Beverley, 1700-1835: Social Life and Conditions

A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.

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A P Baggs. L M Brown. G C F Forster. I Hall. R E Horrox. G H R Kent. D Neave, 'Beverley, 1700-1835: Social Life and Conditions', A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989), pp. 131-135. British History Online [accessed 19 June 2024].

A P Baggs. L M Brown. G C F Forster. I Hall. R E Horrox. G H R Kent. D Neave. "Beverley, 1700-1835: Social Life and Conditions", in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) 131-135. British History Online, accessed June 19, 2024,

Baggs, A P. Brown, L M. Forster, G C F. Hall, I. Horrox, R E. Kent, G H R. Neave, D. "Beverley, 1700-1835: Social Life and Conditions", A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989). 131-135. British History Online. Web. 19 June 2024,

Social Life and Conditions

In 1771 a young gentleman-merchant from Hull, R. C. Broadley, spent five days at Beverley. The visit cost him £5 18s., of which, as he noted in his journal, 17s. 6d. was for the subscription to and expenses at the assembly, one guinea for the races, 2s. 6d. for a concert, 2s. 6d. for the theatre, and 10s. 6d. for lodgings. (fn. 1) In that brief account Broadley encapsulated the main elements of Beverley's upperclass social life in its heyday. The social season revolved around the races, which had been established on Westwood in the 17th century. In 1712 the races were run in September but by the mid century they were regularly held at Whitsun. A new course on Hurn was used by 1765 and a grandstand was built there in 17678. (fn. 2) The addition of a 'Gold Cup' race to the programme in 1770 confirmed the prominence of the meeting in the racing calendar. (fn. 3) On the mornings and evenings of race week cockfights were held in the many cockpits in the town. (fn. 4) Cock-fighting became less popular late in the century and by 1829 it had been totally suppressed. (fn. 5)

In contrast to cockfighting were the elegant evening gatherings at the assembly rooms. Assemblies were held at Beverley by 1732 and there were assembly rooms in North Bar Within in 1745. (fn. 6) Ornate new rooms in Norwood were opened in 1763 with a ball given by the officers of the East Riding militia. (fn. 7) Twelve regular assemblies for dancing and cards were held on alternate Wednesdays beginning in late September, and there was a full week of social gatherings during the races. (fn. 8) John Courtney wrote in 1764: 'Beverley races end. I was three days upon the stand in the race ground, and danced every night at the assembly'. (fn. 9) By the 1790s the regular assemblies generally began about the middle of October to coincide with the annual meeting of the lord and deputy lieutenants for the riding. They were then held on Tuesdays and their frequency varied from a fortnight to a month. The assembly rooms were most popular in their early days. Receipts averaged £93 a year in the decade 1765-74, £76 in 1775-84, and £54 in 1785-94. The presence of the militia in the town in 1793 resulted in over £80 being taken, in contrast to an average of £35 in the two previous years. (fn. 10) The billeting of militia forces, sometimes comprising more than 800 men, during 1745-6, the late 1750s, the early 1760s, and again during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars caused frequent unrest but it boosted the trade of innkeepers and shopkeepers and the educated gentlemen officers were a welcome addition to the limited social circle of the town. (fn. 11)

From c. 1730 Beverley was included in the circuit of the principal York theatrical company and by 1788 it was in the Richmond circuit. A playhouse was built in Walkergate in the 1750s and replaced successively by others in Register Square (now Cross Street) and Lairgate. (fn. 12) In the 1760s the company usually spent four or five weeks at Beverley after York races in August and before the Hull season began in October (fn. 13) and by 1788 it had a variable season in Beverley in April, May, and June. (fn. 14) The season coincided with race week and on occasions the theatre was full to overflowing: John Courtney noted in 1803, after one of his frequent visits, that 'It was the fullest house that I ever saw. We got into the playhouse with the greatest difficulty but I got a good seat . . . They took I heard 43 pounds and turned away near 20'. (fn. 15) It was probably such overcrowding that led to the building of the Lairgate theatre, which seated 632. (fn. 16) Music was also well patronized and many musicians lived in the town, including the waits who were paid by the corporation. (fn. 17) Subscription concerts were held from the 1750s in the assembly rooms. In 1762 Courtney mentioned a concert, possibly given in his house, which included 'fine airs' from the Messiah performed by a singer from Newcastle, (fn. 18) and in 1769 one of the first musical festivals in the north of England took place on the opening of Snetzler's new organ in the minster. (fn. 19) St. Mary's church, which acquired its new organ in 1792, was the venue for another music festival, in 1819, and by 1825 Beverley had a choral society. (fn. 20)

