Modern York: Local government, 1835-1902

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: Local government, 1835-1902', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) pp. 275-281. British History Online [accessed 1 March 2024]

Local Government, 1835–1902

The reformed corporation of 1836 differed from its predecessor in many important respects. First, its members were now elected by £10 householders at large, thus helping to sharpen the role of party politics in its deliberations. Secondly there were several important functional changes. The judicial duties of the aldermen were vested in a separate Commissioner of the Peace and the charities handed over to a new body of trustees. The appointment of pasture-masters and wardens of the strays was now made by those freemen having rights of pasture. (fn. 1) The corporation continued to be responsible for the markets, city property, and the Ouse Navigation, and now bore the expenses of the police force. With the detachment of The Ainsty, the expense of the gaol and the house of correction fell entirely on the city.

The remainder of the 19th century witnessed a gradual but impressive extension of the functions exercised by the corporation. In 1850 it voted to apply to York the provisions of the 1848 Public Health Act. (fn. 2) As a result the local board of health committee was appointed, and took over the functions previously exercised by the improvement commissioners. (fn. 3) This committee continued in existence until, under the 1872 Public Health Act, the corporation was constituted an urban sanitary authority, and a medical officer of health was appointed. (fn. 4) In 1875 the arrangement whereby the fire brigade was provided by the Yorkshire Insurance Company was ended, with a further increase in corporate responsibility. (fn. 5) Twelve years later the corporation at last adopted the provisions of the Public Libraries Act of 1855, as a gesture of municipal benevolence commemorating Queen Victoria's jubilee. (fn. 6) A school board was formed in 1889, and in 1891 the corporation assumed responsibility for the creation of a technical school and took over the York School of Art; (fn. 7) in 1902 it became responsible for all education.

In the field of public utilities, the provision of gas and water supplies remained in the hands of private companies, notwithstanding repeated resolutions and motions that they ought properly to be publicly controlled. In 1897, however, the tenders of private companies for supplying electricity were rejected and the corporation itself undertook the supply. (fn. 8) In 1900 the corporation tried to take over the privately-owned tramways company formed during the 1870's, (fn. 9) but the proposal was rejected by a vote of the ratepayers in the following year (fn. 10) and was not revived successfully until 1908.

This extension of functions ensured that the new corporation like the old was much concerned with finance. At the outset, as has been seen, there was a heavy legacy of debt from the old corporation, (fn. 11) and the added expense of the prison and of the police establishment. With total estimated expenses of £5,190 set against a permanent income of £3,600, it was not surprising that the corporation needed to levy a 2d. rate three or four times a year (fn. 12) and that its deliberations during its early life should be heavily weighted by considerations of economy. In these circumstances it is hardly fair to criticize Hudson's role as 'an unsparing advocate of public parsimony'. (fn. 13) To this needful end, the finance committee were instructed that there was to be no expenditure of more than £50 without the council's approval (fn. 14) and the economies noted above were made. (fn. 15) Instead of the police force recommended to them, which would have cost between £1,300–£1,400 a year, (fn. 16) the watch committee appointed one costing £633. (fn. 17) Property valued at £20,595 was sold to repay bonds though this meant a sacrifice of some £700 in income from rents. (fn. 18) Even the state bed was sold by auction for £37 (fn. 19) and in 1840 the estate at Carlton Miniott (N.R.) for £8,000. (fn. 20) A revaluation of the rateable value of property in the city was made in 1846. (fn. 21) When necessary that rate could be increased, as in 1848 when a 3d. rate was levied to meet 'costs incurred by the reason of the disturbances which took place at the late city election and the subsequent chartist meetings'. (fn. 22) In fact, the greater part of the additional expenses on this occasion was for extra constables engaged for the meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society in York. (fn. 23)

