CHESHIRE, a north-western county of England, bounded N. by Lancashire, N.E. by Yorkshire and Derbyshire, S.E. by Staffordshire, S. by Shropshire, W. by Denbighshire and Flint, and N.W. by the Irish Sea. Its area is 1027.8 sq. m. The coast-line is formed by the estuaries of the Dee and the Mersey, which are separated by the low rectangular peninsula of Wirral. The estuary of the Dee is dry at low tide on the Cheshire shore, but that of the Mersey bears upon its banks the ports of Liverpool (in Lancashire) and Birkenhead (on the Wirral shore). The Dee forms a great part of the county boundary with Denbighshire and Flint, and the Mersey the boundary along the whole of the northern side. The principal river within the county is the Weaver, which crosses it with a north-westerly course, and, being joined by the Dane at Northwich, discharges into the estuary of the Mersey south of Runcorn. The surface of Cheshire is mostly low and gently undulating or flat; but the broken line of the Peckforton hills, seldom exceeding 600 ft. in height, runs north and south flanking the valley of the Weaver on the west. A low narrow gap in these hills is traversed by the small river Gowy, which rises to the east but has the greater part of its course to the west of them. Commanding this gap on the west, the Norman castle of Beeston stands on an isolated eminence. The northern part of the hills coincides approximately with the district still called Delamere Forest, formerly a chase of the earls of Chester, and finally disforested in 1812. In certain sequestered parts the forest has not wholly lost its ancient character. On the east Cheshire includes the western face of the broad belt of high land which embraces the Peak district of Derbyshire; these hills rise sharply to the east of Congleton, Macclesfield and Hyde, reaching a height of about 1800 ft. within Cheshire. Distributed over the county, but principally in the eastern half, are many small lakes or meres, such as Combermere, Tatton, Rostherne, Tabley, Doddington, Marbury and Mere, and it was a common practice among the gentry of the county to build their mansions on the banks of these waters. The meres form one of the most picturesque features of the county.
Geology.—With the exception of a small area of Carboniferous rocks on the eastern border, and a small patch of Lower Lias near Audlem, the whole country is occupied by Triassic strata. The great central plain is covered by red and mottled Keuper Marls. From these marls salt is obtained; there are many beds of rock-salt, mostly thin; two are much thicker than the others, being from 75 ft. to over 100 ft. thick. Thin beds and veins of gypsum are common in the marls. The striking features of the Peckforton Hills are due to the repeated faulting of the Lower Keuper Sandstone, which lies upon beds of Bunter Sandstone. Besides forming this well-marked ridge, the Lower Keuper Sandstones or “Waterstones” form several ridges north-west of Macclesfield and appear along most of the northern borders of the county and in the neighbourhood of New Brighton and Birkenhead. The Lower Keuper Sandstone is quarried near the last-named place, also at Storeton, Delamere and Manley. This is a good building stone and an important water-bearing stratum; it is often ripple-marked, and bears the footprints of the Cheirotherium. At Alderley Edge ores of copper, lead and cobalt are found. West of the Peckforton ridge, Bunter Sandstones and pebble beds extend to the border. They also form low foothills between Cheadle and Macclesfield. They fringe the northern boundary and appear on the south-eastern boundary as a narrow strip of hilly ground near Woore. The oldest rock exposed in the county is the small faulted anticline of Carboniferous limestone at Astbury, followed in regular succession eastward by the shale, and thin limestones and sandstones of the Pendleside series. These rocks extend from Congleton Edge to near Macclesfield, where the outcrop bends sharply eastward and runs up the Goyt valley. Some hard quartzites in the Pendleside series, known locally as “Crowstones,” have contributed to the formation of the high Bosley Min and neighbouring hills. East of Bosley Min, on either side of the Goyt valley, are the Millstone Grits and Shales, forming the elevated moorland tracts. Cloud Hill, a striking feature near Congleton, is capped by the “Third Grit,” one of the Millstone Grit series. From Macclesfield northward through Stockport is a narrow tongue of Lower and Middle Coal-Measures—an extension of the Lancashire coalfield. Coal is mined at Neston in the Wirral peninsula from beneath the Trias; it is a connecting link between the Lancashire and Flintshire coalfields. Glacial drift is thickly spread over all the lower ground; laminated red clays, stiff clay with northern erratics and lenticular sand masses with occasional gravels, are the common types. At Crewe the drift is over 400 ft. thick. Patches of Drift sand, with marine shells, occur on the high ground east of Macclesfield at an elevation of 1250 ft.
