The Henry Potts - June 2022
Creating The Henry Potts
Before The Henry Potts
A history of Watergate House and Henry Potts
This information was originally put together by Kirsty Henderson of the excellent Henderson Heritage (hendersonheritage.co.uk). She’s a good one to go to if you need advice on historic buildings.
Chester is best known for its timber framed buildings, such as the 16th century Stanley Palace, just up the road on Watergate Street, built in 1591, and the wonderful 19th century timber framed buildings of the Vernacular Revival. The city also has some beautiful, classical buildings and townhouses and The Henry Potts resides in one of these, nestled in the basement of Watergate House. The Grade II* listed building was designed in the Georgian period and sits on a street of mostly Georgian terraced buildings.
Watergate House is a fine building, on the corner of Watergate Street and Nicholas Street Mews, its curved main entrance and cobbled forecourt facing up Watergate Street. It was designed in 1820 by Thomas Harrison (1744 –1829), one of Chester’s most eminent architects. It was built on the site of Black Hall, a house belonging to The Brookes of Norton Priory. It is on (or close to) the site of the Dominican Monastery of the Black Friars, established in Chester by 1237 or 1238 and dissolved following the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.
Much later, between 1907 and 1935, Watergate House took on a very different, military purpose. It became the headquarters of the North Western Command, comprising the country of Wales (including the county of Monmouthshire), and the English counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, and Westmorland. It also included the Isle of Man. Despite the significant change of use, the original plan of the building remained, making it quite unique.
Watergate House is built of Flemish bond brown brick, in satisfying contrast to the black and white timber framed buildings of the city. Its front has a stone plinth, stone dressings, a moulded band and cornice, and small paned sash windows. Its entrance door is impressive, recessed back from the facades to St Nicholas Mews and Watergate Street and flanked by an Ionic column doorcase on top of six stone steps. An unusual feature of the building are two false windows, one to the ground and one to the first floor. They each have a frame, glazing bars and glass but with brickwork painted black behind.
The entrance to the main house leads through a domed circular corner lobby to the octagonal central hall with a large pair of pillars, supporting a grand looking gallery-landing. This is a stunning room, covered by a fantastic glasshouse. The house once had a large garden to its west side, sadly long since disappeared but we do at least have this picture of it.
The entrance to The Henry Potts is more discreet but no less charming. At basement level, further down the street and set back behind a small stone wall with cast iron railings, you will find our front door, set within an enormous stone white plinth. Inside it is low ceilinged, warm, intimate and welcoming, retaining historic features of the house - the original grate, sash windows, brick bow windows and cast iron columns. Back of house, in our kitchen, are brick arched cellars, built so that loads imposed by the walls and gallery of the main house are transmitted to the foundations.
Before you enter the Henry Potts, look down Watergate Street to Joseph Turner’s Watergate, built in 1788, which replaced a medieval structure, when the River Dee lapped the Roman city walls. Once defensive, the city walls offer a pleasing perambulation around the city and a unique two-tiered viewing experience of Chester. Pevsner describes them as “the best-preserved circuit in England, rivalled only by York.” We’ve put together our own walking guide for those of you that want to explore the walls, which you can find HERE. Beyond Watergate and the city walls, is Chester racecourse, The Roodee, which is the oldest in Britain.
Who was Henry Potts?
Watergate House was built as a town house for Henry Potts, Esq. Clerk of the Peace for the County of Chester, and solicitor in the legal firm of Widden, Potts and Leek, established in Chester in 1779. Potts was a wealthy landowner and philanthropist; a pillar of Cheshire society.
Records show that Henry Potts had a variety of work, including on where to house insane convicts, whether in gaol or a lunatic asylum, or whether magistrates of Anglesey would wish to contribute to a new House of Correction at Middlewich. His role as Clerk of the Peace was an important one, dealing with judicial business, minor offences and licensing as well as managing roads, bridges, prisons, and workhouses.
Henry Potts married Ann Garnet, and they had five children, one of which, Charles, sadly died in infancy. Eliza (1809 – 73), the oldest daughter, was a botanist. Her portrait by William Owen Harling (1813-1879), a British artist who exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy from 1849 until 1878, is now at The Grosvenor Museum. The Museum also houses Eliza’s collections of early records of plants from this area. She contributed to T.B. Hall’s "A Flora of Liverpool" (1838), with "Thirty Interesting Cheshire Plants of Parkgate and Hoylake” and in Lord De Tabley’s book "The Flora of Cheshire" (1899).
Another of Henry and Ann’s daughters, Harriet, was the mother of the Reverend Canon Lionel Garnett of Christleton. Arthur Potts, second son of Henry, was a noted railway engineer employing over eight hundred men, making a fortune in locomotive construction-during the golden age of railways.
Henry Potts also unwittingly produced one of the first riders to win the Grand National. Unbeknown to him, his son, Henry Potts (1810 – 84) rode as a last-minute replacement for Captain Martin Becher (1797 – 1864), who could not reach the race in time in 1837, the latter of which has Becher’s Brook at Aintree named in his honour.
Potts also owned a country estate at Glanyrafon, Llanferres, Denbighshire, that Thomas Harrison designed in 1810, a country house in picturesque surroundings. It is close to the famous Moel Famau, near Loggerheads, where the far-reaching views at the summit are spectacular. The remnants of the obelisk of the Jubilee Tower sit on the summit, designed in the Egyptian Revival Style by Harrison to commemorate George III's Golden Jubilee in 1810.
A plaque in memory of Henry Potts hangs in Chester Cathedral, in the heart of the city. The Cathedral’s famous Tower Tour is well worth a visit for those that haven’t already been.