Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Spring has Sprung with Tunnicliffe

The staff here at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies are enjoying the change in seasons and have been getting out in their gardens, parks and green spaces to connect with nature.  To celebrate Spring we’ve turned to Cheshire’s most famous wildlife artist, Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe, for inspiration.

“Nature is lavish with her riches for those who have eyes to see” 

Charles Tunnicliffe, “My Country Book” (ref 112947).

Born in Langley near Macclesfield in 1901, Charles grew up in nearby Sutton where he sketched animals on the walls of the family farm buildings as a child.  A local teacher spotted his natural talent for drawing, and he attended the Macclesfield School of Art before winning a scholarship to train at the Royal College of Art, London.  
Here is a selection of his work.

Tarka The Otter

Tunnicliffe’s work was sought after commercially but he became a household name after illustrating the popular book Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson in 1932. He went on to illustrate over 300 books during his lifetime and we are delighted to have many of them in the Local Studies collection at Macclesfield Library.

Birds and the RSPB

Tunnicliffe was captivated by wild birds and he developed a scientific approach to sketching them, drawing from life where possible. The RSPB commissioned Tunnicliffe to paint many illustrations for their magazine and books, and in 1975 they awarded him a gold medal for his services to bird protection.

Alison Uttley

The author Alison Uttley began writing tales for children while living in Bowdon, Cheshire, during the 1930s. She commissioned Tunnicliffe to illustrate 19 of her books, amazed at his “imaginative way of entering my stories”.

Brooke Bond Tea

From 1954 until 1999, packets of Brooke Bond tea included small coloured ‘picture cards’ which were collected and traded by thousands of children and adults. Tunnicliffe provided the illustrations for 7 sets of tea cards between 1957 and 1965 and they remain a favourite amongst collectors to this day.

Ladybird Books

Tunnicliffe was asked to provide illustrations for the publisher Ladybird in a series called ’What to Look For In…’ about the seasons. They were “so instructive and educational that grown-ups read them with as much delight as their children”. He also illustrated a ‘Ladybird Learning to Read Book’ that was heavily used in British primary schools.



Norman F Ellison started radio broadcasting in the BBC’s Northern Children’s Hour in 1945 with a programme called ’Wandering with Nomad’. It was a hugely popular show and ran for seventeen years. He wrote six adventure stories as ‘Nomad’, for which Tunnicliffe provided the illustrations.


Although Tunnicliffe made Anglesey his home until his death in 1979, his artistic output was inextricably linked to the Cheshire landscape and wildlife of his childhood and early career. These places may have changed over time, but for all the outdoor and nature enthusiasts amongst us, our local environment continues to inspire and create wonder.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Making the Crossing: The Chester to Holyhead Railway

We continue the story of Cheshire’s railways with one of its most important lines. 175 years ago, this railway was the site of an early and tragic rail disaster.  Part 1, All Change at Crewe! is available here.

The early to mid-1840s saw Britain in the grip of ‘railway mania’. Low costs, speed and convenience made rail travel very popular - and lucrative. New railways for passenger and freight lines were quickly developed.

At that time the only communication links between London and Ireland were by horse-drawn coach or by sea. Both routes were made long and difficult by poor roads and harbour facilities. A railway that would take government mail dispatches more quickly to Ireland was well-supported in Parliament and the Chester and Holyhead railway was authorised in July 1844.

George Stephenson surveyed the route, which would extend the Chester to Crewe line along the North Wales coast. His son Robert Stephenson was the engineer, with Francis Thompson the architect and Thomas Brassey the contractor.

Building the railway was both challenging and extremely expensive. It required bridges over the River Dee, the River Conwy, and the Menai Strait at Anglesey. Progress on the railway was slow but the first section, between Chester and Saltney, opened in November 1846. It included a 250 ft long cast iron and stone bridge, designed by Robert Stephenson, that crossed the River Dee near to the Roodee. The bridge was opened with great ceremony. 

But just six months later, on 24th May 1847, disaster struck.  As a passenger train was crossing, the final span of the bridge collapsed. James Clayton, the driver, managed to get the 30-ton locomotive and its tender onto the far bank, but all four carriages and the guard’s van fell over 30 feet to the river below. Of the twenty-five people on board, five (the fireman and four passengers) were killed and fourteen were injured. Both local and national newspapers reported on the shocking and sensational incident.

