Roman Chichester grew up behind its defensive city walls. In Anglo-Saxon times both the walls and the city fell into ruin until it was again refortified in the days of Alfred the Great as part of a defensive strategy to resist Viking incursions into southern England.
Over the next nine hundred years the city remained confined within its trusty walls. Small suburbs developed outside the walls by the seventeenth century at Westgate and outside the East Gate at St. Pancras. But it was only in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that Chichester truly expanded beyond its ancient alignment.
As recently as 1970 it was possible to approach the city walls from the south-west across fields and meadows.
These two line drawings by Arthur Evershed show scenes from Chichester now outside of living memory – but only just. What was Chichester like at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
Two highly respected writers of their day, W.H.Hudson and E.V.Lucas visited Chichester a few years after Evershed made his sketches and they have left two very different impressions of the city, which only goes to show that beauty, both of man and building, rests in the eye of the beholder!
Chichester is a perfect example of an English rural capital, thronged on market days with tilt carts bringing a farmer or farmer’s wife, and rich in those well-thronged ironmongers’ shops that one never sees elsewhere. But it is more than this: it is also a cathedral town, with the ever present sense of dominion by the cloth even when the cloth [the clergy] is not visible. …..Whatever noise may be in the air you know in your heart that quietude is its true characteristic. One might say that above the loudest street cries you are continually conscious of the silence of the [Cathedral] close. E.V.Lucas, Highways and Byways of Sussex, 1903
There are 12,000 souls in the town; that is to say, an adult population of 3000. This number includes a rather large body of clergymen and ministers, and perhaps a couple of hundred highly respectable persons who do not go to bars. To provide this village population with drink there are seventy public-houses, besides several wine and spirit merchants, and grocers with licences. To keep all these houses open, all these taps perpetually running, there must be an immense quantity of liquor consumed. At eight o’clock in the morning you will find men at all the bars, often in groups of three or four or half a dozen, standing, pipe in mouth and tankard in hand; and at eleven at night, when closing-time comes, out of every door a goodly crowd of citizens are seen stumbling forth, surprised and sorry, no doubt, that the day has ended so soon. In the streets, near the railway station, at the Market Cross, and at various corners, you will see groups of the most utterly drink-degraded wretches it is possible to find anywhere in the kingdom….. W.H.Hudson, Nature in Downland, 1900
Chichester’s Market Cross is rightly judged one of the most impressive in England (it’s rivals at Salisbury or Wyndmondham cannot really compete, as the first is clearly smaller and the second is of timber, not stone). It was commissioned and paid for in 1501 by Bishop Edward Storey, whose incumbency spanned the last years of the medieval and the first years of the Tudor periods. Perhaps there is symbolism to be found here? For not many years after Storey’s death in 1503, Thomas Cromwell’s agents, acting under the orders of Cromwell and Henry VIII, tore down the shrine of St. Richard in the cathedral and transported it away in several carts for their own enrichment. Times had changed dramatically in thirty years, and many people may have yearned for the ‘good old days’ of the medieval past (not, of course that they would have conceived it in those terms!)
Bishop Storey wished there to be a sheltered place in Chichester where honest tradesmen could be protected from the elements and so carry out their transactions without being drenched in rain or frozen by snow . The Cross was the focus on all such exchanges until the opening of the ‘Butter Market’ in North Street in 1807. But the opening of the new and more spacious building did not cause the old cross to become wholly redundant: it remained a focal point for informal business transactions and the focus for the social life of the city. Indeed rivalry and revelry could manifest itself around the cross. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, brawling and disputations were not uncommon, including those connected with the Whig/ Tory rivalry in the town. The following report from the West Sussex Gazette describes a rather less violent if discordant rivalry at the cross on New Year’s Eve in 1871:-
Our citizens have usually a demonstration round the ancient Cross on New Year’s Eve, and on Saturday last the muster numbered upwards of 400 men, women, and children, all chatting and laughing, and anxiously looking at the lighted face of the clock, as the minute hand gradually drew near its fellow, resting on the XII. The Christmas Band – a body of musicians partly recruited from the ranks of the Rifle Band, with several amateurs – had been engaged for the past week in playing at various houses in the City and neighbourhood, and on Saturday evening they perambulated the principal streets, playing merry tunes and followed by a great crowd. Having done the accustomed tour, they drew near the Cross, waiting for the hour to strike………But on Saturday night there were two [bands] in the field, for the Theatre Band has also hastened to the meeting place, and Mr Cooke’s musicians were determined to show their loyalty to the Queen and hearty greeting to the New Year. So when the hour began to strike the two bands struck up, the people shouted aloud, and cornet, double bass, and drum went heartily to work. Greatly in favour of noise, but wonderfully antagonistic to harmony, the two bands played different airs – one blew out with might and main the National Anthem, whilst the other as persistently struck up the much-loved hymn to friendship [Auld Lang Syne]. The din did not last long, however, and at the close, and when the hour was fairly rung out, and the year of grace 1871 ushered in, the mass of people, with one common impulse, began to move round the Cross, singing in unison “Should auld acquaintance be forgot,” and having completed circling the old edifice the third time, a hearty cheer arose, and then all rushed off to bed.”
