Modern York: City Government, 1800-35

Pages 262-266

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

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City Government, 1800–35

The constitution of the corporation remained until 1835 as it had been during the 18th century; self-elective, recruited only from freemen and limited in its functions to administering the corporate property and the markets, bridges, prisons, city walls, and charities; a committee of the corporation controlled the Ouse Navigation. Until the repeal of the Corporation Act in 1828 membership was open only to Anglicans.

Little emerged from the proceedings of the Municipal Corporations Commissioners which could be said to brand the unreformed corporation as corrupt. The strongest criticisms which were voiced touched upon the exclusive trading privileges of the freemen and upon the failure of the corporation as trustees of the Ouse Navigation to improve the state of the river, which had been neglected for 30 years. Much was made of the contrast between this lethargy and the fact that the trustees had spent much money on building a banqueting hall at Naburn in 1823. (fn. 1) Even the tory Yorkshire Gazette, which regretted the examination of the corporation as 'calculated to lower the dignity of the magistracy', had to admit that 'the trustees of the River Ouse certainly appear to have slumbered at their post', and that expenditure at Naburn lock was 'the most indefensible part of their conduct'. (fn. 2) Nevertheless, nothing worse emerged before the commissioners and it was by contrast with the lack of expenditure on the upkeep of the navigation itself that the expenditure on the lock-house stood out as indiscreet. If the corporation could validly be criticized, it was not on the grounds of corruption so much as inattention to the needs of a growing city.

This was the result of financial stringency. There had been agitation for a new improvement Act since 1818 (fn. 3) but the corporation made it clear that it could not bear the expense of such a Bill. (fn. 4) A committee appointed in 1819 to consider the matter not only declared it to be 'wholly unnecessary' but found that while 'the present poor house is insufficient . . . the sum of £3,000 proposed [i.e. in the Bill] to be raised for the building of a new poor house is much too large a sum . . . for that purpose'. (fn. 5) Between 1800 and 1812 there were only two years in which income exceeded expenditure with the result that by 1812 the corporation owed £11,710, including £3,700 in tradesmen's bills, (fn. 6) and were being sued for £1,000 owing for timber used in rebuilding Ouse Bridge. (fn. 7)

Income was derived, as it had been in the 18th century, (fn. 8) from four main sources: rents from property, the sale of freedoms, fines for exoneration from office, and loans. Income from the first three was very largely fixed. Expenditure, however, reflected the general rise in prices which took place during the Napoleonic wars. The largest single item, the lord mayor's salary, rose by a third over the period 1801–12. The expenses of maintaining the Mansion House rose from an average of £149 in 1801–5 to £401 in 1808–12. Over the same period the average annual cost of maintaining roads and paving streets rose from £279 to £653; and of repairing corporate property from £153 to £272. (fn. 9) Any extraordinary expenditure, therefore, had to be met by raising money, either on bond at the current rate of interest, or by resorting to the device of annuities. The more money that was raised in this way, however, the larger was the sum which had to be met out of current income in order to pay interest, or the annuitants. Thus, the average sum disbursed in this way in 1801–5 was £404. In 1808–12 it averaged £833.

The committee which pondered the state of the corporation's finances in 1812 recommended a temporary reduction of £660 in the lord mayor's salary of £840 and the sale of some property in the city. (fn. 10) The sale of the Tang Hall Estate was ordered in May, (fn. 11) more city houses in November, (fn. 12) and early in 1813 it was resolved that 'old broken mayor's furniture' should be sold and fees charged for use of the corporation seal on property conveyances. (fn. 13) A proposal by the upper house to sell some corporation plate was turned down by the commons. (fn. 14) In addition the committee recommended the raising of £4,500 by annuities in order to meet the more urgent debts. By these means income was made to exceed expenditure, and from this favourable annual balance and the proceeds of sales of property and annuities, creditors were gradually paid. In 1816, however, there were still bills owing to tradesmen for work done during the preceding 5 years (fn. 15) and £10,140 was owing on bond—£2,730 on bonds given to tradesmen in discharge of their bills. (fn. 16) In 1819 the finance committee reported that it had reduced the debt by more than £4,000 during the past three years. (fn. 17) Four years later a further £4,000 had been paid off, but there was still an annual charge of £736 for annuitants. The committee therefore urged the necessity 'to continue to act on the economical system'. (fn. 18)

For the remainder of its life the old corporation continued to experience financial difficulties. The income from freedoms rose, as did that from rents, but although income exceeded expenditure in all but two years between 1813 and 1832, the excess was not sufficient to finance capital expenditure and this had to be met by borrowing. Thus, in 1833, the corporation still owed £10,500 on bond. In its dying months, having petitioned Parliament against the Municipal Corporations Bill, (fn. 19) the old corporation indulged in a final burst of expenditure. The bond debts in February 1835 totalled £13,500. (fn. 20) Nevertheless, the new street from Blake Street to Bootham Bar (St. Leonard's Place) was nearing completion and was to be macadamized; the theatre was being renovated and altered; and during the remainder of 1835 these and other expenses—for the improvement of the market and in building the library in St. Leonard's Place—made it necessary to borrow an additional £8,000, making a total debt of £21,500 as a legacy to the new corporation.

