before they could recover their sensation, I, for my part, think that the quicker one is pulled up, and out of such deep holes as these, the better.

The salt, after being prepared by the solution of the rock, and evaporation, is formed by wooden moulds, with holes at the bottom, to allow the remaining water to pass through, into cubical blocks, and in this state shipped, either by the river Weaver and canal to Weston Point, and thence into the Mersey, or by the canal southward.

A considerable quantity is prepared from the brine springs, some of which are so strongly saturated, as to hold in solution the greatest possible quantity of salt. To the water of some of these springs, rock salt is added while boiling in the pans. From these springs the water, or brine, is raised by a shaft sunk, and a pump worked by an ordinary steam engine.

George Head, A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2009.

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