The eighteenth century: Social life

A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.

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'The eighteenth century: Social life', A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961), pp. 245-250. British History Online [accessed 14 June 2024].

. "The eighteenth century: Social life", in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) 245-250. British History Online, accessed June 14, 2024,

. "The eighteenth century: Social life", A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961). 245-250. British History Online. Web. 14 June 2024,

Social Life

'What has been, and is', says Drake, (fn. 1) 'the chief support of the city, at present, is the resort to and residence of several country gentlemen with their families in it.' By the 1730's the city was indeed well established as the social capital of Yorkshire and perhaps of an even wider area. That it should have become so was no doubt largely the result of its long-established metropolitical character. As the centre of the province and diocese, as the meeting-place for county elections, as the assize town and as a regional market, York was clearly the place to which Yorkshiremen would resort to enjoy the expanding social life of the century. And, as Drake points out, it was 'so much cheaper than London . . . even less expensive than living in their own houses in the country'. At first, he says, the gentry came into town twice a year at the time of the Assizes; but by his time the influx was in August for the races. (fn. 2)

Regular racing had begun at York nearly 30 years before. In 1708 the corporation, noting that it would be 'of advantage and profit to the city' and that Sir William Robinson had offered his land on Clifton and Rawcliffe Ings as a course, promised to subscribe £15 a year towards a plate. (fn. 3) Racing began the following year and was given corporation and city support throughout the century. (fn. 4) In the winter of 1730 the wardens of Micklegate Ward were ordered to drain Knavesmire by enforcing the existing commission of sewers, and in the following spring the pasture-masters were told to spend £100 levelling, spreading, and rolling the ground; the meeting was first held there that summer. (fn. 5) The attraction of the races never failed and in the middle of the century the amenities of the course were improved by Carr's grandstand and a new road leading to it. (fn. 6) Further buildings were added in 1768. (fn. 7)

The assemblies which, though primarily a winter entertainment, were associated with race week, probably began about 1710 as weekly meetings in the King's Manor at which there were dancing and card games. (fn. 8) They were certainly well attended in 1713 when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu mentioned them in a letter; it was probably after this that they began to be held in what had been Sir Arthur Ingram's house near the minster. (fn. 9) As is described elsewhere, the Assembly Rooms in Blake Street were built in time for the race week of 1732. (fn. 10) For the next fifteen or twenty years regular assemblies were probably held in the rooms, though they declined after 1750. The riverside path and gardens known as New Walk were laid out when the Assembly Rooms were being built; they were no doubt intended to augment the attractions of the city for those spending the 'season' there and remained for the century a place of resort for citizens (see plate facing p. 246). To improve its amenities, St. George's Close, through which the walk ran, was hedged in 1741 and in the following year persons were forbidden to bathe naked in the river beside the walk. (fn. 11) Between 1749 and 1753 a well, known as Pikeing Well, and a fountain were constructed adjoining the walk with a well-head and grotto designed by Carr. (fn. 12) Lacking mineral waters, it was the best the city could do towards creating the illusion of a spa.

Drake thought the races 'at the best but a barbarous diversion' but wrote enthusiastically of the assemblies. He was a subscriber to the rooms and in them, in his time, an assembly for dancing and cards was held each Monday and on Friday an assembly for music—an entertainment the corporation was considering supporting in 1739. (fn. 13) To these were added a company of stage-players who acted twice a week. Strolling players had been common early in the century: between March and July of 1703 three companies were playing in St. Anthony's Hall. (fn. 14) When the market hall was built in Thursday Market in 1705 it was at once put in use as a theatre; in it, in 1716, was produced The Northern Heiress or the Humours of York, a comedy in the Congreve manner by Mary Davys. (fn. 15) In 1733-4 Thomas Keregan's company was building a theatre in Ingram's property near the minster; this was yet another project for encouraging the gentry to spend their time and money in York that received corporation support. (fn. 16) The first theatre on the site of the present Theatre Royal was not built until 1744 and the theatre's most flourishing period in the 18th century did not come until after Tate Wilkinson took over the management in 1766.

