Modern York: Economy, 1839-1900

Pages 269-275

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

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Economy, 1839–1900

Until 1841 York lost population by migration but for the rest of the 19th century, excepting the eighties, it gained. This change coincides with the coming of the railways and has led many commentators to connect the two facts. The railways, it is suggested, by reducing the price of coal, made possible the city's subsequent growth. Yet the connexion between the railways and the growth of the economy is less straightforward than this and the effects were far from rapid.

The railways and the services ancillary to them did, however, immediately provide employment in the city. In the census returns for 1841, 41 persons were returned as railway employees, of whom 24 had been born elsewhere. (fn. 1) By 1851 there were 513 railway workers, of whom 390 were immigrants and these had brought with them 537 dependants. (fn. 2) There were three kinds of railway employment. (fn. 3) First, there were the 'footplate' men, guards, labourers, porters, and station officials who came to live in the city. Secondly, many were employed in the administrative offices and the hotels. (fn. 4) Thirdly, and eventually most important, were those employed in the railway works. The works were opened in 1842 with a workshop for repairing engines. By 1855 1,200 men were employed in the station and the railway works, excluding footplate men. (fn. 5) In 1849 the average value of repairs to engines was £15,000 a year (fn. 6) and additional workships for repairs to, and the painting of, carriages had been started. The amalgamation of railway companies in 1854 brought an important expansion in the work done in York. From repairing, the works extended to building locomotives and tenders. In 1885 some engine repair work was transferred to Darlington, but at the same time the number of engines built at York increased, and the late 19th century witnessed the busiest period of the engine workshops. After 1900, however, the policy of the company was to concentrate engine-building and repairs in County Durham and the York works closed in 1905. (fn. 7)

Meanwhile the wagon and carriage works had become more important than the locomotive works. Both had been situated in Queen Street until the 1880's when the North Eastern Railway decided to concentrate more carriage construction in York. New works were therefore built in 1880-1 in Holgate, with further extensions in 1883, 1896, 1897, and 1899, until by 1910 they covered an area of 45 acres. Similarly the wagon works were extended in 1864 permitting a production of up to 100 wagons weekly, with a further extension in 1875 to cover an area of 16 acres. By the end of the 19th century the N.E.R. employed 5,500 workers in York, about half of whom were in the carriage works and about a third were skilled craftsmen. Virtually from their inception the railways became York's biggest single employer, introducing into the city for the first time the conditions of large-scale factory working.

The railways had other, less immediate effects. The position which the city enjoys as a route centre was enhanced as the speed and volume of traffic increased. The four or five stage coaches which had plied daily to London from York, carrying an estimated 23,000–24,000 persons a year, (fn. 8) had by the 1850's been replaced by 13 trains a day, carrying approximately 341,000 persons over the same route. (fn. 9) The station was a terminal for northern and southern bound traffic so that for many travellers it became convenient to stay overnight in York. Furthermore, the cheapness of railway travel, especially after the provision of the 'Parliamentary Train' in 1844 and the publicity gained by the competitive fare reductions made to enable sightseers to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851, meant that York experienced a boom in her tourist trade. This was noticed as early as 1841 (fn. 10) and was reflected in the large number of guide books to the city published during the 1850's.

Inevitably the advent of the railways meant the swift decline of coaching services. A directory for 1843 notes that these were already much reduced, some having disappeared entirely, others running only in the summer months. (fn. 11) As yet, services were still maintained from York to places which were not on the railway network, (fn. 12) but their days were already numbered. It could hardly have been otherwise, when the journey between York and Leeds, for example, which had taken three hours by coach in 1836, was reduced to less than an hour by rail by 1841, with a parallel reduction in fares. (fn. 13)

The Ouse Navigation was also affected, the more particularly because it was controlled by a corporation in which the interests of the York and North Midland Railway were so strongly represented. Nor, it must be remembered, did representation end with the discrediting of Hudson; it was reported in 1877, for example, that the navigation between Naburn and Selby had received no attention since 1837. That a corporation in which members had strong railway interests was unlikely to further enthusiastically the fortunes of a navigation competing with those interests was the theme of several witnesses before a Royal Commission in 1906. The strength of those interests was alleged to be the reason for the abandonment in 1859 of the greater part of the adjoining Foss Navigation which the corporation had purchased in 1853. (fn. 14)