Robert Stephenson was criticised for the bridge’s failure, threatening his reputation. An inquest was held in Chester and witnesses testified to seeing a fracture appear in the cast iron girders before the collapse.

Newspapers followed the case closely. After two weeks it was found that no one person was to blame, however the jury expressed concern about the use of ‘so brittle and treacherous a material as cast iron’.

Following the disaster, Robert Stephenson used only wrought iron on his railway bridges, including the Conwy Railway Bridge and the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait. Both were impressive engineering feats, particularly the Britannia Bridge at over 1500 feet long and standing over 100 feet above the water. On 5th March 1850, Stephenson himself laid the last rivet on the bridge and drove a test train across it, marking the completion of the Chester to Holyhead Railway.

The railway had a major impact on the city of Chester as a regional centre. The original Chester railway stations on Brook Street were little more than wooden shacks and converted houses. To cope with the growing traffic, the Chester and Holyhead and other rail companies agreed to build a new larger station. It was designed by Francis Thompson and built by Thomas Brassey. The station opened on 1st August 1848 to the acclaim of the local population.

The first Irish Mail train left the new station for Holyhead that same day. With the transportation of goods to Ireland, and an increase in trade from North Wales, Chester regained a good deal of the prosperity it had lost following the silting up of the River Dee. 

The line was fully opened to passengers on 18th March 1850 and was immediately popular. It enabled people to travel cheaply and quickly to holiday and tourism destinations in North Wales and Ireland. In 1858 a branch line to Llandudno, one of the early favourite holiday destinations, was opened. Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries travel by rail to holiday destinations on the North Wales coast continued to grow.


Today the cause of the River Dee Railway Bridge collapse would be called metal fatigue. The bridge was rebuilt several times and eventually replaced with a completely wrought iron bridge in 1870. Robert Stephenson’s wrought iron Conwy Bridge still stands today, whilst the original Britannia Bridge was only replaced in 1980 after being severely damaged in an accidental fire. The railway line itself continues to be heavily used by passengers as part of the North Wales Coast Line.

175 years on from the tragic River Dee Bridge disaster, the greater story of the Chester to Holyhead railway is one of success.

These railway records and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester. Transcriptions of several Crewe Works and railway companies’ staff registers can also be found at our web site here for Crewe, and here for four companies covering parts of Cheshire, Shropshire, Hereford and Wales.   

Keep a look out on our Instagram and Twitter pages for more from our railway collections soon!

Thursday, 21 April 2022

All Change at Crewe!

The world’s first inter-city railway was the Liverpool and Manchester, which opened in 1830. More railways soon followed. The first to enter Cheshire was the Grand Junction between Birmingham and Liverpool, which included the station we know today as Crewe.

On June 30th 1837, Parliament passed an Act authorising a railway between Chester and this new station. Its story is told through items in our Archives and Local Studies collections.

The railway might not have gone to Crewe at all. A line from Chester to Winsford was considered that would have been the shortest to link with the growing rail network.

The ‘father of railways’, George Stephenson, was chosen to engineer the line. He knew that railway building was already a difficult and expensive business and that this route would require tunnels and climbs through Delamere Forest.

He soon picked a longer, flatter route across 20 ½ miles of the Cheshire countryside. It would go directly through the township of Monks Coppenhall and meet the Grand Junction Railway at Crewe Station.

The man tasked with building the line was Thomas Brassey. Born near Chester in 1805, he has been called the world’s foremost railway builder of the 19th century. By the time of his death in 1870 ‘Cheshire’s Brunel’ had built an impressive 1/3 of the railways in Britain, 1/20 of the railways worldwide, and numerous engineering works such as Runcorn Bridge and Chester Railway Station.

Work on the railway began with optimism, but heavy rains in Autumn 1839 slowed construction down. Costs also rose as landowners began to realise the value of their land to rail companies. The railway’s investors soon couldn’t commit the capital needed to complete the line and work came to a standstill. In October 1839 the Chester and Crewe directors voted to sell the unfinished railway.

Rescue came when the Grand Junction Company absorbed the line and in May 1840 construction resumed. Local newspapers were finally able to announce that the grand opening would take place and publish the first passenger timetables.