While writing out this quotation, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ came to my mind and the Mellstock Village Band that toured the village during the festive season, to a mixed reception. Interestingly Hardy’s novel was published in 1872, the year after the musical cacophony described at Chichester – I wonder if a copy of the West Sussex Gazette could have passed across Hardy’s desk that year?
Why has the Butter Market the emblem of a cap and a crown on its facade?
Two of the city’s leading historians, Alan Green and Andrew Berriman provided some answers
Firstly, Alan has suggested that we should refer to the building as the Market House rather than Butter Market.
As far as ideas on the ‘cap and crown’, no one knows for sure but here are a number of possibilities:
Eleanor Coade, the female sculptor of the period is believed to have created the montage. Did she have revolutionary sympathies perhaps? Suggesting that the ‘cap of liberty’ would triumph over the crown? This was the era of the wars with Napoleon, but there is no reason to believe that Coade had such sympathies and even less reason to believe that the city authorities would have tolerated such sentiments being adorned on a public building!
At the time the Market House was being built French prisoners of war were being employed building a great flint wall around the Goodwood estate, so is the ‘cap’ a token of thanks to them? Again, doubtful, they were enemy prisoners and not doing it out of love!
John Wilkes, the radical agitator often sported a ‘cap of liberty,’ and he had quite a following locally – The Wilkes Head at Eastergate is still named after him. But his campaigning days were in the 1760s and 70s and he died in 1797, over decade before the Market House was built, so that does not add up either.
Andrew has pointed out that the cap of liberty dates back to Roman times and was awarded to free slaves so they could demonstrate their new won freedom – it is an ancient symbol. Could it, therefore, represent the new freedom given to the market traders? No longer would they have to shelter under the old cross, as wind and rain blew at them from all directions? Now they could take their comfort inside the new building. It is only a thought? Perhaps others have their own ideas? If so, please let us know!
Local historian, Alan Green has suggested a further theory for the ‘cap and crown’ emblem on the Market House in North Street:
Eleanor Coade was actually a manufacturer of artificial stone products (rather than a sculptor) and her catalogue includes statues and garden ornaments as well as architectural mouldings. All these were cast in moulds allowing mass production. It is my theory that the base of the Market House insignia was made up using her stock moulds which happened to include one of crossed maces, one of which had the cap of liberty. This had absolutely no significance to the Chichester crest but she obviously thought it made a good composition.
St. Mary’s Almshouses (also known as St. Mary’s Hospital) is one of the most outstanding medieval buildings in Sussex. The building on the current site off St. Martin’s Square dates back to 1269, but an earlier building is believed to have stood not far from the present-day Market Cross at least a century before.
The current building is a fine medieval tithe-barn type structure, that consists of a chapel and a series of small self-contained flatlets for poor widows of the city deemed to be worthy of charitable shelter. The running of the almshouses has not always been as it should. Following the fall of the city to Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War, puritan reformers sought to ensure that the funds of the hospital were directed towards the residents rather than into the pockets of the warden and the trustees. Similar concerns were still being raised over one hundred years later.
Today there are no such qualms and the charity is one of the oldest and most respected in the country.
In 1868, pioneering folklorist, Charlotte Latham, referred to St. Mary’s in her seminal work on the superstitions she still found ‘lingering’ in West Sussex. One superstition she recorded was the belief that after a death the front door of the deceased’s home must remain open until their burial, otherwise another death was sure follow.
A short time ago a death occurred in the St. Mary’s Almshouses at Chichester; and on the morning of the funeral, as soon as the body had been carried out, the niece of the deceased locked the door of the apartment, and had hardly done so when she heard the inmates of the Almshouses thumping and rattling it to force in open. On finding all their efforts useless, one of them exclaimed, “Hang that good-for-nothing woman! her locking this door before the old girl is buried will bring death among us pretty soon again.”
