The great coaching Inns of Coney Street were not just important for visitors to the city and those wanting a quick drink! In the 18th and 19th centuries the Inns served as meeting places for the citizens of York. The two great coaching Inns, The Black Swan and The George contained sitting rooms and committee rooms where current affairs could be debated and plans concocted.
Newspapers and pamphlets from the time give us an insight into the wide variety of issues discussed. Topics discussed at The George Inn included a defence fund raised during the threatened Jacobite invasion of 1745, a charitable subscription for lowering corn prices for the poor in 1757, and in 1772 the planning of canals from Leeds and Wakefield for the easier transportation of goods.
Elections at the Inns
The Inns often played a key role in local elections; A newspaper notice tells us that in 1740 a ‘great’ meeting of ‘Gentlemen, clergy and Freeholders of the County of York’ was held at The George Inn. It was decided by this select group that Lord Morpeth and Sir Miles Stapylton would be nominated to represent the County in the upcoming Parliament. The two candidates were uncontested and the next year duly took their place as MP’s.
The County of Yorkshire was by far the largest constituency in the country at the time with 15,000 eligible voters. These voters were from all over the county (and many from outside the county also); Yorkshire had yet to be split into the three constituencies of the East, West and North Ridings with the 1832 Reform Act. It seems likely therefore that the large and comfortable George Inn was an attractive place to hold this meeting as it could provide stabling and accommodation for those travelling long distances.
Of course not all political discussions were peaceful. A spirited letter from an anonymous freeman dated June 19th 1747 refers to a politically motivated incident ahead of an election where ‘at the George last night...aggressors,...broke in upon the repose of gentlemen taking their ease at their Inn.’
Politics at the George was not just for the wealthy elite! A very stirring notice appeared in the papers in 1758 reading:
‘To such of the poor Freemen of York, as receive Parish Rates or are in Work Houses.
Mr Lane is now endeavouring by his Council to take away your Rights of Voting because you are poor and for no other Reason.
Mr Thornton and his Friends are determined to support your Rights of Voting, by applying to them at the George in Coneystreet.
This rousing claim and subsequent meeting at the George Inn seemed to work, Robert Lane stood unsuccessfully for MP of York against William Thornton in a by-election that december.
The Inns and the Railways
The Inns of Coney Street continued as a key location in parliamentary elections into the 19th century. The Black Swan was a frequent meeting place of hardline ‘anti-reform’ and ‘anti-abolition’ Tory voters. Their association with the Inn was so strong that in 1831 when a ‘pro-abolition’ and ‘pro-reform’ tory candidate Mr Baytun won the election The Yorkshire Courant referred to the hardline faction he had shunned as the ‘junta at the Black Swan’.
A few years later another Tory candidate Mr John Henry Lowther made The George Inn his election headquarters and the Inn contained a committee room where he held his meetings. The Inn was frequently mentioned in newspaper articles covering the 1832, 1833 and 1835 elections. Mr Lowther was unsuccessful in 1832 and ‘33, but finally got his parliamentary position in 1835 and remained in it until 1847.
It was reported that after Mr Lowthers victory was announced:
‘the candidates and their friends… paraded the city, by torchlight, accompanied by banners and music. The crowd of respectable individuals with Mr. Lowther amounted to at least three thousand persons. On their arrival at the George Inn, Mr Lowther was received with rapturous applause.’ - Yorkshire Gazette - Saturday 10 January 1835.
The Yorkshire Gazette described in detail the Tory victory dinner held at the George Inn for 100 of Mr Lowthers supporters. The event had been dramatically postponed from the night of the election due to a fire at the house of the campaign manager of their Whig rival, (the York Chronicle noted that despite being the most ‘strenuous political opponents’ most attendees of the Tory dinner were busy helping at the fire). The event was a highly praised and jolly affair. There was a mixture of political toasts, patriotic songs and rather more bawdy ‘Glee’ singing of songs such as ‘Wine gives the lover vigour’ - it was an Inn after all! [Yorkshire Gazette Saturday 14 February 1835.]
The 1835 election of Mr Lowther was not without its controversy; The Herald lamented ‘...gold and drunkenness have prevailed over reason, moral principle, and the most virtuous arguments.’ Indeed the election was dogged with corruption and bribery. The most brazen example of which was carried out by George Hudson the future ‘Railway King’ who sent sovereigns stuck down with arabic gum through the post to voters. This did in fact trigger a parliamentary investigation at which Mr Hudson was required to give evidence, however the investigation concluded that the Whigs had also engaged in bribery and therefore no action was taken.
With the election of Mr Lowther the political landscape in York was changing. The city would become the railway capital of England, dominated by the figure of George Hudson, who would himself become Lord Mayor of York in 1836 and 1837. Mr Hudson was the Tory treasurer and a strong supporter of Mr Lowther and perhaps not surprisingly Lowther strongly supported Mr Hudson's interests in parliament. The York & North Midland Railway Bill received the Royal assent in June 1836, allowing Hudson to create his Locomotive empire. One of the first engines on the new line was named ‘Lowther’.
Many meetings discussing the Yorkshire railways were held at The George. Little did the members of the meetings know they were also deciding the fate of Coney Street’s coaching Inns. The coming of the railways to York severely affected their business. In 1855, the owner of the George, Mr Winn, sold the Coney Street property and obtained a new hotel ‘Opposite and adjoining the railway station’ with ‘Porters always in attendance to convey the luggage from the trains’, he named it ‘WINN’S GEORGE HOTEL’.
Fifteen years after the opening of the York - London railway Line The George Inn closed its doors for the last time to guests… and to the whirlwind of 19th century politics.