The first act of the new body was to appoint a committee to find out what economies might be made in all branches of the corporation's activities. (fn. 21) By its recommendation most of the petty offices and various salaries and gratuities were abolished. Since, under the terms of the Act, the corporation now became responsible for the prosecution and maintenance of offenders and for the expenses of the police force, the committee proposed to unite the house of correction and the gaol so that economies could be obtained in the numbers of officials employed. (fn. 22) Separate accounts for the Ouse Navigation are not available, but the Ouse Navigation Committee in 1836 found itself saddled with the debts incurred by its predecessors. The committee urged that the debt should be extinguished as soon as possible so that railway competition, when it came, could be met by a reduction in tolls. (fn. 23)

Thus the old corporation, labouring under the incubus of debt, achieved little, and most of it after the appointment of the City Commissioners. The Act of 1825 by which commissioners were appointed was obtained as the result of public pressure upon the corporation. A public meeting held in January of that year resolved to form a committee under the chairmanship of the lord mayor. (fn. 24) Immediately, however, controversy arose about the composition of the body which should administer the provisions of the Act, especially about the participation of the corporation. (fn. 25) By February there were two versions of the Bill being canvassed in the city, and Parliament received two different petitions within a week of each other; (fn. 26) it was not until the following month that a compromise was reached. The Act created 40 commissioners, 10 to be elected from each ward, and voting qualifications were to be the occupation of lands or property to the annual value of £10 or more. The Act also contained specific provisions for electing members of the Society of Friends. Thus, the composition of the new body differed radically from that of the old corporation because nonconformists were eligible to become members (fn. 27) and because election to it, or the power to vote for members of it, was not confined to the privileged freemen. It also had the power to levy an annual rate of not more than 6d. in the £ of the rack-rental value of property.

Thus, in the circumstances which led to its creation, and in its composition, franchise, and financial powers, the new body of commissioners showed marked differences when compared with the old corporation. It provided, too, an outlet for the energies of nonconformists denied under the existing form of corporate government. Quakers, such as James Backhouse, Caleb Fletcher, John Lyth, and Samuel, Daniel, and John Tuke, featured prominently in the affairs of the promotion committee, and the York Herald commented upon the activities within the committee of the 'peaceable Society of Friends'. (fn. 28)

It is not surprising that with its antecedents and composition on the one hand, and the ample scope for conflict arising from overlapping areas of jurisdiction on the other, the new body found itself embroiled at times with the old corporation. The corporation maintained the fire service until its management was transferred to the Yorkshire Insurance Company in 1830. (fn. 29) The commissioners controlled one police force, the corporation another and there were 54 parish constables appointed by the magistrates and deemed 'almost entirely inefficient'. (fn. 30) This cumbersome arrangement for the prevention of crime was further hampered by the existence of St. Peter's Liberty for which separate commissioners were appointed. (fn. 31) Again, although in 1826 the commissioners held themselves liable for maintaining the streets, (fn. 32) the corporation was still in 1830 paying £404 for the 'maintenance of roads' and £425 for 'paving by the commissioners'. (fn. 33) At times, the two bodies drew up agreements about the stretches of road that each administered, (fn. 34) but on other occasions there was serious disagreement. Thus, since lighting the city was the commissioners' responsibility under the terms of the Act, the corporation maintained that this applied to Ouse and Foss Bridges. (fn. 35) The commissioners disagreed and after eighteen months of wrangling proposed to refer the dispute to an arbitrator. (fn. 36) It may be that the expense of this step induced both parties to reach an agreement about the maintenance of the Fulford road in 1830 and to appoint a joint committee in 1831 to confer over the improvement of Spurriergate and of market accommodation. (fn. 37) This last step led, under the Market Improvement Act of 1833, to the appointment of trustees comprising twelve members of the corporation and twelve commissioners. (fn. 38)

In addition to these authorities and the poor law guardians, the affairs of the city were further complicated by the fact that the supplies of gas and water and, after 1830, the fire services were in private hands. The York Gas Company, which had been founded with corporation approval in 1823, (fn. 39) disagreed with the commissioners in 1828 about the price of gas for street lighting, and this led the commissioners to invite tenders for lighting by oil lamps. (fn. 40) An agreement was reached in the following summer, however, (fn. 41) and renewed annually, though not without considerable bickering. In contrast, the waterworks company early established itself in the commissioners' favour by offering to water the streets free. (fn. 42)