Less formal amusements were enjoyed by the majority of the citizens. A city huntsman was appointed in 1719 and hunted twice a week where the mayor directed. In 1739 the commons asked that a new horse should be provided for him at the city's expense instead of his own as had formerly been the case. In 1748 citizens were complaining because the hounds were kept within the walls; kennels were built for them close to Hungate midden in 1754 but in 1765 even this was considered a nuisance. The hounds were then moved elsewhere and the hunt probably fell into abeyance. (fn. 17) Cock-fighting, though no doubt universally pursued throughout the century, is little recorded apart from the frequent advertisement of mains in the Courant. The Cockpit lay in Bootham at its junction with the modern street, St. Mary's; adjacent to it, in Drake's time, was a bowling green and the hall was occasionally used for public meetings and assemblies. (fn. 18) The cruel sport of throwing at cocks was suppressed in 1751. (fn. 19) Ale-houses and shops (fn. 20) and coffee-houses were fairly plentiful. Thirty or more coffee houses open in the century are known by name. For the most part they were ephemeral and none seems to have lasted the whole century, but Harrison's, first in Petergate and later on Nessgate corner, Iveson's, in Petergate, and Duke's, near Ouse Bridge, all lasted about 50 years. (fn. 21) An attempt was made in 1724 to get excise permission to build a roasting house in the city but with what success is not known; William Tuke certainly had one in 1785. (fn. 22) Some of the attraction of the coffee house—and for that matter of the Assembly Rooms—no doubt lay in the opportunities there afforded for gambling; by 1750 the corporation was paying an informer for his help in prosecuting keepers of gaming houses but there is no evidence to suggest that gaming reached proportions unusual in a provincial town.

Outside the ale-house and the cockpit, the popular amusements of the city might be brought under the head of shows. The celebrations upon public events, civic, royal, political, and national, which have already been mentioned, (fn. 23) were enjoyed by all, if not as participants at least as spectators. (fn. 24) Travelling showmen might exhibit a dromedary or other exotic animals and birds, a Swedish giant, or rope-dancers and tumblers (see plate facing p. 246). (fn. 25) The waits performed on every public occasion both in the Assembly Rooms and at processions; early in the century they took their work seriously enough to send a new recruit to London 'to improve him in the way of music'. (fn. 26) One or two guild customs like the Christmas candle- and log-giving of the tallow-chandlers and joiners lingered on until the fifties and sixties. (fn. 27)

There were less pleasant sides to a county town of some pretensions. Brothels are mentioned throughout the century. (fn. 28) Even in Coney Street a decayed house might become a thieves' kitchen. (fn. 29) The citizens here as elsewhere enjoyed the spectacle of the heads of rebels on Micklegate Bar after the '45 and the town flocked to Knavesmire for executions—amongst them that of Dick Turpin in 1739. (fn. 30) But though the citizens were doubtless products of their times and of the poverty and disease that was the lot of many of them, (fn. 31) there is no evidence to suggest that life in York was rougher, dirtier, or more brutal than, in other towns of a comparable size.

By 1763, when the Act to light and clean the streets and regulate the hackney coachmen was obtained, the city was sufficiently confident of its position to say in the preamble that it was 'the capital city of the northern parts of England and a place of great resort and much frequented by persons of distinction and fortune'. The claim is perhaps a little exaggerated but it was certainly true that by this time many county families had town houses in the city and that it was frequently the scene of gatherings of more than a merely local importance. (fn. 32) It could, moreover, claim to be a minor centre of intellectual and artistic life. During the first few years of the century the circle that had met at the Micklegate house of Henry Gyles (? 1640-1709), the glass painter, was breaking up. (fn. 33) In York, where he lived in the King's Manor, only Francis Place (1647-1728) was left. Place, an amateur artist and engraver, who had been articled as an attorney, was one of the first, if not the first, to practise mezzotint engraving. (fn. 34) His drawings—he made plates for both Drake and Thoresby—are valuable for modern topographers. Another topographical draughtsman and engraver was working in the city in the latter part of the century. Joseph Halfpenny (1748-1811) was born the son of one of the archbishop's gardeners at Bishopthorpe and was at first apprenticed as a house painter in York. He later became clerk of works to John Carr when Carr was restoring the minster and from the scaffolding then erected made drawings of ornamentation which he published in 1800. A collection of topographical drawings of the city was published in 1807. Halfpenny lived in Gillygate and was buried in St. Olave's. (fn. 35) A glass painter, William Peckitt (1731-95), was contemporary with Halfpenny though they can hardly be said to be members of a group. Peckitt was probably the pupil of a pupil of Gyles and began his career by presenting an emblematical window to the corporation in 1754. (fn. 36) His windows are to be found at Exeter, Lincoln, and York; although he made several important experiments in technique, his work has little merit in either design or colour.

