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The River Children

The Committee Room

The 19th and 20th Centuries brought mixed fortunes to York and its rivers. No longer an important port and with the coming of the railways, the influence of the rivers waned.

The Foss was turned into a canal in the 18th Century but abandoned in 1847, one of the first victims of the railways.

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Children playing in the shallows of the River Foss in Hungate in 1912. Hungate was one of the poorest areas of York and was considered a slum from the 1850’s.

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The Wood Children, Thomas Grimshaw, 1850

The Wood Children, offspring of a successful pawnbroker lived just a stone’s throw from the River Foss. The area in which they lived was not prosperous, in the 19th Century Fossgate, Walmgate and Hungate were some of the poorest areas of the city.

The Foss which bordered these communities, was described in 1850 as, "a great open cesspool into the stagnating waters of which the sewers of half the city sluggishly pass”.  But just 10 years  later a combination of dredging and regular maintenance had the river flowing freely once again. Children even played in a paved area of the river which opened as a free swimming pool in 1859.

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Children enjoying the open-air swimming baths in 1924.

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Queen’s Staith, 1973

Small ships and boats continued to ply their trade on the rivers through the later 19th and early 20th Century. But York’s heyday as a trading hub was gone. The city was slowly turning its back on her rivers.

However, it is fair to say that we inherit our rivers in the cleanest condition they have been in centuries, in all weathers the Ouse teems with pleasure craft and vessels from sailing and rowing clubs. Local clubs and organisations, such as the River Foss Society promote the history of the river and encourage people to get involved in conservation. Yet for many the rivers are only significant when they flood.

The rivers shaped and influenced the history of the Merchant Adventurers and that of their city. Their story, like ours is not at an end and the Ouse and Foss will continue to be our great inheritance and one we should cherish for the future.

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Image Credits Children on Dennis Street, Hungate, 1912

Reproduced from an original held by City of York Council/Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual