Entrance to Aldwark from Peasholme Green

Aldwark is undoubtedly one of the oldest streets in York, despite its appearance today. It is the only street in central York whose name is wholly Old English – pre-Viking. (E)ald (ge)weorc means old fortification; the Anglians referring to the walls of the Roman fortress. The northern part of Aldwark is inside the wall and runs parallel to it. But the route’s origin should be linked with Ogleforth (another name of Old English derivation) which ends at Chapter House Street. Chapter House Street overlies the fortress via decumana up to the old Roman gate. This Ogleforth/Aldwark line is thought to have been established at the time when the Roman porta decumana was functioning. Unfortunately, historians do not know when the Roman gate was closed and medieval Monk Bar was opened, but this change caused Goodramgate, a later street, to intervene.

After its Roman-date creation, Aldwark was extended southwards via one of the earliest post-Roman breaches through the fortress wall. The first interval tower, south of the eastern fortress corner, was broken through in the Anglian era (before ad850). Archaeologists suggest ‘the breach was not casual since a tower would provide good defensive cover; it may be considered as a gate, with the deflection in Aldwark where it crosses the Roman wall explained by the need to seek shelter from the nearest interval tower’. The breach or gate enabled a link with the route running just outside the fortress walls, now known as St Andrewgate. Aldwark today continues to Peasholme Green. The eastern fortress corner of the Roman walls has been excavated and is visible from the later medieval city wall.

York Archaeological Trust excavations

Aldwark has given its name to a large area bounded to the west by Colliergate and King’s Square. As Pevsner explains, ‘long a forlorn area affected by planning blight and decayed industry, it was earmarked by Lord Esher in 1969 for residential development. This has been achieved with great success.’ The demolition of many “slum” areas in the 1970s for this development meant that York Archaeological Trust (YAT) was able to undertake large-scale excavations. Roman barracks were discovered under Nos.1-5 Aldwark and under the Bedern side of the street; the remains of a lead pipe may indicate a water supply to a centurion’s quarters. Under Nos.21-33 Aldwark, outside the military zone, a Roman burial was excavated. In this suburb of the city, there was domestic housing by the early fourth century, datable by a mosaic found on the site of the church of St Helen-on-the-Walls (see below). It features a woman’s bust in a round panel, set centrally in a square with a lozenge pattern. The floor had been patched in places with coal and Samian-ware shards, suggesting a long life. Although the remains have been damaged by later construction, archaeologists presume it was a sizeable town house.

Anglian and Anglo-Scandinavian activity has been identified in excavation under the yards of Nos.1-5, 7-9 and 21-33 Aldwark. Anglian pits cut into the Roman mosaic (above) and organic material has been dated to ad740. The pits contained plant material, indicating turf roofs and textile dying, together with pottery, copper alloy pins and strap ends. Coins were also found, dating from ad737 to 874, including five sceattas – an Anglo-Saxon small silver coin – of Eadberht, King of Northumbria (reigned 737/8-58), one of Eanred (r.810-41), two of Aethelred II (r.840/1-44) and a penny of Burgred of Mercia (r.852-74). YAT has undertaken analysis of animal bones excavated in the yards and has contrasted the large numbers of medieval sheep bones, some probably rubbish, others a ‘stock-piled raw material of some subsequent use’ under Nos.1-5, with a high concentration of goat bones, especially horn, found further down Aldwark at Nos.21-33.

St Helen-on-the-Walls

Pre-Conquest Christian York is represented on Aldwark. Until about 1550, there stood between Aldwark and the city wall the small church of St Helen-on-the-Walls or St Helen in Werkdyke, first mentioned in records c.1200. The supposed site of this church was marked on the 1850 Ordnance Survey map. However, the excavations during the 1970s, south-east of the 18th-century almshouses next to Merchant Taylors’ Hall, proved that surmise to be wrong. The foundations of the church were discovered near the rampart of the medieval city wall on the site of Joseph Hunt’s Ebor Brewery which was demolished in 1972. The church, probably dating from the 10th century, was built over the Roman house. Originally a single-cell structure 6m by 7.5m, the church was extended in four phases to 22m by 8m and surrounded by a crowded graveyard.