Agriculture and Industries.—The climate is temperate and rather damp; the soil is varied and irregular, but a large proportion is a thin-skinned clay. More than four-fifths of the total area is under cultivation. The crop of wheat is comparatively insignificant; but a large quantity of oats is grown, and a great proportion of the cultivated land is in permanent pasture. The vicinity of such populous centres as Liverpool and Manchester, as well as the several large towns within the county, makes cattle and dairy-farming profitable. Cheese of excellent quality is produced, the name of the county being given to a particular brand (see Dairy). Potatoes are by far the most important green crop. Fruit-growing is carried on in some parts, especially the cultivation of stone fruit and, among these, damsons; while the strawberry beds near Farndon and Holt are celebrated. In the first half of the 19th century the condition of agriculture in Cheshire was notoriously backward; and in 1865–1866 the county suffered with especial severity from a visitation of cattle plague. The total loss of stock amounted to more than 66,000 head, and it was necessary to obtain from the Treasury a loan of £270,000 on the security of the county rate, for purposes of relief and compensation. The cheese-making industry naturally received a severe blow, yet to agriculture at large an ultimate good resulted as the possibility and even the necessity of new methods were borne in upon the farmers.
The industries of the county are various and important. The manufacture of cotton goods extends from its seat in Lancashire into Cheshire, at the town of Stockport and elsewhere in the north-east. Macclesfield and Congleton are centres of silk manufacture. At Crewe are situated the great workshops of the London & North-Western railway company, the institution of which actually brought the town into being. Another instance of the modern creation of a town by an individual industrial corporation is seen in Port Sunlight on the Mersey, where the soap-works of Messrs Lever are situated. On the Mersey there are shipbuilding yards, and machinery and iron works. Other important manufactures are those of tools, chemicals, clothing and hats, and there are printing, bleaching and dye works, and metal foundries. Much sandstone is quarried, but the mineral wealth of the county lies in coal and salt. The second is a specially important product. Some rock-salt is obtained at Northwich and Winsford, but most of the salt is extracted from brine both here and at Lawton, Wheelock and Middlewich. At Northwich and other places in the locality curious accidents frequently occur owing to the sinking of the soil after the brine is pumped out; walls crack and collapse, and houses are seen leaning far out of the perpendicular. A little copper and lead are found.
Communications.—The county is well served with railways. The main line of the London & North-Western railway, passing north from Crewe to Warrington in Lancashire, serves no large town, but from Crewe branches diverge fanwise to Manchester, Chester, North Wales and Shrewsbury. The Great Western railway, with a line coming northward from Wrexham, obtains access through Cheshire to Liverpool and Manchester. These two companies jointly work the Birkenhead railway from Chester to Birkenhead. The heart of the county is traversed by the Cheshire Lines, serving the salt district, and reaching Chester from Manchester by way of Delamere Forest. In the east the Midland and Great Central systems enter the county, and the North Staffordshire line serves Macclesfield. The Manchester, South Junction & Altrincham and the Wirral railways are small systems serving the localities indicated by their names. The river Weaver is locked as far up as Winsford, and the transport of salt is thus expedited. The profits of the navigation, which was originally undertaken in 1720 by a few Cheshire squires, belong to the county, and are paid annually to the relief of the county rates. In the salt district through which the Weaver passes subsidence of the land has resulted in the formation of lakes of considerable extent, which act as reservoirs to supply the navigation. There are further means of inland navigation by the Grand Trunk, Shropshire Union and other canals, and many small steamers are in use. The Manchester Ship Canal passes through a section of north Cheshire, being entered from the estuary of the Mersey by locks near Eastham, and following its southern shore up to Runcorn, after which it takes a more direct course than the river.
