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1:41pm Saturday 31st March 2012 in History articles
A new book celebrates the industries that helped make modern York – from chocolate and the railways to comb-making and telescopes. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
Thomas Cooke was a man ahead of his time. Not content with making some of the finest telescopes anywhere in the world in the 19th century, he branched out in 1866 in a new direction altogether: steam-powered cars.
If anything, he was a man too far ahead of his time. So efficient were his three-wheeled cars that they were able to reach the dizzying speed of 15mph. Sadly, the speed limit at the time was just 4mph – so Mr Cooke’s cars were promptly banned from the roads.
The inventor and manufacturer was undeterred. Unable to use his new machine on the roads, he fitted his steam engine into a boat. “And then he rode it up and down the River Ouse!” says local historian Paul Chrystal with delight.
The story of Cooke, Troughton & Simms, optical instruments manufacturer, is just one of many tales of local inventiveness and ingenuity that find their way into the pages of Paul’s latest book, York Industries Through Time.
It is a book which will appeal to anyone whose family has lived in York for a generation or more. Because this is the story of the industries that made the city what it is today: the industries in which the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of many people living in York now will have worked.
The book looks at the great guilds, such as the Merchant Taylor’s and Merchant Adventurers; at the shops which have been such a feature of the city down the years; at the markets – the cattle market, as well as the one in Parliament Street – and the barges which once ploughed their way up and down the Foss and Ouse.
But above all this is a book about the great manufacturing industries in York – the railways, the chocolate, the flour mills – and the smaller, specialist companies such as Cooke, Troughton & Simms.
Apart from the railways, York was never really a city of heavy industry, Paul admits. It never fully developed the dark, satanic mills that characterised much of West and South Yorkshire. He thinks there are probably a couple of reasons for that. “Coal was very expensive: it had to be dredged here from West Yorkshire.”
Plus the guilds themselves, which had dominated commerce in the city since the middle ages, made it comparatively difficult to set up in business for yourself unless you were a guild member and so a part of an established business or trading elite.
Nevertheless, it is surprising just what a diversity of industry and business there was in York from the 18th century onwards, Paul says. There were the railways, closely followed by the city’s chocolate dynasties (which are celebrated in the new attraction CHOCOLATE: York’s Sweet Story opening in King’s Square this weekend); there was Leetham’s flour mill, Redfearn’s glassmakers and Bleasedale’s pharmaceuticals. York also had a long tradition of comb-making, printing and publishing: businesses such as the York Press and F R Delittle.
All are represented in Paul’s new book, in what amounts to a series of mini-biographies of the businesses, industries and shops that have helped make the city what it is today. The stories of York’s chocolate and rail industries, recounted in Paul’s book, are already quite well known. Here are just a few others you might know less about.
Cooke, Troughton & Simms
Thomas Cooke came to York in 1829, and made his first telescope using the base of a whisky glass for a lens and a tin for the tube, Paul writes. In 1837 he opened his first instrument-making shop at 50 Stonegate with a loan of £100 from his wife’s uncle. He quickly gained a reputation for high quality and was soon making microscopes, opera glasses, spectacles and mathematical instruments as well as telescopes. By 1844 he had expanded and moved to 12 Coney Street. The telescope still in place in York Observatory was made by Cooke in 1850. In 1856 the company moved into the Buckingham Works at Bishophill, where Cooke built a telescope for Prince Albert. In 1915, control of Cooke’s was acquired by Vickers. Troughton & Simms was established in 1922; in 1939 the Haxby Road site was bought.
The first glassworks was opened in 1794 by Hampston & Prince near Fishergate, making flint glass and medicinal phials. The York Flint Glass company was set up in 1835 and by 1851 was a larger employer than Terry. In 1930, it was incorporated as National Glass works (York) Ltd, which became the Redfearn National Glass Company in 1967. It was demolished in 1988 and replaced by the Novotel. Sand for the works came via the Foss Islands Branch Line rail depot.
Horn breaking and comb-making
Comb-making became a recognised craft in 1635 when the Livery Company of Comb-makers received its charter, Paul writes. Comb-making and horn breaking flourished around Hornpot Lane off Petergate. By 1784 three were 65 freemen, journeymen and apprentices engaged in the trade. Comb makers worked in ivory and tortoiseshell as well as horn. Books and manuscripts were covered with horn, poor people’s crockery was often made from the substance – and there is still to this day a horn window in Barley Hall. One of the more successful York comb companies was Joseph Rougier, who made drinking horns, combs and lanterns from 1823 until 1931. Rougier had a works near Tanner Row and gave his name to the street nearby.
Bleasedale Pharmaceutical Manufacturers
John Dale’s Bleasdale Ltd, a manufacturing and wholesale chemist, was established in 1780 behind Colliergate. A visitor to the firm in the 1930s left this description: “…after traversing a dark corridor (we) found ourselves confronted by a locked door – the entrance to the Poison Rooms. For the first time in my life I saw samples of raw opium – and very disinteresting they looked.” The visitor would also have seen barrels of black beer, cod liver oil and machinery for grinding liquorice, trimming rhubarb and grinding poppies, Paul notes. Other pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturers included Wright & Prest in Pavement, Edward Wallis & Son in Bedern and Thomas Bishop at North Street Postern.
York Industries Through Time by Paul Chrystal is published by Amberley, priced £14.99
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