The Ancient Inns of Coney Street

Hospitality has always been an important industry for York. Brewers, taverners and innkeepers are all mentioned in the earliest city records dating back to the 13th century. Naming Inns was also becoming common around this time; the two earliest recorded named Inn’s in York are both located on Coney Street.

One is mentioned in a 1459 decree by Henry VI, he ordained that ‘no aliens coming from foreign parts shall be lodged within the said city, liberties, or suburbs thereof, but only in the Inn off the Mayor and Commonality, at the Sign of The Bull in Conying Street.’ We can be pretty sure the decree was followed, the dutchman Frederick Freez, York’s first printer, rented some ground at The Bull in 1497.

The exact location of The Bull on the street has been lost to time, but we know that by 1511 the house was in great decay and ruin. However another very old Inn did survive and for Hundreds of years was an impressive landmark of Coney Street; The George.

Mediaeval Beginnings

The earliest mention of ‘Hospicium Georgii’ was in the 1455 will of Ricahrd Roderham, Chancellor of Exeter Cathedral. About 100 years later Ralph Rokeby Esquire, Secretary of the Council of the North, lived on the same site. Inns at this time were becoming an important part of economic and social life and Innkeepers were usually wealthy members of the urban elite. This is demonstrated by the early innkeepers of ‘The George’ who included John Bilbowe, Chamberlain of the city in 1580 and Thomas Kaye who was Sheriff between 1603/4.

Civic Trust Plaque at the site of The George, Coney Street.
© Lizzie Hodgson
An etching of the George Inn by Henry Cave, showing the ornate doorway, which may have originated from the Austin Friars.
© Explore York  PHO/3/1284.

An Etching by the York Topographer Henry Cave shows the lavishly decorated mediaeval entrance to the George Inn. These decorations had a strong ecclesiatical appearance strengthened by the presence of carved ‘pelican in her piety’ a popular mediaeval Christian symbol. York historian William Hargrove suggested in 1818 the ecclesiastical features of the Inn including the porch and thick stone walls of the yard were remnants of the religious house of the ancient guild of St. George. However current thinking is that the stonework may have been reused from the Augustinian priory on Lendal after the dissolution of the monasteries.

Serving weary travellers

The George was well placed to serve travellers of many kinds, especially those travelling by river. The ‘Water-poet’ John Taylor mentioned ‘The George’ and it's Landlord Mr Thomas Kaye in a poem of 1623 describing a river voyage to York.

‘I sold the Boat, as I suppos'd most meet,
To honest[e] Mr. Kayes in Cunny street:
He entertain'd me well, for which I thanke him,’
And gratefully amongst my friends I'l ranke him,’

A Very Merry - Wherry - Ferry Voyage or York for my money - John Taylor

However it was with the rise of coaching age in the mid 17th century ‘The George’ that was in its hey-day. The Inn was a welcome stop for travellers making long, uncomfortable journeys around the country by coach.

Described by the York Historian Francis Drake in 1736 as one of the principal Inns on Coney Street alongside The Black Swan and The Three Crowns. The George was considered the grandest and often hosted well renowned visitors to the city. These included the architect Sir John Vanbrugh, who stayed there whilst superintending the erection of Castle Howard and the literary sisters Charlotte and Anne Bronte.

What did the Inn look like?

Floor plan of the George Inn showing it's layout in the 1850s.
© Explore York  PHO/3/1280

The notable diariest John Byng visited the George in 1792:

‘...which inn is one of those very old houses whose front is adorn’d by stucco’d imagery and in it is a very grand apartment with much carved work; and stain’d glass in the windows.’

Torrington Diaries - John Byng

A plan of the Inn shows the distinctive coaching Inn shape with buildings surrounding an inner courtyard. Carriages would have swung through the gateway and into the stable yard where the horses could be stabled and passengers taken to comfortable sitting rooms or bedrooms for food and rest.

The banqueting room was over the gateway, it was grandly decorated with wooden panelling on the walls and a panelled plaster ceiling. There was a bay window which overlooked the yard and contained painted glass shields of Charles II, the Duke of York (James II), the 10th Earl of Northumberland, George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, and the 2nd Earl of Strafford, K.G. The room is depicted in a painting below:

The 'grand apartment' in the George Inn, described by John Byng in 1792.

The original frontage was elaborately decorated with wood and plaster, it was described by Whelan as ‘a profusion of scroll work and foliage and other fanciful devices, [with]... a grotesque full length figure of a seated Bacchus grasping in each hand a cornucopia.’

In the 18th century the Inn was re-fronted with seven pillars to give it a more restrained Georgian appearance.

 Photo of the George Inn c.1900 after it has been refronted to give a more restrained appearance.
© Explore York  HMU/P/23/20

By 1855 The George boasted several sitting rooms, a bar, taproom and tea room for the use of guests. The Inn was galleried and there would have been several bedrooms on both the ground and upper floors.

Serving the community

The George did not just serve visitors to the city; it served locals in a great variety of ways. Newspaper classified advertisements show that the George served as a location for property auctions, society meetings, plays, musical events, the sale of dogs and horses, bankruptcy proceedings and rent audits. The George was also a key location in many of the 18th and 19th century elections in the city - read more about the political pubs here.

From the early 18th century The George was the principal posting house in the city. The landlady Mrs. Ann Winn, kept eight to ten postboys in her service and had a monopoly on almost all the posting houses between York and Scarborough. Postboys were mounted couriers who were placed at ‘posting houses’ of intervals of a few hours along ‘post roads’ which ran between major cities. They permitted the fast travel of important correspondence from long distances. It is probably no coincidence that York’s early newspapers were located on or close to Coney Street to quickly receive this news from afar.

The End of The George

For the last few decades ‘The George Inn’ was owned by various members of the Winn family and known as ‘The Winn Family Hotel’.

With the coming of the railways which superseded both the passenger stage coaches and the mail coaches the hotel began to struggle. In 1855 the Inn was sold in 5 lots; 4 of which were bought by Leak and Thorpe and the 5th by the Horsley & Son gun manufacturers. Mr Winn, obtained a new hotel ‘Opposite and adjoining the railway station’ with ‘Porters always in attendance to convey the luggage from the trains’, which he named‘ WINN’S GEORGE HOTEL’.

In 1869 the Inn was demolished and Leak and Thorp built their new department store on the site. Today the last remnant can be seen at Number 17. A single column and (reset) bay-window are the remnants of the famous ‘George Inn’.

Photo of the Leak and Throp Premises c.1911 on the site previously occupied by the George Inn.
© Explore York, PHO/3/6187.
Remaining column and window of the George Inn.
© Lizzie Hodgson