Interactions in the long eighteenth-century urban governance: the case of Chester

March 24, 2021 | Blog
Home > Interactions in the long eighteenth-century urban governance: the case of Chester

This blog is based on research made possible by the Research Fund for Graduate Studies, funded by the Economic History Society.

By Raku Nagamine (University of Leicester)

Heavily influenced by the seminal work of Sydney and Beatrice Webb, the historiography of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century English urban governance has chiefly focused on its institutional and political dimensions.  The Webbs argued that municipal corporations were unable to deal with the challenges of urbanisation and that the introduction of the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835, was a watershed in English urban governance.  This view has been confirmed in more recent literature.  However, further case studies are needed to provide a more accurate and nuanced picture.

This project will analyse the interactions between the corporation and cathedral chapter in Chester in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Figure 1).  In eighteenth and early nineteenth century Chester, the municipal corporation was the dominant authority in the exercise of urban governance, presiding over a variety of local courts and public meetings.  The cathedral chapter also played an important role in governing the city through its participation in civic rituals and by managing property leases.  Moreover, in common with other English cities and towns,  the city boasted a patchwork of new administrative and charitable organisations, including improvement commissions and voluntary associations.   I do not argue that the experience of Chester was applicable to all other towns, but I believe that Chester is a useful comparator

In the historiography, researchers have discussed urban governance with respect to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but later periods  have attracted surprisingly little attention. Scholars have suggested that urban governance was characterised by antagonism over jurisdiction in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Chester.  My analysis will make a significant contribution to this particular debate by analysing the extent to which such antagonism continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The methodology I propose  involves analysis of the extent to which members of the corporation and cathedral chapter were jointly involved in urban improvement (Figure 1).  I have made progress with these tasks through an analysis of sources relating to an improvement commission, the Dee Bridge Commissioners, which was established for improvement of an existing bridge and erection of another new bridge over the River Dee in 1825,  and which was also authorised to levy taxes and to dispose of land by legislation in order to undertake the improvement project.  Eligibility for membership was simply a matter of possession of real estate to a yearly value of £150, or a personal estate to the value of £4,000. The prosopographical analysis of the members has revealed that prominent members of the cathedral chapter, including the Dean of Chester, Vice Dean, archdeacon, and five out of six Prebendaries attended the commissioners’ meetings, while their equivalents from the corporation, such as the mayor and Justices of the Peace took a leading part in the establishment and business of the commission.


Figure 1.         John Wood’s map of Chester in 1833.



This analysis  has also revealed that the cathedral chapter agreed to surrender property which needed to be demolished in order to make way for a new avenue connected with the projected bridge (Figure 2). This evidence illustrates that leading members of the corporation and cathedral chapters gathered at a meeting in  mutual pursuit of benefits for the wider population, and that the cathedral chapter collaborated with other governing bodies when managing its property.


Figure 2.         Plan of the properties affected by the construction of a new street in Chester (yellow line).

Source: Cheshire Archives and Local Studies.


I plan to develop my analysis by using three types of data related to the cathedral chapter: its membership; management of its property and expenditure, and interactions between the cathedral chapter and other governing institutions.

To contact the author:

Twitter: @rk_leicester