‘Magical, foul-mouthed, raucous’ – York’s real history

23 Jan 2013 @ 10.34 am
| Opinion
Paul Furness takes a tour of alternative York last summer

Forget the chocolate box image of York. This is a vibrant, raucous northern city with a radical past to be proud of, argues Paul Furness of York’s Alternative History

Walking down the elegant, 19th-century Clifford Street today, and then turning left into Tower Street, you will come to a signpost pointing you in the direction of the Castle Museum which reads “Victorian Street this way”. Regardless of the fact that you have just strolled along a blisteringly good example of one, this sign is but one illustration of the blanding – or perhaps that should be branding – of the Olde Worlde City of York.

As if the reality of the place was not sufficient reason alone to come here, the movers and shakers, the great and the good – for which you should maybe read the well off and the mediocre – are all in it together when it comes to the image of this city. John Barry, the man who wrote Goldfinger and most of the other James Bond theme tunes, said that the city he was born in was the most beautiful city in the world – but that it was dull as ditch water, too.

The novelist Kate Atkinson has said that most of the people she grew up with never use the centre of town any more – and why should they, when the indigenous population has been shipped out to the suburbs (if not Selby) which is where all the better shops are?

Meanwhile, those mean streets of the inner city which they left behind have become a dumping ground for the Southern middle class, who you can hear squealing with delight about how lucky they are to live in York, where the sound of a Cockney or an Essex drawl is a complete rarity amongst those shrill Hertfordshire whines.

Part of this sequestering of this brash Yorkshire capital is a sanitisation of its history and an ignorance of its culture. No W H Auden for them or, if it comes to it, Guy Fawkes either. York has been reduced to a City of Festivals that encourages everyone to dress up as Romans or, preferably, Vikings, and live off expensive chocolate (one minion in one such attraction told me that visitors to York “are surprised about its connection to chocolate – no one knows it is made here!” Well, pardon me for breathing, but all anyone has to do is look at a Kit-Kat wrapper to realise that York is, in the words of the great John Cooper Clark, Candy Town).

And so with the rest of it… it’s all getting a little bit like if the cap fits in this part of Yorkshire. At times it feels like we are drowning in antique lace, and yet walk through the streets on a weekend or when the races are on and it all comes flooding back again, that magical, foul mouthed raucous enjoyment of life that is what this city is really all about.

I’ve even come across a tourist website (and an “official” one at that!) that says the Bloomsbury Group used to come to York “for their holidays!” Well, they did not!

It’s all getting just a little bit out of hand, and some of us at least are looking around in our own back yards to see what really happened here – and the answer to that is, of course, quite a lot. So, here are eight – out of many more! – stops on a Radical Walk Around York that I was asked to do last summer, which people seemed to enjoy. It concerns itself with the real, breathing people behind the history of this lovely, dull old town constantly falling asleep in the middle of Yorkshire.

These stories are not those about keeping up appearances in order to market its saleable medieval past, but are those of people who tried to make the world a much better place for all of us to live in and not simply to sell us a shed load of tourist tat – even if it some of it does have a kitschy charm and glitters like a big, miserable chunk of fools gold. Enjoy!


1. The Eye of York

The Eye of York, pictured during the Second World War. Photograph: Imagine York. Inset: Richard Oastler
The Eye of York, pictured during the Second World War. Photograph: Imagine York. Inset: Richard Oastler
Richard Oastler (the man with the statue in Bradford) wrote to the Leeds Mercury on October, 16 1830 to protest about the plight of “thousands of little children” who were “daily compelled to labour from six o’clock in the morning to seven in the evening” with “only thirty minutes allowed for eating”, and compared it to slavery.

Oastler was one of the leading voices in the fight for a ten hour working day for factory kids and, in 1832, he put his feet where his convictions lay when he organised and joined the Pilgrimage To York. Thousands of working men and women converged on Leeds from the towns and villages of the West Riding and then set off on “the March Against Yorkshire Slavery”.

