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Uncovering Hidden Histories at Chester

Join the Department in marking the Institute of Historical Research’s ‘Our Century’ – a 12-month exploration, celebration and reappraisal of history’s past, present and future.

All events are free to attend. Booking links will appear closer to the events to be held in May 2022, please check back nearer the time.

Strand One: Discovering and Remembering Stories of Migration and Refuge

Please see our Press Release for Story Swap 4th October, 2021. This is an opportunity to hear about the lived experiences of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who have crossed borders and made Cheshire their home. For more details PLEASE CLICK HERE.


The county of Cheshire is rarely seen as a centre for demographic diversity. Cheshire’s past, however, is far from monocultural. Britain’s reach as a global empire, as well as its entanglement in the slave trade, brought people from Africa, the Caribbean and South-East Asia to the county. Whilst episodes of modern conflict saw Cheshire play a vital role in providing shelter to refugees from Belgium, Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Revolution, civil war, and economic hardship has also prompted refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa to make the perilous journey to the region.

This heterogeneous history remains, however, at the margins of local consciousness. A collaboration between historians at the University of Chester, Cheshire Archives (CALS) and Cheshire Halton & Warrington Race & Equality Centre (CHAWREC), aims to reposition this history. A planned Diversity Showcase event will explore multiple layers of social history that can be found in Cheshire’s past. Members of local migrant and refugee communities, who work with CHAWREC, will be invited to hear a panel of speakers from the University, Archives, and representatives from those minority communities ‘in conversation’, as they highlight a history told anew. This event will include an appeal for these communities to share their own images and stories with the team, ahead of the second event. Led by: Dr Hannah Ewence.

The second event in May 2022 will focus on revealing more contemporary stories of migration to Cheshire. Drawing on the CALS-held ‘Journeys to Cheshire’ oral histories collection, recorded by CHAWREC in 2011/2012, it will offer participants a space to come together to reflect on themes pertinent to Cheshire’s contemporary multicultural landscape, identified at the October event. It will also incorporate stories and images shared after the first event; these will be accessioned by CALS, and images displayed in the Unity Centre. Led by: Dr Kara Critchell.

Strand Two: Uncovering Hidden Histories at Chester: Walking Tours 

Dr Tim Grady: Uncovering Chester’s Hidden Dead of the World Wars (max 2hrs)

This walking tour sets out to explore the diverse range of soldiers and civilians buried in Chester during the First and Second World Wars. The tour traces a path from the Chester Royal Infirmary building, in which many soldiers lost their lives, to Overleigh cemetery. Although the most visible graves in the cemetery are British, the burial ground also contains the remains of Australian, Belgian, German, Czechoslovakian and Canadian dead.

Dr Katherine Wilson: Uncovering an International City: Chester in the Middle Ages (2.5hrs)

This walking tour sets out to explore Chester as an interconnected and international city in the Middle Ages. The tour will start at the Medieval Water Tower on the city walls, once home to the most important port in the North West and then will move into the centre of Chester itself to explore the homes of Chester’s wealthy merchants. It will finish ‘behind the scenes’ at the Grosvenor Museum to explore some medieval objects with global links found in Chester.

Dr Donna Jackson: Walking in the Footsteps of the Beatles: Uncovering the hidden history of Chester in the Swinging Sixties (2hrs)

Liverpool may be synonymous with the Beatles, but Chester too had its part to play in the band’s history. This walking tour will take visitors around the city from the railway station to the racecourse and reveal the many ways that Chester featured in the development of the global phenomenon that was the Beatles, uncovering a hidden history of Chester during the Swinging Sixties. Featured sites include venues where the Beatles played, the birthplace of John Lennon’s grandmother, and inspirations for Beatle songs.

