Modern York: Economy, 1800-38

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

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'Modern York: Economy, 1800-38', A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961), pp. 256-262. British History Online [accessed 17 June 2024].

. "Modern York: Economy, 1800-38", in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) 256-262. British History Online, accessed June 17, 2024,

. "Modern York: Economy, 1800-38", A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961). 256-262. British History Online. Web. 17 June 2024,

Economy, 1800–38

Contemporaries, whose remarks about the state of the York economy have survived, were agreed that the city was declining during the first few decades of the 19th century. A proposal in 1825 to found a university in the city was well received because it was thought that it would confer a dignity upon the declining city and raise it 'to its proper rank in the national account'. (fn. 1) Eight years later, at a meeting held to gain support to establish a bonded warehouse in the city, a speaker advised the inhabitants to 'look about them and see if they could not do as their neighbours did'. He was alluding to the introduction of steam power. At the same meeting another speaker bemoaned the passing of 'the late period when the city was chiefly supported by the resident gentry with their families who came to reside as at a metropolis'. (fn. 2) Later in the year it was reported to the Municipal Corporation Commissioners that 'everything is going away from us and nothing is coming . . . the great advantages and benefits which York possessed have rapidly flown away from her lately, notwithstanding the increase of the population. I don't know that trade has increased at all with it.' (fn. 3)

The views expressed by the boundary commissioners in 1832 were that York was not declining but increasing in size. They added, however, that the changes 'in the habits and manners which have taken place throughout the kingdom in the last half century have been probably felt more severely in York than in most other places'. It was no longer a northern metropolis and therefore the annual amount of capital spent within it was diminished. (fn. 4) Several reasons were put forward for the decline. 'I have always understood that the price of coal was the principal obstacle to this being a manufacturing place' wrote a correspondent to the York Herald in 1833. (fn. 5) And, of course, the suggestion that the railways would lower the cost of coal in York to a level at which manufacturers could meet competitors fortunate enough to be situated on coalfields was one of the main arguments brought forward in their favour. (fn. 6) Certainly, in 1836, in anticipation of the benefits of cheaper coal which the projected railway would bring, the prospectus of the York Flax and Tow-Spinning and Weaving Company appeared, one of the directors of the company being George Hudson. (fn. 7)

Other reasons were given for York's alleged decline. It was thought that the division of the city into 30 separate parishes was a hindrance and that settlement disputes between them cost more than was spent on poor relief. Further, the restrictions of entry into trade resulting from the exercise of the privileges of the freemen had hindered the city's commercial progress; and doubts were cast on the ability of the corporation in its capacity as conservator of the Ouse Navigation. (fn. 8)

How far then was York, in fact, 'declining' during the early 19th century? The city's population increased by 71 per cent. during the first 40 years of the century. This was not an impressive increase, it is true, when comparisons were made, as they normally were by contemporaries, with the rapidly rising industrial towns of the West Riding; Leeds, for example, increased its population over the same period by 186 per cent., Huddersfield by 247 per cent., Halifax by 125 per cent., and Bradford by 444 per cent. Had they compared York with other non-manufacturing towns they would have beer less downcast: Norwich had increased by 69 per cent., Chester by 54 per cent., and Shrewsbury and Bath by 42 per cent. Nor would they have found much to complain of in comparison with Nottingham 84 per cent., Newcastle 76 per cent., and Wakefield 81 per cent.—towns of a markedly industrial character with easy access to coal. It is difficult to argue, therefore, from population figures alone that York was in fact declining.

Decline is, however, reflected in the expenditure on poor relief. In 1810 there was indeed a complaint that the poor 'not being properly supplied with work are become highly burthensome' (fn. 9) and similar evidence was submitted to the Poor Law Commissioners. (fn. 10) The expenditure on poor relief in fact rose steadily during the first three decades of the 19th century. There was a sharp increase between 1815 and 1818, expenditure fluctuating slightly at about the high level then reached until 1821. During the next three years it fell until, in 1824, it had reached a slightly lower level than that of 1813 and 1814. The remainder of the 1820's, however, saw expenditure rise rapidly until the highest levels were reached in 1831 and 1832. The rapid rate of increase in expenditure between 1815 and 1818 is associated with the immediate post-Napoleonic War depression; that in the 1820's is mainly explained by the influx of population into a city where the main forms of economic activity were commercial and mercantile, offering little in the way of large-scale industrial employment.

