Local democracy (week) in York

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.

Less Process More Pictures!

My last few posts have been quite process-heavy, but now I’ve finished my initial research phase and moved on to looking at the material I’ll be able to blog more about individual records. However, you don’t have to wait for my posts to see lots of archive images because there is now a new (and free!) exhibition on display at Library Square.

The first exhibition panel – one of several in Library Square

If you live or work in York you may have spotted that new display panels have appeared both inside and outside York Explore Library Learning Centre. These panels are part of an exhibition celebrating York 800 and the diversity of the archive collections that the City holds.

The great thing about this exhibition is that the content has been selected, researched and written not by archive staff but by a team of 12 volunteers – many of which have never used original archive material before. Working in three teams over six months, the volunteers identified documents and images and wrote the text to interpret it for others. The panels cover three themes, Medieval York, Modern York and the York Mystery Plays which are currently being performed just round the corner in Museum Gardens.

Internal display panels amongst sofas and bookcases

One of the freestanding displays – unmissable in the middle of the library

The exhibition is displayed in a set of beautiful new wooden display panels that were commissioned from a local carpenter’s workshop and funded by Yorventure. They are an investment for the future and will be used for many years to come, enabling us for the first time to put on high-quality exhibitions, and to bring archive content and services at York Explore onto the ground floor in order to reach a wider audience.

People having lunch outside the library, reading the panels

The panels have already attracted the attention of picnic-ers and add a splash of colour to Library Square

The graphic design was also commissioned from a local specialist. He has put together a video which gives a taster of how the exhibition looks, perfect for those of you not based in York or unable to pop in. Look out for Victoria Hoyle in the white dress and pink cardigan, Civic Archivist, who masterminded both the exhibition and the wider City Making History project.

One of the purposes of the exhibition was to showcase the archive collections to library visitors and people passing outside, who might not otherwise have found out about the material. One visitor has already made a discovery – seeing her grandma’s name in a nineteenth-century record shown on one of the pictures, and has contacted us to find out more!

The exhibition will run until late September, as a part of York 800, and can be seen seven days a week. It ties in with the cataloguing project as a taster of how rich the collections are and demonstrates perfectly how anyone can engage with and use the collections – not just specialists or academics.

Credits and acknowlegments of those involved

Many thanks to all those involved – especially the volunteers who contributed their time and put together such an engaging display.