The part played by railway interests in the conduct of the navigations was probably not as inimical as contemporaries thought. In the first place, Ouse Navigation did not come to grief. In 1836 the committee, faced with imminent railway competition, increased tolls to reduce their debt so that tolls could be again reduced when the railways came. (fn. 15) This was done, (fn. 16) but faced on the one hand with railway competition and the consequent need to reduce dues further, and on the other still faced with a considerable burden of existing debt, (fn. 17) the committee had a good enough reason to avoid heavy expenditure. Further, the corporation had resolved to abandon the Foss Navigation when the question of its purchase arose in 1852, that is, two years before the formation of the N.E.R. The gross receipts of this navigation between 1849 and 1852 had only averaged £57 a year, since coal, the chief article of traffic, could be supplied at Strensall and Flaxton stations for 1s. 6d. a ton less than they could be delivered at Sheriff Hutton Bridge. (fn. 18) The purchase had also been made to improve, successfully as it turned out, the drainage and sanitation of the Foss Islands area. But the trade a mile up the navigation was so paltry that there seems to have been good reason to abandon it above that limit. A suggestion made to the Royal Commission that George Leeman was furthering the interests of the N.E.R., of which he became chairman in the year the navigation was abandoned, is thus seen to be not entirely justified. (fn. 19)

The problem of finance (fn. 20) was at the root of the failure to improve Ouse Navigation until the dredging of the late 1870's and the 1880's. The capital works required were estimated in 1877 to cost £50,000. (fn. 21) In 1881 the committee felt it could do nothing without raising dues and thereby diverting traffic to the railways. (fn. 22) By 1887, however, with revenues which had risen steadily from £1,766 in 1882 to £2,470 in 1886 (fn. 23) and with stationary expenditure, it felt justified in borrowing £12,000 over 50 years, to pay for a new lock, especially if, as seemed likely, traffic were to increase as a result of the improvement. (fn. 24)

In one respect the railways had a curious effect on the navigation. At first there was a heavy fall in the coal traffic: whereas an average of 873 vessels carrying coal had arrived yearly in York between 1830 and 1838, the number had fallen to 203 by 1844. This, however, was the lowest point. By 1850, 528 vessels were coming up the river yearly 'due to the recent alterations made by the York and North Midland Railway by which the coal traffic on the river Ouse has been considerably augmented'. (fn. 25) This presumably relates to the coal trade that had sprung up late in 1844 from the railway's coal staith in York to London and various places on the coast of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. (fn. 26) The subsequent history of the navigation is uncertain because regular comparable returns are not available, but it was much affected by one class of traffic. Between 1888 and 1889 Messrs. Leetham & Sons, millers, came to an agreement with the corporation whereby they were to erect a large mill and silo, and to pay £200 a year in lieu of dues on the Foss and £600 in lieu of those on the Ouse. (fn. 27) By the end of the century traffic on the Ouse was rising rapidly. This was mainly due to the tonnage carried by Leetham's, but other traffic was also increasing until 1902–3 when it began to fall again. Coal accounts for about 71,000 tons a year of the other traffic, that is about 55 per cent., but it was traffic which was declining under railway competition. (fn. 28) An ominous sign for the future of the navigation, already observed in 1904, was the increasing use of 'motor traction' in carrying agricultural produce. (fn. 29)

The railways are thus seen to have had diverse effects upon direct employment and upon other forms of transport. But contemporaries had hoped that the reduction in coal prices which was expected to follow the coming of the railways would bring a significant expansion in York's industries. The price of coal was indeed reduced. During the 1830's it had been between 8s. and 10s. a ton; in the 1840's it was reported to be between 6s. and 9s.; in 1844 it was 6s. (fn. 30) There was, however, no significant change in York's industrial economy, with the exception of railway servicing, either in terms of the introduction of new industries, or in the rapid expansion of existing ones. In 1848 the principal manufactures were said to be flax-dressing and -spinning, comb-making, leather-currying, bone-crushing, glass-making, and glove- and mustard-making; there were also some chemical works, and coffee-roasting was still carried on to some extent. (fn. 31) This catalogue in no way suggests any transformation of the York economy from what it had been earlier in the 19th century, after nine years of the alleged advantages of cheaper coal. A comment made seven years later further emphasizes the continuity in the nature of that economy: 'The trade of York now principally arises from the supply of the inhabitants and the numerous opulent families in the neighbourhood.' (fn. 32)