Population and Administration.—The ancient county, which is a county palatine, has an area of 657,783 acres, with a population in 1891 of 730,058 and in 1901 of 815,099. Cheshire has been described as a suburb of Liverpool, Manchester and the Potteries of Staffordshire, and many of those whose business lies in these centres have colonized such districts as Bowdon, Alderley, Sale and Marple near Manchester, the Wirral, and Alsager on the Staffordshire border, until these localities have come to resemble the richer suburban districts of London. On the short seacoast of the Wirral are found the popular resorts of New Brighton and Hoylake. This movement and importance of its industries have given the county a vast increase of population in modern times. In 1871 the population was 561,201; from 1801 until that year it had increased 191%. The area of the administrative county is 654,825 acres. The county contains 7 hundreds. The municipal boroughs are Birkenhead (pop. 110,915), Chester (38,309), Congleton (10,707), Crewe (42,074), Dukinfield (18,929), Hyde (32,766), Macclesfield (34,624), Stalybridge (27,673), Stockport (92,832). Chester, the county town, is a city, county of a city, and county borough, and Birkenhead and Stockport are county boroughs. The other urban districts with their populations are as follows:—
|Alderley Edge (a)||2,856||Hoylake and West Kirby (b)||10,911|
|Altrincham (a)||16,831||Lower Bebington (b)||8,398|
|Ashton-upon-Mersey (a)||5,563||Lymm (a)||4,707|
|Bollington (a)||5,245||Marple (a)||5,595|
|Bredbury and Romiley (a)||7,087||Mottram-in-Longdendale (a)||3,128|
|Buglawton (Congleton)||1,452||Neston and Parkgate (b)||4,154|
|Cheadle and Gatley (a)||7,916||Northwich||17,611|
|Ellesmere Port and Whitby (b)||4,082||Sale (a)||12,088|
|Hazel Grove and Bramhall (a)||7,934||Wallasey (b)||53,579|
|Higher Bebington (b)||1,540||Wilmslow (a)||7,361|
|Hoole (Chester)||5,341||Yeardsley-cum-Whaley (a)||1,487|
Of the townships in this table, those marked (a) are within a radius of about 15 m. from Manchester (Knutsford being taken as the limit), while those marked (b) are in the Wirral. The localities of densest population are thus clearly illustrated.
The county is in the North Wales and Chester circuit, and assizes are held at Chester. It has one court of quarter sessions, and is divided into fourteen petty sessional divisions. The boroughs already named, excepting Dukinfield, have separate commissions of the peace, and Birkenhead and Chester have separate courts of quarter sessions. There are 464 civil parishes. Cheshire is almost wholly in the diocese of Chester, but small parts are in those of Manchester, St Asaph or Lichfield. There are 268 ecclesiastical parishes or districts wholly or in part within the county. There are eight parliamentary divisions, namely, Macclesfield, Crewe, Eddisbury, Wirral, Knutsford, Altrincham, Hyde and Northwich, each returning one member; the county also includes the parliamentary borough of Birkenhead returning one member, and parts of the borough of Stockport, which returns two members, and of Ashton-under-Lyne, Chester, Stalybridge, and Warrington, which return one member each.