With the assumption of powers under the 1848 Public Health Act, however, the problem of finance was raised afresh. The local board of health was saddled with a debt of £7,600 transferred from its predecessors, the improvement commissioners, and was obliged to increase the rate by 1d. to pay off the debt (fn. 24) without contributing anything to those improvements which were so urgently needed in the city's amenities. (fn. 25) In 1852 corporation property was sold for £3,965 (fn. 26) —partly to pay off old debts and partly to meet the cost of improvement in Jubbergate, towards which, in addition, £6,000 was borrowed. (fn. 27) Between 1856 and 1867 the local board of health spent £93,971 on sewerage, street improvement, flagging and paving, scavenging, lighting, salaries, and interest upon debt, and received £88,555 in income over the same period. In 1867 its debt stood at £11,658 compared with £6,243 in 1856. (fn. 28) At times, as in 1863, the committee found itself unable to set anything aside to reduce existing debts, as legally it was required to do, and had therefore to borrow from banks. (fn. 29) An attempt was made in 1868 to increase the rate by 2d. but this was whittled down by the council to 1d. (fn. 30) Whatever the condition of the city, the rates, and therefore expenditure upon improvement, must be kept down. Almost at the end of the board of health committee's career it was resolved to apply to the local government board for permission to borrow £20,000, to be repaid over 50 years, in order to liquidate existing debts and to provide for further improvements. (fn. 31) Before the application was made, however, the board of health was constituted the urban sanitary authority, which began its life, as had so many York bodies, by inheriting the debts of its predecessor.

The board of health was not the corporation's only financial problem. In 1868 there was a debt of £6,025 on the separate drainage and sanitary improvement account, (fn. 32) for the repayment of which the receipts of the navigation tonnage dues were being appropriated—a fact which helps further to explain the lack of improvement in the navigation. A sum of £1,350 was owing on the Spurriergate, Jubbergate, and Feasegate improvement account; £6,250 for improvements to the cattle market; £1,110 on the Ouse Navigation account; and £31,375 towards the cost of Lendal Bridge. There was still £3,712 owing to the trustees who had taken over the management of local charities from the corporation in 1835. Thus, altogether, in 1868 the corporation owed more than £60,000.

To avoid these mounting debts a higher rate was essential but it would have fallen mainly on householders, for York, as was later pointed out, (fn. 33) lacked substantial industrial or commercial premises to contribute to the funds. Inevitably, however, the provision of facilities and services and the need to reduce the toll of life arising from the unhealthiness of the city meant that the rates had to increase. Thus, in 1875, faced with the provision of a fire brigade and expecting that the introduction of the Rivers Pollution Bill would involve 'a large expenditure in the purification of the sewage of the city or its diversion from the river', the corporation increased the urban sanitary rate to 1s. 8d. (fn. 34) For the Water Lanes improvement scheme £30,000 was borrowed in 1877, (fn. 35) although the scheme had been drastically curtailed. (fn. 36) The building of Skeldergate Bridge, opened in 1881, involved the borrowing of a further £35,000, but by 1879 this had been overspent by £10,000 which, with the further sum needed to complete the bridge, necessitated the borrowing of an additional £15,000. (fn. 37) Further street improvements meant that £20,000 had to be borrowed in 1880 (fn. 38) and an additional £11,314 in the following year for improvements to the public baths, the provision of public walks, and road improvements. (fn. 39)

Meanwhile, the expansion of corporate activity and expenditure had clearly outgrown its administrative ability. In 1884 the audit committee stressed the importance of efficient management of the finances; most of the accounts should have been kept by the city surveyor, but in practice the book-keeping devolved upon his clerks. (fn. 40) An examination of the accounts by an outside auditor, made against the wishes of the officials, disclosed 'irregularities' and 'many errors in the accounts of the various committees'. (fn. 41) Reform followed but could, of course, do little to check the rising tide of expenditure. By 1886, the combined corporation rates had reached 3s. 5d. in the pound, (fn. 42) by 1893, 4s. 4d.; (fn. 43) in 1894, when vestry meetings and the ratepayers' association were protesting about the increasing burden, a further 6d. was added. (fn. 44)

