This week is Local Democracy Week, so I thought I’d post a little bit of background about how local democracy has developed in York. Democracy has various facets, including voting, standing for office, knowing what decisions are made and the reasons behind them, monitoring spending and influencing the decision making process.
Wealth, occupation, personal connections, religious views, gender, “free” status, property ownership and age have all enabled or prevented York residents from engaging with some or more of these facets of local democracy in their city over the centuries, and the raw material of that story is to be found in the civic archives.
There are many milestones, but here are just a couple of the (positive and negative) ones that stand out for me.
1212 – You’ll know from all the York800 events that 1212 was when York bought the right to govern itself from the King. This meant that instead of a noble appointed by the crown running the city (the Sheriff of Yorkshire), people from the city itself did so – as long as they collected and paid a certain amount of tax, known as the fee farm each year.
1396 – York becomes a county in its own right, and not part of the ridings: “the county of the city of York”. It was allowed to have its own sheriffs, independent markets and courts and account directly to the King’s exchequer.
1633 – A charter refers to the common council of 72 being appointed by wards. Before this, different crafts and trades were allocated so many members each. This switch to geographical divisions, i.e splitting the city up into wards, is what we still have today.
1660-1670s – Various national Acts of Parliament introduced religious oaths and tests to deliberately stop non-Anglicans from holding office. Protestant dissenters were usually exempted through annual exemption acts, but Jews, Catholics and Atheists were systematically excluded for nearly 200 years.
1835 – The hugely significant Municipal Corporations Act changed the way corporations were run. It challenged centuries of precedence and privilege, and aimed to reform municipal corporations as agents of efficient local government for the benefit of, and with input from, the wider community (not just freeman). Appointments became fixed term, in York the press was allowed access to meetings and could report on what was said and any male ratepayer could vote in local elections.
1886 – The last religious test (having to be a Christian) was removed.
1894 – Some women could vote (but only ratepayers, and not if they were married and their husband was registered for the property already), become poor law guardians (they had once before, but this had been taken away) and be on school boards.
1945 – All men and women over 21 could vote.
1969 – Age limit reduced to 18 for voting (but 18-20 year olds not allowed to stand for office until 2006)
1974 – Another nation-wide local government shake-up with a major impact on Yorkshire. York stopped being an independent county borough and became a non-metropolitan district council within North Yorkshire County Council. This is where my project ends because it is a major shift in the records, just like in 1835, but the records will be added into the functional catalogue structure later on.
1996 – York becomes a unitary authority once more, as the City of York Council.
There are many more steps and complications along the way but this is a long enough post and I’m not an expert! If you’d like to find out more about democracy in York today and in the past, the Local Democracy Week website has details of free events tomorrow including tours of the mansion house and a public lecture by University of York historian Dr Sarah Rees-Jones on called York 800 Years Ago: the King, the Charter and the City which I would highly recommend.