Improving York one street at a time

York’s City Commissioners (aka the Improvement Commissioners)

Many of you may not be familiar with York’s City Commissioners, a group of officials who had the unenviable task of improving the condition of York’s streets in the first half of the nineteenth century. At the moment I am working on the catalogue for their records and thought it would be a good opportunity to tell you a bit about their role in the history of York’s urban development.

York’s City Commissioners came into being with an Act of parliament in 1825. By the 1820s many of the city’s inhabitants had become disgruntled with York Corporation, which was seen as corrupt and ineffective. With a growing population, the medieval and Georgian streets of York were badly in need of attention and investment, neither of which was forthcoming from the civic officials.  However, public pressure resulted in the York Improvement Act of 1825. The Act allowed for 40 Commissioners to be elected, forming a local board with separate and independent powers to that of York Corporation. The autonomy of the board was significant for two reasons: first, non-conformists, such as members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), were eligible to become Commissioners at a time when they were barred from taking civic office in York; second, many considered the Corporation too corrupt to be trusted with the duties outlined in the Improvement Act.  In theory therefore the new City Commissioners were able to act outside of what many believed was a broken system.

York was not the only town in England faced with an inefficient or inadequate form of local government during this period. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hundreds of acts were passed through Parliament, each specific to a particular town. And these ad hoc boards were charged with carrying out improvements in urban centres where the local authority was unable or unwilling to do the job.

Who were the City Commissioners?

To be eligible for election, prospective commissioners needed only to satisfy a property qualification, which was the possession of land or property with an annual value of £10 or more. Many of the Commissioners were local businessmen and tradesmen who had a vested interest in improving York’s streets.

Members of York’s Quaker community were quick to seize the opportunity to make an active contribution to the development of the city. The handbill below shows a list of commissioners that includes the names Daniel Tuke, James Backhouse and Thomas Terry, who were all from prominent Quaker families.

List of elected Commissioners c1830

List of elected Commissioners c1830

What did they do?

When the York Improvement Act came into force in 1826, it granted the Commissioners authority over street cleaning and public nuisances, paving, lighting, and some policing. For the first time, there was an authority that had responsibility for cleaning the streets and yards of the poorer areas of York. In order to fund these improvements the Commissioners were granted the power to levy rates, although the amount they could impose was limited. As elected officials, it was also their job to respond to complaints from individuals and communities regarding specific streets in York. The document below shows a signed petition (or memorial) from some of York’s ratepayers complaining about the street of Hungate in 1839. I have also transcribed some extracts from this petition, which you can read at the end of the blog.

Signatures of ratepayers on a petition to the City Commissioners, 1839

Looking at the papers and minutes of the Commissioners, it is clear that they made a concerted attempt to make York’s streets cleaner and safer. Many areas were paved and some streets were macadamised, a system of laying a compacted surface of small stones that was pioneered by John McAdam in 1820; the Commissioners were also responsible for instituting the first nightwatch in York.  But their work was curtailed for various reasons. Overlapping jurisdictions with the Corporation led to frequent disputes, and the differing makeup of each body only exacerbated these quarrels. In addition, the Commissioners were severely underfunded yet unable to increase their income owing to the restrictions on the rates they could collect. Further limitations were placed on what they could achieve as gas and water supplies were still controlled by private companies.

In 1835, York Corporation was reformed under the Municipal Corporations Act of the same year. In the years that followed many of the concerns that led to the passing of the Improvement Act were addressed by the new civic organisation. The Commissioners were eventually wound up in 1850 and their responsibilities transferred in part to the newly established Local Board of Health and in part to the now reformed York Corporation.

What kinds of records did they create?

Voucher bundles MI8

Bundles of vouchers (1840s)

Around eight boxes of records for the City Commissioners survive. They include minutes of meetings; correspondence; financial papers, which include quite a large number of vouchers (what we would call receipts today); election papers; as well as papers relating to streets, drainage and lighting. Some of the documents are still in their original bundles, as you can see in the image to the left.