It was not merely the absolute increase which caused indignation, but the inequality of the burdens imposed upon the parishes. The quota contributed by each parish 'was determined by the rateable value of the parish without allowance for empty property. The parish overseers were not directed to levy a rate of a certain amount in the pound, but to collect a specific sum.' Thus, in 1891 thirteen different rates were being levied in the city, ranging from 4s. in Dringhouses to 5s. 6d. in the parish of St. George. (fn. 45) Further protests were received in 1896 against the continued increase in rates—the ratepayers of St. Michael's, Spurriergate, demanded no more outlay of capital, called for the abandonment of the proposed electric lighting scheme, and condemned excessive expenditure by the school board. From another parish came allegations of 'reckless extravagance' by the school board and dark references to 'the salaries of already overpaid officials'. In St. Lawrence's the electric light was regarded as 'a most uncalled-for and expensive undertaking'. (fn. 46) Alarmed perhaps by these and other protests, but not enough to make it abandon the electric lighting project, the corporation succeeded in reducing the rates by 1s. between 1897 and 1900.

The sharp increase in rates during the last decade of the 19th century had, however, been the product of heavy capital expenditure. An acceleration in street improvements, new courts, police and fire brigade stations, and the Red Tower Playground cost £89,784 in 1890. (fn. 47) The new sewerage scheme to end the discharge of sewage into the rivers was estimated to cost £101,100. (fn. 48) Further street improvements and the purchase of the York Institute and the Fine Art Institution added nearly £24,000 in 1891. (fn. 49) Another £111,500 was borrowed in 1893 (fn. 50) and £100,591 was raised on 3 per cent. stock in 1894 for a loan to the school board, and for sewerage and street improvement; expenditure on the sewerage scheme alone had reached £165,728 by December 1894—equivalent to an 8.47d. rate, if repaid over 40 years. (fn. 51) Another loan to the school board of £12,066 for Park Grove School followed in 1895. (fn. 52)

The bulk of this expenditure was upon sewerage and street improvement. Less than £20,000 had been lent to the school board as capital and the electricity scheme was initially estimated to cost only £20,000. (fn. 53) In a city where in 1887 on average 283 children per mille died in their first year and where, in the Walmgate district, infant mortality was 337.6 per mille, (fn. 54) it might reasonably be argued that the increase in rates in the 1890's was inevitable. Nevertheless it was paltry in relation to the needs of the population. But even this increase was clearly more than the ratepayers were prepared, as yet, to sustain.

Between 1825 and 1850 the improvement commissioners had been faced with similar problems of insolvency. By 1837 they were in debt by more than £2,000 and found it necessary to appoint a finance committee to adjust their affairs. (fn. 55) The cholera epidemic of that year had underlined the need for better drainage. Between 1825 and 1844 the commissioners had constructed 6,000 yards of drains at a cost of £2,000. (fn. 56) Although this and the calling in of a mortgage (fn. 57) worsened their position, it was nevertheless pointed out that the regard for economy had 'materially lessened the utility' of what had been done. (fn. 58) The commissioners' financial position further deteriorated during the remainder of their existence so that, as has been seen, they were in debt for £7,600 by 1850. (fn. 59)

The financial problems of the improvement commissioners did not, however, lead to apathy. The commissioners kept a close watch on the activities of and charges made by the private gas and water companies. In 1828, for example, they reduced gas charges for street lighting by threatening to light the city with oil lamps; (fn. 60) and in 1845 they attempted, though unsuccessfully, to place the supply of water under public control. (fn. 61) Moreover it was they who took the initiative in the purchase of the Foss Navigation. (fn. 62) In 1847, on the suggestion of George Leeman, (fn. 63) they appointed a sanitary committee to enforce the provision of the Act of 1846 for the removal of nuisances. (fn. 64) They were also quick to petition for the local application of the 1848 Public Health Act, (fn. 65) though they did, apparently, foresee that this would wind up their activities. They had in 1847 passed a resolution that the proposed clauses in the Towns Improvement Bill, which would transfer their powers to the corporation, were undesirable, (fn. 66) and in 1850, on the eve of their demise, were still passing resolutions that they 'should constitute the local board of health'. (fn. 67) Thus, after 25 years, the improvement commissioners disappeared from local government—the first step in the local centralization of powers. That there had been little improvement between 1825 and 1850 was due to the inadequacy of the commissioners' statutory powers. Faced with the same financial stringency it is doubtful if any other body could have achieved more.

