The Guildhall, Council Chamber and Mansion House

Pages 542-544

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

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The Guildhall, or common hall, (fn. 1) is first mentioned in 1256, (fn. 2) but not until 1378 is it so described as to reveal that it stood on the present site. (fn. 3) From at least the late 14th century until the 17th century the city made a small payment of wax for the Guildhall to Durham Cathedral Priory; (fn. 4) this is perhaps to be explained by the reputed gift of land in this vicinity to St. Cuthbert. (fn. 5) It may be conjectured that this rent implies an early, perhaps pre-Conquest, association of a guild or common hall with this site. That the guild garth of 1070-80 and the hanse-house of the 1154 Beverley charter (fn. 6) were also there is even more conjectural, but not, on the scant evidence, impossible. (fn. 7)

The Guildhall was rebuilt and presumably enlarged in the mid-15th century; on 20 November 1445 the corporation and St. Christopher's Guild agreed to share equally the expenses of a new hall, and on the same day, no doubt as part of the negotiations, the guild received a grant from the corporation of adjacent ground on which its chapel was later built. (fn. 8) The agreement stipulated that the hall should be 42 royal ells long, with a chamber at the west end, a cellar at the east, and other buildings including pantry and buttery. The guild was to have the use of it for ten days around the feast of St. James each year, to keep its wine in the cellar, and to share the rents if the cellar were ever let.

The progress of the work cannot be certainly described. (fn. 9) It had begun in the accounting year 1446-7 when the gates at the Coney Street entrance to the lane leading to the Guildhall site were apparently built, (fn. 10) and work on the hall itself was under way by at least 1449-50 when much Tadcaster stone was bought. (fn. 11) Mason's work may have been finished by 1453-4, (fn. 12) and the hall was sufficiently complete for a council meeting to be held there in May 1459. (fn. 13) Internal work had still not been finished in 1503 when the corporation was seeking delivery of wainscots 'towards the selyng' of the hall and council chamber within it: (fn. 14) a reference, no doubt, to panelling for the walls. In 1909 it was said that wainscoting to a height of five or six feet had been removed in recent years. (fn. 15) The double-aisled timber roof was supported by massive oak pillars and as such is said to have been unique (see plate facing p. 521). (fn. 16) As early as the later 15th century some of the windows were apparently glazed, while others were covered by wooden shutters. A stained-glass window is first known to have been inserted about 1680, and all the wooden louvers were ordered to be replaced by glass in 1760. Painted-glass windows were put in during the 19th century. (fn. 17)

The chamber at the west end of the hall was subsequently known as the Inner Room or Justice Room, and was used for council meetings when the commons were assembled in the Guildhall; in this it resembled a chamber contained within the earlier Guildhall. The cellar, again a successor of one in the old hall, was filled in with earth in 1649 because its dampness rotted the hall timbers. The pantry adjoined the north wall of the Guildhall; it was used to house prisoners at the assizes and was let to a tenant. The buttery adjoined the south wall. (fn. 18)

Apart from occasional meetings in the Inner Room of the Guildhall, council meetings took place in a chamber on Ouse Bridge until 1810 when the bridge was rebuilt. (fn. 19) In 1811 a building to replace this was erected to the south of the Inner Room under the direction of Peter Atkinson the younger. The upper floor was subsequently used by the mayor and 'twenty-four' (and by the council after 1835), the lower by the common council. A new and larger council chamber and municipal offices, designed by E. G. Mawbey, the city surveyor, were built on the north side of the Guildhall in 1889-91. (fn. 20) These were occupied by the Town Clerk's Department in 1959, most other corporation departments being housed in St. Leonard's Place.

The Guildhall was reduced to a shell during an air raid in 1942. It was decided in 1956 to restore the building as an exact replica, the War Damage Commission contributing a large part of the cost. Work started early in 1958. (fn. 21)


Proposals to build a house as a residence for the lord mayors of York were probably being considered in 1723. In January 1724 the corporation committee of leases resolved that after the expiration of his lease, James Young, lessee of the 'Cross Keys' (formerly the Chapel of St. Christopher's Guild) (fn. 22) should be granted only yearly leases not only because the passage to the Guildhall was 'generally dirty by reason of the Cross Keys being a public house' but because of 'the city's intention of sometime building a house there for the lord mayor'. (fn. 23) There is some evidence that the proposals were prompted by a desire to enhance the dignity of the lord mayors and by the need to acquire a place where the commons might be entertained. (fn. 24) In October 1724 the town clerk sought to combine the proposals with one of his own for a repository for the city's records. It was then agreed in principle that a building should be erected in Coney Street at a cost of £1,000 of which the town clerk was to contribute £100 in lieu of fines for offices. (fn. 25) A committee to supervise the building was appointed in the following December and at the same time repairs to the Guildhall were postponed until the new house should be built. (fn. 26) In January 1725 the building committee sought to get possession of Sir William Robinson's house (now occupying the corner of Duncombe Place and St. Leonard's Place) but without success: the corporation shortly afterwards ordered them to begin work on the new house immediately after the next Lent assizes. (fn. 27) Lord Harley actually saw the work in progress when he passed through York in April. (fn. 28)

In March 1726 the building committee reported to the corporation that almost all the £1,000 voted to them had been spent; further funds had to be found both then and on numerous other occasions. (fn. 29) By this time a good part of the fabric had been completed and some meetings were held there. In December a custodian or porter was appointed to clean the house and light fires. (fn. 30) In February 1727 the committee was criticized for the slow progress being made on the house but it was not completed until 1730 when the first lord mayor to live in the building moved in. (fn. 31) Even then the work was not entirely completed, for decoration and furnishing of the state room took place in 1732. (fn. 32)

