Learned societies, museums, libraries and galleries

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

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'Learned societies, museums, libraries and galleries', A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961), pp. 535-537. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp535-537 [accessed 12 June 2024].

. "Learned societies, museums, libraries and galleries", in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) 535-537. British History Online, accessed June 12, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp535-537.

. "Learned societies, museums, libraries and galleries", A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961). 535-537. British History Online. Web. 12 June 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp535-537.

In this section


The Yorkshire Philosophical Society was founded early in 1823 by the efforts of Anthony Thorpe (the chairman of the Subscription Library and the society's first librarian), William Salmond, James Atkinson, and, above all, William Vernon Harcourt, who became the society's first president. The founders had been motivated by the discovery of the Kirkdale Cave near Kirby Moorside (N.R.) and the society was presented with the bones discovered there. The objects of the society were the promotion of science, the establishment of a scientific library, the formation of a museum to embrace all departments of natural history, and, more particularly, the elucidation of the county's geology. The society occupied rooms in Low Ousegate and within twelve months had attracted 120 subscribers. (fn. 1)

In 1827 the society received a Crown lease of the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey and three acres of the former abbey site, for which an annual rent of £1 0s. 8d. was subsequently paid; and in 1836 it borrowed £2,500 with which to buy a further 5½ acres of the site from the Crown. The corporation agreed in 1845 to transfer the remains of St. Leonard's Hospital to the society, and in 1862 another 3 acres of the site of St. Mary's known as Bearpark's Garden was leased from the Crown. Most of this last acquisition was sub-let, but part of it was conveyed to the Yorkshire School for the Blind in 1864 in return for ground containing the foundations of the choir of the abbey church. In 1877 Bearpark's Garden was leased to the Committee for the Exhibition of 1879 who had previously paid £4,000 to the Crown for an absolute grant of the ground to the society. (fn. 2) The society's grounds thus comprise the greater part of the former site of St. Mary's Abbey, and the society has given continual attention to the preservation of the remains of both the abbey and, while they were in its possession, those of St. Leonard's Hospital. (fn. 3)

The society began to build its museum in 1827; designed by William Wilkins in classical style, it was completed in 1829 and opened in 1830; the total cost of work on the museum and gardens was nearly £9,800. An observatory was built in 1833, and in 1836 an acre of ground near the Ouse was leased to a private company for the construction of a public swimming-bath; the lease was taken in by the society in 1845 and the bath was subsequently administered directly by the society. The museum was enlarged in 1912 by the addition of a large lecture theatre at the expense of the society's president, Dr. Tempest Anderson; at his death in 1913 the theatre was named 'The Tempest Anderson Hall'. (fn. 4)

In accordance with the aims of the society the Yorkshire Museum has built up large geological and archaeological (notably Romano-British) collections; it also houses abundant remains of medieval stonework, and has collections in various branches of natural history. Membership reached its peak of nearly 600 in the 1920's; in 1957 there were 465 members. (fn. 5)

The Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society originated as the Yorkshire Architectural Society in 1842. At that time its chief object was the study of ecclesiastical architecture and the restoration of architectural remains in Yorkshire, but since 1900 its activities have been largely centred on York. The words 'York Archaeological' were first added to the society's name in the annual report of 1901. The society's Proceedings, containing papers on a wide range of historical subjects, were first published in 1933.

The society met after 1844 in a room in Minster Yard which housed its museum. After 1857, when the chapter was about to demolish the room, the society moved its property to the nearby York School of Art (now the Minster Song School) and met there and at the Yorkshire Museum. A further move, to the Minster Library, was made in 1884; the society's library was kept and meetings held at Jacob's Well (a house in Trinity Lane) in the early 20th century; and since 1911 the library has been at the Yorkshire Museum where some meetings are held. (fn. 6) In 1957-8 the society had 250 members. (fn. 7)

The York Georgian Society was formed in 1939 to promote the preservation of Georgian buildings in and around York, and to develop public interest in Georgian craftsmanship and architecture. In 1948 a house in Micklegate was adapted as the society's headquarters but meetings continued to be held in the Yorkshire Museum and elsewhere. The membership in 1957-8 was over 600. (fn. 8)

The Yorkshire Law Society was established in 1786. Its library contains about 4,000 volumes and was in 1959 situated in Stonegate. (fn. 9)

The York Medical Society was founded in 1832 and in 1855 met at the Dispensary. (fn. 10) In 1959 its meeting-room and library were in Stonegate; the library contained about 5,000 volumes, consisting chiefly of 18th and 19th century medical works.