From the late 17th century a well on Swine Moor was used as a drinking and bathing spa. An ambitious scheme was proposed by the corporation in 1745, when the well was let to a grocer, John Hornby, on the understanding that he would erect a new building there, comprising tea room, ball room, and pump room. (fn. 21) That scheme was evidently ineffective and in 1747 the corporation itself built a new well house; the house and wells were later let to tenants and then from 1772 until their probable disuse in 1816 were in the charge of a keeper employed by the corporation. (fn. 22) Walking on Westwood was an acknowledged pleasure, (fn. 23) and a formal promenade was provided in the 1780s with the making of New Walk, an enterprise to which the corporation agreed in 1779 to subscribe £20 as soon as the 'gentlemen and ladies' had put forward £30. (fn. 24) The tree-lined parade alongside North Bar Without eventually had the fine new sessions house of 1805-10 near the end of it. (fn. 25)

The intellectual, social, and economic climate of the town was improved by a flourishing grammar school. In 1710 it was recorded that 'many gentlemen of the best quality send their sons to it from several parts of the kingdom' and there were c. 140 pupils. (fn. 26) The school was usually well attended and well taught throughout the century. Excellent masters and links with St. John's and, during the Revd. John Clarke's mastership (1736-51), Trinity colleges enabled c. 150 pupils to go on to Cambridge in the period 1700-50; (fn. 27) of those, 31 were natives of Beverley, including Leonard Chappelow, the son of a mercer, who was professor of Arabic at Cambridge 1720-68, and John Green, a tax collector's son, who became bishop of Lincoln 1761-79. (fn. 28) Education was also provided in the 18th century by several petty and dame schools, and in the early 19th century private boarding and commercial schools abounded. The education of the poor, however, largely depended on the Church. In 1710 the Charity, later Blue Coat, school for the children of the reputable poor was founded under the auspices of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Other charity schools closely associated with the Church were opened in 1810 with a bequest from the Revd. James Graves, incumbent of the minster, and in 1813 a National school for boys was started. (fn. 29) An Anglican Sunday school society was established in 1825 and by 1827 it had five schools meeting in different parts of the town with over 600 pupils. (fn. 30)

That activity by the Church was in part a response to the rise of nonconformity. The minster and St. Mary's church, supported by a pro-Anglican corporation, continued to dominate the religious life of the community. (fn. 31) There was, however, a strong dissenting element in the town, represented in the early 18th century by the Friends and the Presbyterians, later Independents. (fn. 32) Both sects had meeting houses in Lairgate. The Friends remained a small group (fn. 33) but the Presbyterians were several hundred strong c. 1715 and included leading tradesmen and members of the corporation. John Wesley first visited Beverley in 1759 and by his sixteenth and last visit in 1790 there was evidently a thriving society, with a meeting house in Wood Lane; a new Methodist chapel in Walkergate was opened in 1805. Primitive Methodism was introduced into Beverley in 1820, when John Verity preached in the market place. A congregation was soon formed and a chapel was opened in 1825 in Wednesday Market. (fn. 34) The following year saw the opening of a short-lived Church Methodist chapel in Landress Lane by a breakaway group of local Wesleyan Methodists. In 1829 the Wesleyan Methodists were said to have 217 members in Beverley, the Independents c. 120, the Primitive Methodists c. 70, and the Scotch Baptists c. 70. The last-mentioned congregation had built a chapel in Walkergate in 1808. In addition, small congregations of Baptists and Irish Church Methodists shared a room in Toll Gavel in 1829; the Baptists formed themselves into a church in 1833 and the following year built a chapel in Well Lane.

The care of the poor was the responsibility of the three parishes of St. Mary, St. Martin, and St. Nicholas, which in 1726-7 united to provide a workhouse in Minster Moorgate. (fn. 35) During the later 18th century there were usually just over 30 paupers in the house in late December. Adult women usually formed the largest group but in the 1750s and 1780s as many as half of the inmates were children. (fn. 36) In 1795 the union was dissolved, possibly because of the rising cost of caring for the poor (see Table 11); one wing of the workhouse was taken over by St. Mary's and St. Nicholas's parishes and the other by St. Martin's and the wings were administered separately until 1836, when Beverley poor-law union was established. (fn. 37) In 1802-3 the parishes relieved 157 paupers, of whom 36 were in the workhouse. By 1833-4 the number relieved had risen to over 450, of whom some 320 lived in the town, about 75 elsewhere, and 57 in the workhouse. (fn. 38) Parish relief was only one of the ways in which the poor were helped. At times of high prices and severe weather conditions subscriptions for the poor were quickly raised in the town, with members of the corporation and the M.P.s usually taking the lead. (fn. 39) For the 'respectable poor' there was also assistance from the many charities in the town, in the administration of which the corporation was heavily involved. Each year it distributed a Christmas charity made up of money from various 17thcentury bequests and other sources: £34 were distributed in 1702 and £100 in 1804. As trustee the corporation also ran Fox's and Sir Michael Warton's hospitals, was largely responsible for Routh's, and maintained town almshouses in Butcher Row, Lairgate, and North Bar Without. (fn. 40) By 1810 nearly 100 places, chiefly for widows, were available in well endowed almshouses. (fn. 41) By the early 19th century there were also several charitable societies. The Poor and Strangers' Friend Society was founded in 1797 'for the sole purpose of doing good to the distressed, diminishing the number of street beggars, and relieving at their own habitations, such persons as were found on observation and inquiry to be proper objects of benevolence'. (fn. 42) A lying-in charity was founded in 1812, and in 1823 Wilson's charity was used to establish a dispensary, for which a building in Register Square was put up in 1828. (fn. 43) Provision for times of sickness and death was made by members of the working class themselves through various friendly societies. One such society existed in the mid 18th century, (fn. 44) and at least six, including a female society and one restricted to sailors living near the beck, were established in the period 1776-1816. The Brotherly Society, founded in 1776, and the New Friendly Society, founded in 1789, were both wound up in 1832, but in that year the Rising Star lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, Manchester Unity, was opened. (fn. 45)

