To appreciate the importance of Coney Street involves understanding the significance of the bridge over the River Ouse which is crucial to York’s foundation. The Romans built the first Ouse bridge, aligned between Tanner Row and today’s Guildhall, which led to their fortress gate at St Helen’s Square and the main street along Stonegate. The Roman crossing point, and possibly their bridge, was still in use in Anglian times, judging from the positioning of Anglian structures excavated in Micklegate. However, by Anglo-Scandinavian times, the crossing point had shifted some 250m downstream. The first bridge on the modern site can be dated to the Jorvik era, about AD 980; today’s structure is 1820. Coney Street has been a route all this time, but first the bridge was at its north end, now it is at its south end. The street preserves the line of a Roman road which ran between the south-west wall of the legionary fortress and the River Ouse. Until 1792, York was the lowest bridging point on the Ouse. No other bridge in York crossed the Ouse until the 1840s; the smaller Foss had several medieval bridges.
The king’s street
Coney Street means “the king’s street” and was used for Old Coney Street (now Lendal) and Little Coney Street (now Spurriergate) too. It is first recorded as Kunegestrate: Old Norse kunung “king” and Old English straet. Straet in Old English is a Germanic version of the second component of the Latin via strata (paved road). The name, as well as archaeology and history, confirms that Coney Street predates the Viking era when the term “gate” became normal for “street”. From this we can deduce York’s three oldest streets whose names incorporate straet: North Street (first documented 1090), Blake Street (documented 1150-60) and Coney Street (documented 1153-8). In fact, the form “Conyng Street” was the usual one until the 17th century.
The Roman army developed the area between the fortress wall and the River Ouse first. In excavations at Nos.39-41 Coney Street (now W.H. Smith) a large quantity of cereal grain was found in what was thought to be a late-first-century warehouse. Probably brought to York by ship, the grain comprised 50 per cent spelt wheat, 25 per cent barley and 25 per cent rye. A large quantity of well-preserved grain beetles in the earliest deposits was an indication of an uncontrollable infestation which led to the demolition of the building. The ground was then sealed with a thick layer of clay before a new building was erected. A medieval slipway was also identified behind the site. On the town side, Nos.44 and 46 (former British Home Stores) overlie the Roman fortress wall which survived well into the thirteenth century and as a property boundary into the 20th century.
The Anglian population continued using the route. Two hoards of coins were found around 1760, ‘during the digging of a cellar for a new house, not a yard down, wrapped in a bag’. Historian Francis Drake’s correspondence with William Stukeley regarding the Coney Street hoards shows that their contents could be identified with some accuracy. One was of more than 100 silver coins and it has been suggested they were Carolingian. The second was of an uncertain number of stycas, small coins minted in pre-Viking Northumbria, found in a corroded lump and of Anglian date. Both are thought to have been buried about ad865, on the eve of the Viking capture of York in 866. Under Nos.13-17 and 39-41 Coney Street, antler and bone offcuts deposited by Anglo-Scandinavian craft workers were excavated in 1991 and 1974 respectively.
In medieval times, three common lanes, each with its own river landing, ran down to the Ouse from Coney Street. The northernmost, which ran under the Guildhall on the line of the Roman road, was Common Hall Lane; its landing was sometimes called Stonegate Landing. The middle lane, St. Martin’s Lane, is first mentioned 1170-99, vicum qui dicitur Sancti Martini Lending. Then it was le Kyrklane c.1390 and Old Lane in 1702. In 1399, Robert de Talkan was granted the lane with permission to build over it; in 1950 the upper part was stopped up. The third river lane, called Blanchard’s Lane in 1702, ran along the parish boundary between No.43 Coney Street and No.2 Spurriergate, opposite the end of Jubbergate (now Market Street). Another lane towards the river was shown on the 1852 Ordnance Survey map as Waterloo Place, very near St Michael’s Spurriergate, but has been lost in rebuilding.