This rag bag army of the dispossessed walked uphill out of Leeds and reached the Knavesmire on April 24 where, in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, they sat down to rest before entering the city through Micklegate Bar, down Micklegate itself and across Ouse Bridge to Castlegate.

This narrow little street saw the endless procession of around 20,000 exhausted and rain sodden factory workers pass through to get to York Castle and, at the Eye of York – that roundabout of grass where the three Ridings of Yorkshire all come together – they roared their support for Oastler and the ten hour bill. Then, a few hours later, they reassembled and began the long march back again.

When Edward Baines, the editor of the Leeds Mercury, accused those on the march of rioting at York, a revolutionary mob assembled outside his Briggate office with an effigy of him wearing a placard around its neck calling him “The Great Liar of The North”. And then they burnt it.


2. The Centenary Methodist Chapel, St Saviourgate

William Hayes' picture inside the Centenary Chapel (now the Central Methodist Church), St Saviourgate. Photograph: Imagine York. Inset: Christopher Hill
William Hayes’ picture inside the Centenary Chapel (now the Central Methodist Church), St Saviourgate. Photograph: Imagine York. Inset: Christopher Hill
Hidden behind perhaps the dullest example of 1960s Brutalism, this wonderful building comes as a surprise when you suddenly stumble across it. In addition to the aesthetic charms of the architecture is its connection to one of the best Marxist historians who ever trod the Northern earth.

Christopher Hill was born in York in 1912 and came here to worship with his rather conventional family throughout his childhood.

He was in his teens when he first heard the enigmatic preacher T S Gregory deliver a sermon called We Are All One In The Eyes of The Lord, and your man certainly got his message across because the young Hill walked out of this building that Sunday morning with a burning desire to see the world changed for the better. He joined the Communist Party, went off to Russia, worked as a teacher in South Wales and, unable to join the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War because of ill health, he played an active role in settling Spanish refugee children into their new homes in Cardiff.

The rest of Hill’s life was spent as an academic at Oxford, where he wrote the books about the Ranters, Diggers, Levellers, Grindletonians and Muggletonians who all wanted to bring heaven down to earth during the English Civil War – a period of history which Hill insisted should in fact be called the English Revolution.

Because Christopher Hill spent a lifetime uncovering this lost history, he is the reason why most of us know anything at all about the 17th century and what happened in it. He literally wrote many, many books about every aspect of this lost radical world and made it mainstream again – his most inspiring and famous book, The World Turned Upside Down, was even turned into a blockbuster play by the National Theatre in 1978.

This cuddly old Marxist (who liked coming back to York but didn’t want to live here again – “it was a terribly stuffy place in my time”, he once told me) must have been doing something right because, after his death in 2003 and without the usual shred of evidence, he was accused of being a Soviet spy!


3. Parliament Street

Paul points out the alternative history of Parliament Street
Paul points out the alternative history of Parliament Street
If you look at the Marks and Spencer’s building, where it joins the building next to it on your left was the site of the print shop which produced a newspaper called The Yorkshireman in 1836, when a young printer called John Francis Bray worked here. He was born to a Yorkshire father (he was an actor, and wrote the first ever stage play of the Pocohantas story) and an American mother in Washington DC in 1809 and, when he was 13, accompanied his dying father across the Atlantic and back to Leeds.

Two days after he arrived he was indeed dead, and John Francis Bray had to make his own way in the world. He became a well known Chartist activist and, in York, he wrote a book to explain the cause of all capitalist ills.

When it was finished, he found a quiet corner of the riverbank and settled down to read it but, in the end, he realised he had got it all wrong. He was blaming the aristocracy for poor wages, unemployment and homelessness but, he realised, he had seen that in the US too, where there was no aristocracy. So what was the problem then? This was obviously the entire economic way of running things called capitalism, and Bray now set about trying to explain this instead.

