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History Scroll

The History of York

By Tim Lambert
Dedicated to James Gardner




The history of York begins with the Romans. They invaded this part of England in 71 AD and quickly subdued it. They built a fort between the rivers Ouse and Foss. At first northern England was a rough and uncivillised area but gradually it was 'Romanised'. By the mid-2nd century a little town had appeared by the fort. Craftsmen and merchants came to live there because the garrison of the fort provided a market for the townspeoples goods and ships could sail up the Ouse with merchandise. The Romans called the town Eboracum, which may be derived from Celtic words meaning the place with yew trees. By the early 3rd century the town had a stone wall to protect it. Inside there were public buildings such as a baths. Rich people lived in grand houses with mosaic floors. However in the 4th century Roman civillisation began to break down. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD. Soon afterwards Roman towns were abandoned and fell into ruins.




What happened to York after the Romans left is not known for certain. York was probably abandoned or almost abandoned and the old Roman buildings fell into ruins. There may have been a small number of people living inside the walls farming the surrounding land but York ceased to be a town. However in 627 York was given a bishop. A cathedral was built inside the walls of the Roman town and a bishops residence was probably built there. It is also possible the local Saxon king built a royal palace inside the Roman walls. Then in the 8th and 9th centuries York revived. The old towns position made it an ideal place for trade and during that time craaftsmen came to live there. They probably started a market. Goods such as pottery were brought by ship from Europe. By the mid-9th century York was a flourishing town once again. However it was probably much smaller than the Roman town with a population of, perhaps, 2,000. It is believed that the Saxons called the town Eofer's wic (wic meant trading place). The Danes changed the name slightly to Jorvik.


Then in 866 the Vikings conquered northern England and York became the capital of a new Viking kingdom. Under the Vikings York grew rapidly and by 1066 probably had a population of 9,000 or 10,000. In Viking York wool was woven. There were blacksmiths and potters. Other craftsmen made things like combs from bone and antler. The Danish word for street was gata which in time became corrupted to 'gate'. Coppergate was cooper gate.




After the Norman Conquest William built a wooden castle in York. However in1069 the north of England rose in revolt. The Norman garrison of the castle was massacred. William then captured and sacked York. He also built a second wooden castle to guard the town. In 1190 an infamous event occurred when Jews were massacred in York. They took refuge in the main castle. Some committed suicide. The townspeople set fire to the castle and the rest were persuaded to surrender but they were murdered anyway. Cliffords Tower was built in the mid-13th century to replace the keep of the main castle which had been burned in 1190.


In the Middle Ages York was an important port. Luxuries such as wine were imported from the continent. York was also an important manufacturing centre. Wool was woven in York. It was then fulled. That means the wool was cleaned and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills. The wool was then dyed. York was also a centre of the leather industry. First leather was tanned (in Tanners Row). It was then used to make goods such as gloves, shoes and saddles. There were also a large number of other craftsmen such as butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, coopers, goldsmiths, barber-surgeons (who cut your hair, pulled your teeth and performed operations like setting bones) and many others. By the 13th century York had 2 fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but were held only once a year. People would come from all over Yorkshire to buy and sell at a York fair.


In the Middle Ages the church ran the only hospitals. In York there were several 'hospitals' where the monks cared for the sick and poor as best they could. There was also an abbey dedicated to St Mary outside the walls. There were also several priories (small monasteries) in York or immediately outside the walls. In the 13th century friars arrived in York. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach and help the poor. In York there were several orders of friars, Fransiscans (known as grey friars because of their grey costumes), Dominicans or black friars, Carmelites (white friars) and Augustinians.


In 1349 York was decimated by the Black Death which may have killed half the population of the town. The population of York was around 13,000 in the mid 14th century but it fell to about 10,000 by the year 1500. However in the late Middle Ages some of York's historic buildings were made. The Merchant Adventurers Hall was erected in 1368. The Guildhall followed in 1453. York Minster was built in stages between 1220 and 1472. St Williams College was built in 1461 as a home for the priests of the Minister. (St William was William Fitzherbert who was made Archbishop of York in 1153).




In the 16th and 17th centuries York continued to be the most important northern town despite the fact that other towns in the area were growing more rapidly. The population of York was probably about 10,000 in 1500 but it rose to about 12,000 in 1600. This was despite outbreaks of plague. There were outbreaks in 1550-51, 1604, 1631 and 1645. Each time the plague struck hundreds of people died.


