Modern York: Politics and social life, 1900-38

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

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.

'Modern York: Politics and social life, 1900-38', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) pp. 300-302. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

In this section

Politics, 1900–38

The emergence of the Labour Party into York politics during the 1890's was followed by no spectacular triumphs, either in local or parliamentary elections. By 1906 there were 31 'independents', 13 'progressives', and 4 'labour' members of the council, the labels of 'independent' and 'progressive' being now freely interchangeable in the local press for conservative and liberal. By 1910, however, labour representation on the council had fallen to one member compared with 24 conservatives, 13 liberals, and 3 'independents' whose type of independency is not clear. When in the following year the Labour Party gained two seats, the Herald commented that 'considering the number of workers in the city, it cannot be said that they were adequately represented by one councillor, and three representatives of labour are not an undue proportion'. (fn. 1) In 1913 the balance of the corporation was still in favour of the Conservative Party, but labour representation had increased to five.

The main change in the political composition of the council following the First World War was that the Liberal Party ceased to be numerically important. The council continued to be dominated by the Conservative Party, but the place of the Liberal Party in opposition was eventually taken by the Labour Party. When, in November 1926, the number of labour councillors increased from 6 to 8, compared with 20 conservatives in the majority party, the Herald saw this as a 'sinister fact'. (fn. 2) There need have been no alarm, however. The largest number of labour representatives on the council was 15 in 1934; labour control was not achieved until 1945.

As might be expected in the light of municipal politics within the period, the city remained a conservative stronghold, only in 1906 and 1910 was the parliamentary representation of the city shared by the Liberal and Conservative Parties during the liberal revival. Similarly, the Labour Party moved into second place at the polls after 1922, the city now being represented by only one member, and in 1929 succeeded in returning a Member for the City; after 1931 the seat was recaptured by the Conservative Party. In 1924, 1931, and 1937 the Liberal Party failed to contest the seat.

Thus, with a brief exception, the Labour Party failed to make any noticeable impact in York's political representation either in local or national government during the 20th century, or to fill the gap in the city's political life which had been made by the decline of the Liberal Party which during the 19th century had been such an important force in the city's political life. In spite of its class structure, of the growth of trade unionism, and of the existence of the large body of railwaymen, York in the 20th century remained politically conservative.

Social Life, 1900–38 (fn. 3)

For the two-thirds of York's population whom Rowntree recognized as 'working class', the 20th century brought marked improvements in material well-being. Whereas 7,230 persons or 15.6 per cent. of the city's working-class population were, in 1899, living in conditions of 'primary poverty'—that is where family earnings were insufficient to obtain the minimum necessities for maintaining physical efficiency—in 1936 this proportion had been reduced to 6.8 per cent. or 3,767 persons. It was still the case in 1936 that some 31.1 per cent. of York's working-class population lived in 'poverty', but the standard then used by Rowntree was so different from that which he had used in 1899 that comparison is impossible. Nevertheless the economic condition of the workers was, as Rowntree said, 'immensely better'.

In this York followed the rest of the country, and like other towns it mitigated poverty and misfortune by the action of its co-operative society, the trade unions, and the friendly societies. Whereas the city's population increased by some 33 per cent. between 1901 and 1938, membership of the York Co-operative Society rose from 7,250 in 1900 to 22,820 in 1940. The society's share capital in 1900 was £59,887, an average of £8.26 per member; by 1940 it had grown to £525,905, an average of £23 per member. Death benefits were paid to members in proportion to their purchases, amounting sometimes to between £20 and £30. Whereas in York in 1899 there were only 2,539 trade unionists, none of whom was a woman, at the end of 1938 there were 17,824 including 3,970 women. The difference between the two years is mainly accounted for by the unionization of workers in the cocoa trade. At Messrs. Rowntree's works, although no compulsion was exercised, workers were exhorted to join the appropriate unions. The 34 trade unions in York in 1938 also paid a variety of benefits as did the 16 registered friendly societies. The friendly societies had in 1938 a membership of 22,682, including 5,377 junior members under the age of sixteen. By far the largest was the National Deposit Friendly Society with 9,665 members. In addition, there were 'sick clubs' with a membership of approximately 14,000. The combined membership of these societies and clubs was nearly four times as great in 1938 as it had been in 1899.

With improved housing, greater security, reduced hours of work, and rising real incomes, the demand for recreation increased. Borrowings from the public library rose sharply between the wars, reflecting also the improvement in the general standard of education within the city. The resources of the libraries were supplemented by the use after 1932 of privately owned libraries charging 2d. a week for books borrowed and, in 1938, boasting an annual circulation of 370,000 books a year or about one-half that of the public library. There was a marked increase in sporting activities: by 1938 there were 48 Association football clubs, 17 Rugby football clubs, and 61 cricket, 18 tennis, and 15 hockey clubs; of the 51 bowling clubs 25 were associated with working men's clubs. The theatre, although in difficulties from competition with the cinemas, was revived in 1934 as a non-profit-making communal venture, offering weekly repertory performances at prices comparable to those charged by the cinemas. While recreational facilities such as these improved, the number of licensed premises fell, even though the population rose sharply during the same period. It was Rowntree's opinion that the average workingclass expenditure on drink had fallen from 16.6 per cent. of income in 1900 to about 10 per cent. in 1936.


  • 1. Yorks. Herald, 3 Nov. 1911.
  • 2. Ibid. 6 Nov. 1926.
  • 3. The following section is compiled from a comparison of Rowntree's 2 surveys; the social life of the 20th cent. is displayed in great detail in the second of these.