The railway opened on October 1st, 1840. It had an immediate impact on everyday life. Travelling between Chester and Monks Coppenhall by coach took 2 1/2 hours and cost 8 shillings, whereas the same journey by rail would now take just 1 hour and cost 4 shillings. Cheaper and quicker travel across Cheshire and to places like Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and eventually London was now accessible for the people of Cheshire. Passenger numbers grew quickly in the 1840s.

With the railway now a reality, Crewe was no longer just one of the stations on a single line and greater changes occurred that left an indelible mark on the history of Cheshire.

Early on, the Grand Junction Company saw Crewe station’s potential as a hub to link to Britain’s growing rail network. There was also the promise of linking with Ireland through an extension of the Chester and Crewe line to Holyhead. In 1840 they made plans to move their workshops and locomotive works from Edge Hill to Monks Coppenhall, just across the township boundary from Crewe station.

The company built 200 cottages ready for its workers and the rapidly developing settlement soon adopted the name of the station, marking the beginning of the town of Crewe as we know it today.

By 1842 Crewe station was the focus of 3 major railways. As more lines were opened it became a busy junction and in 1861 it was rebuilt to cope with the traffic. Over the last 185 years it has grown further and today has 12 platforms.

The Locomotive Works opened in 1843, marking the start of a great tradition of industry and engineering in Crewe. By 1848, it had over 1000 workers and built one locomotive per week. Production grew steadily in the 19th and 20th centuries and at its height the Works employed 20,000 people. The last locomotive ran off the line in 1991 and the site is now occupied by the Crewe Heritage Centre museum.

Today, passengers continue to use the Chester and Crewe railway to cross Cheshire and reach the rest of Great Britain and Ireland. The journey from Chester to Crewe takes around 20 minutes whilst Crewe to London takes around 2 ½ hours, something which would have been unthinkable in 1837.

Crewe is seeing major development and is currently bidding to become the home of Great British Railways (GBR), the new national rail operator from 2023. The railway station could also play an important role as a hub in the planned HS2 network.

185 years since it was first approved, the Chester to Crewe railway is still changing life for the people of Cheshire and connecting them with each other and the world beyond.

These railway records and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester. Transcriptions of several Crewe Works and railway companies’ staff registers can also be found at our web site here for Crewe and here for four companies covering parts of Cheshire, Shropshire, Hereford and Wales.   

And look out for our next blog, which continues the story of railways with the Chester to Holyhead line and the 175th anniversary of one of Cheshire's most famous rail disasters. (This was published on 5th May 2022, read it here.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

The Thomas Cross Affair: Hard Times in the Chester Leather Industry

On December 16th, 1871, leather-cutter Thomas Cross was brought before Chester’s magistrates on the charge of theft.

He had been seen taking some leather as he left the City Road-based factory of Collinson, Gilbert and Co, at the end of the shift. He was taken to the office of his supervisor, Mr Gee, where he was searched and four pairs of soles found on him. According to the local press, he apologised profusely and 'appeared to be in great trouble at being found out'. He had worked with the firm for some five years, and asked Gee not to turn him in.

His request was denied, and his home searched by the police. A further three pieces of leather were found, bringing up the total monetary worth of his theft to six shillings - about £20 in today’s money. Cross elected to be tried by the magistrates and was sentenced to two months imprisonment. His trial was covered by three local newspapers.

His wife, Sarah, and their three young children - Elizabeth, Arthur and Emily - spent Christmas without him. Given the timing of his crime, it’s not unreasonable to think he may have done it with the expenses of the festive season weighing on his mind.

That Cross was short of money is perhaps surprising. His job took skill. No two pieces of leather are the same - hand-cutting tough and inconsistent strips of material to get the highest number of uniform shoes with the least waste of material requires both strength and artisanal precision. You might expect this to be a well-paid role.

But Cross was working in the leather industry during some major changes in the trade. In the United States, new types of machinery were automating the process, and British companies were slow to adopt them. Often, they still relied on ‘putting out’ work - getting very low-paid workers to complete different tasks of cutting and assembling materials in their own homes.

William Collinson, Cross’ boss, wanted to modernise the trade in Chester. His City Road factory was built between 1864 and 1866 and employed over 250 workers who made use of new patented machinery and new ways of organising the work.

All work was done on site, with tasks segregated by gender. Women used sewing machines to assemble the tops of shoes while men worked on a steam-driven circular file which buffed imperfections out of the cuts of leather. The factory was able to turn out some 2-3000 pairs of boots every week.