The records of the building committee have not survived and no contemporary reference to the architect or builder has been found. It has frequently been assigned to the hand of Burlington not only because of his close association with Yorkshire but because in September 1732 he was offered the freedom of the city. A similar offer was made, almost at the same time, to Charles Howard, Earl of Carlisle, but the services they had rendered the city are not specified. (fn. 33) Between 1730 and 1732 Burlington was building the Assembly Rooms: a comparison between the buildings is sufficient to reject the ascription on grounds of style alone. The lack of documentary evidence, however, has given rise to much controversy (fn. 34) but it is perhaps not without significance that Drake, who was under considerable obligation to Burlington, (fn. 35) and who was composing his work in the early 1730's, does not mention the Mansion House in connexion with his patron. (fn. 36)

In 1736 Drake said that 'those of our magistrates who have proper homes of their own seldom remove hither' (fn. 37) but as far as is known the lord mayors have resided there from the middle of the 18th century. In Drake's time also the lord mayor entertained a considerable household at the Mansion House: a chaplain (usually the minister of the parish), the town clerk 'with his man or men', the sword-bearer, four 'officers at mace' (who had formerly been six) and various menial servants. (fn. 38)

The house is built of brick faced with rusticated plaster-work on the ground floor at the front (see plate facing this page). Four Ionic pilasters support a pediment containing the city arms. On the northwest corner at ground level a gate opens upon a passage leading under the house to the Guildhall. A semi-basement is entirely occupied by kitchens and offices; the ground floor contains a dining-room, robing-room, and butler's pantry while on the first floor a state or banqueting room runs across the front of the building; the remaining floor is occupied by bedrooms. (fn. 39)

An inscription reading 'Haec moenia surgunt in honorem civium Eboracensium 1726, Samuele Clarke, majore' is set at the foot of the central window of the first floor in some prints but is no longer to be seen on the building. (fn. 40) The house has not been altered in any major respect since it was built. In 1732 the mayor was given an allowance of £5 towards putting the garden belonging to the house in order; the garden perhaps lay at the back of the building where there is now a small parking space for cars. (fn. 41)


  • 1. See p. 65.
  • 2. York Corp. Rec. A/3.
  • 3. A. Raine, Med. York, 135.
  • 4. York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Accts., passim
  • 5. Y.A.J. xxxix. 436 sqq.; ex inf. Kenneth Harrison, Esq.
  • 6. P.N. Yorks. E.R. (E.P.N.S.), 289, see p. 32.
  • 7. The location of the 'Gildgarths' in the Bishophill district rests on very uncertain evidence: see P.N. Yorks. E.R. (E.P.N.S.), 282, and A. Raine, Med. York, 236-7.
  • 8. York Corp. Rec. G/4, 16; the dates are wrongly given by A. Raine, Med. York, 135.
  • 9. The chamberlains' books, in which accounts for the work are to be found, are confused and will hardly support the orderly account given in A. Raine, Med. York, 136-7.
  • 10. York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Bks. 1446-7, pp. 7888.
  • 11. Ibid. 1449-50, ff. 4-10.
  • 12. When stone was moved from the site for use elsewhere: ibid. Chamberlains' Rolls, 1453-4.
  • 13. York Mem. Bk. ii. 203.
  • 14. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 8, f. 32; 9, f. 8.
  • 15. T. P. Cooper, Guide to Guildhall, City of York, 14.
  • 16. Country Life, 5 Nov. 1921.
  • 17. A. Raine, Med. York, 141-2; Cooper, Guide to Guildhall, &c. 19-43.
  • 18. A. Raine, Med. York, 138-9.
  • 19. See p. 517.
  • 20. Cooper, Guide to Guildhall, &c. 47, 51, 60, 63; see plate facing p. 521.
  • 21. York Corp. Mins. 1956-7, 327-30, 374; 1957-8, 286; Yorks. Eve. Press, 7 Feb. and 30 Dec. 1958.
  • 22. Drake, Ebor. 330.
  • 23. York Corp. Rec. E/101, p. 89.
  • 24. Ibid. Ho. Bk. 42, f. 52.
  • 25. Ibid. f. 55.
  • 26. Ibid. ff. 56, 57.
  • 27. Ibid. ff. 58-59.
  • 28. Hist. MSS. Com. Portland VI, 95.
  • 29. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 42, ff. 71 et passim
  • 30. Ibid. f. 87; Assoc. Archit. Soc. Rep. and Papers, xl (2), 17.
  • 31. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk, 42, ff. 91b, 120b, 122, 127b; Assoc. Archit. Soc. Rep. and Papers, xl (2), 19 sqq.
  • 32. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 42, f. 150.
  • 33. Ibid. ff. 158, 159.
  • 34. See, e.g. Assoc. Archit. Soc. Rep. and Papers, xl (2); Reginald Blomfield, Short Hist. Renaissance Archit. in Eng. 175-6; Archit. Review, July 1945.
  • 35. D.N.B.
  • 36. Drake, Ebor. dedication (where he asserts that Burlington was responsible for the Assembly Rooms), and p. 330.
  • 37. Ibid. 330.
  • 38. Ibid. 182.
  • 39. W. Camidge, The Mansion House at York (priv. print. York, 1902), 11-13.
  • 40. Ibid.; it is possible that the inscription was only the first engraver's cartouche to his drawing.
  • 41. York Corp. Rec., Ho. Bk. 42, f. 162.