It has been a slum and a red light area, and was also for centuries home to a religious community known as the vicars choral. STEPHEN LEWIS reports on the colourful history of Bedern.

THE area of York known as Bedern has had its ups and downs. Bedern Hall today is one of those beautifully restored medieval buildings of which York has so many.

It is the home of three of York's historic guilds – the York Gild of Freemen, the Company of Cordwainers of York and the York Guild of Building – as well as a popular wedding venue.

But little more than 30 years ago, this lovely building was a tumbledown ruin. And go back a century further, to the Victorian age, and the quarter of York the hall was named after was a notorious slum: a crime-ridden red light district where decent people feared to tread.

Go back in time still further, and Bedern was the home to a religious community known as the vicars choral of York Minster: a body of clergy who sang services in the Minster in return for which they received gifts of land and money.

They lived in a 'College of Vicars Choral' which occupied the area between Goodramgate, St Andrewgate and Aldwark, and what is now Bedern Hall was the refectory where they once dined.

According to the official history of Bedern Hall, the name Bedern – which is simply an Anglo-Saxon word for 'house of prayer' – was first used in York in about 1270.

By 1300, there were 36 York 'vicars choral', one for each member of the Minster Chapter. There was even a bridge linking their college to the Minster so that the vicars could get between the two without having to come into contact with ordinary people.

York Press:
Edwin Ridsdale Tate’s drawing imagining Goodramgate as it would have looked before 1850. The entrance to Aldwark is on the right and the inside of Monk Bar can be seen in the distance

York's vicars choral were comparatively comfortable by medieval standards. The income from their land went into a common fund, which was distributed to the vicars, who were effectively 'shareholders'.

The medieval vicars choral were not canons, stresses historian Peter Hampson, in an article written in 2012 for the history journal Ex Historia. "Their education was minimal, usually just enough to get them ordained, and they were often recruited from local boys who had previously sung in the choir."

The vicars choral were sworn to chastity and obedience, but seem to have had trouble upholding their vows. Whenever a bishop or other clergy visited a cathedral such as York, the local clergy, including the vicars choral, would accuse each other of breaches of discipline – and these were duly recorded.

"Given that many of the vicars choral were healthy young men, usually with time on their hands, and with local connections, the accusations were often that they had been consorting with women or fighting," Mr Hampson writes. There were also less serious accusations of simple neglect of duty.

The vicars' poor reputation may be a little unfair, since it was only the badly behaved who were mentioned in church records.

"Overall they probably did not deserve the reputation many historians have attached to them," Mr Hampson writes.

"Yes, there were some boisterous young men, who regularly got into trouble, but they tended to evolve with time into more mature clerics."

York Press:
Bedern Hall in 1975

Whether their reputation for bad behaviour was deserved or not, York's vicars choral continued to live in their college in Bedern for centuries. But following the Reformation, their numbers declined.

Many of the individual houses connected to the college were let to lay people, the history of Bedern Hall says. And since they were now allowed to marry, many of the vicars did indeed marry and moved away. Bedern Hall itself continued to be used for meetings and feasts for another half century: but by 1650, part of it had been incorporated into a private house.

Local historian Peter Stanhope, who will be giving a talk at Bedern Hall next week, says that in the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the land at Bedern was used by senior churchmen and local businessmen to build a series of grand houses.

Following the influx of rural and Irish immigrants into York, however, these elegant buildings were converted into tenements.

"Some of these once graceful houses were then demolished in the late 1800s giving way to 'human warehouses' such as the infamous Ebor Buildings, a five story building built by Mrs. Jackson, previously a land-owner in Bedern, which housed 300 people (mainly poor Irish immigrants) with only three privies between them." Mr Stanhope says.

The Bedern slums had arrived.

York Press:
 Bedern Hall pictured before restoration in 1979

The area's unsavoury reputation persisted well into the middle of the 20th century. Even by the 1950s, when he was a lad growing up in York, Bedern was still seen by many as a 'no go' area for decent folk, Mr Stanhope says.

"It was an area that I was told to stay away from. It had something of the same sort of reputation that Walmgate had. If you walked up Colliergate and turned right into St Andrewgate, you were going downmarket."

That all changed with the Esher Report in the 1960s. Many of the slums were cleared, and new housing was built.

But that still left the problem of Bedern Hall, by then little more than an ancient ruin, says Mr Stanhope.

"Thankfully, men of wisdom and foresight stepped forward and it was decided to save what was left of the 14th century hall and to restore it for a modern use."

In 1983 the foundation stone was laid by Sir Peter Shepherd for the hall to be reconstructed as home to the three historic York guilds which it still houses today.

York Press:
Bedern Hall pictured before restoration in 1979

Maintaining the hall as a listed building requires about £25,000 a year, so the Bedern Hall Foundation was recently launched to raise funds. Mr Stanhope's talk next week will be part of the fundraising effort.

It is titled Images Of A Disappeared York, and will include many 'then and now' views of York, including some of Bedern and Bedern Hall.

Among the images Mr Stanhope will be showing will be some by the Victorian artist Edward Ridsdale Tate, including the images on these pages of Jubbergate, Davygate and Goodramgate.

Many of the 'old' views of York – including those depicted by Ridsdale Tate – have changed almost out of all recognition, Mr Stanhope says: giving the lie to the assumption that York is just the same as it has always been.

"It's amazing how Ridsdale Tate managed to capture so many of these scenes during his life as an artist and busy architect – before they disappeared forever," he says."Thank goodness that he did."

York Press:
Local historian Peter Stanhope

Peter Stanhope's illustrated lecture, Images Of A Disappeared York, will be at Bedern Hall on Wednesday March 11, at 7pm for 7.30pm. A similar lecture the evening before, on March 10, is already sold out. Tickets are £9.50 per person and can be booked at or by phone on 01904 646030.