For anyone who wished to see York develop as a Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, or Birmingham, the first four decades were disappointing. York continued to be primarily a market centre for the produce of the surrounding countryside and a place where goods and services were sold. Many of the shops were supplied by handicraft producers, otherwise there was little in the way of manufacture. The characteristics of the York economy emerge in the following letter published in 1827, in which the writer is supporting a proposal to found a Mechanics' Institute in the city:

[It is said that] the working population of the city . . . is of a description to which a knowledge of the principles of science would be of little or no use. We have no manufactures, we have no complicated machinery in operation; we have no weavers, no dyers, no shipbuilders, no mines. What further, it is asked, can be required by common carpenters, cabinet makers, joiners and masons, by painters, shoemakers, workers in horn, or day labourers in husbandry? . . . Yet amidst the multifarious occupations . . . in this city, there are surely many to whom a knowledge of some branch of science might be beneficial. Would such knowledge be useless to working jewellers, to workers in steel, to iron or brass founders, to tanners, to chemists and druggists, to tillers of the land? (fn. 11)

In fact, a Mechanics' Institute was formed, (fn. 12) but it is difficult to see that any very substantial demand for it could have arisen from any of the occupations listed. The tabular return of occupations for York in the 1831 Census dealt with retail trade and handicraft; 'manufactures' were of so little importance that they were relegated to a footnote. There were only 23 working jewellers; (fn. 13) 'workers in steel' do not, as such, emerge in the returns, but there were only 16 employed in iron-founding and 6 brass workers, alternatively returned as tinkers. Twenty persons were returned as tanners and 54 as chemists. Otherwise there were 20 adult males employed in linen manufacture, 11 dyers and 18 comb-makers. Apart from these there were many handicraft trades and trades reflecting the dominance of the horse in transport and the close tie with the life of the surrounding countryside. Apart from some 500 persons engaged in retail distribution, the largest groups of workers in 1831 were connected with transport, leather, the building trades, and domestic service. Directly connected with transport were 88 coach-drivers, owners, and grooms, 33 carriers and 21 horse-dealers, coach- and fly-keepers; and, less directly connected, 182 hotel- or inn-keepers or beer-sellers. There were 340 adult males in building itself and, on its fringes, 58 painters and 190 carpenters. Workers in leather included the 20 tanners already mentioned, 58 curriers, and 447 boot- and shoe-makers. Domestic service formed the biggest single occupational group with 1,922 persons. (fn. 14)

Not only were there thus no significantly large industrial groups, but comparison with the number of firms listed in an 1830 directory (fn. 15) suggests that none was large. York was essentially a city of small-scale handicraft enterprises on which the Industrial Revolution had made little, if any, direct impact. It is informative to compare certain occupational groups for York in 1831 with their counterparts in other towns. On a basis of equivalent populations, York employed at least twice as many domestic servants as there were in Leeds, Bradford, or Huddersfield. The gentry may have been deserting the city but the figures suggest that they were still an important entity in its life when compared with neighbouring manufacturing towns. Again, in the retailing trades York had a marked preponderance and this again points to the fact that York's main economic function was to serve the surrounding area. There was a similar preponderance in the building and woodwork trades. As will later be seen, it was the presence of the gentry which explains the existence of successful ironfounders in York such as Walker. (fn. 16) The gentry may well have turned to other places for their 'assemblies' and associated pleasures by 1830, and those who had maintained town houses in York may have declined in numbers, but they still had their country seats in the surrounding countryside and their orders for goods and services still came to the city. (fn. 17)

Table 5 The Food and Clothing Trades, 1823–30: Number of Firms a
Food 1823 1830 Clothing 1823 1830
Butchers 68 88 Boot- and shoe-makers 79 76
Fishmongers 6 10 Glove-makers 18 9
Grocers 54 58 Hat-makers 13 10
Tea-dealers 31 33 Linen drapers 34 28
Confectioners 21 19 Milliners 44 39
Wine and spirit merchants 28 25 Stay-makers 10 8
Brewsters and maltsters 10 14 Strawbonnet-makers 24 13
Tailors and habit-makers 42 37
Woollen drapers 26 25
a E. Baines, Dir. Co. York, ii (1823),; W. Parson & W. White, Dir. Leeds, York, &c. (1830).

