A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.
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Since 1900 the confectionery industries have become the largest single group in York's industrial life. At the 1901 Census they employed 1,994 persons. By 1911 this figure had risen to 3,737, (fn. 1) which was still much lower than the figure for railway employees. It was between the two world wars that really rapid expansion took place, mainly through the growth of Messrs. Rowntree's business. In 1923 this firm employed some 7,000 persons compared with 4,066 in 1909 and by 1936 the total number employed in the industry in York was about 10,000, (fn. 2) and had further increased to 12,274 in 1939. (fn. 3) It had thus grown to account for some 29.4 per cent. of York's insured working population compared with some 5.9 per cent. in 1901. Of these totals rather more than half were women and girls whose earnings thus played an important part in supplementing family incomes and in helping to raise families out of the conditions of poverty which were so widespread in York at the turn of the century. The second largest group, the railways, employed 5,529 persons in 1938. Thus although they maintained their level of employment, the railways became proportionately less important, falling from 16.3 per cent. to 13.2 per cent. of total employed population between 1901 and 1938. No important new industries employing large numbers were introduced into York between 1901 and 1939 and no other large expansion of existing industries took place. The British Sugar Corporation established a plant near the Ouse in Acomb in 1927, but its labour force was small and subject to seasonal fluctuations. (fn. 4) The printing industry increased its labour force from 322 in 1901 to 1,078 in 1939, but no other industry increased its employment figure significantly.
Beyond the range of manufacturing industries and the railways there were, however, some significant changes within the York economy. The numbers of people engaged in government services, both local and national, grew from 429 in 1901 to 1,966 in 1939, when they represented 4.7 per cent. of employed persons in the city, compared with 1.4 per cent. in 1901. Similar figures are not available for the distributive trades but there is little doubt that in York, as elsewhere, the number of persons employed in them rose over the period; (fn. 5) by 1939 there were 4,900, or 11.8 per cent. of the employed population, engaged in retail and wholesale distribution. In road transport services 1,336 persons were employed by 1931.
In 1907 a special committee of the corporation was formed 'to encourage the establishment of new industries and to foster the development of its existing commercial business'. (fn. 6) The committee believed that by their influence a tannery had been retained near the city instead of being removed, (fn. 7) but appears to have achieved little in establishing new industries. Otherwise retail distribution, for which the city had always been noted in the 19th century, gained in importance, and marketing, especially of animals, continued to flourish. Although there was a steady decline in the number of sheep sold, the period between 1934 and 1938 saw the trade in both cattle and pigs reach higher levels than at any time since 1900 (see Table 9).
The variety of York's trades and the growing predominance of the confectionery industry, the railways, distributive trades, and government service meant that the city suffered less from unemployment than the rest of the country between the wars. The first slump which followed the First World War brought corporate action in the form of executing public works, for which a government grant-in-aid was sought. (fn. 8) In 1932 York had 4,110 unemployed, compared with 2,078 two years earlier. (fn. 9) This was about 10 per cent. of the local labour force, which was serious enough, but it must be remembered that the national percentage in the same year was 22.1 of insured persons. Subsequently the numbers of persons wholly unemployed fell from 4,273 in 1933 to 2,575 in 1937 and rose again slightly in 1938 to 2,774. (fn. 10) Thus throughout the 1930's the level of unemployment in York remained at about one-half of the national level. An important contribution to the relief of unemployment was made, as will be seen, by large municipal slum clearance and housing estate projects.