History.—The earliest recorded historical fact relating to the district which is now Cheshire is the capture of Chester and destruction of the native Britons by the Northumbrian king Æthelfrith about 614. After a period of incessant strife between the Britons and their Saxon invaders the district was subjugated by Ecgbert in 830 and incorporated in the kingdom of Mercia. During the 9th century. Æthelwulf held his parliament at Chester, and received the homage of his tributary kings from Berwick to Kent, and in the 10th century Æthelflæd rebuilt the city, and erected fortresses at Eddisbury and Runcorn. Edward the Elder garrisoned Thelwall and strengthened the passages of the Mersey and the Irwell. On the splitting up of Mercia in the 10th century the dependent districts along the Dee were made a shire for the fortress of Chester. The shire is first mentioned in the Abingdon Chronicle, which relates that in 980 Cheshire was plundered by a fleet of Northmen. At the time of the Domesday Survey the county was divided into twelve hundreds, exclusive of the six hundreds between the Ribble and the Mersey, now included in Lancashire, but then a part of Cheshire. These divisions have suffered great modification, both in extent and in name, and of the seven modern hundreds Bucklow alone retains its Domesday appellation. The hundreds of Atiscross and Exestan have been transferred to the counties of Flint and Denbigh, with the exception of a few townships now in the hundred of Broxton. The prolonged resistance of Cheshire to the Conqueror was punished by ruthless harrying and sweeping confiscations of property, and no Englishman retained estates of importance after the Conquest. In order that the shire might be relieved of all obligations beyond the ever-pressing necessity of defending its borders against the inroads of hostile neighbours, it was constituted a county palatine which the earl of Chester “held as freely by his sword as the king held England by his crown.” The county had its independent parliament consisting of the barons and clergy, and courts, and all lands except those of the bishop were held of the earl. The court of exchequer was presided over by a chamberlain, a vice-chamberlain, and a baron of the exchequer. It was principally a court of revenue, but probably a court of justice also, before that of the justiciary was established, and had besides the functions of a chancery court, with an exclusive jurisdiction in equity. Other officers of the palatinate were the constable, high-steward and the serjeants of the peace and of the forests. The abbots of St Werburgh and Combermere and all the eight barons held courts, in any of which cases of capital felony might be tried.
During the 12th and 13th centuries the county was impoverished by the constant inroads of the Welsh. In 1264 the castle and city of Chester were granted to Simon de Montfort, and in 1267 the treaty of Shrewsbury procured a short interval of peace. Richard II., in return for the loyal support furnished him by the county, made it a principality, but the act was revoked in the next reign. In 1403 Cheshire was the headquarters of Hotspur, who roused the people by telling them that Richard II. was still living. At the beginning of the Wars of the Roses Margaret collected a body of supporters from among the Cheshire gentry, and Lancastrian risings occurred as late as 1464. At the time of the Civil War feeling was so equally divided that an attempt was made to form an association for preserving internal peace. In 1643, however, Chester was made the headquarters of the royalist forces, while Nantwich was garrisoned for the parliament, and the county became the scene of constant skirmishes until the surrender of Chester in 1646 put an end to the struggle.
From the number of great families with which it has been associated Chester has been named “the mother and nurse of English gentility.” Of the eight baronies of the earldom none survives, but the title of that of Kinderton was bestowed in 1762 on George Venables-Vernon, son of Anne, sister of Peter Venables, last baron of Kinderton, from whom the present Lord Vernon of Kinderton is descended. Other great Domesday proprietors were William FitzNigel, baron of Halton, ancestor of the Lacys; Hugh de Mara, baron of Montalt, ancestor of the Ardens; Ranulph, ancestor of the Mainwarings; and Hamo de Massey. The Davenports, Leighs and Warburtons trace their descent back to the 12th century, and the Grosvenors are descended from a nephew of Hugh Lupus.
In the reign of Henry VIII. the distinctive privileges of Cheshire as a county palatine were considerably abridged. The right of sanctuary attached to the city of Chester was abolished; justices of the peace were appointed as in other parts of the kingdom, and in 1542 it was enacted that in future two knights for the shire and two burgesses for the city of Chester should be returned to parliament. After the Reform Act of 1832 the county returned four members from two divisions, and Macclesfield and Stockport returned two members each. Birkenhead secured representation in 1859. From 1868 until the Redistribution Act of 1885 the county returned six members from three divisions.
