Paul Furness takes us to four places in the historic city where the rights of men and women were threatened but bravely upheld
The sequestering of our brash Yorkshire capitol is based on a sanitisation of its history and an ignorance of its culture. No W. H. Auden or, if it comes to it, Guy Fawkes either. York has been reduced to a City of Festivals that encourages everyone to dress up as Romans or, preferably, Vikings and live off expensive chocolate. At times it feels like we are drowning in antique lace. Yet walk through the streets on a weekend night or when the York Races are on and it all comes flooding back again; York’s magical, foul mouthed raucous enjoyment of life.
York’s blanding is getting out of hand and some of us at least are looking around in our own backyards to see what really happened here. The answer to that is, of course, quite a lot. So, here are just four stops on a ‘Walk Around Radical York’ that I was asked to do this summer as part of York’s Alternative History. These stories are not those about keeping up appearances in order to market York’s medieval past. They are those of people who tried to make the world a much better place for all of us to live in and not simply to sell us a shed load of tourist tat – even if it some of it does have a kitschy charm and glitters like a miserable chunk of fools gold. Enjoy!
1: The Eye of York and the Ten Hour Bill
In April 1832 20,000 exhausted and rain sodden factory workers from the towns and villages of the West Riding walked from Leeds to the Eye of York – that roundabout of grass where the three Ridings of Yorkshire all come together – to protest against child labour. The ‘Pilgrimage to York’ was orgaised by Richard Oastler, one of the leading voices in the fight for a ten hour working day for ‘thousands of little children’ who were ‘daily compelled to labour from six o’clock in the morning to seven in the evening’. Arriving at the Knavesmire in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, they sat down to rest before entering the city through Micklegate Bar and then passed across Ouse Bridge to Castlegate. This narrow little street saw the endless procession of around they roared their support for Oastler and the Ten Hour Bill. Then, a few hours later, they reassembled and began the long march back again. When Edward Baines, the editor of the Leeds Mercury, accused those on the march of rioting at York, a revolutionary mob assembled outside his Briggate office with an effigy of him wearing a placard around its neck calling him ‘The Great Liar of The North’. Then they burnt it.
2: Parliament Street and Bray
Where Marks and Spencer’s is now was the site of the print shop which produced a newspaper called The Yorkshireman where, in 1836, a young printer called John Francis Bray worked. Bray was born in Washington D.C. in 1809 but, when he was 13, accompanied his dying father across the Atlantic. Two days after they arrived in Leeds, his Yorkshire-born father was indeed dead and Bray had to make his own way in the world. Bray became a well-known Chartist activist and, while living in York, wrote a book with ambitions to explain the cause of all capitalist ills. When it was finished, Bray found a quiet corner of the Ouse riverbank and settled down to read it but suddenly realised he had got it all wrong. His book blamed the aristocracy for poor wages, unemployment and homelessness but Bray had seen that in the US too, where there was no aristocracy. The problem, he realized, was the way of running things called capitalism, and Bray now set about trying to explain this instead. When Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedy was published in 1839 it became influential. Karl Marx read it in 1845 and of the three English writers that Marx says he was influenced by, Bray is the only one he called ‘an English Communist’. After York, Bray returned to Leeds, became one of the leading members of the Leeds Working Men’s Association and, in 1842, he returned to the United States and remained an active socialist his entire life. He joined the Socialist Labour Party of Detroit, the Knights of Labour, was present at the Haymarket Riots in Chicago and, at the age of 87, died during the harsh winter of 1897. There remains yet one more connection with York, though. For years, Bray wrote for the radical Detroit Free Press, and this was one of the newspapers that the York Railway Institute subscribed to. It would be interesting to know why!
3: Church Lane and Gay Liberation
In the snicket which runs behind the church of St Michael’s Spurriergate, their used to be a gentleman’s lavatory. In those long gone days of homosexual persecution and illegality, every town and city worth its salt had a gay cottage; this was one of York’s. A young man called Stuart Feather, whose parents ran a chippy in Acomb, and another young man, John Chesterman from Dringhouses, met here in 1956 and it was love at first sight. When the Wolfenden Report on homosexual law reform was published on 4 September 1957, Feather and Chesterman bought newspapers and went into Dean’s Park and sat on the grass to read them. As they were doing so, one of Feather’s work colleagues [he worked in an engineering factory] cycled past and saw them, put two and two together and outed him at work with the predictable consequences. Feather was not only ridiculed but demoted to the ranks of fetching and carrying with, of course, the corresponding drop in wages. By the 1960s the couple had moved to London and, in 1970, they went to the second ever meeting of the Gay Liberation Front. Chesterman founded Gay International Times, the forerunner of Gay News, and, in 1972, Feather and Chesterman together organised the very first Gay Pride march through Highbury Fields. Around 200 people turned up that afternoon and now, forty years later, this annual event attracts well over a million people. Chesterman died in 1996, but Feather – who also achieved more than a little notoriety with the ‘radical drag’ Bloolips – still pounds the streets for liberation today.
4: Tower Street and the execution of the Luddites
At the back of the Crown Court and the Castle Museum you will see, next to the busy road near the roundabout, a raised piece of ground behind a couple of trees. Nobody really takes a second look at this as they go about their daily business, but the reason the ground is raised up – and the reason there is a door in the wall behind it too – is because this is the site of the scaffold on which the Yorkshire Luddites were executed in 1812. Following the attack on Rawfolds Mill, near Halifax, and then the assassination of the mill owner William Horsfall, a man who once boasted he would ‘ride up to his saddle girth in Luddite blood’, suspected sympathisers were rounded up and shipped off to York to stand trial. At 9am, 6 January 1813, George Mellor – who was more than likely the infamous General Ludd – and 2 others others where put to trial. The next day a second group was tried. For those found guilt, ‘justice’ was swift and, two days later, they were hanged behind the castle walls, at nine in the morning in front of a vast crowd of supporters. On the 16 January, another 14 Luddites were hung, seven again at nine and the rest at noon so, the judge said, ‘they could hang the more comfortably’. A line of armed soldiers separated the scaffold from the crowd. York was under a state of siege because of the large number of Luddite sympathisers who were in the town which, newspapers reported, was strangely silent for many days afterwards. Seven of the bodies were claimed by the families and taken back to Huddersfield for burial. The rest, after the ritual dissecting, where buried in the Castle Yard where little children visiting the museum now amuse themselves with a game of Victorian skittles. But the story was not yet done. ‘I fear danger from this vile set of villains is far from over’, one mill owner wrote in the aftermath of the judicial killings and so it was time to use another weapon to suppress the ideas of Luddism: defamation. For over 200 years the name Luddites has been used to discredit these young men as backward thinking and anti-technology. There is not one shred of evidence to suggest that this was the case. All they ever wanted to do was to work to feed their families.
Paul Furness was born and brought up in East Leeds and, after living and working in London for many years, now lives in York, a city he has known since childhood. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s also more on these case studies plus the Debtor’s prison and its Chartist history and York’s connection to Marist history online here.
Now read Helen Graham’s companion Guardian Northerner piece on stripping York of its cosy duvet, here.