St. Mary’s is open to the public but only by prior appointment. Telephone 01243 783377
One lady who does not want her name used on Facebook or the web, but whom we can call ‘an old inhabitant of Chichester,’ wrote –
Your article about St Mary’s reminded me of the annual Harvest festival offerings at the Tower Street Primary school – now the site of the Novium. Every year a crocodile of pupils took food stuffs to the old ladies in the almshouses. In the 1950s the inmates had a small cell like area about 10′ x 10 ft for their bed, cupboard etc off the nave. There were rows of them each side. There were dividing partitions but no ceilings as such.
We also had an annual Christmas nativity play in the school. Bishop Bell invariably attended and as an angel – bit of miscasting there! – but with blonde hair down to my waist I was patted on the head in a paternal manner.
Andrew Berriman says that from his research he is sure that St. Mary’s – on its present site – was built in 1290. He has also supplied the attached illustration.
Alison Kelly who died in October 2016, was the architectural historian who researched Mrs Coade and her famous stone and helped rescue this pioneering eighteenth century woman from obscurity. Mrs Coade is believed to be responsible in Chichester for the crest on the Market House and ‘The Druid’ in Priory Park (who originally stood by in the city centre.)
Photo of the Druid courtesy of the Chichester Observer who campaigned for its preservation.
The Unicorn was one of the great pubs of old Chichester. It was famous for its catering at a time when very few pubs offered meals. The photograph from 1911 shows Christmas dinners being taken from the Unicorn to be delivered to the elderly widows living in Dear’s Almshouses. The dinners were paid for and delivered by members of the Corporation of St. Pancras – a mock corporation set up to celebrate the accession to the throne in 1689 of William of Orange following the overthrow of the Roman Catholic, James II. The St. Pancras district of Chichester had a long association with radical Protestantism dating back to the siege of the city during the English Civil War in 1642.
The old Unicorn was demolished and replaced by a new building in 1938, which later became newspaper offices, following the closure of the new Unicorn.
Pat Saunders, one of the research volunteers on the Chichester Heritage Trails project has done much original research on the inns and pubs of Chichester. This is what she has found out about The Unicorn –
The Unicorn in the picture above was demolished in 1937 and replaced by the present Art Deco building (left) which remained The Unicorn for a further 23 years. It was leased in 1962 to The Festival Theatre who renamed it Minerva Studios. Props continued to be made there until all operations were concentrated on the main Festival Theatre site. Between 1994 and 2015 it became offices for the Chichester Observer newspaper and the building will soon become a Sainsbury’s Local.
During the English Civil War all the buildings in the Eastgate area were raised to the ground by the forces of General Waller, including St Pancras Church. There had previously been an inn there (No 1 Eastgate square) The Lion. The Unicorn was built around 1670 to replace a victualling house in the occupation of Humphrey Collins.
In 1689 the Unicorn became the headquarters for the Mayor and Corporation of St Pancras, a charitable dining club set up to celebrate the Accession of William III and Mary II. Much of the inn was rebuilt in 1760. By 1807 the property passed to the brewers Humphreys of Westgate and later the Henty’s. In 1938 it was demolished again and rebuilt on the back of the old site. During the Second World War the landlord Arthur King always had a warm welcome for the RAF who came into town from Tangmere. They were drawn to a little upstairs bar with its walls crowded with signed photographs of Aces and RAF groups so that it was known as the Heroes Room. One regular was Douglas Bader.
In the 1950s the Unicorn was run by Doug and Kay Harcourt. They employed a part-time steward and chef, Frederick Phillips. They provided good value for money. Being close to St Pancras Church the pub held a lot of receptions for weddings, christenings and funerals, plus diners for the Mayor and Corporation of St Pancras.
Doug Harcourt was born in 1916 at Croydon; he left school at 15 to be an apprentice toolmaker and fitter but joined the Navy after a year. He transferred to the Fleet Air arm in 1936; then in 1942 as there was a shortage of pilots he transferred into the RAF. When he was demobbed in 1945 he went into the hotel business. He married Kay Durham in 1947 and their son Michael was born the following year. As a family they moved to the Unicorn in 1951. After the Unicorn was closed in 1960 they moved to Barnham to run the Railway hotel. Doug retired in 1981; he died in 2009.