The Corporation, 1900-39
In addition to the increasing volume of business arising from its existing administrative commitments and its assumption of responsibility for education in 1902 and poor law in 1930, the corporation had extensive trading departments. The progress of trade in the cattle markets has already been mentioned; the three main trading activities were the electricity undertaking, the Ouse and Foss Navigations and, after 1909, the tramways. The electricity undertaking from its establishment in 1900 expanded uninterruptedly, (fn. 11) and demanded consequential increases in capital expenditure. (fn. 12) At first it was not a financial success. Between 1900 and 1910 its net losses amounted to £3,058, and, as the corporation's auditor annually pointed out, no provision was being made for depreciation. By 1907 the finance committee reported that the affairs of the undertaking were a 'source of anxiety' (fn. 13) and in 1909 a rate had to be levied to allow the electricity committee to meet its obligations. With solvency achieved, the rapidly increasing revenue not only enabled the undertaking to pay its way but to show a profit and to reduce the price of the electricity it supplied. The profit was for a time, however, largely illusory, for in 1914 it was once again pointed out that the undertaking was still making no provision against depreciation and the practice had arisen of taking its profits in order to relieve the burden of the rates. (fn. 14) It was agreed that this practice should end and the undertaking was at last placed upon a sound financial footing. Only in 1918 and 1919 did it again make a loss, due to the inflated price of coal used at the Foss Islands power station. It was therefore resolved to build a hydro-electric station on the Ouse at Linton Lock which halved the consumption of coal and made possible the supply of a larger area. (fn. 15)
On the river, the First World War restricted traffic: the 355,982 tons carried in 1914 had by 1917 fallen to 184,692. (fn. 16) Increased dredging, the provision of landing stages to encourage local traffic, and pressure on the gas and electricity works to carry their coal on the river were recommended. By 1920 there was a small improvement in trade but the dues authorized by the relevant local Acts were felt to be insufficient and advantage was taken of the Ministry of Transport Act of 1919 to increase them. The financial problems of the navigation also raised again the question of the agreement with Leethams and this was only settled, after protracted controversy, in 1925. (fn. 17) The depression years of the 1930's saw a further fall in the tonnage carried and even in the best of these years, 1938, traffic on the river failed to recover its pre-1914 level. (fn. 18)
The municipal provision of transport services was never markedly successful. (fn. 19) The tramways were bought from the York Tramways Company in 1909 for £8,856. The problems presented by the narrowness of streets and by the walls, bars, and bridges involved high capital charges, but the revenue was very limited. (fn. 20) In the year that they were acquired the tramways were electrified at a cost of £89,741, while heavy additional costs were incurred for necessary street widenings. (fn. 21) In the early stages of the tramways' history the growing demand for transport services clearly outpaced the ability of the tramway system to supply the public's needs. In 1915 petrol omnibuses were introduced but because of the high capital cost of providing the service and the effects of the postwar price inflation, the buses had at first to be run at a loss. After 1923 the tramways and buses, and the railless cars introduced in 1919, just paid their way. (fn. 22) By the 1930's the total number of passengers carried was falling and a preference was being shown for buses. (fn. 23) Bus profits, moreover, were rising, while those from trams were falling. (fn. 24) Clearly it would soon be necessary to turn wholly to buses but the corporation was unwilling to face the heavy capital charges involved. The solution to this problem was found in a merger between the corporation transport department and the West Yorkshire Road Car Company and an agreement for the joint running of the transport services was reached in 1934. In the following year the joint committee resolved to supersede trams by buses. (fn. 25)
The greater part of the corporation's activities was of a non-trading nature. One of its most important concerns was with housing. With the exception of the Water Lanes clearance, little had been done to improve or clear the slums. In addition to the crowded courts and alleys and converted mansions in the centre of the city, there were 1,519 backto-back houses and the M.O.H. complained that many of the new houses being built were unsatisfactory, 'crudely built, bedrooms and even living rooms too small'. But at least they were suburban in situation, had concrete foundations, and were generally without privy middens. (fn. 26) Between 1898 and 1900 a small beginning had been made, nineteen houses having been condemned under Part II of the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act. (fn. 27) Parts I and II were, it was complained, 'in practice almost as awkward to work with as any legislation possibly could be'. (fn. 28) Compulsory powers over private builders were limited.