The third local government body in the city was created by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The York Poor Law Union so instituted was an area of 103 square miles embracing the 32 city parishes, 7 parishes in the West Riding, 16 in the East Riding, and 25 in the North Riding. In the Union 32 urban were opposed to 48 rural parishes, a division which was to be important in the determination of policy in the board of guardians to which each parish elected representatives. The order forming the Union was not delivered until June 1837 and its impending arrival was the subject of both warnings that the new arrangement would increase the rates (fn. 68) and a petition that the provisions of the Act were 'dangerous and unconstitutional'. (fn. 69) When this petition was rejected by Edwin Chadwick, the Herald recommended its readers to follow the example of Sheffield where it had been resolved not to elect any guardians. (fn. 70)

Eager to condemn with scant trial, the Herald wrote in October that one week had been sufficient to exhibit the law's 'harsh and revolting features' and pictured the 'smiling infant clinging to the neck of its sorrowing and widowed mother waiting at the behest of the board'. (fn. 71) With the local press playing upon the emotions of its readers in this fashion, it is hardly surprising that the York Poor Law Union's early years were difficult and its relations with the local assistant commissioner and the central poor law commissioners marred by ill will and obstruction. The local assistant commissioner wrote to London in 1840 that 'York Union has given more resistance to the introduction of the amended system than the whole of the other unions in the East and North Ridings combined'. (fn. 72) A later assistant commissioner wrote in 1852 'from my first connexion with the York Union I found the guardians as a body extremely difficult to control—highly sensitive on points where the interference of the Central Board was necessary to restrain them, influenced by the press, . . . and in their capacity as administrators of relief, prone to act on those morbid views of humanity which, repudiating the workhouse test, extend outdoor relief to the idle and profligate able-bodied of both sexes (particularly women with bastard children) to the encouragement of immorality and the increase of the burdens of the ratepayers'. (fn. 73)

The chief points at issue were the provision of a new workhouse and the application of the workhouse test as a condition of granting relief. The guardians had taken over the old Marygate workhouse which was only capable of holding 90 paupers and was limited to this number by order of the commissioners. (fn. 74) As such, it was incapable of accommodating the paupers eligible for relief—estimated by the Herald, though probably with some exaggeration, at about 2,000 in 1837. (fn. 75) The old workhouse was grossly insanitary. The courtyard was 'a permanent reservoir of foul air' and the privies 'without exception in an offensive state' with an open cesspool in the girls' yard. The premises generally were unventilated and overcrowded. Most of the inmates were 'children, the aged and infirm and persons of weak mind'; many, if not all, were diseased and children associated 'in the infectious wards with adults labouring under syphilis and gonorrhea'. It was to be feared that 'the association of the insane and idiotic men and women with young females and children of both sexes has a prejudicial effect on the minds of the latter'. The paupers were said often to tease the idiots 'as a pastime'. (fn. 76)

Copies of this report were sent to the York guardians. They did not ignore them but the measures they took (fn. 77) were condemned as wholly inadequate by the commissioners, who wished to see a new workhouse built. (fn. 78) The guardians rejected the proposal (fn. 79) and there the matter rested until September 1847 when the guardians resolved to build a new workhouse to hold 300 paupers. The reason for this change of attitude, though not specified, seems to have been a serious aggravation of the problem of destitution in the city as a result of the Irish invasion of the 1840's. In spite of requests to do so, the commissioners refused to increase the numbers allowed into the workhouse. There was therefore a considerable increase in the payment of out-relief which, it was felt, would have been reduced had the guardians been able to apply the workhouse test. (fn. 80)

