A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.
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The economy of 17th-century York was largely determined by the city's function as a regional capital. Its role in ecclesiastical and secular adminstration and in county politics brought much business into the city, although the abolition of the Council in the North, which had attracted many visitors, probably caused some 'decay of trade'. (fn. 1) The city was something of a metropolis, the focus of a regional trade in which the raw products of the countryside were exchanged for imported or locally manufactured goods and services. (fn. 2) It was becoming, moreover, a social capital of some significance, a centre of consumption based not only on the prosperity of its more substantial citizens but also on that of the growing numbers of gentry who resided, temporarily or permanently, in the city. (fn. 3)
Commercial and manufacturing activity was subject to control by the corporation, who steadily enforced enfranchisement by patrimony, apprenticeship, or redemption as the normal qualification for the exercise of a trade or craft. There were drives against unfree interlopers: in 1605, after social disruption caused by the plague of the previous year; after the Civil War; and in 1678. On each occasion there was a temporary but
marked rise in the number of admissions to the freedom. (fn. 4) Non-freemen and any who set them to work were punished. (fn. 5) Redemptioners often had to pay heavily for the privilege. (fn. 6) A committee discussed this question in 1693, when it was resolved that £15 should be the minimum for the purchase of freedom, and this was raised to £20 in 1694. (fn. 7) The only exceptions to the regulations which the corporation allowed were either servants of such notabilities as the archbishop or the lord president of the Council in the North, (fn. 8) or the exponents of crafts which the city council desired to encourage. Certain textile workers, an organmaker, a goldsmith, a tallow-chandler, clockmakers, and a horn-breaker were among those who were admitted by purchase at a reduced rate. (fn. 9) Enfranchisements totalled more than 8,000 during the century, and, apart from the occasions already mentioned and the by-election year of 1673, there were no great divergencies from the average (see Table 5). The number of freemen by patrimony shows that many established families were still entrenched in trade and industry, though not all sons followed their father's occupation. An increasing number of new-comers purchased freedom after 1650, in some cases, perhaps, for political rather than economic reasons. (fn. 10) Many of the freemen by apprenticeship had emigrated from the neighbouring countryside, (fn. 11) and some probably returned there to earn their living. (fn. 12)
Approximately half of the enfranchised working population was involved in the victualling, clothing, and building and furnishing trades—three groups satisfying basic needs (see Table 6). In clothing the leading crafts were cordwainers and tailors, the latter showing some decline by 1700; (fn. 13) butchers, bakers, and millers formed the largest groups amongst the victuallers although innkeepers and brewers were also important; bricklayers, carpenters, and joiners predominated in the building and furnishing crafts which seem to have increased by 1700. (fn. 14) Among producers of household goods, comprising a number of small handicrafts, there was no prominent individual occupation, but the group expanded slightly as domestic standards rose. There was a marked reduction in the number of freemen following the distributive trades, revealed by a
large decrease in the admissions of haberdashers, merchants, and mercers, the leading occupations in the group. (fn. 15) Many of those in the other groups, however, probably had their own shops for the distribution of their goods. Nevertheless, if producers of household goods and members of the distributive trades are added to the three basic groups it appears that approximately 70 per cent. of the working population provided directly for consumers. By comparison, manufacturing, which comprised the textile and leather-working crafts, played only a small part in the economy, tanning and, to a lesser extent, linen-weaving being the leading occupations. The 'rural' crafts, foremost among them the blacksmiths, claimed a small number of freemen. Finally, the miscellaneous group included professional men and growing numbers of mariners, labourers, and barber-surgeons, the last meeting the demands of the 'better sort of people'. York's economy was not, therefore, primarily industrial. Attempts to promote manufactures for the employment of the poor had been fruitless, (fn. 16) but some new occupations and an increased membership of others reflect a rising standard of comfort and even luxury. By 1700 there were bookbinders, booksellers, stationers, soap-boilers, rugmakers, tobacco-pipe-makers, clockmakers, cabinet-makers, and dancing-masters. Furthermore, the city was closely linked with the surrounding countryside. Textile and
leather-workers, and butchers and other victuallers, clearly depended on rural products for their livelihood; and the many persons engaged in building and provisioning served customers outside as well as inside the city.
