Tax dodging is nothing new, as a visit to York’s city archives reveals. A new online catalogue to the archives now being created should soon make it easier for everyone to delve into York’s amazing history, writes STEPHEN LEWIS.

MEMBERS of Parliament have been getting hot under the collar recently about major international corporations – OK, Starbucks, Google and Amazon – which have somehow been managing to pay very little tax while making vast profits in the UK.

Tax avoidance is one of the hot political potatoes of the day. Yet, like so much else in our lives, it is nothing new.

Way back in 1781, a York butcher by the name of Roger Pinkney was issued with a certificate that effectively exempted him from paying any tax anywhere in the British Isles.

The certificate testified that Mr Pinkney was an inhabitant of the Liberty of St Peter, a small area of York around the Minster that was under the control of the Dean and Chapter, not of the city corporation.

As such, he was entitled to certain ancient privileges enjoyed by inhabitants of the Liberty that dated back to “before the reign of King Edward the Confessor”. Those privileges are set out in neat copperplate handwriting.

The inhabitants of the Liberty of St Peter, the document says, were “acquitted of and from payment of all and all manner of Tolls, Tonage, Pontage, Murage, Pedage, Smallage and Stallage whatsoever in all Fairs and Markets within the Realm of England, Ireland and the Dominion of Wales”.

Pontage was a bridge toll, murage a toll paid to help maintain walls, pedage conceivably a toll paid to maintain footpaths or pavements.

Mr Pinkney, in short, seems to have been a tax dodger – though his tax dodging, like that of Starbucks, Amazon and Google, was entirely legal. He probably had to pay for his certificate, says Justine Winstanley-Brown, the project archivist at City of York council brought in to create an online catalogue of the city archives. But no doubt it would have been hugely beneficial to him in his day-to-day business.

Mr Pinkney’s Liberty of St Peter certificate is one of more than 20 documents and records kept in a single box pulled more or less at random from the archive strongrooms in a wing of York Art Gallery.

The box is marked with an ‘M’ for miscellaneous: and it contains documents which range in date from 1532 (a set of property deeds) to 1879 (rental agreements for properties in Spurriergate and Waterloo Place).

All of human life is here in this one box. Thus, from 1810, there is a court document testifying that one Mary Gawthorpe, wife of Matthew Gawthorpe, had been summonsed to the church court to answer a charge of defamation against ‘Margaret Bell, widow’. Sadly, we don’t know what that charge related to.

There is a document, date November 12, 1863, appointing the Archbishop of York (it would have been William Thompson, though he isn’t named) a governor of Charterhouse school.

And, amid a collection of other legal documents, a tenancy agreement dated October 11, 1815, for the lease of a house in Spurriergate. The new tenant, Mr John Elliott, agrees to “pay all taxes whatsoever… rent to be paid half yearly”.

He also agrees to “whitewash, paper and paint the house inside and outside once in four years, and keep and leave all in good repair”. It’s a rental agreement that could almost have been written today.

In fact, that is perhaps the most notable thing about the people whose lives are recorded in the documents in this box: they were pretty much like us. They slandered each other; they tried to avoid paying tax; they entered into agreements to rent homes and other property; they complained about their employees and failed to pay their rent on time.

Astonishingly, York city archives contain 210 cubic metres of boxes, volumes, documents, maps, plans and photographs – well over a million individual items, all contained in three strong-rooms and an upper floor mezzanine.

Soon, all of this priceless material will be moved out into secure storage so that the £8 million refurbishment of the art gallery can begin.

Depending on the success or otherwise of a bid for £1.57 million of heritage lottery funding, it will then either be moved into a new, purpose-built archive above York Explore Library, or it will be left in storage (although documents would then still be able to be requested through the archives ‘gateway’ above the library).

Moving it will be a daunting task: largely because nobody really knows exactly what is here. Yes, we know that the oldest document is an early charter granted to the city by King Henry II in 1155 relating to certain trading rights. We know there is an unbroken set of council (or city corporation) minutes dating back to 1496, and an unparalleled collection of medieval archives, many of them catalogued by William Giles, the deputy town clerk who rescued them from the flooded basement of the Guildhall in October 1892.

But mixed in with all the council archives are church court records, property deeds and a host of plans, maps, old photographs and other documents.

Bits of the collection have been catalogued in detail, but using different systems: and large sections have never really been catalogued at all.

“We don’t really know what we have,” says Justine, the young Oxford history graduate who has been brought in to bring order to the chaos.

“While some parts of the archive have been catalogued before large sections of material from the 17th to the 20th centuries have never been systematically explored. So there are new and exciting discoveries waiting to be found.”

With the help of a small Heritage Lottery grant Justine, originally from Skipton, has been employed on a 15-month contract to create a digital catalogue of the archive – one designed to make it easier for ordinary members of the public to access the wealth of material here, wherever it is eventually stored.

At the moment, if someone wants to find something, they are more-or-less reliant on a member of archive staff being present who knows which of the various lists or written catalogues (none of them anything like complete) to look in.

“Certain members of staff have knowledge and expertise,” Justine says. “The idea is to get that out of people’s heads and into a system that everybody can search.”

The scale of the challenge is indicated by that one box containing the Liberty of St Peter certificate.

There is little or no connection between the documents in the box. Many of them – such as church records – probably shouldn’t be part of the civic archives at all.

Archive bosses estimate that to go through the entire collection and make a detailed description of everything would take at least ten years.

So instead, Justine aims to create an overall guide to the collection. Her job is to work out what is in the archives; then create the framework for a catalogue that will be arranged by public service.

Once it is complete, people wanting access to the archives will be able to search online under easy-to-use categories such as finance, transport, legal, entertainment, civil defence and so on.

The online catalogue that emerges at the end of the process won’t give details of what is in every document in the archives, and it won’t include images or scanned documents.

But it will at least point people in the right direction, so that they will know where to look. The hope is that once the framework is in place, details of documents in the archives can gradually be filled in by volunteers in the future.

It is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, Justine says. The items in the archives are the individual pieces of the jigsaw. “And I’m doing the picture on the box.”

Hopefully, it is a picture that, once it goes online towards the end of summer next year, will make it easier for amateur and family historians everywhere to make much better use of the priceless wealth of material slumbering in the archives’ strongrooms.

• Justine writes a regular blog about her progress on organising the city archives. It includes a ‘lucky dip’ feature, in which she dips into boxes or books at random, and describes what she finds there. To follow her blog, visit