The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were a period of growth for Chester, although it failed to develop a significant manufacturing base. Instead, it became important for service industries and, especially, tourism. Because it escaped the bombing that so devastated Liverpool in the Second World War, it kept much of its stock of ancient buildings until large-scale development in the 1960s. It was the impact of these schemes that led the City Council to establish a dedicated archaeological unit in 1973.
A prominent feature of the nineteenth century in western Cheshire was the rebuilding of entire villages on model estate lines by wealthy landlords: the growth of the Eaton Estate under the Marquises and (subsequently) Dukes of Westminster in particular caused huge changes in the area. However, in the decade following the First World War there were enormous changes in land-ownership patterns all over England-the largest since the Dissolution in the 1530s transferred ecclesiastical estates into lay hands-and many of the large estates were partitioned.
Little is known about everyday life in the villages at this time. Although there are numerous accounts of folk life, there is little archaeological evidence for the material culture of the poorer elements of society. This was a period of great agricultural change, with the gradual establishment of the dairying monoculture that has dominated agricultural production throughout the twentieth century, and the virtual extinction of heathlands and wastes.
The transport revolution during the nineteenth century and tremendous population growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to many settlements expanding beyond their historic cores whilst others were depopulated as people moved into towns. However, in the late twentieth century a return to living in villages was seen, with commuting by car becoming a common feature of work patterns. These villages often contain post-Second World War council estates and, increasingly, estates of houses built by national private developers around cul-de-sacs radiating from a spine road. These have often changed the traditional focus of the settlements as well as the character of both the villages and their communities.
Twentieth-century military threats belong primarily to the Second World War, when fears about a German invasion from the neutral Eire led to the construction of defensive works on the west coast. There is a pillbox at Saltney that belongs to this period, and there are others elsewhere in the District. The systematic search for and recording of such sites only began in the mid-1990s, and many more sites must remain undiscovered. A Royal Ordnance Depot at Beeston, still in the hands of the MoD and therefore inaccessible, may date from this period. Destruction by bombing during the Second World War is known to have occurred (as at Heronbridge), but records of its extent have not been collated. Bombing was a result of German aircraft missing their targets on Merseyside rather than a deliberate policy.
The Grand Junction Railway from Birmingham to Chester was the first through western Cheshire. It is already shown on the 1839 Tithe Maps of Tilstone and Tiverton; the first train ran on it on 7 July 1837. The route was designed to fit in with the existing canal and river systems using tunnels and viaducts. After 1840, greater attention was paid to passenger transport, and waiting huts or cottages were provided at stations, such as the example at Mollington. Elsewhere a bus service operated between town and village centres and their rail stations, such as that at Tattenhall Road on the Crewe-Chester line. The Manchester to Chester suburban line was opened on 2 November 1874, joining the Grand Junction line at Mouldsworth Junction. By the 1890s, there was a network of eight main lines and branch lines around Chester, and a light rail system established by the Dukes of Westminster on the Eaton estate.
The national motorway system that was developed in the second half of the twentieth century is represented in the district by the east-west M56 Chester-Manchester motorway and the north-south M53 Birkenhead-Chester motorway. There are also numerous road-improvement schemes, larger examples including the Chester southerly bypass, the Kelsall bypass and the Handley bypass.
There are few industrial sites in the rural areas not connected with transport. A warehouse at Huntington and an engine shed in Saltney, for instance, are both connected with railways. Although the shipyard at Saltney was mainly in Wales, parts of it were in the district, and its contribution to the local economy was significant. Although Chester District has few the important industrial sites to match those that dominate the Mersey estuary, there are nevertheless a number of significant twentieth-century sites. Recent research has highlighted Chester’s strategic position as the headquarters of the Western Command during the Second World War, and this is reflected in the number of defensive sites around the city and extending into the rural area.
Tourism has come to dominate the city’s economy and has led to the creation of a number of distinctive monuments. Foremost among these is Chester Zoo, located in the suburb of Upton (although mostly in Caughall township). In the rural area, there is a group of early twentieth-century middle-class holiday cabins of national importance and the tourist destination of Beeston Castle.