From earliest times the staple products of Cheshire have been salt and cheese. The salt-pits of Nantwich, Middlewich and Northwich were in active operation at the time of Edward the Confessor, and at that date the mills and fisheries on the Dee also furnished a valuable source of revenue. Twelfth century writers refer to the excellence of Cheshire cheese, and at the time of the Civil War three hundred tons at £33 per ton were ordered in one year for the troops in Scotland. The trades of tanners, skinners and glove-makers existed at the time of the Conquest, and the export trade in wool in the 13th and 14th centuries was considerable. The first bed of rock-salt was discovered in 1670. Weaving and wool-combing were introduced in 1674.
Antiquities.—The main interest in the architecture of the county lies in the direction of domestic buildings rather than ecclesiastical. Old half-timbered houses are common in almost every part of the county; many of these add to the picturesqueness of the streets in the older towns, as in the case of the famous Rows in Chester, while in the country many ancient manor-houses remain as farm-houses. Among the finest examples are Bramhall Hall, between Stockport and Macclesfield, and Moreton Old Hall, near Congleton (see House, Plate IV., fig. 13). The first, occupying three sides of a quadrangle (formerly completed by a fourth side), dates from the 13th and 14th centuries, and contains a splendid panelled hall and other rooms. Of Moreton Hall, which is moated, only three sides similarly remain; its date is of the 16th century. Other buildings of the Elizabethan period are not infrequent, such as Brereton and Dorfold Halls, while more modern mansions, set in fine estates, are numerous. Crewe Hall is a modern building on an ancient site, and Vale Royal near Winsford incorporates fragments of a Cistercian monastery founded in 1277. A noteworthy instance of the half-timbered style applied to an ecclesiastical building is found in the church of Lower Peover near Knutsford, of which only the tower is of stone. The church dates from the 13th century, and was carefully restored in 1852. Cheshire has no monastic remains of importance, save those attached to the cathedral of Chester, nor are its village churches as a rule of special interest. There is, however, a fine late Perpendicular church (with earlier portions) at Astbury near Congleton, and of this style and the Decorated the churches of Bunbury and Malpas may be noticed as good illustrations. In Chester, besides the cathedral, there is the massive Norman church of St John; and St Michael’s church and the Rivers chapel at Macclesfield are noteworthy. No more remarkable religious monuments remain in the county than the two sculptured Saxon crosses in the market-place at Sandbach. Ruins of two Norman castles exist in Beeston and Halton.
Authorities.—Sir John Doddridge, History of the Ancient and Modern State of the Principality of Wales, Duchy of Cornwall, and Earldom of Chester (London, 1630; 2nd ed., 1714); D. King, The Vale-Royall of England, or the County Palatine of Cheshire Illustrated, 4 parts (London, 1656); D. and S. Lysons, Magna Britannia, vol. ii. pt. ii. (London, 1810); J. H. Hanshall, History of the County Palatine of Chester (Chester, 1817–1823); J. O. Halliwell, Palatine Anthology (London, 1850); G. Ormerod, History of the County Palatine and City of Chester (London, 1819; new ed., London, 1875–1882); J. P. Earwaker, East Cheshire (2 vols., London, 1877); R. Wilbraham, Glossary (London, 1820; 2nd ed., London, 1826); and Glossary founded on Wilbraham by E. Leigh (London, 1877); J. Croston, Historic Sites of Cheshire (Manchester, 1883); and County Families of Cheshire (Manchester, 1887); W. E. A. Axon, Cheshire Gleanings (Manchester, 1884); Holland, Glossary of Words used in the County of Cheshire (London, 1884–1886); N. G. Philips, Views of Old Halls in Cheshire (London, 1893); Victoria County History, Cheshire. See also various volumes of the Chetham Society and of the Record Society of Manchester, as well as the Proceedings of the Cheshire Antiquarian Society, and Cheshire Notes and Queries.