Pawnbrokers: the poor man’s banker
Pauline Alden looks at local pawnbrokers, after finding a local man appealing against conscription in 1916:
Bertie Sibley Vowles made an appeal against conscription to the North Yorkshire Appeal Tribunal on 15 July 1916. His solicitor, George Crombie, stated that Bertie’s occupations as pawnbroker’s manager could not be easily replaced. He described his profession as the ‘poor man’s banker’. If he were to be called up, the business could not just close down, as it was stated in law that the possessions do not belong to the business and must be available to be redeemed by the owner for one year and seven days. Bertie Vowles was allowed exemption from military service until 1 Nov 1916.
In 1915 Bertie was living at 1 Colenso St in Clementhorpe with his wife. He served in the Army Service Corps as a driver in Salonika from January 1917 to October 1919. The 1911 Census shows that he was living in Lady Peckitt’s Yard and must have been working for Hardcastle & Co. as they were the pawnbrokers at that address.
1 Colenso St
There were two pawnbrokers in Nunnery Lane listed in the 1913 Kelly's Guide. They were Challoner's and Merriman's. Charles Blyton Challoner had a pawnbroker’s shop at 88 Nunnery Lane, where he worked with his son, Maurice Blyton Challoner. The premises were later demolished with the developments changing the road junction. Maurice attended Cherry Street School, admitted in June 1903. He was a private in the West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales Own) Regiment, but sadly killed in action on 8 May 1917, aged 20. He was buried at the Crosilles Railway Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France and is commemorated on the Cherry St School War Memorial in St. Clements Church.
George Merriman ran a large group of pawnbrokers' shops including 60a, 61-65 Low Petergate. At 19 Nunnery Lane, the shop was reached through a low door which leads upstairs. Anybody with goods to pawn could disappear inside. George Merriman bought the premises from Mr. Wray, butchers, in 1890, and it included a butchers and slaughterhouse at the back. In 1926 the property was sold to Hammonds United Brewery.
The picture of the Petergate premises on the right of Petergate shows Merriman's sign, with many clothes and other goods for sale hanging outside. Merriman's ceased trading about 1955, but it appears their Nunnery Lane shop closed before then.
William Merriman was a private in the West Yorkshire Regiment and the eldest son of George Merriman. William was 38 years old when he died. He is buried in York Cemetery and his cause of death is given as a gunshot wound, but the truth is more tragic. William was at home from the front on hospital leave in July 1917. He was severely depressed and bitterly regretted that his arm injury had not been serious enough to discharge him from the Army. The night before he was due to return to France, he entered a warehouse behind the family’s shop in Petergate. He hung himself by climbing a ladder with a rope around his neck and shooting himself in the head. A shop assistant found him next morning hanging from a beam.
Lady Peckitt's Yard
Henry Hardcastle ran a pawnbrokers shop at Lady Peckitt’s Yard, Pavement, which is where Bertie Vowles would have worked. This pawnbrokers was previously owned from the 18th Century by George Fettes. There is a treasure trove of information in York Explore Archives, in the form of a pledge book containing nearly 11,000 entries. The pledge book is for the period from July 1777 to Boxing Day 1778 and gives a fascinating picture of pawnbrokers whose practices did not change over hundreds of years. It lists personal items, the pledges, which were left with the pawnbroker in exchange for cash. The owner of the pledge agrees to pay interest on the sum advanced and will receive the items back when the loan and interest have been repaid. If the customer defaults, the pawnbroker can sell the pledge to recover his costs.
The Worm-Eaten Waistcoat is a book by local author Alison Backhouse, which records all the information in George Fettes’ pledge book. The waistcoat of the title was owned by Samuel Robinson, and in 1778 Mr Fettes wrote 'one waistcoat but on account of its being worm-eaten must be forfeited if not redeemed in one month.' It was not reclaimed and was sold for one shilling.
The picture of the lives of poor people illustrated by the pledge books reveals the grinding poverty of the day. People would pawn their coats in the winter, their children’s frocks and shirts, buttons, knives and forks, bedding – all for a few bob to exist on. The pawnbroker was used to survive from week to week. In his book Poverty: a study of town life, Seebohm Rowntree observed: 'the stream of people coming to the pawnshop on Monday mornings is a characteristic sight. The children are sent off with the weekly bundle early on that day, and a number of them may sometimes be seen sitting on the steps outside the pawnshop door waiting for it to open. Once the habit of pawning is formed, it is difficult to break.'
This story began with a look at the life of a conscientious objector. It led to details of three soldiers in the First World War connected with pawnbrokers. Two died tragically and one survived. The details of a pawnbrokers’ pledge book opened up a real insight into the lives of poor families. The pawnbroker was the poor man’s banker, but the service provided was an essential part of the existence of poor people, who relied on it to maintain their income on a regular basis as well as in times of need.
North Yorkshire County Record Office Archives – North Riding Appeal Tribunal Case Papers NRCC/CL 9/1/1062
Seebohm Rowntree Poverty A Study of Town Life, Macmillan and Co. Ltd, London 1901
Pledging To Help The Poor, Chris Titley York Evening Press 16 June 2003
Alison Backhouse, The Worm-Eaten Waistcoat, York 2003
Neal Guppy, York Enterprise Club
Pictures: York Press