Being the Lord Mayor of York in the 18th century had both its downsides and perks! The StreetLife York project's research has produced fascinating insights into this important ceremonial role.
One of Coney Street’s most important and beautiful buildings is the Mansion House, facing on to St Helen’s Square. This was built in the 1730s as a residence for the Lord Mayors of York, and shows the increasing civic pride of the city at that time.
The eighteenth century was a time of great growth in the social status of York’s leading citizens. Ideas of ‘gentility’ were in fashion, and the middle-classes sought refined and virtuous social pastimes. Important new buildings included the Assembly Rooms on Blake Street, for organised dances and balls, and the laying-out of ‘New Walk’ along the Ouse south of Skeldergate for promenading.
Since the medieval period York’s mayors had lived in their own houses for their period of office, but were also expected to entertain all the leading citizens to feasts and banquets on a weekly basis at their own expense. The expense and hassle of opening up their houses to guests meant that many citizens refused or avoided the office.
To solve this problem, in the 1720s the City Council decided to ‘keep up the grandeur and dignity of the City’ by building a ‘Mansion House’ for the mayoral residence. The site was on Coney Street, in front of the city’s Guildhall, replacing a 15th century chapel and inn. Even though some of York’s craftsmen gave their labour in return for the freedom of the city, by the time the new Mansion House, in a Classical architectural style, had been finished in 1734 the cost to the city was around £3000, three times the original estimate!
At the same time as the Mansion House was being built, the Council produced a book setting out the correct dress and customs of the Mayor and Aldermen of York during processions and at civic ceremonies. This also shows the considerable expenses the chief citizens could expect to incur as part of their duties. One page orders that when an Alderman became a councillor he had to provide for the occasion 6 gallons (27 litres) of wine, 4 beef tongues (‘neat’s tongues’), about a kilogram of Italian olives, as well as tobacco, pipes, and cutlery.
A Lord Mayor’s Advice
From the 1730s the Lord Mayor of York lived in the Mansion House for the year, with a staff of servants, cooks, butlers, maids, and gardeners. A glimpse at the life of a Mayor in the 1780s is given by a remarkable document in the Explore York archives (catalogue reference Acc.12). This was written by an unknown Mayor, giving often quite pointed advice to his successors on how to deal with various problems of money, staff, and the people of York.
Much of the document is concerned with saving money and discouraging begging. Whenever deliveries were made to Mansion House, the Mayor warned, ‘There will be a sett of Idle Porters and Labourers come about the House for Drink’ and they should only be allowed one pint each. Fat and dripping from roast meats were not to be given to the servants, as they might buy in extra-fatty joints to get these treats. Instead the fat was to be mixed with bran and fed to the chickens.
“Keep the Hall Gates shutt as much as you can, and the back Door also, for beggars often come that way, and are so audacious as to gett into the Kitchen, where they have an oppertunity of taking what they ought not, if the servants are out of the way. There are two or three people I could name, are never out of the House or kitchen, they do not come there for nothing.”
Remarks on Mayoral Customs’ 1780s, Explore York Acc.12, pp. 5-6.
The document also tells us about the Mayor’s gardens, which were to the north of the house backing on to the river, on the site now behind the former General Post Office. This was used for vegetable growing as well as formal pleasure gardens. There was also a summer house backing on to the river with a tank in the roof ‘for tench, eels’ and other fish for the dinner table, which could be topped up with fresh water from the Ouse.
A sheaf of papers in Explore York archives also gives details of the various civic feasts that were held on a regular basis. These were lavish affairs, occupying most of the rooms of the Mansion House and requiring large numbers of cooking and waiting staff. A table setting for one such feast from 2nd May 1794 shows the kind of food on offer to those in the State Room. In accordance with dining ‘a la francaise’, the usual form at the time, dishes were placed on the table and diners largely helped themselves to whichever were closest, meaning you had to hope you were sitting near something you liked!
The centrepiece for the first course (top) was a haunch of mutton, and for the second course it was roast lamb. Dishes arranged down the table include rabbit, tench, mock turtle, and plum pudding for the first course. These would then be removed and the table reset for the second course with lobster ragout, roast chicken, snipe, and capon, and asparagus amongst other things. Such quantities of food also needed to be washed down, and around 80 diners might expect to polish off 80 bottles of port, 40 of madeira wine, 5 bottles of brandy, and a barrel and a half of ale, together with various other spirits and fortified wines. It wasn’t all hard work being an 18th century mayor!