A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.
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Social Life 1800–39
The demands of the gentry living in and around York still helped to determine the nature of the city's economy in the first few decades of the 19th century. The races and the assizes still attracted the gentry. For others the hangings which inevitably followed the assizes were an occasion of public entertainment. Even in 1821, however, York's claim to be the 'Metropolis of the North' is at odds with what was being said by some people in the city (fn. 1) and there can be little doubt that, when compared with the 18th century, substantial decline had taken place. During the 1820's there is evidence that the city's social life suffered further decline. The assemblies were now confined to a series of six winter meetings starting in December and ending with the Race Ball in May, with a few others to mark special occasions. The festivities for the coronation of William IV in 1831, for example, ended with a ball at the Assembly Rooms. The winter assemblies were usually the occasion for congratulatory comment in the local press; in 1820 they had 'gone on with increased brilliancy and spirit', the fourth being attended 'by upwards of 170 fashionable visitors'. (fn. 2) In 1825, however, the reports were less encouraging: the winter series had been affected by the prevailing industrial distress and had only been able to continue as the result of 'public generosity'. (fn. 3) Recovery followed and in 1828 the attendance at the series varied between 150 and 200. (fn. 4) It is clear, however, when one examines the lists of those who assembled on these occasions that the social claims of the reports are exaggerated. Rarely, if ever, did the aristocracy lend their lustre to the so-called 'brilliance', and, above all, the assemblies were held, not weekly, but six times a year. (fn. 5)
In another way, too, there are signs of the decay of York's social life as far as it catered for the aristocracy and gentry. The races, once the 'resort of the nobility and gentry', (fn. 6) were in eclipse during the 1830's. A city guide of 1843 noted 'until within the last twelve years York races stood very high in the sporting calendar. Since that time, owing to a variety of causes, they have rapidly declined.' (fn. 7) To those whose interests were closer to racing, the decline was the subject of more impassioned remarks. Thus, in 1831, 'of a surety, a more miserable, raped affair than York August Meeting, it has never been my misfortune to attend. . . . No company, bad sport and no betting.' (fn. 8) In 1828 it had been noted that the programme for the spring meeting 'did not present so inviting an appearance as in former years', though 'an additional inducement' to visit the race meetings had been provided by 'a grand main of cocks fought at the newly erected cockpit adjoining the Great Assembly Rooms'. (fn. 9) By 1830 the situation was serious enough for the opening of a subscription fund to improve the races, but the complaints which continued through the 1830's suggest that little improvement had been effected. 'As York races decline', it was written in 1835, 'others in the vicinity improve', (fn. 10) and it was in fact the rise in popularity and importance of the Doncaster meetings and the relatively meagre prizes offered at York to which the decline of York races was most commonly imputed.
This low ebb in the fortunes of the races is associated with the city's general decline as a fashionable social centre. Much entertaining, the holding of race balls, and the attendance in York of the aristocracy had centred on the race meetings. Thus, in 1832 there was 'great luke-warmness on the part of the country gentlemen, who let their horses represent them. The Fitzwilliam family . . . have withdrawn their support from this meeting.' (fn. 11) The Theatre, too, had fallen on lean times. By 1835 the stage was so decayed as to be dangerous to the actors, (fn. 12) and the corporation therefore set about the improvement of its property, providing a new stage, apparatus for warming the house, and a new façade. (fn. 13) Yet these improvements brought little change in its fortunes. In 1838 it was reported to be but little frequented (fn. 14) and it was no better twenty years later. (fn. 15)
As racing, dancing, and theatre-going declined, other activities appeared in the city's social life. Proposals were advanced in 1823 for the holding of Musical Festivals and between that date and 1835 four such festivals took place. As a result of the success of the first festival the Festival Concert Rooms were built at the rear of the Assembly Rooms. Another result of this musical revival was the formation of the York Choral Society in 1833. (fn. 16) The Yorkshire Philosophical Society was formed in York in 1822; it established a botanical garden and opened a museum in 1830. (fn. 17) The York Mechanics' Institute was opened in 1827 (fn. 18) and the York Subscription Library moved to larger premises in St. Leonard's Place in 1836. (fn. 19) It was perhaps a significant comment on the change which was taking place in York's social life that in 1831, when the races were in headlong decline, with the Fitzwilliams and other noble patrons in retreat, the city was chosen as the first meeting-place for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It was not that York had ceased to be a social centre, but rather that the nature of its social life had changed.