When it was published in 1839, Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedy became a very influential book indeed. Karl Marx read it in 1845 and he loved it. Of the three English writers that Marx says he was influenced by, Bray is the only one he called “an English Communist” and, in his important works “The Poverty of Philosophy” and the “Grundrisse”, he discusses the ideas of John Francis Bray at length. Sadly, the two men never met.

After York, Bray returned to Leeds, became one of the leading members of the Leeds Working Men’s Association and, 1842, he returned to the United States and remained an active socialist his entire life. He joined the Socialist Labour Party of Detroit, the Knights of Labour, was present at the Haymarket Riots in Chicago and, at the age of 87, died during the harsh winter of 1897.

There remains yet one more connection with York, though. For years, Bray wrote for the radical Detroit Free Press, and this was one of the newspapers that the York Railway Institute (the building still exists, on Queen Street) took out a subscription to. It would be really interesting if someone could find out why!


4. Church Lane

An 1852 map of York showing Church Lane. Image: City of York Council
An 1852 map of York showing Church Lane. Image: City of York Council
Here, in the snicket which runs behind the church of St Michael Spurriergate, their used to be a gentleman’s lavatory and, in those long gone days of homosexual persecution and illegality, every town and city worth its salt had a gay cottage; this was one of York’s.

A young man called Stuart Feather, whose parents ran a chippy in Acomb, met another young man from Dringhouses here in 1956, and it was love across the urinals at first sight. They were both interested in fighting injustice (at the end of 1954, 1,069 men were imprisoned in the UK simply because they were gay) and, when the Wolfenden Report on homosexual law reform was published on 4 September 1957, they went around town (not together as this, Feather said, might arouse suspicions) buying all the newspapers to read about what was going on. They then went into Deans Park and sat on the grass to read them.

As they were doing so, one of Feathers work colleagues (he worked in an engineering factory) cycled past and saw them, put two and two together and outed him at work with the predictable consequences – he was not only ridiculed but demoted to the ranks of fetching and carrying with, of course, the corresponding drop in wages.

By the 1960s they had moved to London and, in 1970, they went to the second ever meeting of the Gay Liberation Front. John Chesterman, the man from Dringhouses, then drew up the List of Demands for that organisation, founded Gay International Times, the forerunner of Gay News, and, in 1972, they both organised the very first Gay Pride march through Highbury Fields; around 200 people turned up that afternoon and now, 40 years later, this annual event attracts well over a million people.

John Chesterman died in 1996, but Stuart Feather – who also achieved more than a little notoriety with the “radical drag” Bloolips theatre group, which travelled the world – is still pounding the streets for liberation today.


5. Clifford’s Tower

Clifford's Tower, pictured in the 1850s. Photograph: Imagine York
Clifford’s Tower, pictured in the 1850s. Photograph: Imagine York
This is all that’s left of the once mighty and oppressive York Castle, and it has always been a sight of savage persecution. The well known racist pogrom against York’s Jewish community took place here in 1190, as well as the less well known one against the Gypsies in 1596 when 106 men and women were sentenced to death – just nine were actually executed, as the rest were able to somehow prove that they had been born in England. The children of those nine, however, were forced to watch their parents hung for the crime of being “Egyptians”.

Clifford’s Tower was also where those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 were executed. This was a massive Northern revolt against the Reformation of Henry VIII, and almost brought the divine right of kings to rule to an end.

When the Reformation was in full swing, it not only closed down the monasteries but brought about widespread unemployment in the people dependent upon them for work, education and medical provision – in this part of the world, which is famously littered with these ecclesiastical ruins, it must have been like having a major multi-national pulling the plugs.

This really is one big bad revolt that is hidden from history – passed off today as a religious skirmish (if, indeed, it gets a mention at all in the history books), the revolt became centred on York and, at its height, was able to muster an army of around 40,000 men to prevent the king’s army from passing the southern border of Yorkshire in the lands around Doncaster.