Evidence for the occupational structure before 1831 is difficult to assemble (fn. 18) but a useful comparison may be made between two directories—those for 1823 and 1830 (fn. 19) (see Table 5). In retailing, there appear to be two broad changes: the number of foodretailing firms on the whole increases, while the number of firms connected with clothing falls. With only two exceptions, the number of firms concerned in selling food increased during the 1820's, as would be expected in a period of marked population increase; the exceptions were confectioners and wine and spirit merchants, trades catering for the wealthier class of customer. The brewers, however, who served poorer customers, increased. In clothing, all types of firm decreased in number and they were mainly firms catering for middle- and upper-class demand. That their numbers should have fallen, along with those of the wine and spirit merchants, confectioners, toy-makers, watchand clock-makers, makers of billiard tables, glass- and china-dealers, and gun-makers, suggests strongly that those sections of the retailing trade which catered, at least in part, for the gentry were in decline between 1823 and 1830. Most significantly the domestic servant registries were halved from 6 to 3.

Were there, then, any sectors of the York economy in which compensating expansions were occurring? In the building trades, comparison of the two directories shows an increase in the numbers of firms of architects (from 3 to 6), bricklayers (30 to 41), brickmakers (5 to 6), painters (20 to 26), and plumbers and glaziers (16 to 19). This evidence of expansion is confirmed by that of the number of houses built during the first four decades of the 19th century (see Table 6). Further, the expansion of the 1820's was part of a longer-term growth dictated not merely by York's internal demands but also by external demands for the services of her building labour. Not only did the number of houses increase rapidly during this period, but there were other demands being made upon the building trades. The rebuilding of Ouse Bridge during the second decade of the century involved considerable street widening in the approaches to the bridge on both sides. (fn. 20) A new Friends' Meeting House was built in 1818 and various other denominations built new, or rebuilt old, chapels. (fn. 21) Churches were altered (fn. 22) and the minster repaired after the fires of 1829 and 1840. In addition, new and substantial buildings were erected for a variety of purposes: the museum of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in 1827–30, new offices for the York Savings Bank in 1819, new premises for York Dispensary in 1828, extensive new prison buildings in the late 1820's and early 1830's, a new residence for the canons residentiary in 1824, new buildings for St. Peter's School in 1830, a new deanery in 1831, a gasworks in 1823, and a new building for Anne Middleton's Hospital in 1828. There were also considerable street improvements during the late 1820's. Thus there is good reason, especially during the 1820's, to regard the building trades as an important expanding section of the York economy.

Table 6
Houses Built in York, 1801–41
Number of houses Increase Increase % Population increase %
Inhabited Uninhabited Total
1801 2,407 72 2,479
1811 2,661 56 2,717 238 9.6 12.8
1821 3,325 89 3,414 697 25.6 13.7
1831 4,586 369 4,955 1,541 45.1 20.5
1841 5,768 190 5,958 1,003 20.2 9.8

The various markets and fairs held in York, acting either as adjuncts to retail distribution carried on by shopkeepers, or as wholesale commodity markets, experienced varying degrees of prosperity during the period under review. One certainly, the wholesale butter market, was already in decline by the opening of the 19th century. By 1818 only 14,000-15,000 firkins of butter were handled compared with 80,000 in 1790. The butter stand was removed in 1828 owing to 'the falling off of the trade'; thereafter butter that had formerly passed through York was bought in the country by contractors for the London market. (fn. 23) Of the fortunes of the hay and wool markets or of the linen fair nothing can be said. In 1825 the corporation was told of 'great increase of business at our markets and fairs' (fn. 24) but the state of particular commodity markets was not specified. Later in the year 1,500 persons signed a petition representing to the corporation 'the very great augmentation which of late years has taken place in the business of our fairs and markets' (fn. 25) and praying for improved accommodation for the fortnight and other fairs and for the cattle market. The latter was moved in the following year from Walmgate to a situation outside the walls. Initially pens were erected for 616 cattle and 6,750 sheep, (fn. 26) but these were soon found to be inadequate and a further 4,000 temporary pens were erected. (fn. 27) The leather market, started in 1815, appears to have been successful for some time. In 1820 it was reported to have been 'very respectably and numerously attended'; (fn. 28) three years later York was considered 'the greatest regular leather market in England, London and Bristol excepted'. (fn. 29) Not long after this, however, the complaint was made that 'less leather flowed than was ever known . . . in consequence of which an attempt was made by one or two buyers to do away with the fair altogether'. (fn. 30) The fair had been extinct for some time in 1855. (fn. 31)

