The Shambles is generally accepted as being the only “street” recorded in York’s Domesday entry of 1086; listed as in the ownership of the Count of Mortain are ii bancos in macello nr ecclesiam St Crucis, i.e. two butchers’ stalls near Saint Crux. Now a narrow street running south-east from King’s Square to Pavement, there is likely to have been infilling of a more open area of markets. The name Marketshire was still used in the 14th century and was applied to the Shambles and to Pavement. By 1240 the street had the name of Haymongergate, possibly because of the hay used by butchers for their livestock, and was later called Nedlergate (1394), derived perhaps from the craft of making needles from the bones of animals. In 1426 both these alternatives and the more usual name of the Great Flesh Shambles, eventually abbreviated to the Shambles, were used.
Street of butchers
The Anglo-Saxon word fleshammel refers to the wooden shelves on which the butchers displayed their meat; some still survive in the street, along with beams and hooks used in hanging meat. There is a continuous tradition of occupation by butchers. In 1798, 19 and, in 1830, 25 out of 88 butchers listed in the city had shops here. To the rear of the shops were slaughterhouses. The Shambles was a place to avoid on days when the butchers washed the offal out of their premises, allowing a river of blood to run down the cobbled channel in the centre of the street. Despite this, the picturesque qualities of the narrow street with its timber-framed jettied houses have been appreciated for centuries; the Shambles is mentioned in 19th-century gazetteers and guide books as one of the key sights in the city.
Although the standing buildings have been much studied, excavations are few; moreover, the Shambles is outside the fortress area and off the Roman road and has no claims to Roman or Anglian remains. The oldest-looking street in York is by no means really the oldest. The timber-framed buildings in the street date from the 14th to 17th century. The churches of Holy Trinity, King’s Square and St Crux, Pavement – at either end of the street – were demolished in 1936 and 1887 respectively. The Butchers’ guildhall behind the houses was demolished in the 1950s – having been sketched by Edwin Ridsdale Tate. St Margaret Clitherow, the Catholic wife of a Protestant butcher, lived at Nos.10-11 the Shambles and worked in her husband’s business. A biography of her martyrdom, written in 1586, gives a contemporary account of a large butcher’s operation in the 16th century. A different house in the street (No.35) is preserved as a shrine, an ‘object lesson in how not to restore’, according to Pevsner.
Shambles conservation plan
As the meat trade became more regulated, however, and it was not permissible to slaughter animals immediately behind butchers’ premises, the Shambles began to decline economically with the result that the buildings were not properly maintained. By the late 1930s, only 10 butchers remained in the street which had become dilapidated so the City Council decided to take action to preserve one of its most important assets. John Bowes Morrell, one of the founders of York Civic Trust, was instrumental in setting up the Shambles Area Committee in 1939 which he chaired up to 1945. Due to wartime constraints, restoration work had to wait. Fortunately, the Shambles was spared in the ‘Baedeker Raid’ on York in the early hours of 29 April 1942. Planned to cause devastation to the historic cities of England mentioned in the Baedeker guidebooks, the bombing raids were an attempt to undermine British morale, but the nation proved to be resilient.
After the war years, the surviving heritage of the country began to be re-evaluated and the initiative to preserve the Shambles recommenced with renewed vigour. In February 1946, plans were prepared by architects John MacGregor and Marshal Sisson, accompanied by a report from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, showing suggested improvements. To facilitate the necessary restoration work, the council began purchasing properties from private owners and, during the 1950s, many of the buildings were extensively rebuilt. Today, some of these restorations are seen as insensitive, since a great deal of historic fabric, including slaughterhouses and outbuildings at the rear of the properties, was demolished. Some medieval properties, particularly in Little Shambles, were considered to be beyond repair and were also demolished. The Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society’s annual report of 1949 contains plans of the Shambles showing the buildings to be removed.
However, despite the losses, the Shambles has survived to delight a new generation of admirers; fans of the Harry Potter books will be aware that the Shambles inspired the description of Diagon Alley, where Harry purchased wizardry items, and now come to enjoy its ambience and new Potter-themed shops.
‘Guilds, markets and fairs’, A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P.M.Tillott (London, 1961), pp481-491. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp481-491 [accessed 20 September 2018]
‘Houses: Shambles-The Stonebow’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981), pp212-220. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol5/pp212-220 [accessed 20 September 2018].
Darrell Buttery, The Vanished Buildings of York (York, 1995)
D.M. Palliser, Domesday York, Borthwick Paper No.78 (York, 1990)
Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave, The Buildings of England, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding (London, 1995)
Van Wilson, Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers (York: York Archaeological Trust, 2014)
© Margaret Scott
Photos: Rachel Semlyen