Doctor and pioneer of conservation

Plaque erected 1985 by York Civic Trust and the Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society

33 Bootham, York YO30 7BT

William Arthur Evelyn was born on 4 October 1860 in Presteigne, Radnorshire, Wales, the third child in a family of four. At an early age he was sent away to Clifton House Boarding School in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He then went to Charterhouse College in Godalming, Surrey which he left in 1878 to study at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, from 1879 to 1883 where he obtained a BA degree, the first stage in qualifying for a degree in medicine. After further studies at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, he became a Bachelor of Medicine, a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians.

Tuberculosis epidemic

In the late nineteenth century, there was a high level of tuberculosis amongst the poor, particularly in large cities, and William will have seen many such cases in London. The discovery by Robert Koch, a German physician and microbiologist, of the bacteria that caused pulmonary tuberculosis (TB or consumption) in 1882, caused Evelyn to continue his studies of the disease in Vienna. On his return to England, he became house physician to Brompton Consumption Hospital in London.

In 1891 he moved to York to join the practice of Dr William H. Jalland who lived at 9 Museum Street. Soon after, on 14 June 1894, he married Constance Margaret Hardman from Reigate, Surrey and they moved into 24 (now 61) Micklegate. In November 1895 their first child Ida Violet was born followed by Arthur born in 1897, Charlotte born in 1898, Eustace born in 1901 and Margaret born in 1904. With such a large and young family they needed a much bigger house so, in 1910, they moved from Micklegate to 33 Bootham where they lived until William retired in 1931. (This house is now a part of Bootham School).

The move to Bootham brought Dr Evelyn closer to Clifton Lawn Tennis Club which he had joined soon after coming to York and when he no longer had the time to play he became its secretary. On retirement, he and his wife moved to Sycamore Cottage, Water Lane, Clifton where he died peacefully on 6 January 1935.

Dr Evelyn’s house at 33 Bootham

Dr Evelyn’s working life

In the early 1900s, Hungate was a very poor area in York with much overcrowding and many cases of consumption for which the only cure at the time was rest, fresh air and good food. Dr Evelyn campaigned for the poor and was secretary of the local branch of the National Association for the Prevention of Consumption. He was instrumental in the building of an open-air ward at Yearsley Bridge, Heworth which opened in 1912.

Though Dr Evelyn continued to take a very active part in the medical affairs of the City of York, in 1897 he joined Yorkshire Philosophical Society and in 1911 he was elected to its council and became joint Curator of Archaeology in what is now the Yorkshire Museum. At this time in his life there were other societies with similar interests which amalgamated and eventually became Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society (YAYAS). He was elected to the society in 1902, and over the next 29 years led many campaigns on behalf of the society against the spoliation of the city by both the Corporation of York and private interests. During this period he held the offices of treasurer and secretary which he only gave up just before he died.

Amateur photographer

He was a keen photographer and collector of pictures of York. Amongst his activities he gave public lectures with lantern slides from his collection of views of the city. The first of these was entitled “Ouse Bridge and her Burden”. Due to the wealth of material, the lecture continued on the two subsequent evenings. He also arranged the society’s summer excursions to historical buildings and sites in the County of Yorkshire.

Such was the extent of his collection of views of the city that an exhibition entitled “York Views and Worthies” was held in 1905 in the Exhibition Building with some 1,286 items on display. Lord Wenlock attended and was so impressed that he hoped that the city authorities would do their utmost to preserve, ‘as far as they possibly could for future generations, such portions as had escaped the vandalism of bygone days’. Unfortunately the exhibition was not a public success but the seeds had been sown for preservation in the future. Dr Evelyn and his wife were also involved in a York Historical Pageant in the Museum Gardens in July 1909 with some 2,738 participants. This was a great success and generated over £14,000 with a profit of £1000 which they distributed to charities.

In 1911, York Art Gallery staged an exhibition of the work of York-born artist William Etty who, in the early 19th century, played an active part in the preservation of what remained of the City walls. Dr Evelyn wrote of Etty in 1934: “by an almost constant perusal of The Life of William Etty, whose love of his native City has a more genuine ring about it that that of any subsequent native”.

Later in 1911 he was invited to repeat a lecture he had given the previous year entitled “Nineteenth Century Finger Prints of Vandalism in York” with the aim of generating interest in the preservation of the city’s old buildings. “Curious it is to note how apparently much more interest is taken in the preservation of what little has been handed down to posterity of old York by those who have for various reasons come to reside in the dear old City from afar, than is evinced with a very few notable exceptions by those who have lived all their lives in the City, as did their ancestors, for possibly some generations before them. I suppose it is due to the deadly venom manufactured of familiarity breeding contempt that the sight of those ancient monuments of long days past have grown stale to them, the history of York if they have seriously tried to read it has bored them, and that only the newcomers dazzled by the glorious sight of the grand old Minster, the rugged massiveness of the fortified walls and their concomitant in places – verdure clad mounds and ditch, the picturesque beauty of the ruins of the Abbey, the quaint old gabled houses, the timbered and panelled interiors of college and hall, and the hundred and one evidences of York’s great past cannot help but admire the same and mentally vow that such as remains shall not be removed except after a hard and bitter struggle”.

He then went on to list many of the acts of vandalism that had taken place in the nineteenth century. He finished his lecture with a quotation made by William Etty: ‘Beware how you destroy your antiquities, guard them with religious care! They are what give you a decided character and superiority over other provincial cities. You have lost much, take care of what remains’. This enthusiasm for the wellbeing of the city must have inspired the founders of York Civic Trust in 1948.

St Stephen’s Orphanage for Girls, 1920-32

It is believed that St Stephen’s Orphanage was started in 1880 and, although the orphanage could accommodate 50 girls at an annual cost of between £800 and £900, in 1911 there were only sufficient funds to maintain 36 girls. Dr Evelyn decided to raise funds by giving a series of five illustrated lantern lectures in St Mary’s Hall, Marygate entitled “Walks through Old York”. Though the Yorkshire Evening Press gave encouraging comments, the event was not well attended although £100 was raised for the orphanage. He continued to give this lecture to raise money until 1923. When Dr Evelyn moved his surgery to Micklegate he became involved as the Medical Officer to St Stephen’s Orphanage in Trinity Lane. From 1923 until his death in 1931 he gave lectures on a variety of historical subject in the larger Tempest Anderson Hall, with most of the proceeds going to YAYAS.

VAD and the First World War

In 1909 the War Office had asked the British Red Cross to form Voluntary Aid Detachments and train each member to have a Certificate in First Aid and Nursing of St John Ambulance Association. Dr Evelyn was involved in this and, when the war broke out in 1914, the VAD turned Bootham School into a hospital in a record time of 17 days. However it was never used and soon returned to being a school.

Zeppelin raids on York cause considerable damage and nine people were killed. Today, York Minster’s 128 windows constitute more than half of England’s surviving medieval stained glass. During the First World War, the most important 22 windows were removed and stored safely in a chamber under a mound under the city walls. Once the war was over, £50,000 was needed to restore the windows and Dr Evelyn served on the fundraising committee in spite of his other commitments.


Hugh Murray, Doctor Evelyn’s York (York, 1983, published by William Sessions in association with YAYAS)


© Geoffrey Geddes