Legacy

While the City Commissioners may not have brought about a transformation of York’s streets, their work nevertheless signals a key period in the history of England’s urban centres – one that witnessed a move towards more regulated and planned approaches to development.  Importantly, they also show how York’s built environment  has been shaped by an ongoing process of negotiation between York’s officials and the people of the city.

Extracts from petition of 1839

To the Commissioners under the York Improvement Act

That your memorialists have suffered considerable inconvenience and danger in passing along the street of Hungate, in consequence of its very narrow width at the upper end, adjoining St Saviourgate, where it is with the greatest difficulty that on Marketdays and on frequent other occasions foot passengers can proceed, from the continual passing of carts and the danger of being crushed to death, the entire width of the street at the part opposite the Church Yard being only 10 feet 3 inches from wall to wall

That the great bulk of your memorialists are engaged in daily labour to provide by honest industry for the maintenance of their families, and that in going to and returning from their work they are necessitated to pass along the street of Hungate several times every day, that being the principal way to the centre of the City.

That the memorialists have contributed to the rates of the City Commissioners with great cheerfulness , although many have not derived any benefit from paving or draining near their respective dwellings, and therefore have a stronger claim on the consideration of the Board of Commissioners’

Sources: Victoria County History of York; Papers of York’s City Commissioners

 

A Visit to the Teesside Archive

Helen Kendall in Teesside Archive strongroom

Helen Kendall (ACR) showing me around the Teesside Archive stores.

Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Teesside Archive in Middlesbrough and speak with conservator Helen Kendall (ACR) about some conservation/preservation techniques, as well as have a tour of the building and archive store.

I’d been having several practical issues while consolidating degrading leather bindings of the Past Caring Project. Some of the bindings are covered in full leather, bound with the flesh side out (also called reverse leather). During the application of a consolidant to help reduce powdering, the consolidant mixture was occasionally leaving brush marks on the leather, even after drying. I reached out to some conservators in the area to see if anyone had a similar experience, hoping to receive some tips and tricks to help reduce the undesired effects. Through this, I met Helen, who is also working series of reverse leather bindings.

 

One of my favourite little bits of the tour was seeing a series of picturesque wooden slide boxes in one of the strongrooms.

Helen also showed me around the conservation space, which among many things, houses a large upright light box and an freestanding press.

Helen demonstrated her technique for consolidation and we talked about methods for protecting the binding after the treatment, which I found very helpful to see in person.

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I will be certainly applying some of the techniques to the Past Caring Project work.

 

Thank you to Helen Kendall and the Teesside Archive for the day, it was a lovely opportunity to visit and speak with another North Yorkshire conservator.

 

For more information on the Teesside Archive:
https://www.middlesbrough.gov.uk/leisure-events-libraries-and-hubs/teesside-archives

 

Images: Tiffany Eng Moore

Fever, flagstones, and flushing: an introduction to York’s health care records

The cataloguing strand of the Past Caring project has now reached an important juncture. In April I completed work on the records of York’s Poor Law Union and Workhouse. With the help of our magnificent project volunteers, we have created over 2700 entries, which will be available on our online catalogue next year. The Poor Law archives have now been handed over to Tiffany, our Project Conservator, for specialist conservation treatments and repackaging (as you will know already if you have been a regular reader of our blog!).

As Project Archivist my next task is to tackle another important set of records that make up the Past Caring collections, namely, the archives of York’s Medical Officer of Health and Department of Health. The first step in dealing with any uncatalogued collection is to carry out research – who created the records, what did they do, and how did they do it. As a cataloguing archivist you need to know the answers to all these questions and to be able convey that information through your catalogue.  This enables our archive users to gain an understanding of the collection quickly, without necessarily having to ask for guidance from a specialist (although we are always there if anyone needs us!).   So for the last few weeks I have been getting up to speed with the history of the various officers and departments that dealt with public health in York over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And while they may not be glamorous, the public health records are proving to be both fascinating and eye-opening.