Although there is no indication of the volume of trade enjoyed by the markets and fairs, it is clear that they were of fundamental importance to the city's economy. The markets attracted constant attention from the corporation and their trade was perhaps facilitated by the re-founding of a royal mint in York in 1696—set up to remedy a local shortage of coin. (fn. 17) Markets were held at the customary times and places, (fn. 18) but the sale of a particular commodity was sometimes moved from one market-place to another. (fn. 19) The wholesale butter-market, for example, which though active had not yet achieved its greatest importance, was moved for a few years after 1677 from Micklegate to Coppergate, causing inconvenience to country butter-vendors and merchants alike. (fn. 20) Attempts were made to ensure that markets were well stocked at fair prices, especially during such years of scarcity as 1608, 1622, and 1630-1, and during royal visits; (fn. 21) engrossers, forestallers, and regrators were regularly punished. (fn. 22) Measures used in the markets, at the staith, and in private shops were regularly inspected. (fn. 23)
Moreover, victualling was regulated in various ways, partly in the interests of consumers. The magistrates proclaimed and enforced the assize of bread and ale throughout the century, and the bakers' company co-operated by enforcing standards of weight and quality in bread. (fn. 24) The bakers tried with some success to stifle competition from country bakers; in 1621-2 they failed to secure a greater margin of profit on their products despite an appeal to the king's privy council. (fn. 25) At times of scarcity, malting and brewing were rigorously controlled in order to conserve stocks of barley for food. (fn. 26)
With the same intention, but also to discourage idlers, the corporation made, before 1640, a number of vigorous but only partially successful attempts to suppress the countless unlicensed alehouses in the city. (fn. 27) In order to maintain standards the innholders' company was encouraged to inspect the fittings of the city's many inns. (fn. 28) Lastly, purveyors of unwholesome food were punished and butchers forced to comply with Lenten observance. (fn. 29)
The position of York merchants in oversea trade was further weakened during the century by the interruption of continental markets, lack of adequate shipping, piracy, and the rivalry of London and local merchants. (fn. 30) There were several symptoms of this deterioration in the city's mercantile position. Complaints were voiced against merchants of the Leeds district, who were nearer the cloth-manufacturing areas, and against those of Hull, who enjoyed superior port facilities; (fn. 31) there was, however, some degree of co-operation with other northern merchants in general in securing naval protection against pirates. (fn. 32) It was alleged that the trading regulations of the Eastland Company and the Merchant Adventurers of England favoured London at the expense
of the outports; (fn. 33) in 1615 and from 1664 to 1693 the York branch of the Eastland Company quarrelled with the central court over a wide range of important matters. (fn. 34) In self defence the York members of both companies attacked interlopers and issued regulations about admissions and trading which were increasingly restrictionist in character; they were also prominent in opposing the gradual freeing of the North European trade in 1689 and 1693. (fn. 35) The Merchant Adventurers of England set up a residence in York about 1628, and thereby secured greater influence over the oversea activities of York merchants, leaving to the governing body of the York fellowship only matters of more local concern. (fn. 36) By the end of the century there was a notable reduction in the number of enfranchised merchants (see Table 6) (fn. 37) and the residence of the Eastland Company was wound up in 1696. (fn. 38)
Nevertheless, the available evidence shows York merchants of the two companies importing hemp, flax, potash, iron, and timber from Europe, and exporting lead, skins, and, above all, cloth. (fn. 39) In 1640 four of seven leading merchants, all aldermen, were each trading in goods worth more than £4,000. (fn. 40) Moreover, the city's merchants participated in the coastal trade, importing diverse commodities, amongst them a variety of luxury goods, for local consumption or distribution; the well-stocked markets excited favourable comments from travellers to the city. (fn. 41) Goods, often in Yorkbuilt ships, were landed at the common-crane or at the King's Staith with its staff of measurers, porters, and labourers; additions to the numbers of these men during the century suggest an increase in the amount of goods handled. (fn. 42) In order to facilitate trade the corporation tried constantly to secure improvements in the navigability of the Ouse. Anyone throwing rubbish into the river was threatened with punishment; fishgarths and other obstructions were cleared; and sporadic attempts were made at dredging. (fn. 43) Surveys were commissioned for a new cut and other improvements, and before 1620 the advice of Dutch engineers was sought. (fn. 44) In 1603, 1617, and 1633 the king was petitioned for assistance and M.P.s were usually instructed to secure legislation for improving the navigation; (fn. 45) Bills for this purpose were considered in Parliament in 1621 and 1651, while in 1657 a Bill for the Ouse was enacted, but was apparently not implemented. (fn. 46) Although nothing substantial was achieved in this matter, the river continued to play an important part in the city's economy.
