Modern York: Social life, 1835-1900

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: Social life, 1835-1900', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P M Tillott( London, 1961), British History Online [accessed 21 July 2024].

'Modern York: Social life, 1835-1900', in A History of the County of York: the City of York. Edited by P M Tillott( London, 1961), British History Online, accessed July 21, 2024,

"Modern York: Social life, 1835-1900". A History of the County of York: the City of York. Ed. P M Tillott(London, 1961), , British History Online. Web. 21 July 2024.

Social Life, 1835–1900

In 1859 the poor-law guardians proposed to build new offices in Museum Street. The proposal was immediately the subject of protests from the members of the Yorkshire Club, the corporation, and the physicians and surgeons of the County Hospital. The members of the club protested that the offices would be close to the theatre, the De Grey Rooms, the York Subscription Library, the rooms of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, houses in Museum Street occupied by prosperous families and the club itself. The poor population of York, they said, lived in another part of the city. (fn. 1) The lord mayor's petition was on similar lines and the recorder, in a personal letter to the poor law board, added that 'the bulk of the poor and industrious classes of York are in the neighbourhood of Walmgate, Fossgate, Peaseholme Green and the Water Lanes'. (fn. 2) The doctors warned the board that the congregating poor might spread diseases. (fn. 3) Thus, in mid-19th-century York, the rich man in his castle preferred not to have the poor man at his gate. How far this exclusive attitude changed by the end of the 19th century is not recorded, but Rowntree's investigation of poverty in the city shows that with the exception of the Water Lanes, which had been cleared, the poor congregated in 1901 where they had in 1859. To these areas within the walls had been added further districts characterized by the existence of chronic poverty, such as The Groves and parts of the Nunnery Lane and Leeman Road districts. In the intra-mural slums, as represented by Walmgate, 69.3 per cent. were living in poverty; outside the walls 37 per cent. (fn. 4)

The 19th century in York thus saw the development of clearly marked areas. At the bottom of the social scale were tightly packed districts like Walmgate whose population had been swollen by the Irish, whose numbers, though falling, continued to be considerable at the end of the century: 'of those who remain many find work as general labourers while some of the women pick up a more or less precarious livelihood by working in the fields outside the city. . . . On summer evenings it is a common sight to see the women in the Irish quarter sitting on the kerbstone outside their cottages smoking their pipes.' (fn. 5) In these areas in 1901 lived mainly people who formed part of the 20,302 persons living in conditions defined by Rowntree as primary or secondary poverty and who formed 27.8 per cent. of the city's population. Elsewhere, in the newer working-class districts such as The Groves, there was a substantial proportion of simi larly defined poor inhabiting the long rows of back-to-back houses. But in these areas they were mixed with some of the 26,452 persons whom Rowntree regarded as 'working classes above the poverty line'. (fn. 6) These persons lived either in the same sort of back-toback house or in the rows of working-class houses among the best of which were those of the well-to-do artisans with their bow windows, little railed-in front gardens, and small backyards.

While the Irish immigrants had helped to swell the ranks of the really poor, the skilled railway workers and clerks who formed the other main class of immigrants became the backbone of this class of prosperous artisans. They lived not only alongside the poorer classes in The Groves and Clementhorpe, but in their own colonies near the railway works, out along the Holgate and Acomb Roads. Thus, for example, in 1851, Oxford and Cambridge Streets, Rosary Terrace, and Providence Place off the Holgate Road were heavily settled by railway workers. In some of these households there were lodgers and a servant was kept; in some drivers' houses there was a servant even though no lodgers helped to augment the family income. (fn. 7) It was for this section of the working classes that the York Equitable Industrial Society (later the Co-operative Society) catered from its foundation in 1859; its sales in 1861 alternated in successive weeks between £145, £97, £133 and £82, these alternations 'being due to the fortnightly pay at the railways works', (fn. 8) and its first suburban branch was opened in Holgate Road in 1889.