Dr Tom Pickles: Uncovering Chester’s Viking Past (2hrs)

Tantalising fragments of historical evidence, some hidden in plain sight around Chester, suggest that the city was a significant place in the Viking diaspore – the places in which Scandinavians raided, traded, conquered, and settled in the ninth and tenth centuries. This tour will take in a series of places through which the story of Viking Age Chester can be uncovered. It will link them to Chester’s patron saint, Werburgh, and some famous Anglo-Saxon rulers – Aethelfflaed, lady of the Mercians, Aethelstan, emperor of Britain, and Edgar, king of the English.

Prof. Peter Gaunt: Uncovering the post-Restoration ‘urban renaissance’ in Chester (2hrs)

From the 1970s, Professor Peter Borsay argued for an urban renaissance in the early modern period, beginning in 1660 and ending in the late 1700s. It is claimed that an urban renaissance of this period can be detected in many English provincial towns, including Chester. Evidence can be found in four key areas: its economy; the provision of facilities (parks, bowling greens, race courses, theatres); improvement of public amenities (installing raised pavements, street lighting, regular street cleaning); and refinement of its buildings and architecture. This guided walk re-assesses Borsay’s thesis for Chester, exploring the extent to which its urban environment, surviving buildings, and architectural styles, can reveal a post-Restoration urban renaissance.

Strand Three: Uncovering Hidden Histories at Chester: Online Talks (May 2022 weekday evenings, hour-long events)

Dr Morn Capper: The Hidden History of Women in Power: Conversations with Aethelflaed, Leader of the Mercians, queen, carer, coniunx

Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred of Wessex, died in 918 as sole ruler of the Mercian kingdom. One of the first recorded female rulers in England’s history, she led her people in war against Viking armies, was acclaimed as founder of Chester and a network of other fortified towns in the West. She was a builder and strategist, negotiator of Viking migration from Ireland, a general and a diplomat. Yet, for Aethelflaed, expectations of marriage, family and religion were never far away.

Throughout history, women’s leadership has been hidden behind ideas of exceptionalism and even sainthood, rather than ability. This ‘in conversation’ event, explores the myth of Aethelflaed’s exceptionalism, uncovering the hidden history of how a woman in leadership negotiated her burdens and position, to become a queen in power. It encourages the audience to share and reflect on examples of women in leadership, asking why Aethelflaed’s example faded to that of a mythic hero, de-aged in 21st century public imaginings, rather than becoming a genuine role model.

Dr David Harry: The forgotten histories of Cheshire’s witches

Violence against women is a distressing and unresolved aspect of British history, especially where its perpetrators are protected by the state. For the better part of a century the witchcraze swept across sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe and tens of thousands of people, the overwhelming majority women, were murdered for supernatural and imagined offences.

In England, as many as five hundred people were executed as witches and while Cheshire is perhaps less-well known for its role in the hunts than neighbouring Lancashire, the hidden histories of the women brought to answer for charges of witchcraft are revealed in the county’s records. This talk will introduce these sources, and explore what they reveal about the interconnectedness of the European witchcraze, as well as life in the villages of early modern Cheshire – a world in which conflict and fantasy could quickly escalate into violence.

Dr Rebecca Andrew: Uncovering Change in Port Sunlight’s Historic Landscape

The historic garden village of Port Sunlight was founded in 1888 on the banks of the River Mersey, by entrepreneur William Hesketh Lever (the first Lord Leverhulme), to house his ‘Sunlight Soap’ factory workers. Lever imagined a better way of life was possible for industrial workers, and employed architects to transform his vision into a reality, which included green spaces, recreational facilities, and affordable, sanitary homes in a considered architectural form. The village preceded the Garden City movement by several years, therefore holding a unique, yet under-researched, place in the history of town and country planning.

Now a thriving tourist destination, containing 900 Grade II listed buildings, it is popular with film crews as a backdrop to period dramas. While Port Sunlight’s place identity focuses heavily on its supposedly unchanging and timeless nature, the village has undergone considerable development, change and renewal throughout its relatively short history. This talk challenges popular representations of Port Sunlight, uncovering the place identity Lever originally envisioned, and offering an alternative view of the village.

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