The Mansion House

Location of plaque: The Mansion House, St Helen's Square

IF you've walked past the Mansion House in the last few days, you may have noticed that a pristine new blue plaque has replaced the rather tatty older once which was once displayed on the front of the building.

There's a very good reason for. The old plaque was very much of its times - those times being rather, shall we say, patriarchal. "The Mansion House: The residence of the Lord Mayor during his year of office," the old plaque proclaimed.

This always seemed to strike the wrong note in years when the Lord Mayor was - as she has been very often recently - a woman. There was also the small fact that the old plaque got the dates for the construction of the Mansion House wrong.

Following the multi-million restoration of the Mansion House, therefore, it seemed sensible to update and correct the plaque.

The new-look version, which was unveiled by the civic party earlier this week, has corrected both these mistakes. And it also adds an extra layer of explanation. The Mansion House, it explains, was the 'first purpose-built mayoral residence in the country'.

You may notice a hint of quiet pride in that. And why not? "York's Mansion House predates the London Mansion House," says Buff Reid, who runs the working group at York Civic Trust which produces the blue plaques.

Work actually began on what was then called the 'city house' in 1725. That was when the 'common hall gates' were demolished to make way for the planned new residence for the Lord Mayor.

Darcy Preston, who was York's town clerk in 1724, set out a clear statement of aims for the new building. It was intended, he wrote, to provide a 'proper repository for the records, books, and papers' of the city corporation, and also a place for 'every Lord Mayor to make his entertainment and his public business’. (There's that 'him' again. Shame on you, Darcy.)

As far as we know, there was no single architect for the house. Instead, a building committee of Aldermen, supported by a clerk of works, were in charge of construction. So the house really was built by committee - which is perhaps why the recent restoration revealed that there were basically no foundations, and the house was effectively built on sand.

That has now been rectified. And that small oversight apart, the committee seems to have done a pretty good job. They were helped by an architectural 'pattern book' - 'Gibbs book of architecture' ,published in 1727 - which was apparently common practice in the eighteenth century.

Nevertheless, things didn't quite go as planned. The budget of £1500 was quickly overspent, according to the Mansion House's own website - and construction limped on and wasn't completed until well into the 1730s.

The end result wasn't bad, however. Francis Drake, in his 1736 history of York entitled Eboracum, described the new Lord Mayoral residence as a 'neat and convenient building and grand enough'.

When it was finally finished, the great house looked out over St Helen's churchyard. A descriptive passage on the Mansion House website imagines what it may have been like for a visitor: "Weaving one's way through the hustle and bustle of the street, dodging coaches and navigating across the graveyard that was once St Helens Square, passing medieval timbered buildings which huddled the streets, York Mansion House would be an imposing edifice..." it says.

The churchyard was eventually cleared in 1745 to provide the open space in front of the Lord Mayor's residence which is now St Helen's Square. The elegant Georgian mansion has dominated the west end of the square ever since.

Stephen Lewis

For the story behind more York Civic Trust plaques, visit

The weekly Blue Plaques column will be taking a rest for a while after this week, but will return later in the year.