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