The information plaques that hang on walls around York telling the story of its famous people and places amount to a history of the city in 100 bites. In a new column beginning on Saturday, The Press will feature one plaque - and the story of the person or event it commemorates - each week. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

IN the year 1772, a man in his early 50s limped on foot into York. John Woolman was a Quaker minister, anti-slavery campaigner and civil rights pioneer who, because he didn't like the way coachmen mistreated their horses, had insisted on travelling around England on foot.

Woolman was touring the country speaking out against slavery and other forms of cruelty, and extolling the virtues of the simple life. On arrival in Thirsk, he had said he would next be going to York. Asked where he would go after that, he apparently replied: 'I don't know. York looks like home to me.'

That was to prove prophetic. When he arrived here he was put up by a well-known local Quaker family, the Tukes, in their home in Castlegate. Unbeknown to him, however, he was already suffering from smallpox. He died after just three weeks after arriving in the city - departing 'without struggle, sigh or groan' as Tuke was to write. He is buried in the former Quaker burial ground in the gardens of a house in Marygate Lane, Bishophill.

Woolman spent only three short weeks of his life in York. Yet his name appears prominently on a bronze York Civic Trust plaque put up at the site of the former Quaker burial ground. There's a reason for that.

Born in 1720, one of the 13 children of the Quaker Samuel Woolman, in Burlington County, New Jersey, in the American colonies, Woolman had campaigned and written all his life about the horrors of slavery. He began his crusade at the age of just 21, when he was keeping the books for a shopkeeper near his home. His employer asked him to sign a bill of sale for a female slave. Woolman refused, saying that slave-keeping was a 'practice inconsistent with the Christian religion'. The course of his life was set.

Later Victorian thinkers rated Woolman as amongst the most important of the abolitionists. The philosopher AN Whitehead described him as 'that Apostle of Human Freedom', while the essayist Charles Lamb said Woolman's Journal was the only American book he had read twice. Little wonder that York was so keen to claim him as an honorary son of the city.

In 2,000 years of history, there have been many extraordinary men and women associated with York - as well as many extraordinary events and developments that have taken place here.

In 1946, the newly-formed York Civic Trust decided to begin attaching plaques to the walls of buildings in the city to commemorate some of these people and places.

Ironically, the very first plaque was put up not in York, but in Amsterdam. It commemorated Matthew Poole, the renowned Presbyterian Bible scholar, who was born in York in the 1620s and who, after graduating from Cambridge, became a Minister in London. After a career writing controversial religious tracts with titles such as 'The Blasphemer Slain' he fled London in fear of an apparent Roman Catholic plot against his life, and joined the Presbyterian congregation in Amsterdam. He died there a year later.

The decision to put up the first ever Civic Trust plaque to Poole in Amsterdam seems to have been partly a political and diplomatic one, admits York Civic Trust chief executive David Fraser.The Dean of York at the time was keen to demonstrate York's solidarity with cities on the continent that had been ravaged by the Second World War.

By the early 1950s, however, the Trust had begun a programme of putting up plaques across the city - starting with St Anthony's Hall and the Assembly Rooms in 1951. "This building was erected by public subscription 1730-1736 to the design of Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington," says the plaque at the Assembly Rooms, simply.

To begin with, the plaques were made of bronze (though today they are made of blue cast aluminium). Plaques commemorating places are rectangular, while those in memory of people are round.

There are now almost 100 plaques across the city. The people and places they commemorate include:

- The Roman emperor Constantine

- The Catholic martyr Margaret Clitherow

- Guy Fawkes

- Astronomer John Goodricke

- George Hudson

- The artist William Etty

- Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree

- York's first woman Lord Mayor, Edna Annie Crichton

- York's Roman Praetorian gate

- King's Manor

- The York observatory

- The cholera burial ground

- St Stephen's Orphanage

- St George's Cinema

In more recent years, the likes of Frankie Howerd and John Barry have been commemorated with plaques - and there are plans afoot for a plaque to commemorate the York Suffragette Annie Seymour Pearson.

Between them, the city's plaques add up to a very visible history of the people and events that have made York so special. "We have so much to be proud of," says Mr Fraser. You never know, when you're out and about walking the city's streets, just when you will stumble upon one of the plaques and so learn something new about York, he says. "I'd say we have a success every time a resident or a visitor does a double take and says 'Oh, I didn't realise that happened in York.'

There are still some gaps to be filled. For example, there isn't, yet, a single plaque dedicated to York's Vikings. "We really have got to do something about that," says Buff Reid, who coordinates the Civic Trust's plaques programme.

There are also not as many women as the Trust would like.

But new plaques are appearing all the time - 11 last year alone. And with a list of plaques and a new, interactive map on the Trust's website, it is now easier than ever for people to find out where they are, and even devise walks taking in plaques they're interested in.

Many of the plaques commemorate people or places many York residents will never have heard of. But they all represent significant events, or people who made a real difference, says Mr Fraser.

Next Saturday, to help make the city's plaques better known, The Press will be beginning a regular weekly column. Each week, we'll feature one of the city's plaques, and tell you a bit about the person or place that it commemorates.

"We're delighted that the plaques will be getting wider exposure in the Press," says Mr Fraser. "We want people to know about our history."

BLOB To see a list of York's plaques and an interactive map showing where they are, visit and click on the 'heritage' button.

Don't miss Saturday's newspaper for the first of our series of new weekly columns featuring one plaque each week.