Beyond the social level of the prosperous artisans were the members of the class distinguished by Rowntree as 'servant-keeping' who, in 1901, numbered 21,830. As in 1859, members of this class continued to live apart from the poor and the working classes. With the growing congestion of the centre of the city they tended to move out along the Tadcaster Road—along Blossom Street to The Mount and Dringhouses— or northwards towards Clifton. The Rowntrees themselves moved in this way, for they went first to Blossom Street and then, early in the 20th century, to Clifton Lodge after it had been vacated by the Parker family. (fn. 9) Politically and in terms of local government it was from this class that the rulers of York were drawn. Working-class representation on the city council, as will be seen, made little headway during the 19th century. Indeed, as late as 1913, it was possible for the York Traders' Association to succeed in preventing a working-class alderman from becoming lord mayor on the grounds of 'his biased opinions . . . and because of his financial inability to maintain the traditions and office of the ancient city as befits the position of chief magistrate'. (fn. 10) The physical separation of rich and poor on the one hand, and the concentration of local power in the hands of the former on the other, contributed to that lack of progress in improving public health that has already been described.

The poor and the very poor, men and women too, did little but drink in the public houses which abounded in the centre of the town. Along Walmgate, between Fossgate and Walmgate Bar, a distance of about 500 yards, there were in 1901 20 public houses, 4 off-licence shops, and a club. (fn. 11) The farther away one went from such areas of chronic poverty and dense population, the less provision there was for drinking not only in districts inhabited by the middle classes, but in working-class districts as well. (fn. 12) Rowntree found that in 1901 many members of the more prosperous sections of the working class still attended public houses, professional football matches, and race meetings but the business of football clubs, trade unions, and friendly societies was beginning to be transacted in rooms in coffee houses and elsewhere rather than in public-house parlours. (fn. 13) Activity in the trade unions, the friendly societies, in the temperance movement, (fn. 14) in co-operation and in chapel affairs were increasingly important for the 'more thoughtful' of the prosperous artisans and were helping to change and diversify working-class life. Some artisans were also observed to be taking holidays at the seaside, a habit encouraged particularly in York by the travel privileges enjoyed by railway employees. (fn. 15) The York Institute, formerly the Mechanics' Institute, opened new premises in 1884. Football and rugby were rising in popularity, the York and District League being formed in 1897 and the York and District Football Association in 1900. Swimming baths were municipally provided during the 1870's. Bowling and cycling clubs, too, began to increase in number during the 1890's. (fn. 16)

That the members of the more prosperous sections of York's working-class population were, 'in consequence of the limited education they receive' narrow in 'intellectual outlook' was a matter of regret to Rowntree. (fn. 17) Interest in knowledge was 'as yet largely utilitarian'. To this the imperfect application until 1889 of the 1870 Education Act had contributed, though the lack of schooling was a problem of long standing. In 1826 it had been found, from an investigation inspired by the Quakers, that the percentage of children attending no school whatever in York was 12.3 between the ages of 12 and 14, 31.56 from 10 to 12, and 24.31 from 6 to 10. A similar investigation held in 1843 under the chairmanship of another Quaker, Samuel Tuke, found that among 'the labouring classes', 17.04 per cent. of children between 6 and 10, and 25.4 per cent. of those between 10 and 12 went to no school, and that 15.12 per cent. of the children between 12 and 14 could not read. The percentage of children who went to no day school but nevertheless attended Sunday school increased from 37.28 in 1826 to 55.83 in 1843. There had been, as was pointed out, a 'gratifying' increase in school attendance 'though there is still room for further exertions'. (fn. 18) The improvement between 1826 and 1843 had come as the result of the founding of 2 British, 1 Methodist, and 4 National or Church schools. (fn. 19) In 1837 there had been 5 National schools in the city, (fn. 20) and by 1850 these Anglican schools had an average daily attendance of more than 800; (fn. 21) by 1865 the number of pupils was 1,746 or 38 per cent. of those in elementary schools. This percentage, in spite of York's position as the Anglican centre for the north, was lower than in Sheffield (56 per cent.) or Halifax (61 per cent.). (fn. 22) By 1870 there were 29 elementary schools in York—16 National or Church schools, 4 Roman Catholic, 8 nonconformist, and 1 dame school. (fn. 23) In the following year the total number of elementary schools in the city was 32, accommodating 5,471 children, and 4 more were being erected. (fn. 24) The school board was formed in 1889, when it was said that the lack of free choice of schools in York, and the number which were of low grade, unhealthy, or charging high fees, made it an 'educational misfortune for a child to be born in York'. (fn. 25) Between 1889 and 1902 the board, in the face of stout opposition from the ratepayers, (fn. 26) added 6 new schools and modernized 15 Church schools. These, with the remaining Roman Catholic and nonconformist schools, provided for some 12,000 elementary pupils. (fn. 27) Even after 1889, when children were staying longer at school, few received any formal education after the age of 14. Yet there was beginning to be some improvement with the establishment of evening continuation classes by the school board and the adoption in 1887 of the Public Libraries Act of 1855.

