The real story behind life in Georgian York and the taste of Chocolate City

View of the Mansion House looking down Coney Street. Reproduced courtesy of the York Architectural and York Archaeological Society (YAYAs) Evelyn Collection

The Assembly Rooms, York. Reproduced courtesy of the YAYAS Evelyn Collection

Eighteenth century Bootham Bar. Reproduced courtesy of the YAYAS Evelyn Collection

Blossom Street looking toward Micklegate, the emerging new classical facades juxtaposed with older frontages. Reproduced courtesy of the YAYAS Evelyn Collection

The New Walk in Georgian times. Reproduced courtesy of the YAYAS Evelyn Collection

A dilapidated Walmgate in 1823 as drawn by H Cave. Reproduced courtesy of the YAYAS Evelyn Collection

An engraving of a house in Walmgate, York, from Mary Tuke's timeReproduced courtesy of the YAYAS Evelyn Collection

First published in Features
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York missed out on the industrial and manufacturing boom of the 18th century and instead became a fashionable centre of Georgian high society. But according to a new book, that's precisely why it was able to develop into the 'chocolate city' of Rowntrees and Terrys, finds STEPHEN LEWIS.

HOW about this for a wonderful account of what it would have been like to arrive in York from London in 1725?

"The London stagecoach would have rumbled into the old city beneath Micklegate Bar which, though in dire need of structural repair, still retained its barbican," writes Summer Strevens in her new book The Birth Of The Chocolate City.

"After a twenty-nine and a half hour journey, the High Flyer or the Wellington arrived from London carrying weary passengers, who disembarked into a city of medieval streets mingled with some of the recently added Georgian facades, brooded over by the towering Minster.

"Itinerant tradesmen calling for custom - knives to grind or fresh milk from the cow - gossips, beggars, shoppers and tradesmen added to the din of market carts lumbering over the busy uneven roads, although congestion and rough carriageways would later be ameliorated by a special Act of Parliament imposing a five shilling fine on anyone leaving a waggon or carriage unattended."

From the title of the book, you might expect this to be yet another history of York's great chocolate dynasties.

There have been several of those recently - a fact Strevens acknowledges. "You might wonder - another book about chocolate in York?" she writes in her introduction.

This one is different, however. Yes, there is mention of Rowntrees, and Terrys, and Craven. But the real focus is on how York came to be the 'chocolate city'. And the answer to that lies in Georgian York. Hence the subtitle of her book: Life In Georgian York.

That date of 1725 is significant: because that was when Mary Tuke - who Strevens describes as the 'mother of York's chocolate industry' - set up her grocery shop in Walmgate. The shop was to be the 'foundation stone upon which the later Rowntree chocolate empire was to stand,' writes Strevens, a Londoner who, since 2009, has lived in Masham.

By later Georgian times, Walmgate would have deteriorated into an outright slum. "Pubs and inns supposedly outnumbered the houses, and those domestic dwellings were occupied by poverty-stricken families living in filthy conditions, crammed into tiny hovels in the alleyways off the street," Strevens writes.

But when Mary Tuke set up shop there, it was still a comparatively respectable, if not exactly prosperous, street. The alleyways that were later to be so cramped and filthy were still taken up by small gardens and open spaces.

Tuke's shop specialised in tea, coffee and cocoa, "the latter of which the privileged inhabitants of Bootham and Micklegate would have been served at breakfast from an elegant pot."

That is significant: because it may have been York's status as the social capital of the north in Georgian times that enabled the chocolate industry to take off here.

In medieval times, York had been the unquestioned second city of England - the 'capital of the North'.

But its military and commercial influence had begun to wane. The removal of the Royal Garrison in 1688 and the silting up of the River Ouse meant that by the start of the Georgian period it was no longer a great military or trading capital. It was also largely bypassed by the industrial boom of the early Industrial Revolution that saw the growth of cities like Leeds, Manchester and Bradford.

Instead, York reinvented itself as a centre of Georgian 'high society': a deliberate strategy by the City Fathers in the face of 'ongoing socio-economic decline,' Strevens writes.

The York Corporation itself created the fashionable 'New Walk' - a 'pedestrian avenue bordered by the dappled shade of elm and lime trees' alongside the River Ouse - to encourage the Georgian love of promenading. Outside the city walls, the open countryside gave way to 'modern' streets of tall, elegant brick houses with sash windows. John Carr himself designed many elegant homes for the Georgian elite to live in, and left the city a legacy of fine buildings: Bootham Park Hospital and Castlegate House among them. Lord Burlington, meanwhile, designed the neo-Palladian York Assembly Rooms; and the racecourse moved to a new, improved site on the Knavesmire that it still occupies today - though sadly the 'new' grandstand designed by John Carr is long gone.

The result of all this? York, during the Georgian era, was the "acknowledged premiere northern magnet for those with riches and privilege," writes Strevens. It had a "social and economic climate in which the seeds of the chocolate industry would grow and flourish."

That first seed was planted by Mary Tuke. The city in which she set up shop in 1725 was a mix of elegant new Georgian buildings and older medieval streets.

And while no longer an economic powerhouse, it was still a prosperous city where a good business could flourish. "York was still quite large, proportionally a market town rather than an industrial centre, and home to a diverse range of traditional trades such as butchers, bakers, brewers and coopers, tailors and shoemakers, comb makers and pipe makers."

And grocers. Mary was a Quaker, and a spinster. She died without children in 1752, and left her successful grocery business - by now based on the corner of Coppergate and Castlegate - to her 20-year-old nephew William. The business was to remain in Tuke family hands - introducing products such as Tukes' Rich Cocoa, Tukes' Plain Chocolate and Tukes' Milk Chocolate (the latter a chocolate used to mix with milk to make a cocoa drink) - until 1862, when the cocoa division of Tuke & Co was bought by one Henry Isaac Rowntree. In 1869, Henry's older brother Joseph joined the firm ... and the rest we know.

The seeds planted by Mary Tuke grew and flourished, "ripening into the three undisputably household names of Rowntree, Terry's and Craven," Strevens writes. But it was the fact that York largely missed out on the boom in industry and manufacturing, and so had to reinvent itself, that was "one of the determining factors in the birth of the Chocolate City."

• The Birth Of The Chocolate City: Life In Georgian York by Summer Strevens is published by Amberley, priced £14.99

Illustrations from the book showing Georgian York are reproduced on these pages with permission of the York Architectural and York Archaeological Society (YAYAS) Evelyn Collection

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