An excited journalist wrote about the factory in the Chester Observer in May 1866, describing it as “one of the finest buildings to have recently sprung up in Chester.” He called it a “matter of pride” that Chester was now able to compete with towns such as Stafford and Northampton, long recognised as the centres of the shoe and boot trade.

However, despite the glowing write-up and adverts in the local press which proudly proclaimed the factory’s “new principle” of production, the factory was not as modern as it may have seemed. While the sewing and buffing had been mechanised, riveting (pinning the upper and lower parts of a shoe together) was still being done by hand.

Just one year after re-opening, the factory re-introduced ‘piece work’ (paying workers for the shoes they produced, not the hours they put in), provoking a strike amongst women mechanists at the factory. There were a few new machines, but old habits lingered on.

Making matters worse for the Cestrian trade, the shoe and boot producers of Leicester had developed automatic riveting machines in the 1850s, giving them a technological edge over the northern producers. Now American imports and the Midlands firms were both putting the pressure on.

Cross may have worked a skilled job, but he was working in an industry that was in decline locally as it failed to modernise machinery or working practices. Stagnating wages and job insecurity may have led a number of workers in the trade to turn to petty theft to boost their incomes.

Cross was certainly not the first to steal from the factory. In 1866, Jeremiah Evans, who manned the engine, had been caught attempting to flog a set of boots he had stolen from the premises. Cross’ trial was covered with the headline ‘CAUGHT AT LAST’, suggesting a wider spate of thefts.

Collinson’s adverts in the local press around the time of Cross’ arrest focused on end-of-year sales of excess and spoiled stock, hinting at some difficulties with the business. By 1875, he sold the factory to a rival firm (Alfred Bostock) based out of Stafford. They didn’t fare much better and sold the factory to a rope manufacturer by 1892. Today the site is occupied by The Old Harkers Arms, which seems to be doing better than its predecessors.

Despite a boom in shoemaking in the early 1800s, by the end of the century the industry was in terminal decline in the city. In 1911 the number of shoe workers employed locally was just a third of the number when Cross was arrested.

We don’t know why Cross and his family left Chester. The publicity around his theft, arrest, and trial may have caused them to leave out of shame or lack of work. However, by 1881, the censuses show that they were living in Birmingham, where the leather trade was more stable, and where he continued his craft.

Hopefully he and his family enjoyed much happier Christmases than that of 1871.

Some Further Reading:

Raphael Samuel, ‘Workshop of the World: Steam Power and Hand Technology in mid-Victorian Britain’, History Workshop (No 3), 1977

David Holmes, Development of the Boot and Shoe Industry in Leicester During the Nineteenth Century, Leicestershire Archaeol. and Hist. Soc., 83 (2009)

S. I. Mitchell, ‘Retailing In Eighteenth- And Early Nineteenth-Century Cheshire’, Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (1981) pp.37-60 

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography, ed. C P Lewis and A T Thacker (London, 2003), British History Online

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

International Women’s Day 2022: The Women’s Land Army

March 8th is International Women’s Day, and this year we’re looking back to the Second World War.  We’re recognising the contribution that women in Cheshire made to the war effort by joining the Women’s Land Army (WLA). 

Originally established during World War One, the Women’s Land Army was a civilian organisation set up to replace men working in agriculture who had been called up to fight in the armed forces.  It was revived in 1939 to increase the amount of food grown within Britain, rather than relying on imports.  At first women were asked to volunteer, but this was later supplemented by conscription.  In 1944 the WLA had over 80,000 members, who became known as Land Girls. 

Our Local Studies department holds books and pamphlets that cover the work of the Land Girls and that of its forestry branch, the Women’s Timber Corps, whose members were known as Lumber Jills.  These include titles like Malpas and the Home Front 1939-45, Frodsham in the War Years– A Compilation of Memories and Wartime Tatton, 1939-45.  From this one we learn that, 

“a team of 15-20 Land Army women worked at Tatton taking the place of woodmen, gardeners, and farm workers who had been called up.  Besides helping at the home farm and in the gardens, they did a lot of valuable work in the park’s woods, helping keep the trees in a healthy, well-managed condition.”

From basic hostel accommodation in the Bothy in the gardens…the Land Army girls would arrive at 7.30 in the morning.  Some would help to clear the woods, others worked in the sawmill, the dairy, the kitchen gardens and in the fields at harvest time.” 