What was wanted, wrote the M.O.H. in 1902, was 'the building of really good, through, commodious dwellings in the suburbs for our best working class population— either by the corporation or by philanthropic agencies who would be content with a moderate return'. (fn. 29) In 1901 Joseph Rowntree purchased 123 acres of land in Huntington, later known as New Earswick, and within three years had built 30 new houses, let at 5s. a week. This was not 'a philanthropic enterprise' but 'a challenge to bad housing and bad building'. It showed that good, sanitary houses could be built within the means of men earning about 25s. a week and yet earn a return equivalent to the rate of interest at which local authorities could borrow from the Public Works Board. (fn. 30)
It is true that private Quaker enterprise was leading where the local authority should have quickly followed, both in the provision of entirely new houses and in providing, as it must do, additional houses to replace slum clearance. There were, however, difficulties. In the first place in York after 1901, as in the country generally after 1903, the rate of private house-building dropped rapidly, so that, with an increase of some 5,000 in the population of the county borough between 1901 and 1911, a shortage of houses developed between 1904 and 1914. This meant that slum demolition could plausibly be postponed because of pressure on accommodation. And the rise in the long-term rate of interest, which was partly the cause of the reduced rate of private house-building, discouraged local authorities from borrowing money for this purpose. (fn. 31) Rowntree's ideal had to be abandoned partly as a result of this difficulty. (fn. 32)
In the second place difficulties arose from the complexity of the 1890 Housing Act. Part II of this Act, under which action had already begun, related only to individual unhealthy or obstructive dwelling houses. Before demolition could take place, a cumbersome procedure, which might involve ten stages, was necessary. But the problem in York, as indeed elsewhere, was not so much that of single houses, but of whole areas. For these action lay under Part I of the Act, which was, with Part II, mandatory, or under Part III which was adoptive. Action under Part I involved the preparation of an improvement scheme in the same manner as the promotion of a parliamentary Bill, and opened up wide possibilities for confusion and litigation. Moreover it involved costly compulsory purchase. (fn. 33) The wider powers of Part III of the Act had not yet been adopted in York. In 1905 the M.O.H. recommended further action under Part II of the Act, but not under Part I which was 'too costly and . . . too complicated'. He also recommended the adoption of Part III to make possible the construction of 'sanitary flats of tenements of two to three rooms for those of the deserving poor . . . who can only afford 2s. to 4s. a week rent'. (fn. 34) He was still recommending the adoption of Part III in 1908 in order to deal with the Hungate district (fn. 35) and in the following year its adoption was enforced under the Housing, Town Planning, &c. Act. (fn. 36) The net result of housing legislation between 1890 and 1914 was that 30 houses were built in 1912 for tenants displaced as a result of the construction of the new street of Piccadilly, and a further 28 for tramway employees in 1914. Otherwise the corporation remained content to deal with individual houses under Part II of the 1890 Act, though between 1901 and 1914 only 136 houses had thus been demolished.
On the eve of the First World War, however, plans were being prepared to deal with the Walmgate area. (fn. 37) Action here, and the implementation of the decision taken in 1915 to purchase land at Tang Hall for the erection of working-class houses, had necessarily to be postponed during the course of the war. By 1919 the housing shortage, already serious in 1914, was estimated at 560 houses. In addition, the Walmgate proposals involved the demolition of 450 houses. (fn. 38) Later in the year it was estimated that the total needs were 1,250 houses, of which private building might supply 300. (fn. 39) A motion to cut the corporation's contribution down to 600 was defeated by a narrow margin. (fn. 40)
