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

 

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

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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Accidental archives

We are now into the fourth month of the Past Caring Project and 2017 is shaping up to be a busy year getting York’s healthcare and poor law records sorted and catalogued. In a few months’ time we will be joined by a professional conservator, who will have the job of ensuring that all these fabulous records are repaired, cleaned and ready for use when the collections are open to the public in 2018.

In the meantime, I have been busy cataloguing the collections of the York Poor Law Union (1830s-1950s) and thought I would share some of the accidental archives I have been discovering as I go through the records.

The phrase ‘accidental archive’ is by no means a recognised term in the archival profession (a more technical term is ephemera), but I think it aptly describes the chance survival of the scraps of notes, letters and other records that I have been finding between the pages of the official Poor Law Union records. The majority of these bits and pieces of paper were inserted into official registers by the Victorian clerks and other officers who worked for the York Poor Law Union. They acted as reminders, references, or simply page markers. Most of these notes and letters were certainly not intended to be kept and placed in a 21st-century, environmentally-controlled archive store! However once inserted between the pages of official records, these notes were forgotten and so have survived by chance.

Most of these chance survivals are not going to result in ground-breaking research papers, but I think these records have a charm all their own – not least because they provide a glimpse of the working processes and daily grind of the officials that staffed the Poor Law Union. And in some instances these accidental archives do contain significant and quite fascinating details not recorded elsewhere.  But perhaps the best way to describe them is to show you some examples, which you can see below.

     Notes and letters found in an Application and Report Book, 1842

application-and-report-book-1_1842-1

In the image above you can see the various bits of paper found in the front of this Application and Report Book. These books were the official records of the York Union Relieving Officer, who recorded details of individuals applying for relief (welfare)rough-draft-of-applications2-1842.

The scrappy notes placed in the front of this book include: a letter from someone asking for money, a note to send another individual to the Vagrants’ Office of the workhouse, and a rough working list of applications for relief (see left image).

I found this rough list of particular interest as its shows the working processes of the officer; it is also a reminder that those lovely neat official records from this period are often the final version of very rough drafts in rather illegible handwriting!

 

Invoice for stationery from between the pages of an Application and Report Book, 1842

application-and-report-book-2-1842

mary-moxon-invoice

Above you can see another example of the chance survival of a working record of the  Relieving Officer.  This invoice (see close-up image right) lists the various items necessary for his daily work including foolscap paper, pen holders, blotting paper, and – something that every self-respecting Relieving Officer would not be without – copies of the Poor Law Act.

The items were ordered from a stationer’s store on Pavement, and the invoice not only tells us the name of the Relieving Officer (Mr Leafe), but also reveals that the store was run by a woman, Mary Moxon, who styles herself as ‘Printer, Bookseller, Stationer, and Genuine Patent Medicine Vender’.

 

Correspondence inserted into a Vaccination Register, 1899

 

vaccination-letter-rev-morrissyVaccination registers were maintained by the York Union’s District Medical Officers. A number of the registers that survive include letters, often from the parents of the child being vaccinated, supplying some reason why vaccination should be delayed or not carried out.

In this example (see left image), the Medical Officer has received a note from a Rev Morrissy in Cork, Ireland, stating that William Waterhouse (the father of the child to be vaccinated) has gone to South Africa and that he has no knowledge of the child being vaccinated. I was slightly puzzled why a York Medical Officer was receiving correspondence from Ireland about child vaccinations, but all became clear when I checked the entry in the Vaccination Register itself. The entry told me that William Waterhouse was  a private in the York and Lancaster Regiment. It seems he left York after the birth of his child, was stationed in Ireland for a time, and then went to South Africa with his regiment, which took part in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). So you can see how this short piece of routine correspondence helps to fill in some important details for the life of William Waterhouse, and his child. It also shows extent to which the Medical Officers chased up people in their effort to improve vaccination rates.

I could go on, but hopefully the above examples give you a flavour of just some of the accidental archives emerging from the York Poor Law Union records.

New season, new staff member, new project

project-archivistHello everyone

Autumn is well and truly upon us and for Explore York Libraries and Archives the new season brings with it an exciting new project, and me, the latest staff member to join the team. I’m Julie-Ann and over the next two years I will be researching and cataloguing the poor law and healthcare records of nineteenth- and twentieth-century York under the banner of the Past Caring Project.

This means, I’m afraid, that my official title is Project Archivist (Past Caring) – best to get that out of the way early on! I should point out that the pun is actually intended, as the title refers not only to the historical provision of healthcare, but also to attitudes towards the past and to the records that constitute our historical memory.

The Past Caring project has been made possible through a generous grant of £156 560 from Wellcome, the world’s largest charity supporting research into health and wellbeing. Over the course of the next two years we will be cataloguing and conserving the records of the York Poor Law Union and Workhouse, the York Medical Officer of Health, the Department of Health, and the Department of Housing and Environmental Health. All of these bodies struggled in various ways to alleviate and improve the welfare and health of York’s population, and the records in these collections offer a compelling glimpse into the poor standard of living endured by some individuals and communities. You can find out more about the project by visiting our dedicated pr page above.

For me, there are two standout reasons why this project is important: first, these collections document and give a voice to sections of society that are otherwise largely absent from the historical record; second, we will be approaching this material in a thematic way rather than looking at individual collections in isolation; that means we will be exploring links between the various offices dealing with poverty and health in York, as well as researching connections with other health archives held in the region. I like to think of it as a holistic approach rather in the vein of Dirk Gently – and like Dirk we are interested in the ‘interconnectedness of all things’!

There are a couple of ways to keep up to date with the project: I will be posting to this blog about once a month; but you can get more frequent updates by following our new twitter account dedicated specifically to the project.

Over the next few months I will be working with the records of the York Poor Law Union and Workhouse, so there should be plenty of interesting material cropping up!

Thanks for reading,

Julie-Ann