13 Stonegate, York YO1 8AN

No. 13 Stonegate, is a 15th century house with additions of the 16th and 17th centuries. At an unknown date a wooden female figure was attached at ground-floor level to the house on its corner with Little Stonegate. Usually now referred to as a “ship’s figurehead”, close inspection shows that the bare-breasted lady – anatomically endangered by passing traffic – has only one arm and one feathered wing and is much more likely to have come from not the prow but the stern of a sailing ship, probably having been attached to the side of a projecting quarter gallery. This female figure – is she arising from the sea like a mermaid or is she a protecting angel? – dates from the mid- or late seventeenth century, a time when formerly open quarter galleries at the ship’s stern were now being enclosed and had windows added.

It was always thought that women, bare-breasted or not, would bring bad luck if they were aboard a ship, so why use them so often for decoration? Sailors believed that the gods of the sea would be so taken with such images that they would calm the wind and waves and give the ship safe passage. Just why this stern figure was removed we shallprobably never know. It could have been that the ship had merely come to the end of its days or was, perhaps, too large to enter port with the silting up of the River Ouse and was then dismantled. We can only speculate.

Haven for ships

York grew up at the junction of two rivers: the Ouse and the Foss, and thus was readily supplied with transport and communications links to the outside world via the Humber Estuary and the North Sea. The Romans built jetties here, with wharves and warehouses on both rivers. In the eighth century, the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin confirmed York as being built by the Romans ‘to be a merchant-town of land and sea’ and ‘a haven for the ships from distant ports’. A century later, further developments came with the Vikings whose larger ships and skills in navigation opened new routes, allowing York to export its own timber and import goods from as far away as China. Archaeological finds from Viking 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.

York continued as an important trading port after the 11th century Norman Conquest and by the 14th 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-16th century, however, larger sea-going ships could no longer navigate York’s rivers partly due to their greater size and partly due to the increasing build-up of sediment in the Ouse. Only smaller, lighter boats could now reach York and, as a result, Selby and Hull began to assume much of York’s trading importance. As the wool trade of the West Riding increased, the shorter land route to these ports became preferable, as did the later canal route via the Rivers Aire and Calder. The Corporation of York was under pressure to act and, after much debate, Naburn Lock was finally built in 1757 and the river Foss canalized, but the river trade failed to revive.

Now the River Ouse is primarily used for pleasure and recreation. It is one of the key attractions in York’s tourist trade with leisure cruisers, canoes and rowing boats plying the routes once used by the city’s trading ships. Many of the wharves and jetties have gone giving place to restaurants, cafés and pubs and paved riverside walks provide a welcome escape from the bustle of the city.

Master woodcarver and stonemason Dick Reid OBE restored the figure on behalf of the York Civic Trust in 1978.


L.G. Carr Laughton, Old Ship Figure-heads and Sterns (originally published in 1925, reprinted New York, 2011)

Baron F. Duckham, The Yorkshire Ouse, The History of a River Navigation (Newton Abbot, 1967)

Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave: The Buildings of England, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding (London, 1995)

‘Houses: Stonegate’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981), pp.220-235. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol5/pp220-235


© Dinah Tyszka