Wednesday 6 October 2021

Chester's Delightful River Dee!

Have you tried our Talking Tour of Chester? It’s a self-guided walking tour of interesting parts of the city, made from oral histories recorded around 40 years ago. It features local people’s memories of events like the famous Chester Regatta, and the opening of the landmark Queen’s Park suspension bridge - but Cheshire Archives and Local Studies holds a huge amount of material on all aspects of the River Dee, going back centuries.

Lost trades

People have made their living on the river, not only from boat hire that still runs today, but in lost trades such as traditional salmon fishing. These photographs from c.1900 and 1969 show the nets that used to be seen along the banks, and fishermen hauling in their catch.

There also used to be mills along the banks of the Dee, with some only demolished within living memory. This image from 1905 shows ‘The Dee Bridge, Castle and Mills’ and is taken from a photo album by Frank Simpson. He was an authority on the history of Chester and an amateur photographer whose work is held at Cheshire Record Office (not just his photography but also sketches, manuscripts and diaries of local events).


Tragedy on the Dee

Going back even further, we know that people used to use the river for washing. This coroner’s inquest report from 1679 describes the sad death of Mary Alson, a spinster who was swept away and drowned whilst washing clothes in the Dee.

This is just one of countless tragedies from along the river, and the coroners’ reports we hold range from the recent past back to the Middle Ages.

A well-known tragedy was the Dee Bridge Disaster, an 1847 railway accident. Train carriages fell into the river through a new cast iron bridge, killing five people and injuring nine. Cheshire Record Office holds a collection of newspaper cuttings about the inquest, where renowned Victorian engineer Robert Stephenson, who designed the bridge, was accused of negligence.

Chester Regatta

On a happier note, the river has long been used for sport and entertainment, and Chester Regatta combines both. Established in 1733, it still takes place today, making it the oldest rowing regatta of its type in the world. We hold many images of the Regatta - some of which are featured on the searchable Cheshire Image Bank- and this print shows the Regatta in 1854. 

We also hold the archives of the Royal Chester Rowing Club, founded in 1838. A jewel in this collection is a scrapbook begun in 1933 (ZCR 419/3), full of club memorabilia like race programmes, results, press cuttings and photographs. This one is of rowers on the Dee during the Chester Regatta of 1938.


The Port of Chester

We may not give it much thought today, but Chester used to be a significant British port. We have some shipping and boat records covering several centuries, such as QDN 1/5, a register of vessels entering and leaving the port of Chester, 1740 – 1769. It shows information such as the vessel and masters’ names, the destinations, and nature of goods being transported. We can see from these pages that 15 tons of cheese were bound for Parkgate on The Friendship on 21st February 1743 (below left), and that The Duke William arrived from Lisbon with a cargo of wine on 4th May 1754 (below right).

River Management

For anyone interested in the river itself, we hold archives related to the management of the Dee, like those of The River Dee Committee. The Committee was established in 1837 and its main interest was in Acts of Parliament affecting the river and water supply. The collection includes letters, petitions, reports, a minute book, plans on the improvement of the river and volumes of soundings (measurements of the depth of water, which can be used to make maps of riverbeds and nautical charts). 


No visit to Chester is complete without seeing the bridges over the River Dee, and hundreds of items about them are held at Cheshire Record Office: books, pamphlets, photographs, plans, prints and much more. These two images show the Queen’s Park Suspension Bridge that opened in 1923, and the old Queen’s Park Bridge, which it replaced.     


The big freeze!

Finally, did you know that the Dee has frozen over on occasion? This photograph of The Groves in Chester shows people ice skating and playing when the river froze during the winter of 1916-17. It happened again in 1963.

This is just a small snapshot of the wide range of material that Cheshire Archives and Local Studies holds about the River Dee. Why not try the Walking Tour, and if you’re inspired to come and see some original records, arrange your visit here!

The items listed above are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester. Living Memory: A Talking Tour of Chester is available via the Echoes app – further details can be found here.

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