19 Coney Street, York YO1 9QL

Coney Street is one of York’s main shopping streets. Inevitably, over the years, buildings have been redeveloped and medieval timber-framed buildings replaced with department stores and smaller retail outlets. In the 18th century, the street would have been even more crowded than it is today as it was the city’s principal arrival and departure point for stage coaches. Lanes also led down to landing stages on the River Ouse where passengers could disembark or board sailing ships. The first scheduled stage coach from York to London set off from Coney Street in 1706. Passengers are likely to have stayed the night in either the Black Swan on the east side of the street or the George Inn on the west side.

Eighteenth-century travel

Before the arrival of the railways, travel in England was a perilous and uncomfortable affair. As well as brigands and highwaymen, travellers had to contend with the poor state of the nation’s roads. No main roads were built in Britain from the end of the Roman occupation until the 18th century when the introduction of turnpike roads allowed for the collection of tolls which could be used for maintenance. The majority of roads were no better than rutted dirt tracks and the only possible means of travel were on horseback or on foot.

As roads began to improve, a network of stage coach routes was formed linking the principal towns in Great Britain. As the name implies, the coach progressed in stages of 10 to 15 miles to allow a stop for refreshments, to stay the night and for a change of horses. Early coaches with no suspension could only travel at four to five miles per hour, barely faster than walking. Over time, the suspension of the coaches improved; overnight mail coaches introduced by the Royal Mail in 1786 shortened travel times, though not the comfort of the ride; and road surfaces gradually improved. By the early 19th century, the stage coach network had advanced rapidly resulting in increased passenger numbers, but the development of the railway network would soon make coach travel obsolete and it would not be until the invention of the motor car in the early 20th century that road travel would once more be in the ascendant.

Coaching inns

To service the needs of weary passengers and to provide stabling for the large number of horses required, a new building type emerged: the coaching inn. These were large establishments providing food and drink and accommodation for overnight stays. Horses had to be changed at every “stage” and some inns had stabling for around 100 horses. Typical coaching inns can be still be found in many cities and market towns. The best preserved is possibly the George Inn in Southwark, London’s only surviving galleried coaching inn, now owned by the National Trust. Another famous inn, a stopping-off point on the York to London stagecoach route, is the George at Stamford. At the peak of stagecoach travel, no fewer than 40 coaches, ‘twenty up and twenty down’, passed through Stamford every day, though not all of them stopped at the George. The stagecoach business was highly competitive with rival coaches stopping at dedicated inns in each town. Although the original plan of the George in Stamford has been altered, there are reminders of the old coaching days; on either side of the entrance hall are panelled waiting rooms where passengers assembled prior to boarding the appropriate stagecoach. They still bear the names of ‘London’ and ‘York’.

The Black Swan

Nothing remains of one of York’s most important coaching inns, the Black Swan at No.44 Coney Street, now the site of a large department store, most recently occupied by BHS. Coaching inns came to have a standard plan with waiting and dining rooms on to the street, bedrooms on the upper floors, and an archway leading to a yard at the rear. Facing the yard would be a galleried wing on one or both sides and, further back, there would be stables for the coach horses. In earlier times, these galleried courtyards were used for theatrical entertainment. The accommodation at the Black Swan would have been substantial; the buildings occupied a site 208ft deep with a 60ft-wide street frontage and there was stabling for 130 horses. Originally a 17th-century building, in 1790 the inn was re-fronted and partly rebuilt with the addition of a fourth storey. Mr Ambrose Batty, the licensee, was paid £90 by the corporation as a consideration ‘for taking down and rebuilding in an upright line’ the southern section of the building. The building was demolished in 1955. One fragment of the street façade survives; a door case to the entrance, comprising timber Doric pilasters and entablature, is now in the Castle Museum.

Stage coaches were first introduced in the 17th century and a network of routes developed slowly. The London to York route was first advertised in 1706:

YORK Four Days Stage-Coach

All that are desirous to pass from London to York, or from York to London, or any other Place on that Road, let them repair to the Black Swan in Holbourn in London or the Black Swan in Coney-street in York. At both which places they may be received in a Stage Coach every Monday, Wednesday and Friday which performs the whole Journey in Four Days (if God permits). And sets forth at Five in the Morning.

So, on 12 April 1706, the first stagecoach from London to York left the Black Swan, Holborn, for its namesake in York at 5am. One of the first scheduled coach services in the country, the fare was 25 shillings inside and 18 shillings outside. Even in those days before air travel, there was a baggage allowance. Each passenger was allowed 14.5lbs of baggage, all excess charged at 3 pence per lb extra. In 1786, the faster mail coaches first appeared, travelling solely on turnpike roads, and, by 1830, 18 coaches a day left the Black Swan. In 1838 the journey time from York to London had been reduced to 21 hours. London was not the only destination. Regular stagecoach services from York included the Express to Carlisle (Weds, Fri) and the Tally Ho, also to Carlisle, (Tues, Thurs, Sat). Daily coaches included the Rockingham and Trafalgar to Hull, the Union to Kendal and the True Blue to Leeds.