Who dealt with public health in York?

MOH records_report on lodging houses_1879

Report of York’s first Medical Officer of Health, Dr North (1873-1894)

In 1873 York appointed its first Medical Officer of Health and Chief Sanitary Inspector. Essentially, these two officers were responsible for improving the health and hygiene of the city and its inhabitants. Their work was carried out first via York’s Urban Sanitary Authority, then in 1900 the Health Committee was formed, which continued as the main body charged with looking after York’s health until 1974.

 

The project team have also made the decision to catalogue the records of two bodies that preceded the Medical Officer of Health, the Improvement Commissioners (1825-1850) and the Local Board of Health (1850-1872).  These two bodies were not part of York Corporation proper, but their activities laid the foundation for great improvements that took place in the city in the later nineteenth-century. By including their records we will have a more complete picture of how York developed the infrastructure that transformed it from a small Georgian town into a modern city.

What did they do?

The various bodies dealing with Public Health in York had changing duties over time, and I will be blogging about this in detail as I go through the collections. In the meantime the list below will give you some idea of their responsibilities:

  • prevention of infectious diseases
  • notifications of births
  • disinfection
  • housing inspection and slum clearances
  • street cleaning and improvements
  • abatement of public nuisances
  • improvement of sewerage and drainage
  • ambulances
  • midwives and maternity services
  • control of livestock and trade

How did they do it

Inspection, reporting, legislation and planning are the main ways that public health officials brought about change in York, and luckily for us this resulted in lots of interesting records, such as:

  • Records relating to house inspection and overcrowding: some of these records include information on who was living in the house as well as where they slept. The image below reports a family of nine living in just two bedrooms.

    Overcrowding report

    Report of overcrowded conditions, 1908

  • Minuted orders for street improvements, including the laying of flagstones, improving lighting and employing street cleaners.
  • Reports of children with verminous hair
  • Notifications and reports regarding outbreaks of disease, such as typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea
  • Records relating to the clearance of unsanitary housing, particularly in Walmgate, Hungate, and the Groves: included here are reports, orders and correspondence
  • Records relating to the enforcement of national Acts and local orders, which includes some interesting public health posters
  • Records concerning the provision of various health services such as ambulances, maternity services, and accommodation for the elderly
  • Planning and implementation records for health care provision during World War II
  • Drainage inspection records: these records cover the period in the early twentieth century, when York’s officials were encouraging the installation of W.C’s. Prior to this most people simply had a hole in the ground in an outside privy – a real problem in an overcrowded urban environment.
  • Nuisance abatement and complaints: health officials had to deal with the many complaints relating to foul drains; excessive smoke; rubbish; fly infestations; diseased meat; and foul smells from people keeping rabbits, pigs and poultry in the centre of the city.

    Don't spit poster

    York public health poster from the early 20th century

As you can see, York used to be a pretty filthy place. Cataloguing these records is going to be an interesting journey, but be prepared for a very unsanitary history of York!

Remember you can get more frequent project updates via Twitter @pastcaringyork

Call for Preservation Volunteers

We’re currently looking for volunteers for the Past Caring Project! If you are interested in the Archives or enjoy doing practical work (no computers involved!) this is the role for you. No prior preservation experience is necessary.

You will be handling original nineteenth and twentieth-century records: cleaning; relabeling; repackaging; with the potential for more in depth work if you’re interested. The work you carry out will enable these records to be used by readers/researchers and will help protect the records from further damage.

Through the work you will have the opportunity to learn basic archive preservation skills.

We are looking for volunteers to help us on a Friday morning or afternoon slot (10-12:30 or 2-4.30pm) for a period of up to 22 weeks. The volunteer project will commence with an introduction and training session the afternoon of June the 23th 2017. At the completion of the project, an optional fun bookbinding related workshop will be held.