For those of the 'servant-keeping class', a wider range of pursuits was open. The York Subscription Library, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, and the York Archaeological Society catered for those with intellectual inclinations. Natural history societies were founded: the York Naturalists Club in 1849, surviving until 1896, the York Entomological Society in 1862, and in 1874 the York and District Field Naturalists Society, which was amalgamated with the St. Thomas's Field Naturalists Scientific Society in 1884. The York Musical Society continued to hold concerts. None competed in size or splendour with the series of festivals held in the 1820's and 1830's, though Jenny Lind sang in the Festival Concert Rooms in 1848 and 1856, and a Musical Festival was also held in 1856. The last of these, however, was 'on a much smaller scale than its great predecessors' and yielded a profit of only £30. (fn. 28) From time to time celebrities visited the city. Thackeray lectured, Dickens read A Christmas Carol, and the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher lectured on 'The Reign of the Common People'. The Theatre Royal was altered and reconstructed in 1875 and 1880. In 1859 there was established the annual York Gala—a horticultural show with added attractions such as regimental bands, swings, roundabouts, balloon ascents, and firework displays. (fn. 29)

Although York never regained that position as a centre for fashionable society which she had enjoyed during the 18th century, the city was not entirely deserted by the resident or visiting aristocracy. The former continued to be represented by such families as the Parkers at Clifton Lodge, (fn. 30) even though large numbers had deserted the city and their houses had rapidly become slum property. (fn. 31) For the visitors there was the Yorkshire Club established in 1839 and originating from the Yorkshire Union Hunt Club. (fn. 32) The York Races resumed something of their former attractiveness for the gentry, (fn. 33) and in 1858 the shape of the course was changed and brick booths replaced tents for visitors. (fn. 34)


  • 1. Ibid. 14405, petition dated 3 Oct. 1859.
  • 2. Ibid. 17 Oct. 1859.
  • 3. Ibid. 3 Oct. 1859.
  • 4. B. S. Rowntree, Poverty, A Study of Town Life (4th edn., 1901), 199, 202.
  • 5. Ibid. 10.
  • 6. Ibid. 117.
  • 7. H.O. 107/2353/5.
  • 8. G. Briggs, Jubilee Hist. York Equit. Ind. Soc. Ltd. (Manch. 1909), 32.
  • 9. Vernon, Life of Joseph Rowntree, 158.
  • 10. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 13 Oct. 1913.
  • 11. Rowntree, Poverty (1901), map facing p. 308.
  • 12. Ibid. 308–9.
  • 13. Ibid. 75–76, 310.
  • 14. The York Temperance Soc. was founded in 1836.
  • 15. Rowntree, Poverty (1901), 77.
  • 16. Knight, Hist. York, 722.
  • 17. Poverty (1901), 75.
  • 18. York Herald, 23 Dec. 1843.
  • 19. See pp. 440–60.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Rep. York Nat. Schs. (York, 1850) (in York Pub. Libr.).
  • 22. Schools Inq. Com. [3966–viii], vol. ix, p. 340, H.C. (1867–8), xxviii (8).
  • 23. Morrell, How York Governs Itself, 62.
  • 24. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 6 Feb. 1871.
  • 25. Morrell, How York Governs Itself, 63–64.
  • 26. See p. 277.
  • 27. Morell, How York Governs Itself, 64.
  • 28. Knight, Hist. York, 683.
  • 29. Ibid. passim.
  • 30. See Lady Ethel Thompson, Clifton Lodge, for an acct. of society in York during the late 19th cent.
  • 31. See p. 287.
  • 32. Fairfax Blakeborough, Northern Turf Hist. 122.
  • 33. See V.C.H. Yorks. ii. 508.
  • 34. Benson, Hist. York, iii. 153.