In 1851 (fn. 33) the largest employer of labour was James Meek, a glass manufacturer and the lord mayor, who employed 212 workmen in glass-making, 11 in fire-brick-making, and 9 in his London warehouse. Confectionery provided the next largest firms with Joseph Terry of St. Helen's Square employing 127 workers, and Thomas Craven employing 63 men and 60 boys. In the metal trades John Walker, ironfounder, employed 52 men; Edwin Thompson, ironfounder, 39 men and 9 apprentices; William Knapton, iron and brass founder, 12 men and 6 apprentices. In comb-making, George Steward employed 30, E. Steward 18, and W. B. Land 3 men, respectively, and in linen manufacture William Hebden had 35 men, 7 boys, and 1 woman working for him.

A comparison between the occupational structure of the city in 1841 and 1851 (fn. 34) suggests no great industrial expansion. The biggest rates of increase were in chemicals, where the numbers employed rose from 76 to 144, and glass manufacture with an increase from 54 to 159. (fn. 35) Comparison is not possible in the metal trades. Linen manufacture and comb-making both appear to have declined, the former from 120 to 114 and the latter from 107 to 84. These comparisons, the only ones relevant to the possible effects of cheaper coal, suggest that only two industries were favourably affected but the numbers involved are still too small to be in any sense impressive.

Apart from glass and chemicals, two examples of individual firms to which the coming of the railways may very well have been important must be noted. The firm of John Walker, the ironfounder, was established about 1800. In 1850 he obtained the contract for supplying the impressive gates and railings for the British Museum, submitting tenders far below those of competitors from other and at first sight more favourably situated firms. (fn. 36) The explanation for the firm's success seems to be in the specialized nature of its product, since its local trade lay mainly in providing the gates, railings, and other ironwork needed by large landowners in the surrounding countryside. (fn. 37) From this local trade the firm had expanded and was appointed in 1847 'ironfounders and purveyors of smithy work to the Queen', (fn. 38) supplying ironwork for Sandringham; moreover it exported railings and gates to 'colonial and foreign governments'. (fn. 39) Iron gates and railings made in York were thus to be found in such unlikely places as the Botanical Gardens in Mauritius. To this firm the cheaper transport costs for iron and coal were doubtless important, but it had already been in existence for nearly 40 years before the railways reached York, and its success is probably due more to its specialization.

The second firm is that of Messrs. Joseph Terry & Co., which had been founded in the 18th century. (fn. 40) By 1840–1 the firm was already engaged in sending its products— seed- and fruit-cakes, 'African Bisquits', jujubes, candied citron, mint cakes, pickles, anchovies, acid drops, gumballs, Nelson Balls, 'pomfrit' cakes—to 75 towns all over the north of England, into the Midlands, and as far south as Luton and London. The quantities were all small, rarely exceeding a value of £10 with a maximum of £18. For the carriage of these goods the services of the common road carriers were preferred to the railway companies. In the 1850's, however, the firm began to expand rapidly, especially in the manufacture of peel, and the whole of the manufacture was transferred to larger premises at Clementhorpe in 1864. (fn. 41) With this expansion in output, the question of carriage would doubtless become more important as the size of consignments increased, and the position of York in the country's railway network may well have been a contributory factor to this development.