In May of the following year the corporation applied for sanction to borrow £200,000 and contracts for 185 houses were placed under the 1919 Housing Act, which provided for substantial government subsidies. This, then, marked the real beginning of municipal housing and with it the beginning of the attack upon the slums. The sharp rise in building costs in the years immediately following the First World War meant, of course, that even with government subsidies a heavy burden was thrown upon the financial resources of the corporation. (fn. 41) At Tang Hall 367 houses had been built by 1925 and work was begun on clearing five streets in the Walmgate area, involving 201 houses and 805 people. (fn. 42) Further land was bought for building in Heworth and in Holgate in 1927 and Burton Stone Lane in 1928 and by the end of this year there were 1,272 houses completed at Tang Hall, with another 210 in course of erection. In the same year 750 old houses, besides those in Walmgate, were being dealt with as unhealthy. (fn. 43) In 1930 plans were prepared to clear the Layerthorpe, Navigation Road, and Hungate areas, involving the displacement of 3,100 persons. (fn. 44) To house these people, in addition to 1,455 applicants still on the waiting list, it was planned to build 1,500 houses within the ensuing five years. (fn. 45) The remainder of the 1930's saw widespread slum clearance. Between 1919 and 1939 the demolition of 1,908 houses and the movement of 6,507 persons was approved. To accommodate these and other persons, 4,702 municipal houses were completed by December 1938. There still remained some 400–500 bad slum houses, with a further 3,000 'calling for early treatment', but, as Rowntree wrote in 1941, 'the progress made in 40 years is impressive and the council may well take pride in the work which has been accomplished'. (fn. 46)
Gradual but steady progress was achieved in the campaign to rid the city of its privy middens. These had fallen in number to 5,000 in 1903 and to 4,000 by 1910. (fn. 47) There were still 2,100 in 1919, for the work of replacement had been curtailed by the war, but the end was in sight by 1927 when only 40 remained. (fn. 48) To the improvement between 1900 and 1910 the M.O.H. attributed the 'great reduction of typhoid fever and summer diarrhoea'. There had, however, been other improvements which had, together with better sewerage and sanitation, helped to reduce mortality. The adoption of the Notification of Births Act, the employment of health visitors, the opening of York Maternity Hospital in 1908, and the operation of the 1905 Midwives Act had been important in helping to reduce infant mortality; the M.O.H., however, gave the chief credit to the York Health and Housing Reform Association and its first health visitor. (fn. 49) There was also increased supervision of cowsheds and milk shops and an extension of food inspection and the supervision of shops selling foodstuffs. A further important development had been the medical supervision of elementary school children, the education committee in 1908 being one of the first in the country to appoint a full-time school medical inspector. (fn. 50) During the same decade the death-rate continued to fall steadily, reaching an average of 14.9 per mille. But in infant mortality the improvements brought a spectacular reduction: from the alarmingly high level of the 1890's it dropped to 126 per mille and for the first time was below the rate for the country generally. (fn. 51)
Greater progress in public health might have been made by the corporation if their draft for the improvement Act of 1902 had been accepted. Powers to widen streets and to compel builders to install water closets were deleted as the result of a ratepayers' meeting. (fn. 52) Furthermore, other powers were refused by Parliament: powers to regulate the height of buildings; to compel property owners to fit a water-supply and sanitation; to penalize smoke pollution; to authorize hydraulic drain tests; to widen the notification of disease; and to prosecute the original vendor of diseased food. (fn. 53)
The deterioration of housing in York during the First World War doubtless partly promoted a decline in the general health of the city, though it was also noted that the war had brought 'a general slackening of material interest' in public health matters. (fn. 54) In 1920 the death-rate of 12.7 per mille, though lower than the average for the period 1901–10, was higher than the average of 12.5 for 96 large towns in the country. (fn. 55) There was improvement in 1921 and 1922, but again in 1925 and 1927 York was generally less healthy than the average British city and this retrogression had now extended also to infant mortality. (fn. 56) By the end of the 1920's, however, and during the thirties public health in York again improved so that the city's infant mortality and death-rates bore favourable comparison with those in the country at large and in other large towns. This was helped by the improvement in the city's housing.
