A new history of York lifts the lid on a city of prostitutes and thieves, revolutionaries and refugees. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

YOU think you know all about York’s history, right? It used to be a Viking capital (that’s why we still have all those blokes in Viking costumes prancing around the streets to this day) and 2,000 years ago there was a Roman fort about where Petergate now is.

Oh, and in the 1830s some bloke called George Hudson brought the railways here.

That’s all true enough in its way, says Paul Furness. But it barely scratches the surface.

Paul, a library assistant and former museums worker who lives in Clementhorpe, loves his history. But he’s sick to death of all York’s false Vikings and Romans.

“The city has been here for nearly 2,000 years,” he says. “Something else must have happened.”

And so it has, as Paul gleefully narrates in his new book York: A Walk On The Wild Side.

The York that emerges from these pages isn’t the staid, respectable, rather dull city portrayed in the more traditional histories. It is bawdy, raucous and at times downright sinister – a city of prostitutes and thieves, revolutionaries and murderers.

In the introduction to his book, Paul – a member of the York Alternative History Group – has a real go at those determined to sanitise the city’s history.

“John Barry... said that the city he was born in was among the most beautiful in the world but that it was as dull as ditch water, too,” he writes.

“The novelist Kate Atkinson... said that most of the people she grew up with no longer use the centre of town. And why should they, when the chippy northerners have been shipped out to Selby and the suburbs?

“Meanwhile, those mean streets of the inner city which they left behind have become a dumping ground for the southern middle class who… you will hear squealing with barely concealed delight about how lucky they are to be living in lovely York.

“Part of the sequestering of this brash Yorkshire capital is a sanitisation of its history and an ignorance of the past… York has been reduced to a city of drab, makeshift festivals that encourage everyone to dress up as Romans or Vikings and live off expensive chocolate handouts.

“At times, it feels as if we are drowning in an enormous pile of slightly soiled antique lace…”

Phew! Strong stuff. Whatever your views on soiled antique lace, however, Paul’s book does make for riveting reading.

It is written in the form of a series of guided walks, complete with handy maps – Paul sometimes leads “alternative history” guided tours, and he’s clearly drawn quite extensively on those.

But the book is brilliantly researched and Paul has dug up some fantastic (and occasionally eye-watering) stories from York’s alternative, “forgotten” past.

Here, to tempt and tease you, are just a few...

York Against Slavery

At the end of a long, foul day in March, 1784, the anti-slavery politician William Wilberforce made the first great speech of his career right here, at the Eye of York, Paul writes.

James Boswell, the Scottish writer famous for his “Life” of Dr Johnson, was there, shivering in the wind, hail and rain which were lashing down, to capture the scene.

This is what he wrote: “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew and grew until the shrimp became a whale.”

In the York Tavern afterwards (where Bettys café is now) the debate went on until a cry of ‘Wilberforce and Liberty!’ rang out across York. “Next day he (Wilberforce) returned to the Castle Yard and was elected MP for Yorkshire...” Paul writes.

York Press:

Yorkshire’s Guantanamo Bay

As the Industrial Revolution spread through West Yorkshire’s mills, it brought with it widespread injustice and exploitation of working people, Paul writes.

Uprisings against such exploitation also spread – and many protesters ended up imprisoned in York Castle.

“By the time the National Charter Association was founded in 1840 to agitate for political reform and better working conditions, York Castle had become the Guantanamo Bay of its day – and it was bursting at the seams with Northern political prisoners,” Paul writes.

“Conditions were grim. In 1836, 25 blanket weavers from Huddersfield were held in chains –12 of them transported to Australia, never to see their families again. Peter Hoey, a Barnsley hand-loom weaver convicted for sedition, lost a leg after being manacled for so long, and Samuel Holberry – who was suffering from tuberculosis and was so weak he couldn’t even hold a pen – was worked to death on the treadmill.”

As late as the First World War, York Castle was still playing its part in state-sponsored repression, Paul writes.

“Large numbers of conscientious objectors were brought to the castle and, once the Aliens Restriction Act became law in August 1914, German-born residents of Yorkshire were rounded up and herded off to the prison – so many of them, in fact, that  tents had to be set up on the Eye of York.”


York Press:

Sex and the City

Prostitutes have always done good business in York, Paul writes. Genteel Grape Lane was once known as something completely different – we blush to include the name here, but it began with ‘Grope’.  It was a street of brothels where, in medieval times, visitors to the Mystery Plays would go in search of more ‘carnal entertainment’, Paul writes.

But it was the 19th century that was really the high water mark of York’s sex trade. “The Water Lanes, which led from Castlegate all the way down to the river, were so crowded with whores that the respectable Quakers of Castlegate objected to them gathering on corners in ‘flashy clothes’ and yelling enticements to passers-by,” Paul writes.

Although prostitutes were regularly dragged before the Minster courts and charged with ‘fornication’, the authorities didn’t always have it easy, Paul writes. When officers of the law attempted to close down Priscilla Barnett’s floating brothel, they were “tipped into the river by the working girls”. And one notorious working girl, Ann McDonald, was seen “lurching down Walmgate with a sickle in her hand” – which she flourished at any officers who tried to apprehend her.

Votes for Women

Number 8 New Street was, in 1911, the York headquarters of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which campaigned for women’s suffrage – votes for women.

“In this building, they welcomed visitors with tea served in China cups and saucers decorated in the Suffragette colours of purple, white and green, held meetings, and discussed tactics,” Paul writes.

“They then went out and chalked pavements with slogans, sold The Suffragette newspaper in Coney Street and the Parliament Street marketplace before, in the busy year of 1913, they poured petrol into postboxes and set them alight (then headed) off to the art gallery to chain themselves to chairs at a meeting addressed by Philip Snowden, the MP for Blackburn.”

York Press:

The Nazi refugee and the York Mystery Plays

In 1936 Hans Hess, a German Jew who came from a family of Berlin shoemakers, fled to England where, in the early part of the Second World War, he was one of the few voices warning about the reality of Nazi concentration camps. No one listened.

By 1943, now married and a father, he moved to York, where he was appointed director of the York Art Gallery. For almost 20 years, he lived in a building that later became part of Lady Anne Middleton’s Hotel.

York Press:

“Apart from dragging York Art Gallery kicking and screaming into the 20th century – it took him all of the 20 years he lived here to do so, he said – the most important thing Hess did for York was revive the Mystery Plays, that unique cycle of communal plays charting the story of the medieval world view from creation to Armageddon which had been suppressed since 1569,” Paul writes.

“When the Festival of Britain never got north of Watford in 1951, Hess decided to put York on the map by starting a Festival of the Arts with the Plays at the heart of it – and, thanks to a German Jewish asylum seeker, they have continued to be performed ever since.”


How to buy the book

York: A Walk On The Wild Side by Paul Furness is published by the York Alternative History Group. It is available, priced £5, from local bookshops, from the York Alternative History website yorkalternativehistory.wordpress.com/ or by post from York Workshops, 8 Galtres Grove, York YO30 8RG (price £5 including p&p for single copies; £9 for 2; £12 for 3. Cheques payable to 'York Workshops').