Many of York’s leading citizens lived in Coney Street in the 13th century but, after 1300, none of the Lord Mayors of York was recorded as living near the Guildhall, although several mayors owned and let commercial property there. However, in the mid-13th century, some of England’s wealthiest Jewish families lived near the synagogue in Coney Street and in Jubbergate (called Jew Bret-gate in 1280). One of the leading Jews in England, Aaron of York, lived here in one of the city’s few early stone houses. Aaron was the son of Joceus who had died in the Jewish massacre at Clifford’s Tower in 1190. At the peak of his enterprise, Aaron was an international financier lending to merchants and monarchs in 14 countries. He is said to have loaned money for the creation of the Five Sisters window in York Minster. Ultimately, his fabulous wealth attracted the attention of Henry III and he was progressively taxed/fined – “mulcted” – from 1243 onwards to such an extent that, by the 1250s, most of his fortune was gone. He lived in reduced circumstances until his death in 1268.
In 1308, Coney Street was described as the city’s principal street and four of the stations of the Corpus Christi plays – the Mystery Plays – in the 1400s were in Coney Street. Since it has remained York’s leading shopping street, the redevelopment of complete buildings and façades and the insertion of display windows have obliterated much of its pre-20th-century character. However, the important buildings along its length confirm its status.
One of the most important buildings on Coney Street is the Guildhall, first recorded as the Common Hall in 1256, but only in 1378 described as such on the present site. It was rebuilt – presumably enlarged – in the mid-15th century; on 20 November 1445, the corporation and St Christopher’s Guild agreed to share equally the expenses of a new hall, 42 royal ells (157ft 6 in) long, with a chamber at the west end, a cellar at the east, and other buildings including pantry and buttery. In 1446-7, gates at the Coney Street entrance to the lane leading to the Guildhall site were built and, in 1449-50, a large quantity of Tadcaster stone was bought. Masons’ work may have been finished by 1453-4 and the hall was sufficiently complete for a council meeting to be held there in May 1459. The double-aisled timber roof was supported by massive oak pillars. But in 1503, the corporation was still seeking delivery of wainscots ‘towards the selyng’ (panelling) of the hall and council chamber. As early as the late 15th century, some of the windows were apparently glazed while others had wooden shutters. A stained-glass window is first known to have been inserted about 1680 and all the wooden louvres were ordered to be replaced by glass in 1760. Painted-glass windows were put in during the 19th century.=
In the “Baedeker” raid by the German Luftwaffe on 29 April 1942, an incendiary device fell on the roof of the Guildhall and caused a massive fire, destroying the hall. The stone shell of the building was restored and the Guildhall reopened by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother on 21 June 1960. In recent years, the Guildhall and adjacent buildings owned by the council have been underused and in need of refurbishment. An ambitious plan to redevelop “this important riverside site was approved in March 2017 but was abandoned in May 2018 due to escalating costs. A revised scheme within the available budget is currently under consideration.
The same “Baedeker raid” also reduced St Martin-le-Grand, Coney Street, one of York’s finest churches, to a smouldering ruin. The church stood desolate until restoration work began in 1961. Although only a fragment remains of the original medieval fabric, York architect George G. Pace skilfully blended old and new to create a memorable interior. The south aisle became the nave and a new north wall was built with a five-sided tower to frame the large 15th-century St Martin window which had been removed for safety in 1940; the north side of the church became an enclosed garden. In 1968, the building was reconsecrated as a ‘shrine of remembrance for all men who died in the two World Wars’. The clock hanging over Coney Street, first fitted in 1668, and the gilded head of Father Time are replacements for the originals destroyed in the air raid. The jaunty “Little Admiral” figure, however, survived the fire and is still taking a sighting of the sun with his sextant. In 1730, when the Mansion House was built nearby as the residence of the Lord Mayor, St Martin’s became the official civic church.
Prior to the construction of the Mansion House, lord mayors of York were expected to host civic functions in their own townhouse. As costs for entertainment rose and more space was required for the storage of civic records and regalia, it was suggested that there should be a dedicated residence for the lord mayor during his term of office. Having considered the option of acquiring an existing house, the corporation decided to build a new residence in front of the Guildhall. In January 1724, James Young, lessee of the Cross Keys (a building, once the Chapel of St Christopher’s Guild, in front of the Guildhall) was granted only yearly leases because of ‘the city’s intention of sometime building a house there for the lord mayor’. Construction of the Mansion House started in 1725 and it was completed in 1734.