Until the railway network became established, horse-drawn coaches were the only means of long-distance travel. The long and arduous, often eventful, journeys are recorded in the letters and diaries of many notable literary figures including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and the Brontë Sisters. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet, stayed at the Black Swan in York in October 1811 on a visit to his friend the barrister Thomas Jefferson Hogg but, arriving after a long coach journey on a dull and wet autumn evening, he found the attractions of York elusive. The sight of York Minster was ‘lost on him’. Another poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson arrived at the inn on 7 July 1852 to find that it was serving as the headquarters of the Tory party during that year’s general election; ‘Great racket, shutters up. Had to get in through a brawling mob to get back for my dinner,’ he complained.

The Black Swan was also a meeting point for the city’s many societies and learned institutions. In October 1837, a group of leading agriculturalists, led by John Spencer, 3rd Earl Spencer, met there to discuss the future of the farming Industry. They decided to form the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, whose aims were to improve and develop agriculture, and to hold an annual show of excellence. The first show was held in Fulford, York in 1838 and the Great Yorkshire Show, held annually, continues today as the main event for the farming industry in the county.

The George Inn

On the other side of Coney Street to the Black Swan was another famous York establishment. Previously known as the Bear and later the Golden Lion, the inn became the George in 1614 when it was owned by Thomas Kaye, Sheriff of York. Only fragments remain of the building which was demolished in 1869; incorporated into the shopfront of No.17 Coney Street is a single Tuscan column and, on the first floor, a re-sited bow window. A 15th-century timber porch with a ribbed vault and a boss carved with a Pelican in Piety, all that remains of the original medieval timber-framed structure, is now in the Yorkshire Museum. Nineteenth-century engravings show that the George, believed to have been built in the early 17th century, had a highly-decorated, jettied street elevation, with elaborately carved bargeboards and pargetting. The archway to the rear yard was flanked by two life-sized carved figures. Above the arch was a female figure surrounded by naturalistic scrolling. In 1716, the southern section of the façade was rebuilt in brick supported on stone columns and, in 1810, the richly-detailed Jacobean façade of the northern range was swept away and rebuilt in a matching plain Georgian style.

Although the George and the Black Swan were the two leading inns on Coney Street, there was another important establishment close by: the Bull (later the Rose) which was owned by the Mayor and Corporation of York. Travellers from overseas were treated with suspicion in the 15th century and, in 1459, it was ‘ordained that, from this Day forward, no Aliens coming from foreign Parts, shall be lodged within the said City, Liberties, or Suburbs thereof, but only in the Inn of the Mayor and Commonalty, at the sign of the Bull in Conyng-street’.

A rival establishment to the Black Swan, the George attracted a similar high-quality clientele. Architect and playwright John Vanbrugh stayed at the inn during the time he was designing Castle Howard for Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, a fellow member of the Kit-Cat Club. Preliminary design work for Castle Howard started in 1699 and work on the house was to continue until Vanbrugh’s death in 1726. He mixed with the Yorkshire nobility and, in 1719, married Henrietta Maria Yarburgh of Heslington Hall at St Lawrence Church, York. Vanbrugh was 55 and his wife 26.

The George was also the overnight stay, on 24-25 May 1849, for Anne and Charlotte Brontë and their friend, Ellen Nussey, on their journey from Haworth to Scarborough in an attempt to improve Anne’s failing health. In a letter from Charlotte, Anne is described as ‘very much emaciated, far more than when you were with us, her arms no thicker than a little child’s. The least exertion brings a shortage of breath. She goes out a little every day, but we creep rather than walk.’ Anne was suffering from consumption and wanted to visit the Minster before she died. Ellen wrote, ‘To Minster at York, the George Hotel. She was fragile, but in a new bonnet and wheeled in a chair.’ In a letter to the novelist Mrs Gaskell who was to publish a biography of Charlotte in 1857, Ellen also wrote, ‘The Minster was an overwhelming pleasure, not for its imposing and impressive grandeur only, but because it brought before her susceptible nature a vital sense of the greatness of our divine architect.’ Anne died in Scarborough on 28 May and is buried there in St Mary’s churchyard.


The site of the George Inn in modern-day Coney Street.



William Combe, The History and Antiquities of the City of York, From its Origins to the Present Time (York – printed by Ann Ward, 1785)

‘Houses: Chapter House Street-Coppergate’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981), pp115-128. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol5/pp115-128 [accessed 29 August 2018]


© Richard Wilcock