Precise comparison of the occupational structure between 1851 and 1901 is difficult. (fn. 42) It seems reasonably clear, however, that, with the exception of railway employment of all kinds, flour-milling, and the confectionery trades, no industry expanded sufficiently to influence the economy markedly. The total number of persons employed in chemicals, for example, rose from 144 to only 150 during these 50 years, in glass manufacture from 159 to 295. In printing no expansion took place until the 1880's: by 1891, 303 were employed compared with 117 in 1871. In iron manufacturing numbers rose from 241 to 262 between 1861 (fn. 43) and 1891 and then fell to 185 in 1901. Comb-making disappears as a separate classification after 1871, but was in decline between 1851 and that date, when the numbers employed fell from 84 to 72. According to Knight it finally came to an end during the 1890's. (fn. 44) In the leather trades, too, currying declined from 138 workers in 1851 to 58 in 1891, while linen manufacture died out altogether during the 1860's. Flour-milling did not become important until the 1860's when Leetham's roller flour mills were established on Wormald's Cut, an arm of the Foss. This mill was not long afterwards joined by two others, though on a smaller scale. The censuses do not adequately record the expansion of employment in milling. In 1891, 98 persons were returned as being engaged in corn-milling and, if this is a correct reflection of the labour employed by these enterprises, it suggests that they were not very important as employers of labour.

There is less doubt about the employment increasingly provided by the railways. Apart from the expansion of the ancillary trades which has already been mentioned, the number of those employed on the footplate or in railway maintenance and administration in York, including railway labourers, was 325 in 1851. By 1871 it had reached 671 and by 1891 1,548. At the opening of the 20th century the figure was 2,900.

It is not easy to trace from the censuses the precise changes in the numbers employed in the confectionery trades. Between 1851 and 1861 the numbers in the category 'confectionery' fell from 277 to 212, but had risen to 597 by 1891. In this year, however, 639 were recorded as being employed in the collective trades of 'grocer, tea, coffee, chocolate maker and dealer'; how many of those now thus separately recorded were included under the previous heading of 'confectionery' cannot be said. In 1901 a further change in classification took place. Under the heading of 'food' were returned 800 makers of jams, preserves, and sweets and 1,194 chocolate- and cocoa-makers. By this time, of course, the firms of Terry and Rowntree & Co. Ltd. had developed into large-scale concerns. Rowntrees, in particular, were expanding very quickly. In 1879 the firm employed 100 workers; by 1894 this figure had grown to 893 and 15 years later had become 4,066. (fn. 45) On a smaller scale there were the firms of M. A. Craven & Son, and the York Confectionery Company Ltd., the latter being founded during the 1870's and specializing in the manufacture of candied peel and mint rock. (fn. 46)

Table 7 Return of Workshops, 1871
Manufacture Number of establishments Horsepower employed Employees Average no. of employees per establishment Average horsepower per establishment
Textile fabrics 143 133a 519 3.6
Metal 41 17 153 3.7 0.4
Leather 26 4 169 6.5 0.15
Chemicals 11 22 76 7.0 2.0
Food 20 75 130 6.5 3.75
Building 114 105 859 7.5 0.89
Miscellaneous 128 59 611 4.7 0.4
a Sewing machines.

Thus, apart from the direct effects of railway employment, the York economy cannot be said to have experienced any major development until the expansion of the sweet and chocolate manufacturing industry and that not until the late 1880's. The railways, from which so much had been expected, had no revolutionary consequences: York remained a city of small enterprises. In 1871 the chief constable made a detailed return of all the premises subject to the provisions of the 1867 Workshops Regulation Act (fn. 47) (see Table 7). It is not a very impressive list, either in terms of average employment or of horsepower employed. Had cheaper coal been really important, the combined horsepower employed by the trades of York, excluding the railway works, would surely have been more than one would expect to find in a single large textile mill in Lancashire or the West Riding.

The cattle market apparently gained in importance as a result of the development of the railways. It was extended in 1855 and again in the 1890's and a special branch line was constructed to serve it during the 1870's. Otherwise the wholesale produce markets appear to have declined. The leather market had been closed for some years in 1855 and had moved to Leeds. (fn. 48) In 1842 the tenant of the cattle fair applied successfully to the corporation for a reduction of rent because of 'the very serious decline which has taken place in the business of the fairs'. (fn. 49) The weighage tolls received by the corporation on wool and hay sold in 1836 were valued at £140; two years later they fell to £130 and by 1847 to £30. (fn. 50) In 1861 the wool market was moved from Peaseholme Green to the cattle market. (fn. 51)