Between 1901 and 1931 the population of York increased from 77,914 to 84,813, making no allowance for the overspill of population immediately beyond the area of the county borough. There was, however, a decrease in the numbers of children between the ages of 5 and 19. (fn. 57) Thus, pressure on the city's schools slackened during the 20th century and, as might be expected, little extra provision was made. In 1938 there were 12 municipally provided elementary schools. One had been built in 1928 and another in 1938, but the remainder were all built between 1891 and 1916. These together provided places for 7,600 pupils. Another 4,781 places were provided in 20 voluntary schools— 15 Church of England, 4 Roman Catholic and 1 nonconformist; with one exception, a school built in 1932, all of these had been built in the 19th century. Secondary education was catered for municipally by Queen Anne's (1910), Nunthorpe (1921), and Mill Mount (1921) schools. In addition, Archbishop Holgate's had become largely supported by the city. (fn. 58)
But while there was no urgent need for extra places, many of the city's elementary schools were housed in old buildings. Although none was deemed wholly inadequate by the Board of Education, several, especially of the voluntary schools, were 'sadly in need of rebuilding' and by 1938 two were under threat of having their grants withdrawn by the Board unless they were considerably improved. (fn. 59) Most then lacked 'the conveniences now considered necessary for health and physical development'. Plans for three new schools were, however, in preparation. (fn. 60)
To pay for these many services the structure of city finance was much changed in the 20th century. (fn. 61) Between 1900 and 1914 the corporation found itself levying rates which were annually the subject of alarmed comment by the chairman of the finance committee. Not only was current expenditure high but the city's debt was also rising. In 1901 the net debt of the city was £542,792 and it required no great feat of memory to look back to 1885 when it had been a mere £160,000. By 1910 it had increased to £750,129 and the outbreak of the First World War saw it at the unprecedented level of £843,852. To some extent government grants mitigated these charges. That this assistance was, however, deemed inadequate is clear from the remarks made by the chairman of the finance committee, Sir Joseph Rymer, in 1910. As far as educational expenses were concerned he announced that 'unless we can induce the Imperial Government to come to our assistance . . . we are certainly paying for work which they ought to do or pay for'. (fn. 62)
Rising prices and the increasing range of commitments left the corporation with no alternative but to increase the rates levied and, since income even then failed to yield a sufficient surplus for capital expenditure, additional funds had to be raised by borrowing. The constant theme of Sir Joseph Rymer's annual reviews between 1900 and 1913 was that the rates were too high. But he also often showed that York's rate was the lowest in any Yorkshire county borough. As has been seen the ratepayers curtailed the scope of the draft of the 1902 Act; (fn. 63) in 1913 they refused to sanction a proposal to purchase the gasworks; (fn. 64) and in the same year the York Traders' Association opposed the expenditure of £8,000 on gardens on Knavesmire. (fn. 65)
During the First World War the corporation, faced with sharply rising costs for all the work it undertook, and with increased rates of interest, resorted to the somewhat irregular practice of spending money from the sinking funds accumulated to repay existing debts. (fn. 66) But the war meant a necessary curtailment of the corporation's range of activities especially in work calling for capital expenditure. Corporate indebtedness, which was £843,852 in 1914, was still only £863,098 in 1917–18, and, in spite of rising prices, rates remained steady. Indeed, when account is taken of price changes, the real burden of the ratepayers was lower in 1919 than it had ever been since 1899.
Inevitably, after four years of generally restricted expenditure, there would have been a sharp rise in the city rates after 1918. To this, however, were added the effects of a further rapid rise in the general price level. Moreover the rateable value of the city had increased so little that heavy extra current expenditure could only be met by higher rates, and by 1921 the rate was more than double its 1914 level. Capital expenditure was also rising rapidly; not least the city was faced with the urgent need for building houses. Corporate indebtedness had reached £915,532 by 1921 and it was estimated that during the following year a further £495,018 would be spent, of which £281,431 would be on housing. The end of the war, therefore, witnessed marked changes in local government finance in York. Not only had the rate risen sharply but the increase brought no outraged petitions from the ratepayers. First, no one was disposed to contest the reasons for the increase. Secondly, when price changes are taken into account, the increase in the real burden of the rates was by no means so severe as the monetary increase, and indeed in 1922 was still lower than it had been in 1914. In fact, only once between 1919 and 1939 did the real burden of the rates reach the levels of 1904–5. Government grants-inaid now assumed an unprecedented magnitude. Probably the most important contribution was to housing and the needs of the city were substantially met by the statutory subsidies.
From their peak of 1921 the rates in York fell on the whole during the remainder of the twenties and thirties partly as a result of government grants and partly as the result of a re-rating of the city in 1928 under the Rating and Valuation Act of 1925. The result of this was to increase the city's rateable value from £441,800 to £579,044, and the product of a penny rate from £1,760 to £2,200. (fn. 67)