Excavation of the site begin in 1973 and, because of the extent of St Helen’s graveyard where more than 1,000 individuals were located, continued up to 1976. When the archaeological report was published in 1980, the remains comprised the largest single excavated medieval graveyard group in England. The bones of the parishioners of the church, dated c.950-1550, have been studied intensively to analyse their ages, illnesses, life style and cause of death; for instance it was found that 56 per cent of adult women died by the age 35 compared to only 36 per cent of men. The church and land were granted to George Gayle in 1550 and its benefice united with St Cuthbert, Peasholme Green in 1586 as part of the campaign to rationalise York’s parishes. William Camden in his history Britannia, first published in 1587, described a vault under the building with a lamp burning and he thought it was the burial place of the Roman emperor Constantius I, the father of Constantine the Great. Constantius had died in York in July ad306 following a successful campaign against the Picts.

Merchant Taylor’s Hall

Merchant Taylors’ Hall

The most notable building on Aldwark today is Merchant Taylor’s Hall, one of York’s four surviving guildhalls. The Taylors’ Guild is first mentioned in 1387 when ‘128 taylors and cissors’ published their ordinances (rules and regulations). Until the Dissolution, the guild was associated with the Fraternity of St John the Baptist, the same patron saint of the London Company of Merchant Taylors. It is thought that the Taylors met in Petre Hall close to St Helen-on-the-Walls until, in 1415, it was granted a 100-year lease on an adjacent site. This would explain why the new hall has an angled north-west end, as it may have abutted an earlier building, and also why the guild chose to build on such an awkward site. Until after the Second World War, the only access to the hall was via a gateway in Aldwark which led to a narrow lane; from 1949, the guild started to acquire and demolish properties, opening up a view of the hall from the street.

The hall follows the standard plan for guildhalls and large manor houses with the entrance opening into a screens passage. On the left were the kitchen and service rooms and, on the right, the Great Hall. The width of the hall is governed by the ability to create a single span in timber and four huge oak trusses (which have been dated by dendrochronology) define the five bays of the building. In 1446-53 a south-west extension was built housing the Little Hall. The timber-framed walls were replaced by brick in the 18th century resulting in the hall’s plain exterior which belies the richness of the 15th-century interior. At the end of Aldwark is another guildhall, St Anthony’s Hall.

Eighteenth-century suburb

As in many of the streets of York, the medieval houses along Aldwark were refaced or completely rebuilt in brick in the eighteenth century. At this time, it was still a respectable address. Only the gate piers and a section of brick boundary wall survive of a ‘handsome house’ built in 1693 by William Saltmarsh on the site previously occupied by St Helen’s Church. The house was demolished sometime between 1836 and 1851. Now known as Oliver Sheldon House, Nos.17-19 incorporates parts of earlier timber-framed buildings behind the street frontage which dates from around 1720. The bold cornice, rusticated stone door surround and elegant sash windows are indicative of the status of the house which, from 1702 to 1731, was owned by Charles Redman, Lord Mayor of York, 1705 and 1722. Charles’s son, William, completed the work in 1731; the initials ‘WR’ are on a rainwater hopper head dated 1732. The building was restored by Bridlington architect Francis Johnson in 1969 for York Civic Trust.

A date stone of 1770 can be seen on Nos.1, 3 and 5 which were probably built as tenements. In 1886, a room behind No.3 became a synagogue. Having been suppressed and banished in previous centuries, Jews had begun to return to York in the late nineteenth century, although their numbers were few; by 1903, there were 124 resident in the city. Wary of possible persecution, the Jews established synagogues in discreet locations. No.3 was a joiner’s home and workshop where work was halted when a service was in progress. The synagogue closed in 1975.

In the early nineteenth century, the street was in decline and, by 1818, it was described as ‘narrow and dirty containing … nothing but small cottages’. Light industry began to replace residential properties. A tannery was built at No.36 Aldwark to a design by Thomas Pickersgill in 1829 for Agar & Chadwick. Joseph Agar (1832-1920) was Lord Mayor of York three times: 1881, 1888 and 1889. The other side of the street was largely occupied by the Ebor Brewery until its demolition in the 1970s; one of York’s most popular public houses, Ebor Vaults, disappeared.

No. 47 Aldwark was acquired by York Conservation Trust in 2006. Named Cuthbert Morrell House after one of the founders of the trust, it is now the headquarters of York Archaeological Trust, perhaps fittingly, in a street where the organisation has carried out so much seminal work.


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© Margaret Scott