Modern York: Politics, 1835-1901

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: Politics, 1835-1901', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) pp. 289-293. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

Politics, 1835–1901 (fn. 1)

As has been seen, the reformed corporation, initially whig, was quickly transformed into a tory body as the result of George Hudson's activities. From 1837 until his downfall the York tory party dominated the corporation and was dominated in turn by Hudson. An account of the methods by which Hudson maintained his own and his party's position was given by the Yorkshireman in 1847. In Micklegate ward it noted the 'despotic' manner in which the railway interest was used to support Hudson's candidates. In Castlegate ward it was alleged that 'scarcely a voter presented himself on [the tory candidates'] behalf but was bribed or menaced into compliance'. In Monk ward, 'the very heart of the Railway King's influence', the tory candidates 'for a week kept open house . . . while money, in bribes flew about so plentifully and so openly that the Union Bank had opened its coffers' and some voters were threatened that they would lose their employment or be deprived of patronage in their shops. That the York and North Midland ought to have 'a fair share of influence' in the corporation was conceded by the Yorkshireman, but that interest, even before the election 'possessed more than its fair share . . . it had its chairman and deputy chairman; shareholders in abundance, its solicitors and official agents and by the present contest it had added its resident engineer and its bank'. (fn. 2) The end of the Hudsonian period in York's life was, however, fast approaching. In 1849 he was publicly exposed for various irregularities of conduct in railway business (see plate facing p. 274) and in November of that year his portrait was removed from the Mansion House. (fn. 3) Already, before this personal catastrophe, there had been ominous signs that his political empire in York was decaying. At the municipal elections of 1848 the liberals gained three places, defeating 'two of the most unscrupulous partisans of Mr. Hudson' in the process. (fn. 4) In the year of his exposure, Bootham ward also fell, (fn. 5) and by November 1850 the liberals had regained control of the corporation. (fn. 6) By 1853 there were 33 liberals to 15 tories on the corporation (fn. 7) and by 1857 36 to 12. (fn. 8) The railway continued to have an important influence in the affairs of the corporation but in place of Hudson there now arose George Leeman. The liberals enjoyed an unbroken period of control over York Corporation until 1894. Elections were generally fought as party contests until the 1880's. Thus in 1877 it was commented 'as the selection of candidates is here made to depend on political considerations, there was . . . almost as much interest displayed as is the case with a parliamentary struggle'. (fn. 9) In 1884, however, a local matter was the main issue in the municipal elections, as a result of the revelation of the 'undesirable muddle' in the corporation accounts prior to the audit. (fn. 10) As the dominant party in the corporation since 1850, the liberals might have been expected to suffer defeat, but the conservatives had been 'badly led and . . . from the first offered to the inquiry a steady and hardly concealed opposition' while the liberals had been 'unanimous in their support' for it. The liberal control of the corporation therefore continued unbroken. During the late 1880's, however, a change began to appear. The developments in national politics which substantially deprived the liberals of power from 1886 to 1905 were in part reflected locally. The year 1887 was the last in the 19th century in which the conservatives so described themselves. Already in 1885 it had been observed that one candidate for the council had described himself as 'independent . . . though there can be little doubt as to which side he would ally himself with'. (fn. 11) In 1887 the composition of the council was 34 liberals to 14 conservatives of whom one 'though holding conservative views on Imperial policy, decided not to identify himself with either party, believing that in municipal affairs . . . there should be neither liberals nor conservatives'. (fn. 12) In the following year the municipal election was characterized by the greater consideration given to local matters and the introduction of less political controversy than had marked recent contents; the Gladstonians asserted that 'the deep blue of conservatism was clearly apparent through the independent veil'. (fn. 13) In the following year 20 'independents' faced 28 liberals in the council chamber and in 1890 the corresponding strengths were 22 against 26. In 1891 the total liberal majority on the council had fallen to two, but their councillors were in a minority of two. The liberals fought to maintain their supremacy and to defeat an attempt to break up the Gladstonian majority and 'substitute for it a body pledged to serve the ratepayers independently of party considerations'. (fn. 14)

This then was the new shape of local government in York, with the liberals sharing in the eclipse of their party at a higher level and the conservatives and liberal unionists making common cause as independents who proclaimed the needs of municipality above party. By 1893 the liberals and independents were equal in number and in the following year the independents were in a majority, with 25 members as opposed to 22 liberals and 1 labour councillor. Thus the end of liberal control coincided with the emergence of a new party, represented by James Desmond O'Connor of Walmgate ward who was elected with the support of the independent labour party and the Irish. The Irish National League band paraded the streets in honour of his victory. (fn. 15) The liberals continued to fight 'under party colours', (fn. 16) but by 1897 had fallen to 18 members on the council as against 30 'independents'. The disappearance of party controversy and the speedy settlement of problems were welcomed by the Yorkshire Herald in 1899. (fn. 17)

The newly composed corporation did not show any signs of rapid progress. With the exception of the new electricity undertaking, the corporation's main items of expenditure after 1894 were for commitments incurred during the period of liberal domination and, indeed, the outlay on the sewerage scheme was halted. (fn. 18) Only if 'progress' be equated with those rate reductions so earnestly desired by the ratepayers could the 'independent' controlled corporation be described as progressive in the late 1890's.

