Health, Poverty and Social Change: What the Streets of York Can Teach Us

Health, Poverty and Social Change: What the Streets of York Can Teach Us

We are delighted this week to welcome our guest blogger, Connie Rout, who has undertaken research into our health and housing records as part of her University of York IPUP placement within her MA in Medieval History. Connie has created four fantastic videos based on her research, which we will be sharing with you via our social media channels this week. Over to Connie now to kick start the week and tell us more about her research into the lives of York citizens past.  

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Why have I spent the last three months plodding around York through all kinds of weather, armed with my camera and a list of old street names, snapping shots of car parks, housing estates, graveyards, and geese?

In fairness, lockdown has probably made all of us a little eccentric. But my excuse is that I’ve been on placement with Explore York, getting to grips with “digital storytelling” and attempting to bring the people and documents in the Explore York archives to life. My focus has been on poverty and health in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century York, and it’s transformed the way I see the city.

When you’re out with a camera, suddenly the small things are a whole lot more interesting…

Of course, Covid-19 threw a particularly cumbersome spanner in the works for everybody, and the archives had to close to the public. Luckily, I had access to the archived documents already earmarked by previous placement students. On top of this, anyone can browse the digital archives on Explore York Images, The Health of York Flickr and The Poor Law Archives Flickr.

Soaking up as many of these documents as I could, I became increasingly excited about what they revealed.

I’m studying for a master’s in Medieval History just now, so I’m used to peering sideways at my screen, trying to decipher thirteenth-century Latin wills, written in a rush by some poor scribe who was probably thinking about his lunch. But these nineteenth-century documents were different. Here were actual photographs (medieval folk were not known for their skill with a camera), and written accounts brimming with individuals’ personalities, aspirations, and troubles. Best of all are the records of people’s addresses and places of work, which mean we can literally follow in their footsteps…

I love photos like this. Was it staged? Where were the women going? What were they talking about? It’s easy to forget these people existed outside the photograph, but they were real like you and me.
Women walking on the city walls in about 1880: Explore York Images y2_4572

We tend to think of York as a medieval city, but when you’re next out and about in the area, turn your eyes upwards and see how many buildings are Victorian or Edwardian. Whole neighbourhoods were developed over this period to account for the influx of people who had moved to the city. Think about the rows of terraced houses sprawled around the former Terry’s factory and near the hospital. Many of York’s landmark buildings also sprang up at this time. The railway station, York Art Gallery and the Yorkshire Museum are some grand examples of Victorian architecture.

So many of the places mentioned in the records still exist, and I decided to use them as a starting point for exploring the lives of the “ordinary” people who had lived in, worked in, and visited these addresses over a hundred years ago.

Ultimately, I’ve created a series of four mini-documentaries. They’re a walking tour around York, highlighting places which you’ve likely passed (or even live in…!) if you’re a local, and which were significant to the historic people I was getting to know from the archives.

It’s been a steep learning curve and I’ve been having way too much fun. These are the first videos I have ever made, and they feature filmed footage, photos from the archives, hand-drawn animations, and a recorded voice over – which has been the source of much cringing. If that’s not click-bait, then I don’t know what is.

I’m not always at one with technology, so the placement has been invaluable for teaching myself to make videos – and realising how much I enjoy it!

But the best, and least expected, thing to come out of this placement, is the feeling of familiarity that I now have with the city.

I grew up in West Yorkshire and loved trips to York (you’ve probably gathered I’m the kind of person who can’t get enough of the Jorvik museum). But this is my first time actually living here. Moving in amidst the pandemic, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fully experience the city for some time. The museums, the theatres, the pubs, the restaurants have all been off-limits. Stepping out each week to the streets noted in the archives, I’ve come to know the city in a different way.

I know that this is the street where a 22-year-old nurse lived in 1914, and that is the house that a family of seven and two lodgers called home – so poor they were forced to sell their bedding for food. I know that this building used to be a school for adults to help them break the chains of poverty, and that 102 years ago a football team of young men – possibly scarred from the First World War – stood in that exact spot and posed proudly for a photograph.

Realising these things helps you to make sense of a place. The social and economic fabric of a city is sewn throughout history, which reminds us that it is constantly being added to; today we lay the foundations for someone else’s “present” in another 100 years. What’s more, if we pay attention to the past as an example of tried and tested methods of creating a better society, we can learn from what we got wrong and adopt the actions that have been proven to help people.

Adventuring down York’s side tracks is a reminder that there’s even more to the city’s past behind its impressive medieval structures and extravagant Georgian facades. York’s hidden streets tell the history of everyday men and women.

I’ve come to know nineteenth-century York before I’ve come to know twenty-first-century York, but really, they’re the same thing. There’s definitely something in the idea that you can’t truly understand a place until you know how it came to be that way.

Is this all just a very long-winded way of encouraging you to watch my videos? I think the promise of my hand-drawn animations should really have been enough, but in a way yes, it is. I’m proud of what I’ve made, but most of all I’m impressed with what I’ve learnt – and I’m excited to pass that on to you.

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