Associated with men like Halfpenny and Peckitt were the carvers, masons, builders, and architects. Halfpenny's master, John Carr (1723-1807), is the only one to have attained a more than local reputation. Carr began life as a workman-builder and after his early work in York (fn. 37) had no difficulty in finding commissions. Carr was lord mayor in 1770 and 1785. Carr's assistant, who succeeded to part of his practice, was Peter Atkinson the elder (1735-1805); he was appointed receiver and city husband in 1786. (fn. 38) His son of the same name (? 1776-1822) (fn. 39) created a flourishing building business and much of the rebuilding in the city in the early years of the 19th century—Ouse and Foss Bridges, for example—was his work. Another member of the family built the Bar Convent in the 1760's. (fn. 40)

A John Atkinson who may have been a member of the same family was responsible for a memorial tablet, erected in the latter part of the century in St. Saviour's Church. (fn. 41) The association between building and carving occurs also in Charles Mitley (170558) who helped to build Cumberland Row (fn. 42) and who was responsible for a statue of George II in Thursday Market Cross and a pulpit in the minster. (fn. 43) John Etty (d. 1709) built the reredos in St. Michael-le-Belfrey and at one time had Grinling Gibbons as his apprentice. (fn. 44) William, his son, who probably made the reredos in St. Martin-cum-Gregory, was certainly a builder, for in 1709 he was appointed, as city husband, to supervise corporation property and works. (fn. 45) Richard Fisher, who came to York before 1754, his son John (b. c. 1730) who carved the statue of Sir George Savile in the minster, three sons of John who worked in York, and Michael Taylor (17601846), who has several monuments in York churches, all appear to have been monumental masons and carvers rather than builders. (fn. 46)

Laurence Sterne (1713-68) (fn. 47) lived in or near the city from 1738 when he entered on the vicarage of Sutton-on-the-Forest (N.R.) until 1760 when, on the publication of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy in York, he sprang suddenly into national, indeed international, fame and spent most of the remainder of his life away from the city. In Tristram Shandy he drew widely on his knowledge of local persons and events as butts for his satire, Dr. John Burton (1710-71) suffering particularly as 'Dr. Slop'. The feeling in this case was political in origin, for Burton was well known as a Jacobite and tory, (fn. 48) while Sterne had naturally allied himself with the whig interests that were predominant in the minster. Prominent amongst whig churchmen was Sterne's uncle, Jacques Sterne (d. 1759) the precentor, who, it is thought, prompted his nephew to engage himself anonymously in political journalism in the whig York Gazetteer during the election of 1741. (fn. 49) The whig tradition in the church was equally upheld by Archbishop Herring who occupied the see between 1743 and 1747 and whose zeal founded the Yorkshire Association in 1745. (fn. 50) The tradition was upheld after the time of Sterne and Herring by William Mason (1724-97) and William Burgh (1741-1808). (fn. 51) Mason, a friend and biographer of Thomas Gray the poet, obtained a prebend in the minster in 1756 and the precentorship in 1763. He has been called 'a man of considerable abilities and cultivated taste who naturally mistook himself for a poet'. (fn. 52) His verses, though published in his lifetime, were later edited by his friend Burgh, with whom he was in close association in York in the seventies and eighties. Both men were prominent supporters of the Yorkshire Association. (fn. 53)

Sterne's portrait of Burton seems to have contained little truth. Educated at Cambridge and at Leyden under Boerhaave, he had a deservedly high professional reputation and his concern for the necessity of treating the sick poor led him to be prominent in the foundation of the County Hospital. He was, moreover, a good deal more than the average accoucheur of his time: his treatise on midwifery was widely read and he invented his own pattern of obstetric forceps when such instruments were still not common. (fn. 54) In addition Burton distinguished himself as an antiquary, particularly in later life; in 1758 he published Monasticon Eboracense and Ecclesiastical History of Yorkshire and he was a collector all his life.