In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries and the priories. In 1539 he close St Marys Abbey which stood immediately north of the town walls. The city authorities also drastically reduced the number of parish churches from 40 to 25. A grammar school was founded in York in 1557. However the textile trade in York declined during the 16th and 17th centuries due to competition from towns in the West Riding. In the 16th century York remained an important international port but in the late 17th century it declined. This was partly due to the establishment of colonies in North America and the West Indies. York was, obviously, on the wrong side of the country to benefit from this trade. There was also growing competition from Hull. Although international trade declined there was still an important coastal trade. Ships took goods to and from other ports in Britain. Like all towns in those days York suffered from outbreaks of the plague. There was a severe outbreak in 1550-51. However the population rose from about 10,000 in 1500 to about 12,000 in 1600.


In 1642 came civil war between king and parliament. York was solidly behind the king but from April 1644 it was under siege by the parliamentarians. However the parliamentary soldiers left at the end of June when a royalist army came to relieve the town. On July 2nd 1644 the king was decisively defeated at Marston Moor. The parliamentarians then laid siege to York again. The town surrendered on 16 July 1644.


In the late 17th century York gained a piped water supply. Water was transported along wooden pipes to the houses of those who could afford to be connected. By the end of the 17th century York probably had a population of 13,000.




In the 18th century York declined in importance as other northern towns grew rapidly. Nevertheless York was still quite large. It was a market town rather than an industrial centre with a diverse range of craftsmen like butchers, brewers, bakers, tailors, shoemakers,coopers, comb makers, jewellers and (smoking) pipe makers. There were also book sellers and wine merchants. The port continued to flourish. Wool was brought to and from York. Grain was brought to the city to supply the citizens. So was coal.


The first newspaper in York appeared in 1719. In 1732 Assembly Rooms were built where the wealthy could attend balls and play cards. The first Theatre in York opened in 1736. New Street was built in 1746. York County Hospital was built in 1740. A lunatic asylum followed in 1777. In 1788 a dispensary was opened where the poor could obtain free medecines. From 1786 a 'scavenger' was employed to clean the streets of animal dung and other rubbish.




In 1801, at the time of the first census, York had a population of 16,846. By the standards of the time it was quite a large town but it declined in importance as the century drew on. The industrial revolution meant other Yorkshire towns boomed but York failed to industrialise. In the early 19th century it remained a market town with many craftsmen but no factories. However the railway reached York in 1839. In 1842 a repair workshop opened.Soon afterwards York became famous for making railway carriages, largely through the efforts of George Hudson known as the railway king. In the late 19th century confectionery and making cocoa also became a major industry in York. So did flour milling. Also in the late 19th century an industry of making optical instruments flourished.


In the 19th century the population of York grew rapidly and houses spread across the fields outside the walls. Part of the rise in population was due to an influx of Irish immigrants who arrived in the 1840s fleeing the potatoe famine. Many of the new houses were overcrowded and like all 19th century towns York was dirty and insanitary. In 1832 and 1849 York suffered outbreaks of cholera. There was also an epidemic of typhus (a disease spread by lice) in 1847 which killed 403 people. However there were some improvements in the city during this century. From 1824 the streets were lit by gas. In 1825 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners who were responsible for paving, lighting and cleaning the streets. They were replaced by a Board of Health in 1850. In York some people were rich enough to afford a flushing lavatory connected to a sewer but until the end of the century the raw sewage was flushed into rivers. Most of the people in York used 'earth closets', which were really buckets that were emptied at night into carts by the 'night soil' men. The 'night soil' was sold as fertiliser. In 1890-95 the council built a proper sewage disposal system but it wasn't until the 1920s that all houses in York were connected. The first modern police force in York was formed in 1836. After 1880 horse drawn trams ran in the streets of York. york Art Gallery opened in 1892. The first public library in York opened in 1893.




By 1901 the population of York was 77,914. By 1951 it had risen to 105,000. In 1909 the trams were electrified but they in turn were replaced by motor buses. The last trams ran in 1935. In the early 20th century the confectionery industry in York expanded as rising standards of living meant people had more money to spend on sweets. Confectionery became the main industry by the mid 20th century. Printing was also an important indsutry in the early 20th century. Other industries were sugar, making railway coaches, and optical instruments.


In the 1920s and 1930s York council carried out slum clearance and built many council houses. During World War II York was not as heavily bombed as some cities but it did not escape entirely. Some 87 people lost their lives in bombing raids. After 1945 many more council houses were built at York. The first York Festival was held in 1951. York university began in 1963. A ring road around the city was built in 1987. Today tourism is a major industry in York. The National Railway Museum opened in 1975. The Jorvik Viking Centre opened in 1984. ARC (Archeological Resource Centre) opened in 1990. York now has several modern shopping centres. The Coppergate Centre opened in. Monks Cross Shopping Park opened in 1998. Today the population of York is 181,000.


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The history of York, by Tim Lambert.
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