Unlike control of the corporation, the city's parliamentary representation was not marked by long periods of party domination. For the greater part of the period after the Reform Bill until 1900 the city's two members were drawn from both parties. As might be expected, both were whigs in 1832, but between 1835 and 1847 Hudson's tory nominee, J. H. Lowther, shared the city's representation until he fell from Hudson's favour and was replaced by J. G. Smyth who was returned unopposed by agreement between Hudson and the liberals. (fn. 19) The revulsion against the tory party in local politics apparent in the late 1840's did not extend to parliamentary elections. In 1852 both members were conservative, one being the erstwhile Hudsonian, Smyth. Nor did memories of Hudson's reign deter the electors of York from returning another member of the Lowther family in 1865, 1868, and 1874. In 1885 and 1886 York returned 2 liberal members, thus solidly supporting Gladstone. In 1886, however, while the successful liberal candidates obtained 4,816 and 4,810 votes each, J. C. Dundas, standing as a liberal unionist, polled 4,295; and it was the internal dissension within the liberal party over matters of national policy which broke the party's hold over the corporation. Until 1895 the liberals returned one member, but on his death in 1898 Lord Charles Beresford defeated the liberal candidate, so that the city's representation returned wholly to the conservative party, with whom it remained until 1906.

The 1890's saw the emergence of the labour party—the first effective appearance in the city of candidates representing directly those two-thirds of its population who had hitherto been governed exclusively by the representatives of the remaining minority. York had rarely been disturbed by working-class militancy. Indeed on several occasions the quiescence of the working class had been a subject for gratified comment. In 1821, for example, the Herald congratulated its readers on the 'well-regulated, peaceable aspect which this city uniformly wears, so entirely free from those alarms and that severe distress which pervade other parts of the country'. (fn. 20) Similar views were advanced in 1841 (fn. 21) and one of the arguments against the removal of the assizes from York in 1855 was that it was 'sufficiently remote from the manufacturing and more populous districts to prevent the administration of justice being impeded in times of great popular excitement'. (fn. 22)

There had, it is true, been rumblings in York in the 1840's. In July 1839, at a chartist meeting held in York and addressed by Dr. Taylor, Bussey, and Feargus O'Connor, no more than 300 or 400 signatures were obtained in favour of the People's Charter from an audience estimated at 5,000. (fn. 23) Later in the year the Herald jeered at the failure of the local chartists to secure popular observance of the 'sacred month'. (fn. 24) Distress and poverty were increasing in the city. A meeting in 1841 to raise money for the relief of the poor was repeated in 1842; and, symptomatic of the depression in local trade, the Yorkshire Agricultural Bank stopped payment. (fn. 25) Added to rising poverty and unemployment, there were the particular grievances of 'the poorer classes of freemen who were unable to express themselves as they would wish, but who considered . . . that fairness and justice had not yet been done to them in the administration of the strays'. (fn. 26)

Early in the 1840's there were signs of growing discontent. In 1841 the journeymen joiners struck against an attempt to increase the hours of Saturday working from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. in summer-time, (fn. 27) and chartism received considerable publicity in the city with the release of Feargus O'Connor from York castle in the same year. (fn. 28) This was the occasion for a chartist assembly and demonstration, but no participation by York people is mentioned. Probably as a result of the O'Connor demonstration, a lead was taken by a Mr. Cordukes, a member of the joiners' trade union, in promoting chartism in York. In November 1841 O'Connor and Cordukes addressed a meeting which appointed the former as delegate for the forthcoming chartist convention in London (fn. 29) and a week later a number of chartists opposed the sending of an address congratulating the queen on the birth of an heir apparent. (fn. 30) In 1842 sermons were preached in the Chartist Association Room in Straker's Passage, Fossgate, (fn. 31) lectures were given by visiting chartists, (fn. 32) and a remonstrance sent to the queen on the prevalence of distress in the country; (fn. 33) but between 1842 and 1846 chartism was overshadowed by the activities of the Anti-Corn Law League. On two occasions the York chartists attempted to obtain the election of their candidates. The first was in 1847 when a Mr. Hopwood 'an avowed chartist' stood unsuccessfully in the municipal elections. In the following year, on the death of H. G. R. Yorke, the liberal parliamentary member, the vacant seat was contested by Henry Vincent, the chartist leader, standing as a liberal. Unlike Nottingham, where O'Connor was elected, York rejected Vincent who polled 880 votes compared with 1,505 by Milner, the successful conservative candidate. Looking back on this episode, Thomas Rooke, the Sheffield chartist, wrote: 'after that election the chartist agitation gradually died down to nothing.' (fn. 34)