Year ending Easter £ St. Martin's parish St. Mary's parish St. Nicholas's parish
1776 224 86 112 26
1785a 370 130 194 46
1803 808 272b 466 70
1815 1,773 379 1,251 143
1825 1,798 628 934 236
1830 2,167 935 983 249
1832 2,387 940 1,203 244
a Average for the years 1782-5.
b From late July 1802 only.
Sources: Poor Law Abstract, 1803, H.C. 175, pp. 598-9 (1803-4), xiii; 1813-15, H.C. 82, p. 524 (1818), xix; Money expended for Relief of Poor, 1825-9, H.C. 83, p. 231 (1830-1), xi; 1830-4, H.C. 444, p. 224 (1835), xlvii.

The Oddfellows' lodge epitomized the new age with its promotion of mutual aid and self-improvement, virtues espoused by the Mechanics' Institute, also founded in 1832. (fn. 46) The latter had the active support of many of the middle-class residents, who had themselves for some years pursued self-improvement at scientific lectures and literary clubs. Annual astronomy lectures were given in the theatre by 1811 and there was a circulating library by 1793. A book society limited to 20 members was founded in 1823 and there were also subscription newsrooms in Cross Street and Saturday Market. (fn. 47) The progress of knowledge was emphasized by the publication in 1829 of both George Poulson's Beverlac and George Oliver's History and Antiquities of Beverley.

The many Beverley residents who subscribed for copies of Poulson's and Oliver's works differed greatly in their social position from those who had comprised the town's elite a hundred years before. In the early 18th century Beverley society was dominated by a number of county families who had large houses in the town, but by the end of the century it was led almost without exception by clergymen, merchants, army officers, and professionals. (fn. 48) The increasingly middle-class nature of the town was reflected in house building: after 1770 semidetached or terraced houses, such as nos. 6-8 Newbegin, nos. 72-4 and 86-8 Lairgate, and nos. 55-63 North Bar Within, were built, rather than grand detached mansions in large grounds. (fn. 49) Houses were frequently offered to let and many people with independent means were attracted to Beverley by its polite and cultivated life and the availability of elegant but comparatively cheap houses. (fn. 50) Among the new residents was the family of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who lived in Wednesday Market. The Wollstonecrafts associated with the family of another newcomer John Arden, who, after living in Germany, made his home in Beverley in 1756 and as a 'teacher of experimental philosophy' went on countrywide lecture tours. (fn. 51) Later in the century retired military officers, returned colonials, and Loyalist refugees from the American Revolution, settled in the town. Among the last mentioned were Brig. Oliver de Lancey and Capt. Henry Law, both from New York, while another resident was Col. Christopher Machell, an Englishman who had lost an arm at the battle of New York. (fn. 52)

By the mid 1830s Beverley was no longer a gentry town and its social climate had changed considerably. Cock-fighting and bull-baiting had been suppressed, the theatre and races had declined in popularity, and the assembly rooms were no longer the social centre of the town. Church and chapel, book club and charitable society, political groups and the Mechanics' Institute had taken their places and Beverley had become predominantly a middle-class and professional town with a growing industrial population.