A folk museum, Castle Museum, was established by the corporation in the Female Prison of the castle in 1938 to house a collection of bygones given to the city by Dr. J. L. Kirk of Pickering (N.R.). The collection illustrates many aspects of domestic and social life, particularly that of Yorkshire from the 17th century onwards, and includes period rooms and a 'street' reconstructed from demolished property. In 1952 the Debtors' Prison was opened as an extension to the museum; it contains craft workshops, a collection of costumes, and a military section. (fn. 11)


The establishment of a public library (fn. 12) in York was considered as early as 1851, (fn. 13) in accordance with the Public Libraries Act of the previous year; (fn. 14) a number of proposals was made during subsequent years, but the support of the ratepayers was not obtained until 1891 when the corporation resolved to adopt the Public Libraries Acts. In 1892 the corporation purchased the Mechanics' Institute (or The Institute of Popular Science and Literature) for £4,100; the institute had been opened in St. Saviourgate in 1827 and moved to Clifford Street in 1885. The institute committee presented its existing stock of about 4,000 works to the corporation, and the Public Library was opened in the building in October 1893. From its inception the Public Library contained a news room, and during the 19th century there were several other news rooms in the city. (fn. 15)

In 1917 the corporation bought the York Subscription Library and merged it with the Public Library. The city booksellers had invited subscriptions to a 'general circulating library' in 1781, (fn. 16) but the Subscription Library was not founded until 1794. It originated as a book club and books were distributed successively from the house of one of the promoters, Charles Wellbeloved, from a room in Low Petergate, and from a house in Minster Gates; in 1812 a new building was erected for the library in St. Helen's Square, and in 1835 it was transferred to St. Leonard's Place. A considerable increase in subscribers followed this last move and nearly 20,000 books were available in 1844. This number had been increased to 34,000 by 1905, (fn. 17) but the library was in financial straits during the First World War and the corporation acquired it by the payment of its outstanding debts of £500. The collection had contained many works of reference as well as fiction, and the Public Library was, by this amalgamation, enriched by many rare volumes and much local material.

In 1924 the corporation decided to accept an offer of £13,000 by the Carnegie Trustees and to proceed with the first stage of a new building in Museum Street. (fn. 18) Brierley and Rutherford were the architects and the building, costing £26,500, was opened in 1927. It was extended in 1934 and completed with the opening of a new wing in 1938. Recent developments have included the gift by Sir John Marriott in 1946 of his collection of about 3,000 volumes on the political and economic history of modern Europe, (fn. 19) the establishment of an information bureau in 1949, moved from the library to the remains of St. Leonard's Hospital in 1951, (fn. 20) and the transfer of the corporation archives from the Guildhall in 1957. (fn. 21)

When Acomb and Dringhouses were brought within the city in 1937, (fn. 22) the corporation assumed the responsibility to maintain branch libraries as the West Riding authorities had done previously. The Acomb branch was moved from the Council Infants' School to the Society of Friends' Meeting House in 1937 and housed in a newly constructed temporary building in 1950. (fn. 23) The Dringhouses branch was also renovated in 1950. (fn. 24) A branch was opened in the Social Hall on the Huntington Road estate in 1937 and closed in 1952. (fn. 25)

The Minster Library (fn. 26) is housed in the former private chapel of the archbishop's palace, having been moved in 1810 from the building used in 1958 as the diocesan registry. Nothing remains of the ancient library of the School of York, (fn. 27) and in its modern form the collection owes its origin to the gift by his widow of the books of Toby Matthew, archbishop from 1603 to 1628. The collection has been augmented by many gifts of books and manuscripts, (fn. 28) and contains the muniments of the chapter.

Of the libraries that were doubtless to be found in the religious houses of the city none survives; a catalogue of that in the Augustinian friary shows that it possessed an extensive collection in the 14th and 15th centuries. (fn. 29)

The Art Gallery originated in the two Fine Art and Industrial Exhibitions held in York in the late 19th century. Upon the initial suggestion of several members of the York School of Art, the first exhibition was held in York in 1866. A temporary building was erected on ground belonging to Bootham Asylum, and fronting upon Bootham (the street). The exhibition was attended by about 338,000 visitors between 24 July and 31 October, and a net profit of about £2,200 was made. (fn. 30)

The executive committee of the 1866 exhibition proposed in 1876 that a second exhibition should be organized; after lengthy negotiations the committee secured a lease of about 2¾ acres of the site of St. Mary's Abbey. (fn. 31) The ground was situated within the abbey walls adjoining Bootham, and was known as Bearpark's Garden. A further £600 was spent in purchasing a house, for demolition, and the corporation agreed to demolish The Bird in Hand public house; with other smaller changes, this made possible the construction of Exhibition Square in front of the exhibition building. The building, designed by Edward Taylor of York, was opened on 7 May 1879. The cost was about £25,000. In addition a large temporary wooden hall was erected behind the permanent building. By November, when the exhibition closed, about 530,000 visitors had attended, and a profit of about £16,000 had been made: there remained, however, a debt of about £12,000 to guarantors. Works of art and industrial exhibits had been assembled from many parts of the country. (fn. 32)

