York’s premier shopping street was home to some colourful characters down the ages, as Van Wilson explains
In 1150 Coney Street, the main street in York, was called Cuningstrete, the King’s Street. It ran from Ousegate right to the Museum Gardens. By the 18th century it was the site of the seat of government in the city, with the Guildhall and the Mansion House in pride of place.
But it was in the 19th century that it became a shopping centre par excellence, with high class fashion establishments, costumiers, furriers, milliners, linen drapers, pianoforte warehouse, bookshops and jewellers, as well as the home of York’s first department store, Leak and Thorp which opened in 1869.
Before Leak and Thorp was destroyed by fire in 1933 (though rebuilt by the following year), many of the assistants and maids lived on the premises.
Whilst the fire was raging they told reporters that they had lost their jobs and most of their possessions but were particularly concerned about the welfare of the two store cats, Spats and Teddy.
Alan Powell who worked at Border’s family grocers and Italian warehousemen, recalls:
The green beans came in sacks and a chap called Kenny roasted them. There was a wire net cage of fine mesh and the fresh bacon would hang in there. The air kept it cool and dry and it was fly proof.
At Christmas we had a display of Chinese figs, muscatel raisins and French glace fruit and we’d get Tom Smith’s crackers (the man who invented them). They were gorgeous, absolute works of art.
John Avison was a reporter at the Yorkshire Evening Press and loved the variety of the job.
By contrast I remember watching open mouthed as a Yorkshire vicar’s wife stood in as a human target for a circus knife thrower, to raise money for the steeple fund.
On one occasion I had to cover ‘The Exorcist’ at the ABC in Piccadilly, a controversial horror film. I remember walking back through the labyrinthine corridors of the office in Coney Street. The building could be quite spooky at night.
I was tapping away merrily and my finger slipped between the keys, my wedding ring got jammed and with my free hand I had to reach the phone and dial 999 to get the fire brigade to release me from the typewriter.
The Willow Café, now a late night bar and disco, was at one time a tearoom. John Avison’s mum and dad did their courting there.
Today the face of Coney Street has changed dramatically from its earlier self. Boots, W H Smith’s and the perfumery establishment of Burgin’s still exist but most of the traditional elegant shops, the family businesses which took pride in personal service and a relationship with customers, have gone, replaced by eight mobile phone shops, two nightclubs, American owned coffee shops and a Chinese herbal clinic.
Fortunately we are able to access memories, documents and newspapers to build up a picture of what the street was like in the past.
- York’s Golden Half Mile: The Story of Coney Street by Van Wilson is published by York Archaeological Trust price £9.99
- Read more about York’s history