If you are interested in participating in this project, please email me at tiffany.moore@exploreyork.org.uk by 16 June 2017.

You can visit the project page on our blog for more general information on the Past Caring project:
https://citymakinghistory.wordpress.com/past-caring-project/

And for all project updates: https://citymakinghistory.wordpress.com/category/past-caring-project/

Why Conservation?

 

In the Past Caring project, there are approximately 2000 bound items and boxed paper documents of the York Workhouse and Poor Law collection which are in need of some form of preservation or conservation action. That’s a lot of items to go through! Before their arrival to Explore, the collections were housed first in the Workhouse and Poor Law Union’s deposit and then the York City Art Gallery. Through general use and non-ideal storage conditions of the collection’s 200 odd years, some of the documents and books are in a physical state where they can’t be produced for users without incurring further damage. The purpose of the conservation aspect of the Past Caring Project is to make sure the collection is stored, produced, and used in a way that will help maintain its longevity. Items that are especially damaged or vulnerable will be given remedial repairs and practical treatments to stabilize and help avoid future damage.

An overview of the historic damage

While some of the collection is in relatively good condition for its age, many paper documents and volumes have issues that present challenges. The following types of damage are common for archive material, but in this collection the problems have been exacerbated by its previous storage conditions.

One of the major challenges to be addressed is the significant amounts of powdery red rot in the collection’s leather bindings. Red rot is the acidic degradation of leather, which over time causes the leather to become weak, often splitting or breaking on areas it should flex. Many of the affected bindings are in the later stages of deterioration, the leather becoming powdery and coming off. This is problematic for users as it is a skin and respiratory irritant, but also because the powdery deposits easily transfer to shelving; reading room surfaces; on and inside other documents; and the readers themselves.

At one point in its history, the collections have been stored in humid or damp conditions. This allowed for severe mould damage on occur a portion of the bindings. While the mould is currently inactive, large deposits remain on the volumes and documents. Inside the bindings, the text blocks are cockled and discoloured, with losses and pages adhered together. As the bindings are fragile and the mould deposits are a health and safety hazard for users, the bindings cannot be accessed in their current state.

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Many bindings have physical damage from heavy use and improper storage. This includes abrasions, bumped corners, tears, covers falling off, spines detached, and more. The paper documents have rusting metal fastenings and severe paper tears, pleats and crumpling which limits readability and cause handling difficulties.

Other types of damage include extensive sooty black dirt throughout the collection, brittle papers, and iron gall ink damage. Through the course of the project I will blog further about the conservation issues described.

What’s the plan?

Prevention
The specialized archive store where the collection is currently housed was purpose built to hold Explore’s on-site collection (for more information, read about the Gateway to History project). The store operates within PD5454:2012 guidance. This means that the store follows published recommendations for the storage of library and archive materials, which include guidance for ranges of temperature and humidity levels within the store that the collection is best suited. This aids in slowing further degradation of the material. The archive store also has a security system and measures against water ingress and fire.

The items which have been damaged by improper packaging or storage will be addressed by repackaging to mitigate further damage when it’s used and moved.

Intervention
Using a variety of conservation techniques, the project will address the most pressing of concerns for the collection, with the goal of making the material available to use. This includes surface cleaning of documents to remove heavy deposits of sooty black dirt; making paper documents accessible by unfolding and pressing; repairing severe tears and losses to paper documents and bindings; cleaning and removing deposits from mould damaged items; consolidating the leathers and providing protective covers on bindings with red rot to enable reader handling.

I will continue to post about the project  and  the conservation as it progresses, if you’re interested in reading about a particular topic, feel free to contact me with suggestions!