Chris Hare interviewed Doug Harcourt in 1999. Here he describes the Christmas savings of ‘tontine’ club that he ran at The Unicorn. He also remembers how different pub catering was in the 1950s to today. The interview extract is verbatim – transcribed exactly from the recording
The whole thing was, when we went there we had a tontine which people paid into and the brewery gave us interest on. Also, that was amazing, everybody paid in and had their Christmas money, you know. And it was paid into the bank and they gave us a good interest on it, and then of course a good party when we paid out at Christmastime. And the other thing was, there was much more – you see, we had a public bar, a private bar, and originally we had a ‘bottle and jug’ where people come in with their jug to get some beer. It was a focal point because you didn’t have television and things like that. And the other great difference of course was, there was ourselves, Kimbels in North Street which would cater for big parties, the Dolphin, and that was about all. Now every pub does catering, all the pubs up until the ‘60s, in all the pubs it was a wrapped pork pie and a packet of crisps. I mean, you didn’t have to do anything else. But now, also every sports and social club caters for outside parties.
We would welcome any memories about The Unicorn, The Corporation of St. Pancras, the use of the new building by Chichester Festival Theatre or Doug Harcourt and his family.
One cold winter in January 1819, the youthful poet, John Keats, found himself staying with friends in Chichester at 11, Eastgate Square. He got into the habit of taking tea with an elderly lady who lived in the Vicar’s Hall in South Street. The crypt below the building – which still exists today and is a cafe – is believed to be the oldest domestic building in the city, dating back to the twelfth century.
The crypt has had a long and mysterious history. Before the Reformation it was used by the church and indeed, even in more recent times, old waxen effigies from the cathedral were stored in the crypt. The writer and naturalist, W.H. Hudson had a strange and disturbing vision here which he described in his chapter on Chichester in his bookNature in Downland.
Did Keats keep returning to visit the old woman because he valued her company or was it to soak up the atmosphere of this ancient building with its strong associations with the turbulent history of an ancient city? Whatever it was that called him to make these visits, it inspired one of the most evocative and mystical poems in the English language.
Keats based his poem on the folk belief that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of St. Agnes (20th January); that is she would go to bed without any supper, undress herself so that she was completely naked and lie on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens and not to look behind. Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her. In the original version of his poem, Keats emphasized the young lovers’ sexuality, but his publishers, who feared public reaction, forced him to tone down the eroticism.
Does Madeline, the young woman of poem represent a pure spirit in a dark realm? Is her lover a real man or rather an ethereal spirit – her fantasy of manliness and sensuality?
The ‘beadsman’ is one of the leading characters in the poem. He is described as an old man and retainer of ‘The Baron,’ whose purpose is to pray for the souls of his aristocratic master and his family. Then there is Angela, the old woman (perhaps based on the old woman Keats visited in Chichester?) who helps bring the young man to Madeline’s bedroom.
The chill of winter pervades the poem as does the dissolute condition of the Baron’s guests and servants: the only warmth is that created between the two young lovers. The poem ends with uncertainty. Do all the protagonists die or are they elevated to new life? Are we left feeling hope or despair? It is left to the reader to decide.
Most remarkable of all is that Keats was only 23 when he wrote The Eve of St Agnes and he was to die in Rome only three years later – weakened by illness and unconsummated love.
Local historian, Andrew Berriman, has told us that Keats was in Chichester from January 21st to January 23rd, 1819; in his diary he wrote that ‘I went out twice at Chichester to old dowager card parties‘; among these ladies was Mrs. Mary Lacy, who lived in the crypt below the Vicars’ Hall, with its mediaeval pillars and arches and diamond windows; in the poem he describes the maiden Madeline as sleeping in just such a room while waiting to discover the identity of her future husband; Keats described the room as ‘pale, latticed, chill, and silent as a tomb’; no doubt based on the room in which he had played the then fashionable game of ‘loo’ with the ladies.
Many visitors to this pub must assume the licensees can’t spell – surely the pub should be called ‘The Four Chestnuts,’ with a ‘t’? However it turns out that the spelling is quite deliberate.
It was spelt without a ‘t’ in the early nineteen century, although a ‘t’ was added in more recent times. About thirty years ago the pub was taken over by Jeff Glass and Carol Thackeray, and they decided to revert back to the original spelling, telling a local reporter that they liked the idea of going “back to ye olde English,” – adding, “The new signs are staying as they are, even if people say they are not spelt correctly.” And so it has remained.
‘Punch’ was the most well read satirical magazine of the Victorian era. It commenced in the 1840s as a stout defender of Free Trade and Liberalism, although later turned to support the Conservatives.
In 1868 a version of the journal was started in Chichester under the name ‘The Chichester Punch’, claiming it was the ‘son’ of its ‘honoured father’, and that such a publication was needed to counter the Chichester Courier (forerunner of the Chichester Observer), which it dismissed as a ‘weak-ly’ paper.
The Chichester Punch claimed to have offices at ‘Punch Office’ in North Street. It would seem that its publication coincided with the General Election of 1868. It is not known whether publication continued after the election.