A Potted History of ‘Browns of Chester’

In 1791, Susannah Towsey, a draper and haberdasher, moved to ‘more commodious premises’ along Eastgate Street South Row from a shop overlooking the pillory on the Cross. The shops along the Rows then were small, in the form of lockups with shutters that were held open by hooks to the ceiling of the walkways. There were frequent markets in the street, and the Rows were still quite rowdy, even those in the more genteel areas like the south of Eastgate Street.  

Market Day in Eastgate Street 1829 (facing south).

Susannah Brown’s business quietly expanded. She managed it alone – her husband busy with his own business as a druggist in Bridge Street around the corner. Her trade involved making a six-day journey to London and bring back hats, haberdashery and gloves, which she then advertised in a few short lines in the local newspaper. This was so successful she eventually took on a buyer to make the trip to London on her behalf and expanded her range into baby linen and funeral wear. 

Susannah Brown

This, perhaps, allowed her more time for her three sons, one of whom, William, took over his mother’s business in 1812 when she died. William, joined by his brother Henry in 1819, took over the premises of a neighbouring draper, and then rebuilt their shop in a neoclassical style. This included replacing the ‘Honey Steps’ (where people sold honey) with a grand entrance flanked by Doric columns. By now Eastgate Street was changing: the markets had gone, the pillory had been removed, and the Rows had been cleared of ‘Rowdies’. The Browns were one of the first to introduce gas lighting, and according to Hemingway in 1831, their shop bore comparison with those on Regent Street in London.

EastgateStreet 1831 (facing north to Browns)

 As well as expanding their shop, William and Henry Brown both made contributions to public life in Chester. It was thanks to William and Henry, for example, that Chester became a centre for rail travel. They were both mayors and both supporters of the Whigs. They died – unmarried – within months of each other by 1853.  

Chester Train Station (preCovid).

They were succeeded by their nephews, William and Charles. Like their uncles, this new generation of brothers were Whigs, and both became mayors multiple times. Charles in particular made notable contributions to the city of Chester: including improvements to the Rows, the walls, the riverside walk called the Groves, and the Hoole suburb (Flookersbrooke).   

The Groves

In 1856 and 1857 the brothers bought property to either side of the Honey Steps: the Crypt Building (with its impressive medieval undercroft), which they rebuilt in Gothic style, to the west; and a building in the half-timbered style to the east. The eastern building was leased to Bollands – a highly regarded local firm of confectioners – until 1912 when the Browns to claimed it back for themselves when Bollands moved further west. 

By the end of the nineteenth century, Browns owned 28 – 38 Eastgate Street, and their business had expanded into furniture and household linen. Their glamorous female staff – mostly from Paris or London – wore black to show off the merchandise, while their male counterparts wore morning suits. They all lived in – separately, of course. William Brown, who was more involved with the store than his brother, cultivated a family atmosphere and would frequently come over from the Town Hall when he was mayor to carve the roast for dinner and distribute it to staff.  

Neoclassic Honey Steps buidling with the later Gothic style building adjacent (picture taken pre-Covid)

 The customers were titled and moneyed, often coming into Chester for the day to indulge in the ‘Three Bs’: Browns, Bollands – and Bullens, the dentist. Carriages would arrive outside and women of wealth and importance – sometimes aristocrats – would make their entrances – and then their exits, with footmen arranging trains and transporting wrapped merchandise on velvet cushions.  

 In 1900, history almost repeated itself: both brothers died leaving another generation of brothers – Francis and Harry ­– to take over. At first, just Francis took the reins, but when he died at a relatively young age, Harry abandoned his law career to take charge of the family business. In 1908 it became a limited company, and the building was again altered and enlarged. The windows were modernised, and there was a new emphasis on display both in the windows and inside the shop.  

Browns from the South Eastgate Row (picture taken pre-Covid)

In 1915 a new extension was opened with an unusual event: Brown’s well-known and aristocratic customers were invited to play at being a shop assistant – and in return half the day’s takings would be donated to local war relief. Browns was changing again – and hoping to attract a wider range of customers: not just the ‘snooty load of poshers’ but ‘people from the back streets’. These new customers were encouraged to come in and browse, and were entertained by mannequin displays, lectures and shows. In 1922 it was dubbed ‘The Harrods of the North’, and in 1926, another refit included a dance floor, a restaurant, a roof garden and an arcade.

Honey Steps on original neo-classical Browns bulding from north Eastgate Row.

Before Harry Brown died in 1936, he and his wife Phyllis – who became the first female mayor of Chester in 1938 – gave the people of Chester the Meadows, as part of their legacy. In 1976 Browns department store became part of Debenhams. In 2001 the sign above the former Honey Steps still said ‘Browns of Chester’ but, in 2015, Browns had become just a subtitle.              

And today, 1st December, 2020, Debenhams has announced that it will go into receivership and a store once so integral to the city (‘Browns was Chester and Chester was Browns’ declared the mayor in 1926), has an uncertain future.

Ref: A Portrait of a Shop ‘Browns and Chester’ 1780 -1946 by Mass Observation. 1947

Published by claredudman

Writer of historical fiction and non-fiction.

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