Modern York: The City after 1939

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: The City after 1939', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P M Tillott( London, 1961), British History Online [accessed 16 July 2024].

'Modern York: The City after 1939', in A History of the County of York: the City of York. Edited by P M Tillott( London, 1961), British History Online, accessed July 16, 2024,

"Modern York: The City after 1939". A History of the County of York: the City of York. Ed. P M Tillott(London, 1961), , British History Online. Web. 16 July 2024.

The City after 1939

The Second World War halted work on slum clearance and house-building in the city, and a number of corporation projects were shelved. One such scheme was for new municipal offices to house scattered corporation departments; foundations had already been laid in the castle precincts by 1939, but work was not resumed after the war. (fn. 1) Widespread damage to property was caused during enemy attacks on the city; about 9,500 houses were destroyed or damaged (fn. 2) and 87 people killed. Most of the damage was done during the 'Baedeker' raid of April 1942, when the Guildhall and St. Martin's Church, Coney Street, were burnt out, and the New Railway Station was badly damaged. (fn. 3) During the war, some established industrial firms were, of course, used for war production, but with the exception of the repair of damaged aircraft at Clifton Aerodrome, (fn. 4) no new activity was introduced into the city for war purposes. One firm to make an important contribution was Messrs. Cooke, Troughton & Simms, the precision instrument makers, whose new factory was built in 1939. (fn. 5)

The increase in the city's population to 105,000 in 1951 (fn. 6) and the cessation of building during the war together created a pressing post-war housing problem. Much building took place in the areas added to the city in 1934 and 1937—in Acomb, Dringhouses, and on the north side of York. A further extension of the city boundaries, for housing purposes, was made in 1957. (fn. 7) At the same time, slum clearance and rebuilding were pushed forward, notably in The Groves and the Walmgate district, but were by no means complete in 1959. In all, over 4,600 municipal houses (including about 450 prefabricated dwellings) and nearly 2,000 private houses were built in the city between April 1945 and December 1958. (fn. 8) Extensive private building was, moreover, taking place in adjoining rural areas such as Clifton Without, Rawcliffe, Huntington, Fulford, and Upper and Nether Poppleton. The possibility of extending the city boundary on the north was under consideration in 1959.

Among the most notable changes within the city walls were the erection of modern flats in the Walmgate slum clearance area, and the development of the Hungate area, the slums of which had been cleared before 1939. A new road, The Stonebow, deriving its name from that of an ancient lane in the area, was constructed there and commercial premises built: these included the telephone exchange—one of the few examples of nontraditional architecture in the city. The plan of the central streets remained largely unchanged and, apart from the 19th-century alterations, was as it had been in the 18th and earlier centuries. The character of some of these streets was, however, changed by the modernization of shop-fronts and the erection of large stores. The changes were perhaps most noticeable in Coney Street and in its continuation, Spurriergate, where in 1959 an extensive site was cleared for new shops. Little change took place in the city's open spaces after 1939 but one notable development was the laying-out of riverside gardens opposite the Guildhall in 1959; the ground was given for the purpose by Rowntree & Co. Ltd. whose old factory building had stood on the site. (fn. 9)

Traffic congestion in the city's narrow streets presented the corporation with another post-war problem. A system of one-way traffic, begun during the war, together with extensive parking restrictions proved an adequate solution, but one unlikely to meet the needs of ever-increasing traffic. The problem was complicated by the large volume of through traffic attracted to the bridges over the Ouse, much of it passing the minster along Deangate, a street driven through the precincts in 1903. The old-established pattern of roads converging on the city could be modified only by the building of costly new roads and bridges. The most effective solution—an outer ring road—was thought in 1959 to be too difficult to accomplish. (fn. 10) The most favoured expedients to assist both local and through traffic—an inner relief road and two new bridges—were still being debated in 1959.

The post-war corporation was deprived of its chief trading activity by the nationalization of the electricity undertaking in 1947; the privately run gasworks was similarly taken over in 1948, as were most of the city's municipal and private hospitals, but the waterworks remained in private hands in 1959. The corporation's chief trading interests were subsequently those in the markets, passenger transport, and the river navigations. Of the markets, that for cattle continued to flourish: the number of stock passing through it increased after the war and reached 170,000 in 1957–8. There was a substantial increase in the number of passengers carried on the buses, reaching about 31,000,000 annually in the 1950's. The Ouse and Foss Navigations recovered from a low level of activity during the war and for a few years contributed to the city's revenues. After 1953, however, both showed annual net losses as traffic declined. Among the objects of corporation expenditure, education took the leading place; other important and costly duties were the provision of public health and welfare services, the care of streets and buildings, and the maintenance of order. (fn. 11)

Control of the council was achieved by the Labour Party for the first time in 1945, and re-gained by the party on a number of subsequent occasions. The Conservative Party held office in 1959, however. (fn. 12) The city's seat in Parliament was held by the Conservatives throughout the period 1939–59, with the exception of the years 1945–50 when a Labour member was in office. (fn. 13)

The structure of the city's economy changed little after 1939, and in 1959 confectionery manufacture and the railway works were still the leading industries. Of a total male working population of about 36,000 in 1951, about 7,000 were employed in transport (about 4,800 of them in the railways) and about 2,800 in building; of a female working population of about 18,000, about 5,100 were in confectionery, about 3,000 in the distributive trades, and about 2,600 in professional services. (fn. 14)

After the war, York became increasingly popular as a tourist centre. Some indication of the growing number of visitors is given by the attendances at the Castle Museum which rose from about 110,000 in 1946 to about 352,000 in 1957. (fn. 15) Considerable attention was given to the chief objects of visitors' interest, and an information centre and an association of voluntary guides were established in 1951. A number of special events was added to the regular attractions. The annual race meetings figured prominently in the racing calendar, and Knavesmire was also the scene of such events as the Royal Agricultural Show in 1948 and the Northern Command Tattoo in 1955. The British Association, which had five times previously visited the city, met in York in 1959. Most important, perhaps, were the three York Festivals of the Arts: the first was held in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, the others in 1954 and 1957. The central feature of the festivals were performances of the York Mystery Plays, strikingly set in the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey. A wide variety of concerts, exhibitions, and lectures was held, and in 1951 a Georgian costume ball was held in the Assembly Rooms.

Other developments in the city's cultural life arose from the establishment in 1946 of the York Civic Trust, a body designed to preserve and enhance the city's amenities. The trust's Academic Development Committee in 1956 became a separate body—the York Academic Trust. Two institutes were set up by the Civic Trust: the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research in St. Anthony's Hall, and the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies in St. John's Church, Ouse Bridge End. (fn. 16)


  • 1. Yorks. Gaz. 10 Sept. 1937, 29 Mar. 1940.
  • 2. i.e. with damage greater than to windows only.
  • 3. Civil Defence file in York Pub. Libr.
  • 4. See p. 481.
  • 5. At the Sign of the Orrery (pamph. in York Pub. Libr.), 59–60.
  • 6. See p. 254.
  • 7. See p. 321.
  • 8. Ex inf. City Architect's Department; see also York Corp. Treasurer's Abstracts of Accts; see plates facing p. 284.
  • 9. Yorks. Eve. Press, 25 Sept. 1956, 25 Apr. 1959.
  • 10. Brit. Assoc. Handbk. 1959.
  • 11. York Corp. Treasurer's Abstracts of Accts.
  • 12. Yorks. Eve. Press, passim.
  • 13. York City Year Bks.
  • 14. Yorks. Eve. Press, 3 Oct. 1957 (Census figures).
  • 15. York Corp. Mins., passim.
  • 16. Ann. Reps. of both trusts.