Trade on the Rivers

A View of the City of York from the near the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss, 1761 - York Art Gallery R2508

York stands at the point where two rivers join, the River Ouse and the River Foss. Strategically, the site was well chosen; the rivers not only provided natural defences, but also acted as equally important communications and supply routes.

Excavations and building works on the banks of the Ouse and the Foss have uncovered the remains of Roman jetties, wharves and warehouses, suggesting water-borne transport and trade was important from the earliest years of the city.

The arrival of the Vikings, in the ninth century, brought superior skills in shipbuilding and navigation, and increased foreign contacts and York became a thriving trading and commercial centre.  Easy access to the North Sea coast via the Ouse and the Humber enabled York to export its own timber and import more exotic items from Northern Europe and beyond.  Archaeological finds from Viking Age York include amber and furs from Scandinavia, silk from China and the Middle East, copper alloy pins from Ireland, a cowrie shell from the Red Sea and pottery from Germany.

After the Norman Conquest, York continued as an important trading port and by the fourteenth century the city was England’s richest city after London, and the Merchant Adventurers its richest guild.  York’s merchants exported wool, grain and cloth to Northern Europe and continued to import luxury items from overseas, such as olive oil, figs and raisins from Spain.

By the late sixteenth century, larger sea-going ships could no longer navigate York’s rivers, partly due to their size and partly due to the increasing build-up of sediment in the Ouse.  York was effectively cut off from all but the smaller, lighter boats and as a result, the West Riding and Hull eclipsed much of York’s trading importance.  The Corporation of York was under pressure to act and, after much debate, Naburn Lock was finally built in 1757 heralding a new spate of shipbuilding at York.  In 1777, a local newspaper, The York Courant, recorded the floating of the first boat made of sheet-iron in the waters of the River Foss.

In 1792 the Foss Navigation Company was established and the River Foss was canalised.  The canal was slow to make a profit with the West Riding and Hull still maintaining much of Yorkshire’s trading prominence.  The arrival of the railways in the nineteenth century led to further decline in York’s water-borne trade.  The rivers are now mostly the preserve of tourism and leisure, carrying mainly pleasure boats and rowers. The old jetties are gone and the riversides are home to pubs, restaurants, cycle routes and walks.

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