Little is known of the other markets and fairs held in the city. In the light of the agricultural distress prevalent between 1816 and 1837, they are unlikely to have been prosperous. Certainly much of the adjacent countryside suffered and many of the victims passed through York en route for America. (fn. 32) The average monthly number of vagrants passing through the York Vagrants' Office rose from 20.4 in 1823 to 35.8 in 1830. (fn. 33) The agricultural decline, moreover, no doubt also helped in that reduction of York's retail trade with farmers and gentry in the surrounding countryside, which has already been suggested. The expansion of some trades was accompanied by developments in the city's commerce. The York Savings Bank was established in 1816, (fn. 34) the Yorkshire Fire and Life Insurance Office in 1824, the York and North of England Insurance Company in 1834; and to the old-established banking houses of Raper, Swann, Clough, Swann, Bland and Raper, and of Wilson, Tweedy and Wilson was added Wentworth, Chaloner, Rishworth & Co. between about 1810 and 1825. The early 1830's witnessed a considerable expansion in the city's banking business with the establishment of the York City and County Bank (1830), the York Union Bank (1833), the Yorkshire District Banking Co. (1834), and the Agricultural and Commercial Bank (1836). (fn. 35)

Apart from the building trades, those parts of the York economy which were apparently prospering—certain types of shopkeeping, cattle-marketing, and commerce—were not those which employed large quantities of labour. Industry, which would have done so, was stagnant and small in scale. Prosperity in certain trades is, therefore, compatible with the rising poor-law expenditure noted above. Capital was forthcoming in York for banking, insurance, and investment in building, as it was for the gas company established in 1823. It was to flow abundantly into railway schemes. Why then, it may be asked, with the general agreement about York's economic decline which was publicly voiced, was there no apparent attempt to emulate the towns of the West Riding and other manufacturing districts which were the subject of so much envy? To this question contemporaries apparently all made the answer that York was at a disadvantage in the cost of coal.

That coal in York was dearer than it was 30 miles away in the West Riding was doubtless true. The records of the Middleton Colliery Company (near Leeds) (fn. 36) show that coal was supplied to York customers in the 1790's and until 1806. The quantities purchased suggest that the customers were merchants. The price of most of the coal supplied to customers in Leeds, where the colliery had a virtual monopoly, was regulated by successive Acts of Parliament; but the price charged to York customers, as to all others who were supplied over and above the terms of the Acts, steadily exceeded that charged in Leeds by a few pence a ton. These, however, were prices at the colliery; to them was added the cost of transport between Leeds and York, estimated at between 3s. and 4s. a ton during the 1830's, (fn. 37) and the merchants' margin of profit. Coal, there fore, which was costing between 5s. and 6s. a ton in Leeds in the 1830's would have cost between 8s. and 10s. in York with the addition of transport costs alone; above this there would be the margin added by the merchant. This at first sight is certainly a considerable disadvantage, but the extent of the disadvantage varies according to the amount of coal used in the production of different articles. (fn. 38) The disadvantage of at least 60 per cent. in the price of coal which York laboured under before the advent of railways might be inimical to the success of iron-smelting in the city, but less so for commodities in which coal accounted for only a very small proportion of the total costs of production, such as textiles. In the case of linen this is particularly applicable to York, as it is for the processing of iron after the initial high fuel-consuming, smelting stage; two ironfounders did exist in York in the early 19th century, and one of them was very successful. (fn. 39)

To complain, as contemporaries did, that York was at a disadvantage in the matter of coal supplies does not therefore appear to be a very good reason for the failure to industrialize, when one considers the very low proportion of the total cost accounted for by coal in at least two lines of activity which were in fact represented in the city. And, as will be seen, the advent of the railways wrought no revolution in the city's industries. Contemporaries may have thought that they were labouring under a disadvantage, and acted as though they were, but their beliefs were illusory. If this is so, what explanation can be offered for York's undoubted industrial backwardness? It certainly does not seem to have been shortage of local capital. (fn. 40) Nor should the argument that the restrictions imposed by the freemen on outside entry into trade be taken very seriously. It is true that the freedom of the city had to be purchased before a trader could set up in business and it is true, as will be seen, that the corporation had good financial reasons to enforce this restriction during the period 1819–33. (fn. 41) But the purchase price was only £25 and it is difficult to see that this in itself would act as a severe deterrent to anyone regarding York as an attractive place to set up in business. Certainly, with the average receipts from freedom purchases amounting to £800 a year between 1820 and 1833, (fn. 42) many in fact did count it worth while. Nor does it help to explain why traders who were already freemen of the city failed to extend their activities and establish factory industries. More important reasons for the apparent apathy are to be found in the structure of the city's government.