The exhibition building remained as the Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Institution and regularly housed exhibitions of paintings in succeeding years. In 1882 the basis of a permanent collection was provided in the gift of John Burton, of Poppleton (W.R.); the Burton collection, secured for the city by the good offices of W. W. Hargrove, was at that time valued, by an official of Messrs. Christies, at £75,000. It was to be the subject of violent debate in 1906 when some of the paintings were cleaned and fancifully restored. Both the permanent and the temporary exhibition buildings also housed meetings of many kinds—concerts, balls, displays and lectures for example. (fn. 33)

In 1890, its premises in Minster Yard having proved inadequate, the York School of Art moved into the exhibition buildings. The passing of the Technical Instruction Act in the same year resulted in the corporation's purchase of the exhibition buildings from the Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Institution for £6,000 in 1891; the purchase included the Burton Collection, then valued at £35,000. The buildings were subsequently under the control of the Technical Instruction and Higher Education Committees of the corporation, but the summer exhibitions of contemporary art continued to be held until 1903 when they were discontinued owing to lack of public support. In 1912 the Museums and Art Galleries Act was adopted and the exhibition buildings were transferred to the control of the Estates Committee of the corporation. (fn. 34)

The temporary wooden building, although declared unsafe and closed in 1909, was maintained and not demolished until 1941. (fn. 35) The permanent building was closed during the Second World War and damaged by enemy action; it was reconstructed and re-opened in stages between 1948 and 1952. The York Art Collection Society, which later became the Friends of York Art Gallery, was established of 1948, and the year 1955 was marked by the gift in an important collection by F. D. Lycett-Green, a York business man. (fn. 36)


  • 1. G. F. Willmot, 'The Yorks. Museum', Museums Jnl. liii. 143-4; Yorks. Phil. Soc. Ann. Rep. 1823, 5-7, 15; 1910, 48; 1920, vii.
  • 2. Yorks. Phil. Soc. Ann. Rep. 1827, 9-11; 1836, 1-3; 1845, 8-9; 1862, 13; 1863, 13; 1864, 7; 1875, 8-9; 1876, 8; 1877, 7.
  • 3. See pp. 357-9, 363-4.
  • 4. Yorks. Phil. Soc. Ann. Rep. 1827, 9-11; 1829, 12; 1832, 6; 1836, 2; 1845, 9; 1910, 45; 1912, vi; 1913, vii; 1920. vii.
  • 5. Ibid. passim.
  • 6. Y.A. and Y.A.S. Ann. Rep. 1946-7; Ann. Rep. and Proc. 1953-4, 46-55.
  • 7. Ann. Rep.
  • 8. York Georgian Soc. Ann. Reps.
  • 9. York City Year Bk. (1939), 133.
  • 10. Sheahan and Whellan, Hist. York and E.R. i. 608.
  • 11. Castle Museum, official Guide [1959].
  • 12. Unless otherwise stated, the source of information concerning the public library is the York Pub. Libr. Rep. (1943); for other libraries see above, this page.
  • 13. York Corp. Rec., Min. Bk. 1850-3, p. 103.
  • 14. 13 and 14 Vic. c. 65.
  • 15. See, e.g. E. Baines, Dir. Co. York, ii (1823), 68.
  • 16. York Courant, 4 Dec. 1781.
  • 17. Yorks. Herald, 6 May 1905.
  • 18. Yorks. Gaz. 7 June 1924.
  • 19. York Pub. Libr. Rep. (1944-8).
  • 20. Yorks. Eve. Press, 8 May 1951.
  • 21. Ibid. 27 Nov. 1957.
  • 22. See p. 321.
  • 23. Official opening pamphlet in York Pub. Libr.
  • 24. York Corp. Mins. 1949-50, 888.
  • 25. Ibid. 1936-7, 452; 1951-2, 771.
  • 26. Books (Nat. Bk. League), no. 284 (1954); a Catalogue was compiled by J. Raine in 1896.
  • 27. Except the 'York Goapels': see pp. 7, 16.
  • 28. See Yorks. Herald, 7 Mar. 1908.
  • 29. M. R. James, 'Cat. Libr. Austin Friars, York' in Fasciculus Joanni Willis Clark dicatus.
  • 30. G. Kirby, Fifty Years' Retrospect rel. to Art in York (priv. print. York, n.d.), 8-10.
  • 31. See p. 535.
  • 32. Kirby, Fifty Years' Retrospect, &c. 11-13, 18.
  • 33. Ibid. 20, 22; 24-25, 27-29; Yorks. Herald, Aug.-Dec. 1906, passim; J. W. Knowles, 'Exhibition Buildings York' (two scrapbks. in York Pub. Libr.), passim
  • 34. Kirby, Fifty Years' Retrospect, &c. 27-28, 30-31; Yorks. Herald, 2 Oct. 1906.
  • 35. Yorks. Gaz. 16 Jan. and 27 Mar. 1909, 10 Jan. 1941.
  • 36. Programme for reception at completion of reconstruction; 1st Rep. Friends York Art Gall., 1948-56; Art Gall. Memorandum, 1955 (copies of all three in York Pub. Libr.); Yorks. Eve. Press, 8 Mar. 1955.