We also have Local Studies articles, such as one from Cheshire Life in March 1943 about a rally held at the Cheshire County Agricultural School near Nantwich (now Reaseheath College) to mark the training of the thousandth Land Girl there since the outbreak of war.  It describes the students’ training in areas like threshing, milking, lettuce planting, potato sorting and stable work.  This, from our Women’s Land Army and Cheshire Timber Corps collection is a copy of a certificate issued on completion of a similar course (whether it was issued by the Nantwich training centre is not known). 

Cheshire Life had already featured the Land Girls the year before – the November 1942 edition covers a County Rally held at Chester Town Hall in October that was attended by 500 members of the WLA and its Director, Lady Gertrude Denman.  Lady Denman announced that Cheshire now employed 1200 Land Girls, “and she presented over 20 three-year good service badges.”  

Photographs of Land Girls from our Local Studies collection are available on the Cheshire Image Bank.  The one below left was taken at a Women’s Land Army Rally in Stockport, and on the right two Land Girls are shown ‘digging for victory’ in Chester, in 1942.


Our archives contain original Women’s Land Army material, for example in the William Wild & Sons collectionThey were horse dealers and there are several letters about employing Land Girls, such as this one to Miss Adrienne Fisk of Birkenhead.  Mr Wild explains he has found a man to do the work she applied for, and Miss Fisk’s reply perhaps gives a sense of the difference between women’s lives then and now: “I quite understand your preference and after all Land Girls are only substitutes for men.” 


Another letter is from Mrs Vera Davies, who includes her Land Girl number ahead of starting work at the farm in October 1941 – and there is a Ministry of Agriculture claim form for a billeting fee to cover her board and lodging.


In addition to this correspondence, Cheshire Archives has a voice recording from a Land Girl, giving a first-hand account of her experiences (ref: D7912).  Speaking in later life, Norah Bate describes wanting to be a Land Girl from the day she left school, aged 14, in 1941 - but as the minimum age was 17, she was accepted as the “next best thing”: an orderly for the Cheshire Committee of the WLA.  The oral history gives an insight into her duties in WLA Hostels in Tabley and Cholmondeley, where she cooked and cleaned for 30 Land Girls and staff, along with details of the Land Girls’ routines and other information about the war.  She describes their free time and entertainment, such as dances with American servicemen who were based nearby.  

Norah remembers reaching the age of 17 and going to the Women’s Land Army Office in Chester to be issued with her number and uniform:

“I was delighted, but my biggest disappointment came two days afterwards, with a letter from Head Office saying although I was accepted as a member of the Women's Land Army, my position as a cook was too important and I must stay in that position at Cholmondeley.”
She stayed there until 1946, then moved to be a cook at Audlem Land Girls Hostel for her final three months in the WLA. 

At the end of the war in 1945 there were around 60,000 Land Girls working in Britain.  The Ministry of Agriculture confirmed shortly afterwards that the WLA would need to continue at least until the harvest of 1948, and it was eventually disbanded in November 1950.  Over 200,000 women had worked as Land Girls between 1939 and 1950 - this is a copy of a release certificate issued in 1950.  

In Frodsham in the War Years – A Compilation of Memories mentioned earlier, there is an uncredited account, ‘A Land Girl’s Story’, of activities such as milking, mucking out and ploughing fields. But she notes that, 

“looking back over many years, it is the fun and laughter which other Land Girls and myself experienced which stands out.  One tends to forget the misery of working in the pouring rain spreading manure with a fork, washing your dirty farm clothes by hand armed only with a bar of soap and a scrubbing brush, cleaning out a ferret’s cage and many more unpleasant jobs one had to do…I would have missed all these experiences had the war not come, and although I wish the war had never taken place, it came…I am glad those of us who were able to pay our part, however small or insignificant that part was, to help in the war effort.” 

In 2007 the UK Government announced that the efforts of the surviving members of the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Timber Corps would be recognised formally with the presentation of a specially designed commemorative badge.  It was awarded in July 2008 to over 30,000 former Land Girls. 

Over 80 years after they were first asked to serve, and particularly on International Women’s Day, their efforts will not be forgotten. 

All of these items and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester.  The oral history of Land Girl Norah Bate can also be heard at the Record Office - a short clip is available below.