To these competing authorities were added the city poor law officers for each of the 32 parishes and townships. In two respects limited co-operation between a number of them existed. The chief workhouse in York lay in the parish of St. Olave; in 1834 it was run by the parishes of St. Olave, St. Giles, All Saints', Pavement, St. Helen, Stonegate, St. Michael-le-Belfrey, and St. Martin, Coney Street, which 'contract with the master annually to find the paupers with provisions at so much per head'. (fn. 43) In addition 'most of the parishes' (fn. 44) contributed to the upkeep of the Vagrants Office, established in 1821 (fn. 45) with the object of preventing begging in the city. Otherwise each parish was its own authority levying its own poor rate. The commissioners believed that much would be saved if there were only four divisions but added that 'it would cause much dissatisfaction in the parishes which are relatively burdened to a slight degree'. (fn. 46) The increasing expense of York's fragmented poor law arrangements was also the subject for comment before the Municipal Corporation Commissioners when the consolidation of the parishes of the city for secular purposes was recommended: 'we have none of these great meetings in vestry which we see in other towns'. (fn. 47)

Settlement disputes arose easily and were costly to the parishes, more, it was alleged, being spent on parish appeals than on poor relief. (fn. 48) The greater charity endowments of some parishes made them especially attractive as places of settlement: 'parents not infrequently prevent their children going into situations out of their parish, if it should be a good one, lest they lose their settlements; this is particularly the case in parishes where distributions are made from charitable institutions. . . . A man in the parish of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, where there is a considerable charity and who belongs to Askham has declared that he will belong to Goodramgate as soon as he can.' (fn. 49) Other, poorer, parishes such as All Saints, North Street, complained that settlement was gained in them by apprentices serving in adjacent parishes where they could not find accommodation: 'this is complained of generally by the small parishes. They could wish for settlement where service is. . . .' (fn. 50) St. Michael's, Spurriergate, and St. Mary's, Bishophill, Senior, complained of settlements being gained by apprentices 'sleeping the last day in these parishes and also by watermen bringing single women with them and their bringing forth children in those parishes'. (fn. 51)

Notwithstanding discontent arising from inter-parochial disputes, there were objections to uniting the York parishes for poor law purposes; generally on the grounds that each parish, being a relatively small unit, had 'a more perfect acquaintance with the poor' and, particularly, by parishes in which poor rates were relatively low. Thus, St. Mary's, Bishophill, Senior and Junior, St. Maurice's, and St. Michael's, Spurriergate, objected to unification, while St. Crux, Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, and St. Martin's-cumGregory were in favour of it; St. Giles's was 'doubtful', St. Martin's, Coney Street, said 'probably', and St. Helen's, Stonegate, 'cannot say'. (fn. 52)


  • 1. York Herald, 30 Nov. 1833.
  • 2. Yorks. Gaz. 30 Nov. 1833.
  • 3. York Courant, 8 Feb. 1825.
  • 4. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 19 Aug. 1818.
  • 5. Ibid. 4 Jan. 1819.
  • 6. Ibid. 13 Apr. 1812.
  • 7. Ibid. 30 Apr. 1812.
  • 8. See pp. 299 sqq.
  • 9. York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Bks. passim.
  • 10. Ibid. Ho. Bk. 13 Apr. 1812.
  • 11. Ibid. 4 May 1812.
  • 12. Ibid. 12 Nov. 1812.
  • 13. Ibid. 19 Apr. 1813.
  • 14. Ibid. 14 May 1813.
  • 15. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 15 Jan. 1816.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Ibid. 3 Feb. 1819.
  • 18. Ibid. 4 Feb. 1822.
  • 19. Ibid. 10 Aug. 1835.
  • 20. Ibid. 4 Feb. 1835.
  • 21. Ibid. 1 Jan. 1836.
  • 22. Ibid. 8 Feb. 1836.
  • 23. Ibid., see p. 473.
  • 24. York Courant, 28 Dec. 1824.
  • 25. Ibid. 25 Jan. and 8 Feb. 1825.
  • 26. Ibid. 15 and 22 Feb. 1825.
  • 27. They were barred from holding corporate office under the Corporation Act of 1825.
  • 28. York Herald, 19 Feb. 1825.
  • 29. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 8 Nov. 1830.
  • 30. See p. 466.
  • 31. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 11 Mar. 1835.
  • 32. Ibid. 30 Jun. 1826.
  • 33. Ibid. 3 Feb. 1830.
  • 34. Ibid. 8 Nov. 1830.
  • 35. Ibid. 9 May 1828.
  • 36. Ibid. 11 Dec. 1829.
  • 37. Ibid. 8 Nov. 1830; 21 Sept. 1831.
  • 38. Ibid. 3 July 1833; 3 and 4 Wm. IV, c. 62 (local and personal act).
  • 39. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 3 Feb. 1823.
  • 40. Ibid. 9 Aug. 1828.
  • 41. Ibid. 10 July 1829.
  • 42. Ibid. 16 June 1826.
  • 43. 1st Rep. Com. Poor Laws, App. A, H.C. 44, pp. 870–4 (1834), xxviii.
  • 44. Ibid. p. 872.
  • 45. York Herald, 22 Feb. 1821.
  • 46. 1st Rep. Com. Poor Laws, App. A, p. 871.
  • 47. York Herald, 30 Nov. 1833.
  • 48. Ibid.
  • 49. Ibid.
  • 50. Ibid.
  • 51. Ibid.
  • 52. 1st Rep. Com. Poor Laws, App. B. 2, H.C. 44, pp. 252 f-258 f (1834), xxxv.