Coal Storage and Distribution
Coal was a vital source of heat and power. It was used to heat homes, offices and factories, and to drive steam-powered machinery and vehicles. There were several coal merchants and dealers in Clementhorpe.
I am indebted to David Smith of Askham Bryan for the following story.
“I still have my great grandmother, Sarah’s, notebook in which she recorded orders for coal from local residents. James’ brothers were also businessmen in York. One of these was Thomas Air, a well-known Ouse waterman”.
We are here concerned mainly with the Air family. David writes “My mother, Rose, was a member of the Air family of York. She died in 2018. She told me about her parents and grandparents, about the family house and coal business, as well as about the extended Air family.” In nineteenth and early twentieth century York the Air family were variously pub landlords, shipbuilders, shipping operators, watermen and coal merchants.
Kelly’s Directory of 1913, for example, listed a number of members of the Air family:
George Air, coal merchant, Queen’s Staith
James Henry Air, coal dealer, 2 Cherry Street
Richard Air, boat builder, Terry’s Avenue [sic]
Richard Air, pleasure boat owner, 4 Cumberland Street
Thomas Air, pleasure boat owner, 3 Cumberland Street
Thomas Air, [landlord] Ship Public House, King Street
David’s great grandfather was James Henry Air, sometimes simply known as James Henry. He married Sarah Ann. James was a coal merchant whose house and business were in Cherry Street in Clementhorpe. The family supplied coal to households and businesses across York, but especially in the Skelderagte, Clementhorpe and South Bank areas. Sarah kept the orders and payments books. The business kept two horses and open-topped carts bearing the family name. The coal was imported from the West Riding by barge. This was operated by another brother, George, who also worked as a coal merchant.
The picture shows one of the Air Company carts delivering coal in Kyme Street (Photo by John Stevens, courtesy of David Smith, March 2019)
This is a sample page from one of the Air’s coal order books. These books were maintained by Sarah, James’ wife (Photo by John Stevens, courtesy of David Smith, March 2019).
When he wasn’t dealing with coal, James would take part in boating activities on the Ouse. He won a number of prizes and cups. This is the young James Henry Air with some of his rowing trophies (Photo by John Stevens, courtesy of David Smith, March 2019).
This is one of the cups awarded to the Air boys. The inscription reads “Yorkshire Regatta, 1867, Local Pair Oars Race With Cox, Ouse Amateur Rowing Club, RT Air, Wm Air, Hy Air cox” (Photo by John Stevens, courtesy of David Smith, March 2019).
The family home was apparently quite a grand affair by local standards, with a feature staircase, but the family do not seem to have employed any servants. The home, and adjoining coal yard, was located next to the Nunnery Wall a remnant of which still stands.
When James and Sarah retired, they moved to Newton Terrace. where they died. James’ will suggested that he had houses at 29 Skeldergate, as well as 11 and 8 Newton Terrace. The family were obviously comfortably off, and James was a Freeman of the City. James died on 26 August 1925. His funeral was held at St Clements Church, and he was buried in York Cemetery, where there is an imposing headstone.
The picture shows James Henry Air and his wife Sarah, coal merchant, of 2 Cherry Street, Clementhorpe. (Photo by John Stevens, courtesy of David Smith, March 2019)
James and Sarah left the business to their son, Robert Henry Air, and he ran it until his retirement. At this point the business was sold to another coal merchant, Blundy Clark (there is still a sign on their old building in Skeldergate). The house in Clementhorpe was compulsory purchased by York Corporation, and subsequently demolished. During demolition the foundations of a lime kiln were unearthed, together with a Roman mosaic. The discovery of the mosaic was widely reported in the archaeological world and in local papers.
This picture shows the Roman mosaic floor that was uncovered when 2 Cherry Street was demolished (Photo courtesy of York Archaeological Trust, John Stevens, March 2019).