Larger and possibly grander than any of these Coney Street buildings was the Augustinian friary which occupied two acres between the Ouse and Old Coney Street (now Lendal), and stretched from St Leonard’s Landing (at today’s Lendal Bridge) to the lane alongside the Guildhall. The Friars were in York by 1272, when Henry III granted them a writ of protection, and there are records of the acquisition of additional land up to 1391. The Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, liked the location and library so much that he stayed there when visiting York. A gateway from Old Coney Street led into the walled precinct and the church stood near the street, but the exact positions of the friary buildings are not known. In 1538, the friary was surrendered to the dissolution commissioners and, in 1539, the site was leased to Sir George Lawson for 21 years. Thomas Lawson then held it until 1568 but nothing is known of the subsequent history of the buildings and the site of the friary has not been excavated.
Judges travelled around England dispensing justice at the Court of Assize. From 1328, there were six circuits; York was at the heart of the northern circuit and assizes were held here in Lent and in the summer. When the York Assizes were sitting, judges, their households and officials had to find suitable accommodation. Behind Nos.28-30 Coney Street, reached by a narrow passageway, is the Judges Court, an early 18th-century house which was used as the judges’ lodgings from the mid-18th century until 1806. Judges Court has recently been restored and now operates as a small hotel. The house today called the Judges’ Lodgings was built by Dr Clifton Wintringham (1689-1748) who settled in York in 1711. In 1746 he was appointed as physician to the York County Hospital. His house in Lendal became the lodgings for judges on the circuit in 1806. Judges’ Lodgings has recently been renovated by Blackburn-based brewers and hoteliers Daniel Thwaites.
With access to landings on the River Ouse and proximity to the Ouse bridge, Coney Street was the principal arrival point for visitors to the city. With the development of a national network of stagecoach routes in the 18th century, two of the city’s principal coaching inns were established here. On the site of the Jewish quarter was built first the Bull, then the George Inn which was demolished in 1869 to make way for Leak & Thorp’s department store. On the opposite side of the street was another important inn, the Black Swan, and somewhere nearby was the Bull, designated in 1459 by the corporation as the only permissible lodging in the city for ‘aliens coming from foreign parts’.
One of the city’s more unusual buildings was a bagnio or Turkish bath on Leopard Lane, a baroque structure built in 1691, painted by York artist William James Boddy in 1903. Leopard Lane has now disappeared but was almost directly opposite St Martin’s Church. In the late 17th century, bathing in steam rooms had become popular. By the 1740s, the bathhouses had gained a more unsavoury reputation, several operating as brothels. In William Hogarth’s famous series of paintings, Marriage à la Mode, The Bagnio (1743) depicts the unfortunate Earl discovering his wife in the Turk’s Head Bagnio with her lover who makes his escape through a window. By this time, however, the bagnio in York was accommodating more respectable uses. St Peter’s School occupied the premises from 1730 until 1735. By 1738, it was a printing house which Anne Ward inherited in 1759. The first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy were printed there (and sold at No. 35 Stonegate). In 1924, the building was demolished.
Despite the commercial pressures for development in Coney Street in the 20th century, a few other notable buildings, apart from those mentioned above, have been built or survived. On the river side of the street, Pevsner comments on Boots by Treleaven, built in 1907, and on W.H. Smith, ‘cleverly contrived in 1977 by Eric G. Hives & Sons from three old houses, retaining some earlier features including 17th-century panelling’. On the town side, Pevsner describes the bank building at No.14 by York architect Walter Brierley of 1907; Nos.16-22 as 15th- to early-16th-century, three-storey, timber-framed houses with oriel windows. No.24 is c.1600 and timber framed; it had a jetty but this was cut back in the mid-18th century, the era when many of York’s historic buildings had to be adapted to allow the carriages of the gentry to pass safely. No.32, with a 16th-century timber-framed core, has a brick façade of 1820; No.46 is the Yorkshire Bank, 1922, by Chorley Gribbon & Elcock and the Art Deco façade of No.52 dates from 1931. Later decades of the 20th century have not, unfortunately, added anything of note to the rich history of York’s principal shopping street.
© Margaret Scott
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© Margaret Scott