There were probably between 50 and 60 guilds in the city, (fn. 47) several new ones being founded during the period, notably the silk-weavers (1610) and the trunkmakers (1667); the tallow chandlers were re-founded (1606) (fn. 48) and the company of tailors,
drapers, and hosiers received a charter of incorporation (1662). (fn. 49) The corporation supervised the guilds in four main ways. It intervened to prevent irregularities in the conduct of guild affairs. (fn. 50) It adjudicated in inter-guild disputes concerning the division of work: between, for example, glovers, haberdashers, and milliners, between cordwainers and cobblers, between whitesmiths and blacksmiths, and between cutlers and spurriers. (fn. 51) It assessed wages for certain craftsmen, at least until mid-century. (fn. 52) And it confirmed and revised guild ordinances, especially in the early years of the century when there was a great effort to strengthen guild control; less emphasis was placed on the quality of workmanship and more on the enforcement of local craft monopolies. (fn. 53) Guilds and the corporation jointly tried to exclude competition from unfree interlopers, to regulate the number of apprentices, and to limit the apprenticing of 'foreigners', in order to secure the livelihood of both freemen and journeymen and to mitigate the evils of pauperism; fines were levied for breaches of these regulations. (fn. 54) Thus, even at this late date, the guilds exercised a high degree of control over their members, and searchers were still engaged in detecting infringements of the detailed ordinances. (fn. 55)
Relief of Poverty
It is clear that throughout the century poor families formed a substantial proportion of the city's population. (fn. 56) Although many of them did not qualify for financial assistance, the numbers of those who did rose during the century to more than 400 (see Table 7). (fn. 57) Many of those receiving doles were women, amounting in some parishes to more than half the total, and many children were also among the recipients. All parishes contained indigent people, but they were unevenly distributed. The poorest parishes, however—those with the greatest number of paupers and the least ability to relieve them—were largely in Monk and Walmgate wards. (fn. 58) In addition to the years of plague the corporation was most attentive to poor relief from 1620 to 1623, in 1627-8, during the 1630's (when government pressure was at its strongest), in 1655 and 1656, from 1675 to 1677, from 1683 to 1685, in 1689, and after 1692. During those years the corporation was more concerned with the useful employment of the poor than with the suppression of vagrants, and there are comparatively few of those complaints against swarms of beggars so characteristic of Tudor York.
Responsibility for the administration of poor relief in the city rested primarily with the overseers of each parish, who assessed and collected the poor rate, paying to the paupers small doles usually of 2d. to 1s. a week; (fn. 59) where the amount that could be raised by the overseers was insufficient it was supplemented by grants from the poorstock of wealthier parishes. These officers and the incumbents also administered the numerous parochial charities. (fn. 60) The lord mayor and aldermen supervised the work of the overseers. (fn. 61) In the early part of the century they arranged in every ward yearly 'views of the poor', though these were probably less frequent later in the period; and they held monthly meetings, especially at times of acute distress, at which parish officers gave an account of their work. (fn. 62)
The corporation supplemented parish poor relief in several ways without at any time proposing to treat the whole problem on a civic rather than a parochial basis, as was done in some other cities. (fn. 63) Part of its activity was designed to prevent an increase in the
burden of pauperism. Efforts were made to exclude vagrants by means of special watches which, however, became less frequent after 1640; occasionally constables were enjoined to prevent begging. (fn. 64) Unmarried mothers were punished at Quarter Sessions with the customary severity, and putative fathers obliged to maintain bastard children who would otherwise fall on the parish. (fn. 65) The main attack, however, was directed against 'undersettlers' or 'inmates' who might easily become a charge on the rates; repeated attempts were made to reduce the numbers of these undesirable lodgers by ordering constables to present them at Quarter Sessions, by demanding their bonds against becoming chargeable on pain of removal (before the Poor Law of 1662), and by threatening the punishment of householders who took them in. The problem remained unsolved, however, and provoked renewed action at the end of the century. (fn. 66)
Schemes begun in the Tudor period (fn. 67) to provide employment for the poor in the 'houses of work' were revived after apparently petering out in the first decade of the century. (fn. 68) The various experiments included the teaching of skills to poor children, the attempted introduction of new 'manufactories', and the provision of raw materials on which the poor could work at home. In 1620 the corporation attempted to set the poor to work at St. George's House either in spinning jersey wool or in weaving Norwich Stuffs, materials, equipment, and teachers being provided. Worsted manufacture proved to be a costly innovation and soon lapsed, but yarn-spinning endured for some time. (fn. 69) The system was changed in 1627 when the corporation began to use St. Anthony's Hall and St. Thomas's Hospital as storehouses, from which overseers could draw wool, flax, and hemp for poor families to work on in their own dwellings, although the instruction in spinning was still given to children at the 'houses of work'. (fn. 70) Acting on directions from the Privy Council, the corporation redoubled its efforts in the 1630's to provide employment. It ensured the availability of parochial stocks of raw material (fn. 71) and revived worsted weaving at St. George's House where both the deserving poor and vagrants were set to work. (fn. 72) The Civil War no doubt stopped this activity, and although when peace was restored there were discussions in the corporation about employing the poor, (fn. 73) very little was probably accomplished until 1655 when an agreement was made with two clothiers to teach their skill to poor people. The 'houses of work' at St. George's and St. Anthony's (now again a house of correction) were reequipped for this purpose, but the scheme seems to have been short-lived. (fn. 74) It was twenty years before the corporation again devoted much attention to the problem but no details exist of the arrangements then made. (fn. 75) In 1683, however, the corporation decided to introduce linen manufacture under skilled tuition for the employment of the poor at St. Anthony's; there were further purchases of tools and of hemp and flax, some of which was to be worked up by the poor at home, and part of the hall was set aside for the instruction of children in spinning. (fn. 76) The duration of this venture is not known, but by 1698 the corporation had entered into an agreement with a serge-maker to establish a 'woollen manufactory' for setting the poor to work, although this lasted only a short time. (fn. 77) Although it is impossible to say how many poor adults and children benefited from these projects, the impermanence of which suggests their inefficiency, it may be asserted that they fell far short of the corporation's expectations and proved to be only limited palliatives for one of the city's social ills.
