A City Left Behind
The industrial revolution had far less impact on York than on other cities, which partly explains its charm today. At the beginning of the 19th century York was the sixteenth largest city in England; at the end it was 41st. In Yorkshire Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield outgrew the county’s capital which remained, at its heart, a market town.
Athough it functioned as an administrative centre, York had no clearly defined commercial role in the first half of the 1800s. Many trades were still restricted to freemen; only the children of freemen, those who served an apprenticeship to a freeman or who paid £25 to the corporation qualified.
It was a city of shopkeepers and innkeepers, chemists and domestic servants. Three glass works employed a few dozen people, but most manufacturing was on an even smaller scale. There were various family firms making everything from combs to musical instruments, farming tools to flax.
The city still revolved around its markets and fairs. Wool was sold from Peasholme Green, an expanded cattle market opened outside Walmgate Bar in 1827, the fish market was held in St Sampson’s Square and all manner of stallholders filled the new Parliament Street from 1836. Parliament Street still holds regular markets.
Nevertheless York did grow, and more quickly than the likes of Norwich and Bath. For all but three decades during the century, the population of York increased by between 10 and 15 per cent. Fewer than 17,000 people lived there in 1801; more than 54,700 were York citizens a hundred years later. The population of the municipal borough, including the suburban townships and villages, was 83,000 in 1901.
One of the city’s growth industries was finance. Banks began to spring up, including the City and County Bank, the York Union Bank and the Yorkshire District Bank. Two major insurance companies were also born: the Yorkshire Fire and Life Insurance Office in 1824 and the York and North of England Insurance Company ten years later.
As the century progressed York did finally catch a wave of industrial development, and it was a big one - the steam-powered railway.