  • 1. York Herald, 29 Jan. 1825.
  • 2. Ibid. 21 Sept. 1833.
  • 3. Ibid. 30 Nov. 1833.
  • 4. Rep. Com. Division Counties and Bounds. Boros. H.C. 141, pt. 6, pp. 171–3 (1831–2), xl.
  • 5. York Herald, 7 Sept. 1833.
  • 6. Benson, Hist. York, iii. 135.
  • 7. York Herald, 30 July and 19 Nov. 1836.
  • 8. Ibid. 30 Nov. 1833.
  • 9. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 15 Feb. 1810.
  • 10. 1st Rep. Com. Poor Laws, App. A, H.C. 44, pp. 870-4 (1834), xxviii.
  • 11. York Herald, 25 May 1827.
  • 12. Ibid. 23 June 1827.
  • 13. Figures relate to males over 20, masters and workmen.
  • 14. 171 males over 20, 62 males under 20, and 1,689 females.
  • 15. W. Parson & W. White, Dir. Leeds, York, &c. (1830).
  • 16. See p. 273.
  • 17. There were in 1823 some 50 seats of the gentry within 10 miles radius of the city.
  • 18. The Census Returns are too vague for this purpose.
  • 19. The directories, however, indicate only the number of firms, not their volume of business.
  • 20. See pp. 517–8.
  • 21. See e.g., pp. 407, 409, 416.
  • 22. See pp. 302–3.
  • 23. J. Glaisby, Guide City of York (1838), 42; see p. 487.
  • 24. York Herald, 5 Feb. 1825.
  • 25. Ibid. 19 and 26 Nov. 1825.
  • 26. Hargrove's New Guide City of York (1842).
  • 27. Glaisby, Guide City of York (1838), 153.
  • 28. York Herald, 10 June 1820.
  • 29. Ibid. 4 Sept. 1824.
  • 30. Ibid. 8 Dec. 1832.
  • 31. J. Hunter, York and its Beauty (1855), 160.
  • 32. York Herald, 13 Mar. and 3, 10, and 24 Apr. 1830.
  • 33. Based on weekly returns in York newspapers.
  • 34. S. W. Nicholl, Acct. York Savings Bank (York, 1817). This, however, was a working-class savings bank.
  • 35. Knight, Hist. York, 590, 624.
  • 36. Leeds Ref. Libr., Archives MC. 193, 197 (Ledger 1800–35; Coals sold at Hunslet Staithe 1789–1799).
  • 37. York Herald, 4 Jan. 1834.
  • 38. In 1810, e.g. at Horsehay (Salop), where coal was close at hand, it accounted for between 32.4 and 36.1 per cent. of the cost of making pig iron, but only 4.2 per cent. of the cost of refining the pigs, 5.48 per cent. of the cost of making blooms and 2.26 per cent. of the cost of making iron bars (A. Raistrick, Dynasty of Iron Founders. The Darbys of Coalbrookdale, 235–7). It formed 2.8 per cent. of the cost of making tinplate in 1893 (W. E. Minchinton, Brit. Tinplate Ind. 55), 1.8 per cent. of the cost of making rubber in 1858 (W. Woodruff, Rise of Brit. Rubber Ind. 81), between 0.8 and 1.3 per cent. of the cost of spinning linen yarn in Leeds in 1808 and 1811, and 3.1 per cent. of the cost of spinning linen yarn in Shrewsbury in 1819: the author is indebted to Mr. W. G. Rimmer for these figures of costs. The Leeds and Shrewsbury quotations are for mills owned by the same firm and the Shrewsbury case is especially interesting since the town was at a similar distance from coal compared with York.
  • 39. See p. 273.
  • 40. e.g. by 1845, rather more than £250,000 of York capital was invested in the York and N.M. Railway and its subsidiaries.
  • 41. See p. 263; indeed it might be argued that it was financial stringency which caused the corporation to enforce the purchase of freedoms so keenly rather than any restrictive outlook.
  • 42. York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Rolls.