The Georgian Walls

During the later 18th century there was increasing public interest in the amenity value of the city walls as a place for walking for recreation, although some areas, particularly around the Minster, were considered by adjacent house-owners to be their own private property. In the early 19th century, however, the corporation made several attempts to demolish the walls.Demolition and Restoration

By 1800 the city walls were ruinous in places, expensive to maintain, and as defensive structures completely outmoded. Throughout the country medieval town defences were being knocked down to make way for industrial development, or in towns that had aspirations to gentility, such as Bath, to create open spaces. York had little industry at the time but was a resort for the northern gentry. Therefore the Corporation tried to make the city appear less old fashioned and easier for traffic to negotiate by a programme of bridge and street widening and removing the walls.
In 1798 the city set up a committee to report on the legality of demolishing the walls, only to learn from it that Parliament had to give its consent. Three petitions were drawn up for Parliament, arguing that the walls were useless, expensive and a serious hindrance to traffic. They argued that if they were dismantled the stone could be sold to fund other improvement projects. No permission was granted. Nevertheless Skeldergate Postern was demolished in 1807, and Micklegate barbican followed.Opposition, particularly from the Archbishop of York and the Minster’s Dean and Chapter, then halted large-scale damage until, in the 1820s, traffic problems led to the dismantling of the barbicans at Monk Bar (1825) and Micklegate Bar (1827), though both bars were restored. In 1826 Castlegate Postern was removed to make way for extensions to the Castle, but Fishergate Bar was reopened in 1827 to provide access to the cattle market.The city’s plans were thwarted largely by an increasingly vocal and authoritative opposition both locally and nationally. In 1827 the York Footpath Association was formed, and urged that the walls be restored. Agreement with the city was reached, funds were collected, and work in the Micklegate area started in 1831.

Between 1831 and 1835 the stretch of wall from King’s Manor to Bootham barbican were removed so that a new street, St Leonard’s Place, could be created, but the proposal to take down the Bar was defeated and instead it was renovated.The last attempts to demolish significant sections of wall came in 1858, and again in 1859, when the Board of Health Committee, headed by Joseph Rowntree, proposed to remove ‘the whole or such part of the city walls between Walmgate Bar and Red Tower as may be considered requisite to improve that locality’. It was argued the walls had ‘no particular historic interest about them and had been little noticed until the proposed improvement had been projected’. The walls, said the committee, were seen as promoting ill-health as they obstructed the free circulation of air. Luckily, the proposal was rejected.

Next: The Victorian Walls