  • 1. H.U.L., DP/146, s.v. 26 May.
  • 2. Below, Social Inst.; Poulson, Beverlac, 448-9.
  • 3. Fairfax-Blakeborough, Yorks. E.R. 82.
  • 4. H.U.L., DDCV/15/486; R.D.B., 60/332/543; Min. Bks. 14-16, 68, 103; York Courant, 6 Mar., 12 Apr., 10 May 1748; 24 Mar. 1752; 15 Apr. 1755; 30 Dec. 1760.
  • 5. Oliver, Hist. Beverley, 423.
  • 6. Anon. Journey through Eng. in Familiar Letters (1732), ii. 240; below, Social Inst.
  • 7. H.U.L., DDX/60/2, p. 8; below, Social Inst.
  • 8. Below, Social Inst.
  • 9. H.U.L., DDX/60/2, p. 44. Courtney's diaries give a full acct. of the social life of Beverley c. 1760 and in the late 18th and early 19th cent.: ibid. DDX/60/1-4.
  • 10. H.R.O., DDBC/21/99.
  • 11. H.U.L., DDX/60/1-4, passim; Norfolk, Militia etc. of E.R. 1689-1908, 6-22, 28.
  • 12. Below, Social Inst.
  • 13. Wilkinson, Memoirs, iv. 31-2; V.C.H. Yorks. ii. 507; V.C.H. Yorks. E.R. i. 418.
  • 14. Sumner Colln., 'Beverley Ct. Leet Papers' (licences 1789-96); S. Rosenfeld, Georgian Theatre of Richmond, Yorks. 11-12.
  • 15. H.U.L., DDX/60/4, s.v. 8 June 1803.
  • 16. Poulson, Beverlac, 448; below, Social Inst.
  • 17. H.R.O., PE/1/4, 6; PE/129/6; Min. Bks. 8, 67, 98.
  • 18. H.U.L., DDX/60/1, pp. 19, 104, 108-9, 113.
  • 19. K. A. MacMahon, Beverley, 60.
  • 20. H.U.L., DDX/60/3, s.v. 25 Nov. 1792; ibid. DDMM/2/18, f. 12; Hull Advertiser, 11 Nov. 1825; Min. Bks. 73.
  • 21. H.R.O., DDBC/16/160; below, Public Services.
  • 22. H.R.O., BC/IV/1/1; below, Public Services.
  • 23. B.L. Lansd. MS. 896, f. 7.
  • 24. Min. Bks. 59.
  • 25. Below, Public Inst.; Street Names; see below, plate facing p. 141.
  • 26. B.L. Lansd. MS. 896, f. 79v.
  • 27. J. R. Witty, 'Hist. of Beverley Grammar Sch.' (TS. at H.U.L., DDMM/32/6(a)/2), 147-60, 167-73; below, Education.
  • 28. Witty, op. cit. 148.
  • 29. Below, Education.
  • 30. H.U.L., DX/150/10/4.
  • 31. Min. Bks. 73, 109; below, Churches.
  • 32. For the rest of this para. see below, Prot. Nonconf.
  • 33. Friends in Beverley (priv. print. Beverley, 1986), passim.
  • 34. H. B. Kendall, Hist. of Prim. Meth. Ch. i. 392-7.
  • 35. Below, Public Inst.
  • 36. H.R.O., DDBC/14/1-3.
  • 37. N. D. Hopkin, 'Old and New Poor Law in E. Yorks. c. 1760-1850' (Leeds Univ. M.Phil. thesis, 1968), 216-23.
  • 38. H.U.L., DX/150/10/9-10; Poor Law Abstract, 1803, H.C. 175, p. 598 (1803-4), xiii.
  • 39. H.U.L., DDMM/2/18, ff. 33, 37, 45; ibid. DX/150/10/ 1; York Courant, 19 Mar. 1754; Hull Advertiser, 30 Jan. 1829; Min. Bks. passim.
  • 40. H.R.O., BC/II/6/101; BC/IV/1/3; 10th Rep.Com.Char. 680-1, 683-5, 695; below, Charities.
  • 41. Poulson, Beverlac, 796-9.
  • 42. H.U.L., DDMM/2/18, ff. 27, 36.
  • 43. Below, Charities; Public Services.
  • 44. H.U.L., DDHO/15/6 (1 Mar. 1734/5; 2 Feb. 1737/8).
  • 45. D. [R. J.] Neave, E.R. Friendly Soc. (E. Yorks. Loc. Hist. Ser. xli), 43.
  • 46. Below, Social Inst.
  • 47. Ibid.; Hull Rockingham, 2 Nov. 1811; Oliver, Hist. Beverley, 416.
  • 48. Poulson, Beverlac, 808; Battle, Dir. Hull (1791), 77-88.
  • 49. Hall, Hist. Beverley, 38, 61, 80, 91-2.
  • 50. York Courant, 1 Aug., 26 Dec. 1749; 25 Feb., 15 Mar. 1760; 23 Jan. 1776.
  • 51. C. Tomalin, Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, 18-24; Shelley and his Circle, 1773-1822, ed. K. N. Cameron, 933-55.
  • 52. De Lancey and Law memorials in minster; Hull Pub. Libr., uncalendared vol. of Beverley pedigrees, s.v. Machell; deeds of Keldgate Manor, in possession of G. W. Odey, Beverley, 1974.