17th May 2022
A Slum in South Bank?
Our member Rob Stay has been exploring what happened to the Caroline Street area in the 1960s, and will be giving talks on this topic in May and June. His 27 May talk will be our first 'real' talk at the Hall for two years.
We hope it will be an occasion for us to get together again socially, so we'll be providing refreshments, displays and offering books and maps for sale. For details follow this link.
In the 1960s, the City Council achieved what the German air force failed to do in 1916 and 1942 – it obliterated six streets and a long-established community of around 1,000 people, together with local shops and other small businesses.
The streets were named Caroline, Clement, Drake, Price, Spencer and Victoria. They were developed in the mid 19th century, with houses arranged in terraces. Five of them had access into Nunnery Lane and the short ‘stumps’ of four still remain.
The streets, throughout their hundred-year life, had a strongly working-class population of between 950 and 1,400 people. There were many skilled workers, and the range of employment varied from labourers to engine drivers. The railways always dominated employment.
Access to the front of the houses was mainly directly from the street, and quite often, there was no rear access at all. Most houses were built with four main rooms, no bathroom and no running hot water. They had small back yards containing a primitive form of toilet. Included among the houses was an almshouse for four elderly widows.
A postcard view showing Drake St, looking north towards Nunnery Lane (Mike Pollard)
The streets contained a number of shops, mainly on street corners, two pubs (both gone by 1939) and a couple of fish fryers. Many small businesses were run at home. Interviews with three people who lived there as children confirm a self-contained and vibrant community with many extended families.
Parts of some nearby streets had been cleared before WW2 and by the 1950s the Council focused on the six streets. All houses were inspected, and many were judged legally unfit for human habitation. There was also a (somewhat dubious) judgement that the arrangement of houses and streets was 'dangerous or injurious' to those living there. Also dubious was an unsubstantiated assertion that the density of housing was 'excessive'.
View of Caroline St showing the old almshouse on the corner of Clement St
These factors led the Council to declare a ‘clearance area’, where it could buy land compulsorily and clear away buildings, and this was commonly called slum clearance. There is little evidence that in doing so the Council sought, or took seriously into account, the views of those who lived there. There were some (fairly modest) protests, with the press reporting that older residents generally favoured retention, whilst younger ones wanted to move to better houses elsewhere.
Displaced residents were rather meanly compensated and mostly rehoused by the Council all over the city. The site was later redeveloped for social housing - today’s Nunnery Lane estate.
There is no evidence that the Council failed properly to apply the relevant law. Today, improvement and retention dominate urban renewal, but in the 1960s, clearance was often favoured. I have no doubt that the streets would now be saved and the houses valued. But this, of itself, does not throw their clearance into doubt.
Even if retained, the streets would have faced the same social and economic changes that led to the general decline of communities like that described above. Some degree of ‘gentrification’ was inevitable, as was the loss of local shops and other businesses. And increasing car ownership would have played a significant part.
So, were the streets ever a slum? My answer is an unequivocal ‘No’!
UK national censuses of 1881 and 1911.
The 1939 National Register.
York trade directories of various years.
Interviews with three former residents.
York City Council archives.