Robert Aske, the lawyer from Aughton, near Selby, who became the leader of the rebellion, was able to articulate the economic, political and religious grievances of Yorkshire and the North at Westminster until, as was to be expected, Henry realised that his throne and government was about to be torn apart and agreed to all of Aske’s demands – on the condition that he stood down his people’s army.

With the benefit of hindsight we can all groan at the naïvety of this, but they really did believe that this monarch would keep his word. Within weeks, 216 of the leaders were rounded up and executed and Henry VIII and his court paraded up the Great North Road to York to watch the city councillors grovel, prostrate in the dirt at Fulford Cross, as they accepted bags of gold coins and pleas for their sorry little rebellious lives.

As for Robert Aske, well, Henry had something special in mind for him. The leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace was beaten up and enclosed in a metal cage which was thrown over the side of Clifford’s Tower where, for however long it took, Robert Aske was left to die and then rot; the cage was only removed once there was precious little left of his bones for the birds to pick clean. The message, of course, was a simple one: this was what a Northern rebel could expect when you tried to bring a government down.


6. The Crown Court building, the Eye of York

Trumpeters outside the assize court in York in 1910. Photograph: Imagine York. Inset: Samuel Bamford
Trumpeters outside the assize court in York in 1910. Photograph: Imagine York. Inset: Samuel Bamford
This building has changed little since it was completed in 1777, and was designed deliberately to resemble the stately homes of the landed gentry. It was not only where the Luddites were put on trial in 1812, but also where the show-trial following the Peterloo Massacre took place in 1820.

A year before, on August 16, 1819, a massive and peaceful demonstration calling for political reform took place at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. It was a red hot summer’s day and, fearing the size of the crowd, the authorities gave the order for the military to attack.

Within minutes the scene was a bloodbath. With sabres drawn, the military raced through the crowd on horseback, slashing away at men, women and children with sharp sabres; 11 people were sliced to death that afternoon, and over 500 more were badly injured. Mass arrests followed.

Ordinarily, this trial should have taken place at Lancaster but, fearing that it would cause a disturbance if it did, it was moved across the Pennines to the far away city of York instead. Ten men were to appear before the hanging judges in this building charged with Alleged Conspiracy to Alter the Law by Force and Threats and for Converting and Attending an Illegal, Riotous and Tumultous Meeting at Manchester.The ten men charged then had to get there and, for many of them without money, the only way to do so was to walk.

Samuel Bamford, together with his wife, child and his faithful pooch Mora, left Manchester at six in the morning on March 13 and walked through Micklegate Bar [with a large contingent of supporters recruited along the way] “at nightfall, on Tuesday 14 March”. He had barely enough time to recover from the journey before his trial started two days later.

It lasted until March 27, when he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment at Lincoln. The other nine, including the famous Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, were all sent to prison too.


7. The Castle Museum

York Castle Museum, the former Debtors Prison, in the 1880s. Photograph: Imagine York. Inset: Feargus O'Connor
York Castle Museum, the former Debtors Prison, in the 1880s. Photograph: Imagine York. Inset: Feargus O’Connor

There is precious little in the rather sanitised displays inside the museum to tell its visitors that the Debtors Prison, as it was originally, was something akin to a Yorkshire version of Guantanamo Bay in the mid 19th century. For much of the 1840s it was bursting at the seams with political prisoners, most of them members of the National Charter Association form the West Riding of Yorkshire.

The population of the North was growing out of all proportion to anything that had been seen before as industrialisation ran ahead unchecked and produced, for the first time in world history, a working class that came into existence kicking and screaming out of the valleys on either side of the Pennines. And they wanted a slice of the pie that they were employed to bake in these new things called factories.

The way to wrest this from someone growing rich off their backs was to organise and agitate and all the socialist rest of it, which they then started to do in pubs all across the land – in York, the long gone Ebor Tavern in Strakers Passage was the main Chartist meeting place, but across the road in Fossgate the Blue Bell (everyone’s favourite pub in York today) was where the local branch of the Chartist Land Company met – at the tail end of the movement, communes and co-operatives were all the rage, just like in the Sixties (but without the tie-dye).

