THE CHESTER ASSAY OFFICE
The City of Chester on the banks of the river Dee, has a long history of prosperity, being founded as a fort by the Romans in AD 79. They built an amphitheatre which could seat up to 10,000 people, and it is the largest in Britain, giving some idea about how important the Romans considered Chester to be, perhaps rivalling Londinium.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, Chester came under the Earl of Chester and sometime around the early 15th Century, Chester had its own Guild of Goldsmiths, the forerunner to the Assay Office, which finally came into being in 17th Century due to tighter legislation being introduced on precious metals and was situated on Goss Street.
The hallmark on the earliest pieces of Chester Silver is three wheatsheaves and a sword in a shaped shield, and (after some changes and changes back) this assay mark remained in use until the office closure in 1962.
During the Georgian and Victorian eras the city became more ‘upmarket’ and prosperous, as it was seen as a place of escape for the burgeoning middle classes from the industrialisation of nearby Liverpool and Manchester and this was the golden age of the Chester Assay Office. To start with their output was almost exclusively concerned with hallmarking Silver items such as tableware, for which it was very famous, becoming an important Assay Office where both local and foreign Gold and Silversmiths work was assayed in the 19th century. It wasn’t until the late Victorian and early Edwardian period that the Chester Assay Office started to mark substantial numbers of pieces of Gold jewellery.
We have many beautiful pieces in our shop which were assayed at Chester in this golden age of British jewellery production. Many of the rings, pendants and brooches show an Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts influence, which denotes the styles which were being produced by the jewellers in the vicinity. Chester hallmarked pieces appeal to collectors and we always enjoy seeing that lovely stamp on a new (to us) jewel.
By the late 1950’s the government of the day decided that the Chester office would be closed. It was debated in the House of Lords in 1962, the year of the closure, and this is part of the statement by the Bishop of Chester.
“On any count, this is a regrettable Bill, because it brings to an end a tradition, a living, working tradition, of over a thousand years. For there is clear record of the work of the moneyers of the City of Chester in the reign of King Athelstan; and in every century the goldsmiths and silversmiths of Chester have been practising their craft. And their work has been assayed in the city, for it is almost certain that before 1700 gold and silver objects were assayed under the authority of the Earls of Chester. In 1700 the Plate Assay Act set up five provincial Assay Offices: in York, Exeter, Bristol, Norwich, and Chester; and of those five, Chester is now the only one still working. Therefore, by closing the Assay Office in Chester, this Bill brings to an end this long and honourable tradition…… But, my Lords, it must be recognised that this Bill is a regrettable necessity, for although the Assay Office in Chester seems to be prosperous, yet in point of fact its existence is very precarious. For the last two or three years it has been doing some £15,000 worth of business; but it depends almost entirely for its work upon the good will of a small number of merchants in Birmingham. And if they were to withdraw their custom, then indeed the situation of those who man and do the work of the Assay Office in Chester would be extremely parlous. There are nine people on the staff of the Office: three of them are over 70, and two more are over 60.”
So the Assay Office closed in 1962 by Act of Parliament simply because it wasn’t getting enough work, and several of the assayers were past retirement age with no prospect of being replaced.
The result of this closure was that items of antique and vintage jewellery and silver with Chester hallmarks increased in value to collectors simply due to scarcity.