In sum, the change in the direction of migration observable in the York economy after 1841 is doubtless attributable mainly to the effects of the railways, but these were not what had been expected. Cheaper coal brought no spectacular developments in York's industries which, until nearly the end of the century, continued to be characterized by small-scale production. How far the emergence of Rowntrees from the ranks of York's small firms into the position of a major manufacturer was due to the railways is doubtful. The benefits of rail transport were there for 40 years without apparent effect. The firm's transformation seems to have been due more to individual enterprise in the introduction of techniques devised abroad, advertising, and the favourable circumstance of the rising real incomes which characterized the period 1873–96 in the British economy. (fn. 52)


  • 1. H.O. 107/1353/5.
  • 2. Ibid. 2353/5.
  • 3. For the greater part of the ensuing section on railway employment the author is indebted to B. F. Duckham, 'Econ. Development of York, 1830–1914' (Manchester Univ. M.A. thesis 1956), chap. 3.
  • 4. See pp. 480–1.
  • 5. Sheahan and Whellan, Hist. York and E.R. i. 625-6.
  • 6. British Transport Historical Records, York, Y.N.M. mins. 31 Oct. 1849.
  • 7. Ibid. mins. of Loco. and Stores Cttee. 4 Aug. 1904.
  • 8. York Herald, 21 May 1836.
  • 9. Ibid. 10 Jan. 1863.
  • 10. Ibid. 23 Oct. 1841.
  • 11. [Williams] York Dir. (Hull, 1843).
  • 12. In 1848, e.g., coaches still ran daily to Ripon (W.R.) and twice weekly to Helmsley (N.R.): Handbk. of York (Royal Agric. Soc., 1848).
  • 13. York Herald, 21 May 1836; B.T.H.R. (York), Y.N.M. mins. 16 Feb. 1841. The 3rd-class railway fare is compared with the fare charged to coach passengers who rode outside.
  • 14. 1st Rep. Com. Canals, Mins. of Evidence [Cd. 3184], pp. 321–50, H.C. (1906), xxxii.
  • 15. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 8 Feb. 1836.
  • 16. Ibid. 11 Nov. 1839.
  • 17. Ibid. 13 May 1839.
  • 18. Ibid. 5 Nov. 1852.
  • 19. 1st Rep. Com. Canals, Mins. of Evidence [Cd. 3184], p. 325.
  • 20. See p. 276.
  • 21. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 4 Apr. 1877.
  • 22. Ibid. 4 May 1881.
  • 23. Perhaps because traders turned to the cheaper river transport under the influence of the 'Great Depression'.
  • 24. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 14 Feb. 1887.
  • 25. Ibid. 10 Feb. 1851.
  • 26. Ibid. 9 Nov. 1844.
  • 27. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 11 June 1888; 2 Dec. 1889.
  • 28. 1st Rep. Com. Canals, Mins. of Evidence [Cd. 3184], p. 332.
  • 29. Ibid. 335.
  • 30. See pp. 261–2; 1st Rep. Com. Large Towns, App. [572], p. 97 (1844), xvii.
  • 31. Handbk. of York (Royal Agric. Soc. 1848).
  • 32. Sheahan and Whellan, Hist. York and E.R. i. 581.
  • 33. H.O. 107/2353/5.
  • 34. Occupational abstracts in the Census.
  • 35. There is an obvious discrepancy here between the abstract and the original returns.
  • 36. Works 17/2/1, 562–600.
  • 37. Design Bk. no. 1 of ironwork manufactured by Wm. Walker (John's son), in York Castle Museum, 365/41.
  • 38. Yorks. Gaz. 6 Mar. 1847.
  • 39. Design bk. no. 1 in York Castle Mus.
  • 40. See p. 225.
  • 41. York Herald, 19 Mar. 1910.
  • 42. Censuses 1851–1901; changes in age-groups and employment classification make a precise comparison impossible.
  • 43. There is no return for 1851.
  • 44. Hist. York, 718.
  • 45. The author is indebted to Mr. C. Charlesworth, Manager of the York Employment Exchange, for this information.
  • 46. Knight, Hist. York, 717.
  • 47. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 6 Feb. 1871.
  • 48. Sheahan and Whellan, Hist. York and E.R. i. 583.
  • 49. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 9 May 1842.
  • 50. Ibid. 12 Aug. 1861.
  • 51. Ibid. 14 Oct.
  • 52. See, e.g., Anne Vernon, A Quaker Business Man, for the life of Joseph Rowntree (1836–1925).