Chester in the ‘Roaring 20s’

In December 1925, Wings of Youth arrived on Chester cinema screens.

The drama, starring Ethel Clayton and Madge Bellamy – once dubbed ‘the most beautiful girl in America’, told the salutary story of three sisters who were ‘devotees of the gay world of jazz’ but were shocked into halting their pursuit of pleasure when their mother started appearing to enjoy modern life a little too much too.

Film fans were promised ‘entertaining and appealing episodes of jazz revels and party scenes, picturesque and stately exterior backgrounds…and marvellous arrays of gowns representing the zenith of the costumier’s art’.

These glamorous images were no doubt appealing for many who had either survived the First World War, or a new generation who had been too young to serve, and who wanted to forget its horrors and deprivations.

And while the so-called ‘Roaring 20s’ – that period between the Armistice and the Wall Street Crash – was in reality more complex and challenging than being simply a time of jazz, parties and marvellous gowns, it’s those images which have continued to seize the imagination.

From stories of Prohibition America’s basement speakeasys and the hedonistic capers of Britain’s Bright Young Things to the halcyon days encapsulated in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and evocative images of Josephine Baker’s wild dancing on Parisian stages.

But how roaring was it really for ordinary people in places like Chester?

Thousands from the county had served in the Great War (nearly 23,000 are named on the Cheshire Roll of Honour) and the Cheshire Regiment alone lost 8,413 men.

The war had been quickly followed by the Spanish Flu pandemic which claimed an estimated 225,000 lives in the UK, many of them young people.

Still, as the new decade dawned, so did a sense of optimism and opportunity.

The 1920s was also a time of technological advances including those in food production and preparation, transport and entertainment, which together freed up more leisure time – for some at least.

And while Chester may not have been New York or London, there were certainly diversions for those who were looking to be entertained, and who had the money to enjoy them.

Picture palaces like the Majestic and the Cinema de Luxe in Brook Street, Music Hall in Northgate Street, Eastgate’s Picturedrome and Saltney’s Park Cinema did big business with their regularly changing programmes of features at reasonable admission prices.

In August 1927, the Glynn Picture House in Foregate Street heralded the arrival ‘the dramatic thunderbolt of the year’ – the silver screen adaptation of none other than Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Before sound arrived at the end of the decade (the city’s first ‘talkie’ was The Singing Fool starring Al Jolson), audiences would be entertained by live music performed either by organists or a resident cinema orchestra.

Combos like the Carlton Band or Regent Dance Orchestra also played at Saturday night dances in places like the Assembly Rooms and the Stafford Hotel, while the wider county boasted a host of lively groups including the Tattenhall Dinkie, Tarporley and Kinnerton jazz bands.

In March 1923 meanwhile, a Grand Carnival Ball was staged at Chester Town Hall where the chief attraction was a famous band which played Apache dances, first popularised in Paris.

The following year, the Royal Infirmary held a ball for 300 guests at the Grosvenor House where the great and good turned out in all their finery, including women wearing crystal bead or bugle-encrusted dresses and with their hair fashionably shingled.

Later in the decade, as hems and hair got ever shorter, discerning ladies could choose between marcel and water waving at city salons which also offered manicures and facial massages.

Back on the dancefloor, Chester dance schools offered tango classes, and the Charleston craze which swept Britain in the mid-1920s also swept into Chester where for a few months in early 1927, energetic Charleston competitions flourished.

If you didn’t want to learn the latest steps from a professional teacher, you could always practice at home to records played on a gramophone purchased from a city centre store (a portable model retailed at £4 15s in 1929 – around twice the average worker’s weekly income).

In the 1920s Chester was a city where the majority of people worked for modest wages in manufacturing industries and some Cestrians still lived in overcrowded court housing and narrow sun-starved streets, many of these tucked just behind Town Hall Square; homes where there was no sound of a wireless and their occupants rarely went to the cinema.

But if portable gramophones and bead-encrusted frocks were the preserve of a privileged few, it appears enough people must have had the wherewithal to indulge in some form of the latest fashions and crazes.

In 1926 – the year of the General Strike – the fashionable L J Denton on Bridge Street Row, held a mannequin parade which showed off its range of smart daywear, sequin-covered gowns and fur-trimmed panne velvet evening wraps. Very House of Eliott.

To complete the lifestyle, if you had the money smart little runarounds could be picked up from Blake’s Sports Cars in Frosham Street, and lustrous cocktail glasses from Brewards in Watergate Street.

While this new emphasis on consumerism and entertainment was something many people aspired to or embraced, not everyone was so enamoured.

Sneering at the young women liberated from the tyranny of corsets and who were finally within touch of electoral equality, one local opponent of the so-called ‘Flapper vote’ suggested if Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin “wanted to please her (the average 21-year-old woman) why didn’t he provide a new version of the Charleston or give her a change from flesh-coloured stockings?”

It seems that whether they truly roared or not, the 1920s made their mark on Chester – and on the people who lived, worked…and played here.


Book tickets for The Great Gatsby at Grosvneor Park Open Air Theatre here.