Guy Fawkes has got one and so has Saint Margaret Clitheroe. Joseph Rowntree has one, and York’s famous (or should that be notorious?) ‘railway king’ George Hudson has two. York-born comedian Frankie Howerd doesn’t have one yet – although there is a campaign to put that right – and neither does Dame Judi Dench. But then, she is still alive.
What are we talking about here? The York Civic Trust’s commemorative bronze plaques, of course.
There are now 70 of them across York, fixed to display boards or, more usually, attached to the side of buildings.
They are fairly discreet, usually at about eye level. “We want people to be able to see them,” says Peter Brown, the civic trust’s director. And they are worth looking out for as you wander around the city.
Between them, they amount not only to a who’s who of famous sons and daughters of York, and also to a potted history of the city. For these plaques commemorate not only people, but also important events and sites from throughout York’s history.
The information they convey is often terse, but invariably to the point. And sometimes they make the head spin.
“Near this place, Constantine The Great was proclaimed Roman Emperor in 306,” records the plaque to the great man near the south entrance to the Minster in Deangate. “His recognition of the civil liberties of his Christian subjects, and his own conversion to the Faith, established the religious foundations of Western Christendom.”
Just imagine it: stand reading that plaque and you are at the site of one of the most epochal moments in European and world history. Had Constantine not become emperor, he would not have converted the Roman world to Christianity. The Christian faith might well never have been more than a minor sect that flourished briefly before dying out during Roman times. And the lives of everyone alive today would almost certainly be utterly different – there probably wouldn’t even be a Minster, for a start.
And it all happened right here.
Not all bronze plaques have that power. But they are all fascinating, thought-provoking and tantalising in different ways.
One, on Station Road, marks the site of land acquired to bury the 185 victims of a plague of cholera which struck in 1832. “There are 20 surviving memorial stones, all of sandstone,” the plaque records.
St Sampson’s Church is familiar today because it accommodates a centre for elderly people. But the building has a long and colourful history, as the bronze plaque affixed to it attests. “The church is first mentioned in 1154,” it says. “Its tower was damaged by cannon balls in 1644…”
Attached to the wall of the Minster library in Dean’s Garden, meanwhile, is a plaque to King Richard III. “Within the Archbishop’s palace here, King Richard III invested his son as Prince of Wales on the 8th of September, 1483.”
You can just imagine the pageantry. What further proof is needed that in medieval times, York truly was England’s capital of the North, rivalling London in power and splendour?
It is to help explain, highlight and interpret the many layers of York’s history that the Civic Trust began to put up the plaques in the 1940s. “Last year’s Report mentioned the appointment of a sub-committee to consider suitable types of material, form and lettering for plaques to be placed on buildings of historical interest in the City,” says the civic trust’s annual report for 1947.
The first plaque, installed that year for the then princely sum of £100, was at the Judge’s Lodgings. “Built circa 1720 by Dr C Winteringham (1689-1748) on the site of the churchyard of St Wilfrid’s Church. Now the official residence of H.M. Judges of Assize,” the plaque informed anyone who was interested.
Nowadays, there is no sign of a plaque on the walls of what is one of York’s most popular pubs and hotels. For the time being, it is being kept in storage at Fairfax House, but the plan is to return it to its place in due course.
There are still plenty of bronze plaques to catch the eye of the alert wanderer. In St George’s Field, there is one showing flood heights at Ouse Bridge down the ages. There is a descriptive plaque fixed to the wall of the Red Tower, in Foss Islands Road, one of York’s quirkier ancient buildings.
“This tower marks the termination of the City Wall, and at one time marked the commencement of an impassable swamp, which extended to Layerthorpe Postern,” it says.
On the ancient stone walls that flank the Marygate side of Museum Gardens, there is even a plaque to a feature that no longer exists.
“Above may be seen a facsimile of the type of shutter which was used in medieval times to guard the bowmen against a return flight of arrows,” it says. “The Abbey wall, which is 13th and 14th century, is unique in that its battlements retain the grooves for these shutters… The wooden guard, after the bowman had fired his arrows in quick succession, was swung down to protect him.”
The shutters are long gone, sadly. But there the grooves still are – grooves that “do not exist anywhere else on the City walls and it is doubtful if there are any others in England except possibly at Alnwick”, the plaque records.
The most recent plaque – the 70th to be put up – was that installed on the wall of Barnitts in June. It is there not to commemorate one of York’s most popular and quirky shops, but to mark the site of the former pub where the Ancient Society of York Florists, formed in 1768, held its first “floral feast”.
Keeping an eye out for these plaques as you walk around York is great fun. And the civic trust does “quite a lot of walking tours for… members,” says Peter Brown. As yet, however, there are no designated trails, or maps to guide you around the plaques.
That may change. A few years ago, Ruth Hoffmans, a student from Dusseldorf University on a six month placement with the civic trust, made an inventory of the plaques. She photographed all she could find, and even made a note about their condition. And then she drew up suggestions for four “civic trust bronze plaque trails” – a Georgian Trail, a Medieval Trail, a Roman Trail and a ‘Trail of the illustrious’, or famous people. She even prepared maps to go with them.
You won’t find them in any bookshops yet, though it is something the civic trust may well consider in the future, Mr Brown says. “In fact, as part of our events program next year we will definitely have a bronze plaque tour.”
In the meantime, we’ve adapted two of Ruth’s trails for readers to try out for themselves.
The plaques won’t always be easy to spot: but searching them out is part of the fun. So happy hunting…
1 Aldwark – meaning ‘old fortification’, probably Roman.
2 Monk Bar – built on the line of the Roman wall.
3 Roman Fortress, Chapter House Street – the street leading from the back of the Roman headquarters to the fortress’s North East Gate.
4 Deangate – Constantine the Great’s statue, south entrance to Minster.
5 Deangate – Roman column which once stood within the great hall of the Sixth Legion’s HQ.
5 Low Petergate – which formed, with High Petergate, the ‘via principalis’ or main street of the Roman fortress.
6 Stonegate – the ‘via praetoria’ of the Roman fortress.
7 Bootham bar, site of the Roman fortress’s north western gate.
8 St Leonard’s Place – section of ancient Roman wall.
9 St Helen’s Square – site of the Praetorian Gate, the main entrance into the Roman city.
10 Coney Street – developed from a Roman road which skirted the Roman fortress.
Famous people trail
• 11 Marygate Lane – John Woolman, American anti-slavery pioneer, died here.
• 54 Bootham – WH Auden, poet, born here.
• 49 Bootham – Joseph Rowntree, philanthropist, lived here.
• 33 Bootham – Dr William Arthur Evelyn, conservation pioneer, lived here.
• High Petergate – Sir Thomas Herbert, who stayed with King Charles I the night before his execution, lived here.
• Treasurer’s House, Minster Yard – John Goodricke, astronomer, observed the stars from here.
• College Street – George Hudson had his original draper’s shop here.
• Stonegate – Guy Fawkes, born hereabouts.
• Ouse Bridge – St Margaret Clitheroe, executed near here.