Many of York’s Chartists used to visit the prisoners here, and bring them news of the movement, food and reading material. Samuel Holberry, the Sheffield Chartist who was worked to death on the treadmill in this building, was here alongside his comrades from Bradford, Leeds and even Whitby, but the most notorious of all the Chartist prisoners at York was the leader of the organisation itself, Feargus O’Connor.

He was convicted of “Seditious Libel” in the articles he addressed to the “unshaved chins, blistering hands, and fustian jackets” who read his radical newspaper, the Leeds-based Northern Star – the first ever socialist paper in the UK which had a massive circulation, and which was read out in pubs such as the Ebor Tavern.

O’Connor was incarcerated for 18 months, and when he was released it was the occasion for the biggest political demonstration York has ever seen. Chartists and their sympathisers flocked to the town from miles around – you couldn’t get a room anywhere for love nor money! When he left this building, a tremendous cheer went up.

O’Connor was dressed in a fustian jacket especially woven for him and, seated in a shell-shaped carriage, he was paraded around town before being taken for a slap up dinner at the splendidly bourgeois York Tavern in St Helens Square – talk about rubbing the gentry’s noses in it! Brass bands played, flags and banners flew, and the singing and drinking went on way into the night. Pity, then, that they never managed to bring that revolution about.


8. Tower Street

The raised area where the Luddites were executed on Tower Street, York. Photograph: Google
The raised area where the Luddites were executed on Tower Street, York. Photograph: Google
At the back of the Crown Court and the Castle Museum you will see, next to the busy road near the roundabout, a raised piece of ground behind a couple of trees. No body really takes a second look at this as they go about their daily business, but the reason the ground is raised up – and the reason there is a door in the wall behind it, too – is because this was where the scaffold on which the Yorkshire Luddites were executed in 1812 was built.

Following the attack on Rawfolds Mill, near Halifax, which the Luddites intended to raise to the ground because the machines the management had installed where to be used as the excuse to put people out of work, and then the assassination of the mill owner Willam Horsfall (a man who once boasted he would “ride up to his saddle girth in Luddite blood”) shortly afterwards, suspected sympathisers in the West Riding were rounded up and shipped off to York to stand trial.

Imagine, then, the impact of entering this building, the likes of which they may have seen but almost certainly would never have gone into (unless they were employed as a servant, that is) and knowing that, in all likelihood, they would never come out of it alive.

At nine in the morning of January 6 1813, George Mellor – who was more than likely the real General Ludd in Yorkshire – William Thorpe and Thomas Smith went on trial charged with murder and conspiracy; to this day nobody has been able to prove if it was them or not. They were all little more than boys – the oldest was 23 – and the trial lasted all day.

When the jury retired at seven that night, it took them just 25 minutes to return a verdict of guilty. “Justice” was swift in those days and, two days later, they were hanged behind the castle walls, at nine in the morning in front of a vast crowd of supporters. On January 16, another 14 Luddites were hung, seven again at nine and the rest at noon so, the judge said, “they could hang the more comfortably”.

A line of armed soldiers separated the scaffold from the crowd, and York was under a state of siege because of the large number of Luddite sympathisers who were in the town which, newspapers reported, was strangely silent for many days afterwards. Seven of the bodies were claimed by the families and taken back to Huddersfield for burial. The rest, after the ritual dissecting, were buried in the Castle Yard where little children visiting the museum now amuse themselves with a game of Victorian skittles.

But the story was not yet done. “I fear danger from this vile set of villains is far from over,” one mill owner wrote in the aftermath of the judicial killings, and so it was time to use another weapon to suppress the ideas of Luddism: defamation.

For over 200 years the name Luddites has been used to discredit these young men as backward thinking and anti-technology. There is not one shred of evidence to suggest that this was the case. All they ever wanted to do was to work to feed their families.