It was Jacques Sterne's zeal that led to the imprisonment of Burton after his foolish escapade in 1745, (fn. 55) but neither of the Sternes seems to have attacked Burton's friend and fellow surgeon, Francis Drake (1696-1771) (see plate facing p. 274). (fn. 56) Drake came to York as an apprentice to Christopher Birbeck some time before 1717, in which year he succeeded to Birbeck's practice. Although he practised medicine until his retirement, Drake's chief interest lay in the antiquities of the city where he lived. Inspired by reading the manuscript of the history of the city written by Sir Thomas Widdrington, and assisted by Torre's voluminous notes, he probably began work on his comprehensive history in 1729. In 1731 the corporation gave him permission to inspect the city records and in 1735 subscribed £50 towards some plates. (fn. 57) Eboracum was published in 1736. It is a comprehensive and accurate history of the city and its cathedral church which uses a wide range of original sources. Such errors as there are tend to be about small matters of fact rather than to be due to a failure of understanding, though the Romano-British part and the philology are, as might be expected, out of date. All later writers have relied extensively upon Drake and indeed no history of the city could well be written without extensive reference to his work. Drake has been described as 'a sturdy Jacobite in politics' (fn. 58) and some indication of this is to be found in the pages of his book; as a nonjuror he was thought unsuitable to be city surgeon in 1745 and was discharged, (fn. 59) but he does not seem to have otherwise suffered for his opinions.

Clifton Wintringham (1689-1748), (fn. 60) who settled in York in 1711 and was in 1746 appointed as physician to the County Hospital, published three medical works in York between 1714 and 1721. His house in Lendal became the lodgings for the judges on circuit when the older lodgings in Judges' Court, Coney Street, were abandoned in 1806. John Goodricke (1764-86), the observer of the variability of stars, was working in the city from 1782 to 1786 and at one time was living with Edward Pigott (fl. 17681807), the astronomer, in Bootham. (fn. 61)

Wintringham, Burgh, Burton, Sterne, and Mason all had work printed in York. Davies, in his comprehensive account, lists thirteen named book-printers who were active in the course of the 18th century; many were also newspaper printers and proprietors and as such are noticed elsewhere. (fn. 62) Thomas Gent (1693-1778) and Caesar and Ann Ward (active 1738-89) printed the greatest number of books and are perhaps the best known. Gent was born in Ireland of humble parents and first came to York as a poor apprentice in 1714. He left York the following year and was later printing in London, but in 1724 returned to take over a press in Coffee Yard, whence he began to publish a newspaper. From that time until his decline in old age a great many books and pamphlets, including some historical and topographical works of his own, flowed from his press. His printing was poor and his wood-blocks often hardly recognizable, and no doubt this partly accounted for his poverty in old age; his topographical work was not without merit but was naturally little consulted after the publication of Eboracum. (fn. 63) Caesar Ward was active between 1738 and 1759 and published several anti-Jacobite pamphlets including Herring's Sermon on the '45. His widow, Ann, who carried on his business for 30 years after his death, probably printed the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy in 1759 though they were published by a bookseller, John Hinxman. (fn. 64) Mason gave her his poems and his life of Gray to print and Burgh a theological work; a year before her death she issued A Treatise on the Wines of Portugal by the York wine merchant, antiquary, and eccentric, John Croft. (fn. 65)