Thanks for reading,

Tiffany

 

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For more information about conservation I’ve added some links that may be of interest

Institute of Conservation

Archives and Records Association

 

A new addition to the Past Caring team

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Hello all,

Today I am writing to introduce myself as the newest member of the York Explore team: the Past Caring Project Conservator. Over the next year and a half, I will be working with the Project Archivist Julie-Ann Vickers on the Past Caring Project (find out more about the Past Caring Project on our dedicated page, or our previous blog posts).

While Julie-Ann works on researching and cataloguing the informational content of the archive, my task is to take care of the physical aspects of the collection. I will be assessing the condition of the archives and carrying out preservation and remedial conservation work to ensure the material can be handled by readers, as well as ensuring the future accessibility of the material.

As a book and archive conservator, my goal for this project is to help balance the preservation and access needs of a collection. Maintaining the physical collection is important to keep the records available for the long term and to enable readers access to its intellectual value. In my next blog post, I will talk more about the specific conservation issues of the Past Caring project.

In the months ahead I will be looking for volunteers to help with the preservation and conservation process, so if you are interested in working with historic material, drop me a line or keep up to date with the Explore York blog as more information on how to volunteer will be posted in future blog posts.

I will be posting here about once a month and regularly contributing to our twitter account.

Thanks for reading!

Tiffany

Thoughts? Questions? Just want to chat about conservation? Feel free to email me at archives@exploreyork.org.uk

An appreciation of the humble minute book

We’ve all been there, you turn up to a meeting at work, or at a club or society, everyone gets settled, and then someone asks that dreaded question: do we have anyone to take the minutes? Cue much shuffling of paper and attempts to look busy in the hope that some heroic person will volunteer. Yet the much-avoided process of minute taking results in records that lie at the heart of why archives matter. The humble minute – as a legal record of the actions and decisions of an organisation – helps to ensure accountability and transparency in politics, business, and wider society.

For this reason alone, minute books may be the only series of records that survive to document an organisation, company or club. And often they are the only records to be preserved in their entirety, without gaps. You have only to look at one of the key series of records in the York Civic Archive, the York Council minutes, to find an example of the lasting importance of these records. We hold an unbroken run of the council minutes, known as house books, dating from 1476. And they are our most frequently consulted archives by a long margin.

Within the York Poor Law Union archive there are some records that survive in long runs, but the minutes of the Board of Guardians are the only volumes that survive in an unbroken sequence, from the very first meeting held on 17 July 1837 to the last meeting that took place on 27 March 1930. In a way, these 43 volumes act as a kind of autobiography of the York Poor Law Union, detailing who made decisions, what decisions were made, how the union changed over time, and how it interacted with individuals and other organisations.

Close up of minue book

First meeting of the York Board of Guardians on 17 July 1837

However, in my experience, Poor Law Union minute books are a sorely underused resource. This is not without reason. For a start, the indexes to these weighty volumes, where they do exist, can be very patchy. In an age when producing an index was a completely manual process, some clerks were clearly more diligent than others. Minute books can also be frustrating. If you don’t have a precise term, or date within which to search, then you may find yourself wading through a lot of material that has absolutely nothing to do with your original enquiry. In the case of the poor law minutes, I suspect there is also the issue of not knowing what to expect. Researchers, naturally enough, may be unaware of the type of business likely to be discussed in a nineteenth-century Board of Guardians meeting.

Despite all this, the rewards of consulting minute books can be great. The eclectic nature of the information recorded means that you are never quite sure what you may come across. The business of the Guardians ranged from approving accounts, reading correspondence, dealing with individual cases of poor relief, approving apprenticeships, child emigration, staffing, hearing reports from officials (such as the Master of the workhouse) and a host of other matters. There is really something for everyone in these volumes, whether you are interested in finding out more about an individual, or you are chasing data for numbers in the workhouse. You can read about the tit for tat spats that the York Guardians carried on with other Poor Law Unions, and you can witness how their approach to the poor changed over the course of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries.

I have put together a short gallery of extracts from the Board of Guardians’ minutes to illustrate just some of the fascinating stories to be discovered, enjoy.

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