The failure of chartism in a city without industry is not surprising. Nor during the remainder of the 19th century did changes in the city's economy provide more favourable conditions for similar movements. The railway workers were the most politically conscious section of York's working class, but were not organized in a united trade union. As it was, the 5,500 men employed by the N.E.R. in York in 1901 were regulated by wage agreements for each particular trade or occupation. (fn. 35) York's other major industry in the late 19th century, the manufacture of confectionery, had 'no combination amongst the workers, either in York or elsewhere'. (fn. 36) In 1899 there were only 2,539 ascertained trade unionists in the whole city—3.3 per cent. of the population, compared with 4.4 per cent. over the whole country. The largest union in the city was the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants with 480 members. Three other unions had more than 200 members but the remaining 20 or so were very small. (fn. 37)

The bulk of York's trade unionists were members of unions affiliated to the York Trades Council, formed in 1890 and consisting in 1899 of 18 affiliated societies representing nearly 2,000 members. (fn. 38) The Trades Council brought a measure of coherence into the structure of trade unionism in the city, and it was also one of the main forces behind the rise of labour representation. Its activities included 'labour demonstrations, [and] running labour candidates at municipal school board and board of guardians elections'. (fn. 39) In addition, there were the independent labour party, a branch of which was operating in 1894, only a year after the party's formation, and the co-operative movement which, in 1899 'decided to obtain representation on the council' (fn. 40) and supported two candidates who were defeated. In 1900 W. H. Shaw was returned as the cooperative candidate for Micklegate ward, 'at last securing a direct representation of the society, of trades unionism and of the working classes generally on the city council'. (fn. 41) Shaw, however, as has been seen, was not the first labour councillor and to some extent the co-operative society was a dissident element in York working-class politics, refusing in 1903 to affiliate with the York Labour Representation Committee. (fn. 42)

In terms of direct representation the working classes therefore achieved little during the 1890's, only O'Connor and Shaw being at different times returned. Yet their interests were being voiced in other ways within the corporate body. Thus, in 1887, two liberal councillors opposed the contribution of £250 towards the Jubilee entertainments in terms which left no doubt as to the alignment of their political interests: '[the council should not] drag by compulsion public money from the poorer ratepayers towards . . . entertainments which would obviously be exclusively for the élite of the city.' (fn. 43) The resolution was defeated by 38 votes to 2. In 1895, after a request from the York Independent Labour Party, eight councillors successfully introduced a motion to oppose an application to Parliament for extra powers by the York Waterworks Company. (fn. 44) Later in the same year a motion inspired by the Trades Council was introduced to fix minimum wage rates for corporation employees and to prevent 'the use of material wrought outside the City and [to obtain] a consequent reduction in the number of bona fide citizens unemployed'. (fn. 45)


  • 1. Unless otherwise stated the ensuing section is drawn generally from the political reports in the York newspapers.
  • 2. Yorkshireman, 6 Nov. 1847.
  • 3. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 9 Nov. 1849; it was later restored.
  • 4. Yorkshireman, 4 Nov. 1848.
  • 5. Ibid. 3 Nov. 1849.
  • 6. Ibid. 2 Nov. 1850.
  • 7. Ibid. 22 Oct. 1853.
  • 8. Ibid. 8 Nov. 1857.
  • 9. York Herald, 2 Nov. 1877; see also 3 Nov. 1878.
  • 10. Ibid. 1 Nov. 1884; see p. 277.
  • 11. York Herald, 3 Nov. 1885.
  • 12. Ibid. 2 Nov. 1887.
  • 13. Ibid. 2 Nov. 1888.
  • 14. Yorks. Herald, 3 Nov. 1891.
  • 15. Ibid. 2 Nov. 1894.
  • 16. Ibid. 2 Nov. 1898.
  • 17. Ibid. 2 Nov. 1899.
  • 18. See p. 285.
  • 19. See Lambert, The Railway King, 1800-71, 213.
  • 20. York Herald, 6 Jan. 1821.
  • 21. Ibid. 16 Jan. 1841.
  • 22. H.O. 45/6205.
  • 23. York Herald, 6 July 1839.
  • 24. York Herald, 17 Aug. 1839.
  • 25. Ibid. 24 Dec. 1842.
  • 26. Ibid. 1 Dec. 1838.
  • 27. York Herald, 3 Apr. 1841.
  • 28. Ibid. 4 Sept. 1841.
  • 29. Ibid. 13 Nov. 1841.
  • 30. Ibid. 21 Nov. 1841.
  • 31. Ibid. 16 July 1842.
  • 32. Ibid. 23 July 1842.
  • 33. Ibid. 9 July 1842.
  • 34. York Pub. Libr., MS. letters from Rooke to Rich. Hawkins, pp. 15–16.
  • 35. Rowntree, Poverty (1901), 11.
  • 36. Ibid. 350.
  • 37. Ibid. 410–15.
  • 38. Ibid. 350.
  • 39. Ibid. 350–1.
  • 40. Briggs, Jubilee Hist. York Equit. Ind. Soc. Ltd. 130.
  • 41. Ibid. 129.
  • 42. Ibid. 170.
  • 43. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 6 June 1887.
  • 44. Ibid. 31 Jan. and 14 Feb. 1895.
  • 45. Ibid. 7 Oct. 1895.