One of the main arguments previously advanced by the guardians against the new workhouse was that it would allow the introduction by the commissioners of the order prohibiting out-relief, (fn. 81) and this was regarded as harsh upon the paupers. Under the influence of 'pecuniary loss', however, the committee began to see that its operation had been beneficial elsewhere and 'that the independent control of the guardians would not be materially prejudiced'. (fn. 82)

There was, however, a further important reason why it took so long to obtain a new workhouse from the guardians. The York board was, as has been seen, so constituted that the rural outnumbered the urban guardians and it was the former who, whenever possible, outvoted the latter on any proposal for improvement. Thus, in May 1845, the chairman reported that at a discussion to consider the erection of a new workhouse 'as usual we were defeated by all the country guardians mustering up and voting against it'. (fn. 83) The report of that year, already cited, was made in an attempt to convince the country guardians. When typhus was raging in York amongst the starving Irish in 1847, the York guardians resolved to erect a temporary fever hospital; the guardian for Gate Helmsley wrote to the commissioners objecting that it would only benefit the city parishes. (fn. 84) Again, after the cholera visitation of 1848, the York guardians sought to give gratuities totalling £73 to 4 doctors 'for services during the cholera'. All the country guardians voted against the proposal and all the city guardians in favour, violent speeches being made on behalf of the former party. (fn. 85)

When, in 1852, the prohibitory order was finally applied to the York Union, the assistant commissioner wrote that for the long period when the matter had been under consideration it had been supported by only about a third of the members. The opposi tion had been composed principally of the country guardians, who had seldom attended the board for any other purpose than that of opposing the workhouse question. As has been seen, the objections were overcome in 1847; the assistant commissioner was 'aided at last by a powerful reinforcement from the influential Quaker party in the city'. (fn. 86) The new workhouse was doubtless not a pleasant abode for the poor—incontinent lunatic paupers in 1860 lay on boards covered with a coating of loose coconut fibre, (fn. 87) and there were no baths; but at least the horrors of the old workhouse had finally been removed. The country guardians continued to obstruct. On a proposal to put a bathroom into the workhouse in 1861, the Gate Helmsley guardian, who was still leading the opposition, asserted that 'a good wash was all that was necessary'. (fn. 88)

With the passing of the 1872 Public Health Act, the country guardians also became the York rural sanitary authority. The city guardians continued simply as members of the York Union since, in the city, the urban sanitary authority took over the functions of the local board of health and was therefore in effect the corporation. The problem of the interests of town versus country continued, as will be seen, (fn. 89) to be important in York but was now transferred mainly to the sphere of public health.