Special funds provided assistance for poor prisoners and lame soldiers, the fund for the latter being doubled in 1649 because of the increased number of calls made upon it. (fn. 78) Assessments were raised in the city to provide relief for distress caused by the plague and to meet some of the expenses of providing employment. (fn. 79) Above all, the corporation maintained its own poor-stock with an alderman as treasurer. The money was derived from civic funds (fn. 80) and from charitable gifts, (fn. 81) augmented between 1621 and 1651 by donations from several sheriffs and chamberlains in lieu of their feasts. (fn. 82) The corporation drew on the stock partly to finance its own schemes for providing work for the indigent and to pay for the apprenticing and instruction of pauper children. (fn. 83) The most important function of this central fund, however, was to supplement relief given in the parishes and to provide regular or occasional sums 'for present relief'
to those excluded from parochial lists. (fn. 84) The fact that the lord mayor and aldermen increasingly made payments of this kind during the last quarter of the century—especially in the mid-seventies, mid-eighties, and mid-nineties when there was probably an unusual degree of poverty in York (fn. 85)—suggests that by then the corporation had found the normal system of poor relief inadequate and was seeking to improve the position without introducing centralized administration.
Serious outbreaks of plague in York in 1604 and 1631 and a smaller outbreak in 1645 put a heavy strain both on the means for relieving distress and on the administrative resources of the corporation which, in 1631, received support and assistance from the Council in the North. (fn. 86) The corporation tried to fight the plague in several ways. Strict and continuous watch was kept at the bars and posterns in order to control the admission of strangers and wanderers, and the receipt of goods from plague-stricken areas was forbidden. (fn. 87) These precautions, which were always maintained for some time after the plague had subsided in the city, were also enforced on numerous occasions when infection elsewhere in the north did not spread to York. (fn. 88) Within the city orders were given to clean the streets, to keep animals indoors, and to prevent gatherings of people at feasts, weddings, or funerals. (fn. 89) The sick were placed in strict quarantine either in their own homes or in specially built lodges or 'pest-houses' far beyond the walls. There the corporation arranged for them to be supplied by paid purveyors and to be treated by paid physicians and apothecaries, while a cleanser was employed to fumigate infected dwellings; (fn. 90) these precautions too were maintained for a time after the disease had subsided. (fn. 91) There is no complete evidence of the incidence of the plague. In 1604 the comparatively poor parish of St. Olave was badly affected and in 1631 the infection was severe in the poor parts of Walmgate Ward, but it is clear that suffering and mortality were widespread. In order to relieve distress caused by these emergencies the corporation temporarily increased doles to the poor and raised money by special assessment to provide for the needs of the afflicted and their families. (fn. 92) On several occasions it also collected contributions in the city for relief of plague-stricken people in other parts of the country. (fn. 93)
Public relief was augmented by private charity. Through gifts and bequests from prosperous citizens the corporation and individual parishes accumulated charitable endowments which were variously used to pay doles of money or bread to paupers, to meet the cost of apprenticeship or schooling for poor children, to help deserving craftsmen to set up in their callings, and to provide pensions for widows; some of the guilds had similar charities to bestow on the families of the members. (fn. 94) In addition to these private benefactions, five new 'hospitals' or almshouses were founded and these usefully supplemented the accommodation available at existing hospitals for the sick and aged poor. (fn. 95)