  • 1. Ebor. 240.
  • 2. Ibid. 241.
  • 3. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 41, f. 39.
  • 4. Ibid. f. 112; 43, pp. 347, 394; 44, pp. 447-8; 45, pp. 209, 241, 466; 46, pp. 184-6; ibid. E/103; V.C.H. Yorks. ii. 507.
  • 5. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 42, ff. 136, 142.
  • 6. Ibid. 43, p. 432; 44, p. 12.
  • 7. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 44, p. 245.
  • 8. Drake, Ebor. 240.
  • 9. Ibid.; Knight, Hist. York, 509.
  • 10. See p. 531.
  • 11. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 43, pp. 63, 75.
  • 12. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 43, pp. 318, 417.
  • 13. Drake, Ebor. 240-1; York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 43, p. 8.
  • 14. York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Bk. 1703, fly leaf.
  • 15. Knight, Hist. York, 543; Pressly, York Miscel. 123 sqq.
  • 16. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 42, ff. 161-2.
  • 17. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 41, f. 202; 42, ff. 6, 144; 43, pp. 11, 292, 461; 44, p. 203.
  • 18. Ebor. 258; Knight, Hist. York, 526; the Cockpit was demolished c. 1850.
  • 19. York Courant, 12 Feb. 1751.
  • 20. See p. 219.
  • 21. York Georgian Soc. Ann. Rep. 1953-4, 50 sqq.
  • 22. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 42, f. 56; York Courant, 19 July 1785.
  • 23. See pp. 238, 243.
  • 24. See, e.g., York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 40, f. 137; civic occasions were, of course, confined to the councillors and officers though there were frequent processions; and only the freemen felt the benefit of the election system.
  • 25. Ibid. Chamberlains' Bk. 1700; York Courant, 17 Dec. 1728, 9 Aug. 1743, 5 Jan. 1748; York Herald, 13 Nov. 1790.
  • 26. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 40, f. 160; 43, p. 205; 45, p. 247.
  • 27. York Courant, 9 and 16 Jan. 1750, 30 Dec. 1766, 20 Dec. 1768, 6 Jan. 1786.
  • 28. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 42, f. 220; 44, pp. 260, 356.
  • 29. See p. 207.
  • 30. Pressly, York Miscel. 138 sqq., 165.
  • 31. See pp. 213-14, 228.
  • 32. See p. 208.
  • 33. This group had comprised William Lodge and Ralph Thoresby of Leeds and Martin Lister, the zoologist, besides Gyles and Place.
  • 34. D.N.B.
  • 35. Ibid.
  • 36. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 43, p. 439.
  • 37. See p. 208.
  • 38. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 45, p. 238.
  • 39. There is some uncertainty about the lives of the Atkinsons: compare D.N.B., Colvin, Biog. Dict. Eng. Architects, Y.A.J. xxxv. 380.
  • 40. Y.A.J. xxxv. 380.
  • 41. Ibid. 379.
  • 42. See pp. 207-8.
  • 43. Y.A.J. xxxvi. 101.
  • 44. Ibid. 84.
  • 45. J. B. Morrell, Woodwork in York, 180; York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 41, f. 43; he held the post only for a year: ibid. f. 61.
  • 46. Y.A.J. xxxvi. 88, 90, 141.
  • 47. D.N.B.
  • 48. See p. 242.
  • 49. L. P. Curtis, The Politicks of Laurence Sterne, passim.
  • 50. See p. 244.
  • 51. For both see D.N.B.
  • 52. Ibid.
  • 53. Mason was one of the reformers of the lunatic asylum, see p. 469.
  • 54. Johnson's England, ed. A. S. Turberville, ii. 273-4; Pressly, York Miscellany, 141 sqq.; D.N.B.
  • 55. See p. 242.
  • 56. D.N.B.; J. M. Biggins, Historians of York (St. Ant. Hall Publ. no. 10).
  • 57. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 42, ff. 142, 194-5.
  • 58. D.N.B.
  • 59. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 43, p. 190.
  • 60. D.N.B.
  • 61. Ibid.; see p. 342; York Georgian Soc. Ann. Rep. 1953-4, 29.
  • 62. R. Davies, Mem. York Press (1868); see pp. 537-9.
  • 63. Davies, Mem. York Press, 144 sqq.; D.N.B.
  • 64. Davies, Mem. York Press, passim.
  • 65. Ibid. 307; D.N.B.; Croft's Excerpta Antiqua, a collection of documents relating to the history of York, were published in 1797.