  • 1. See p. 504.
  • 2. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 6 Mar. 1850.
  • 3. Ibid. 29 July 1850.
  • 4. Ibid. 5 May 1873.
  • 5. Ibid. 1 Feb. and 24 June 1875.
  • 6. Ibid. 31 Jan. 1887.
  • 7. Ibid. 21 July 1891.
  • 8. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 25 Oct. 1897.
  • 9. Ibid. 2 July 1900.
  • 10. Ibid. 9 Dec. 1901.
  • 11. See p. 264.
  • 12. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 12 Nov. 1838.
  • 13. Lambert, The Railway King, 1800–71, 42.
  • 14. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 21 Mar. 1836.
  • 15. See p. 264.
  • 16. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 11 Oct. 1836.
  • 17. Ibid. 9 Nov. 1836; and see p. 466.
  • 18. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 13 Feb. 1837.
  • 19. Ibid. 12 Jan. 1838.
  • 20. Ibid. 10 Nov. 1840 and 8 Feb. 1841.
  • 21. Ibid. 9 Nov. 1846.
  • 22. Ibid. 7 Aug. 1848.
  • 23. Ibid. Watch Cttee. rep.
  • 24. Ibid. 12 Aug. 1850.
  • 25. See pp. 281 sqq.
  • 26. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 10 May 1852.
  • 27. Ibid. 10 June 1852.
  • 28. Ibid. 6 July 1868.
  • 29. Ibid. 4 Aug. 1863.
  • 30. Ibid. 6 July 1868.
  • 31. Ibid. 5 Aug. 1872.
  • 32. To meet costs under the 1853 Improvement Act.
  • 33. See below.
  • 34. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 2 Aug. 1875.
  • 35. Ibid. 3 Dec. 1877.
  • 36. Ibid. 6 Dec. 1876 and 10 Jan. 1877.
  • 37. Ibid. 3 Dec. 1879.
  • 38. Ibid. 1 Dec. 1880.
  • 39. Ibid. 28 Dec. 1881.
  • 40. Ibid. 7 Apr. 1884.
  • 41. Ibid. 15 Sept. 1884.
  • 42. Ibid. 16 Apr. 1886.
  • 43. Ibid. 15 May 1893.
  • 44. Ibid. 21 May 1894.
  • 45. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 27 Apr. 1891.
  • 46. Ibid. 4 May 1896.
  • 47. Ibid. 12 Feb. 1890.
  • 48. Ibid. 3 June 1889.
  • 49. Ibid. 4 Sept. 1891.
  • 50. Ibid. 4 Dec. 1893.
  • 51. Ibid. 6 Dec. 1894.
  • 52. Ibid. 4 Mar. 1895.
  • 53. Ibid. 25 Oct. 1897.
  • 54. York Corp. M.O.H. Rep. 1887-8, 25.
  • 55. York Corp. Rec., Mins. Improvement Comm. ii, 3 Oct. 1837.
  • 56. T. Laycock, Rep. on the State of York (Health of Towns Comm. 1844), 221.
  • 57. York Corp. Rec., Mins. Imp. Comm. ii, 3 Aug. 1844.
  • 58. Laycock, Rep. on State of York (1844), 221; see p. 464.
  • 59. See p. 276.
  • 60. See p. 461.
  • 61. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 10 Nov. 1845; Mins. Imp. Comm. ii, 20 May 1845; 4 Mar. 1846.
  • 62. Ibid., Mins. Imp. Comm. ii, 2 Sept. 1845.
  • 63. Yorkshireman, 13 Nov. 1847.
  • 64. 9 and 10 Vic., c. 96; York Corp. Rec., Mins. Imp. Comm. ii, 16 Nov. 1847.
  • 65. York Corp. Rec., Mins. Imp. Comm. ii, 21 Nov. 1848.
  • 66. Ibid. 27 Apr. 1847.
  • 67. Ibid. 5 Mar. 1850.
  • 68. York Herald, 13 May 1837.
  • 69. Ibid. 27 May 1837.
  • 70. Ibid. 17 June 1837.
  • 71. Ibid. 7 Oct. 1837.
  • 72. M.H. 12/14396, letter dated 1 June 1840.
  • 73. Ibid. 14402, letter dated 30 Jan. 1852.
  • 74. Ibid. 14397, letter dated 13 Jan. 1842; the commissioners had no power to compel the York guardians to build a new one.
  • 75. York Herald, 7 Oct. 1837.
  • 76. M.H. 12/14399, letter dated 14 July 1845.
  • 77. Ibid., copy of guardians' resolution dated 2 Sept. 1845.
  • 78. Ibid., letters dated 17 and 18 Sept. 1845.
  • 79. Ibid., letter dated 3 Nov. 1845.
  • 80. Ibid. 14400, letter dated 6 Sept. 1847.
  • 81. Ibid. 14399, letters dated 13 Oct. and 3 Nov. 1845.
  • 82. Ibid. 14400, letter dated 6 Sept. 1847.
  • 83. Ibid. 14398, letter dated 16 May 1845.
  • 84. Ibid. 14400, letter dated 24 Feb. 1847.
  • 85. Ibid. 14401, letter dated 29 Sept. 1849.
  • 86. Ibid. 14402, letter dated 30 Jan. 1852.
  • 87. Ibid. 14406, letter dated 21 Apr. 1860.
  • 88. Ibid., extract from Yorks. Gaz. report of 11 May 1861.
  • 89. See p. 285.