Stop 7. Life on the Home Front: War Horses and Walmgate.

Cross Piccadilly by the Red Lion pub and look for the painted sign advertising F.R. Stubbs’ Ironmongers.

 You are now standing at the junction of Walmgate and Merchantgate. At the beginning of the 20th century the far end of this street just beyond Walmgate Bar had been the site of a large cattle market since the 16th century. From Walmgate Barbican to Fishergate Postern the cattle market’s pens ran the length of the city wall, with auction rings situated where the Barbican Centre currently stands. The market relied on the residents of this street for a large proportion of its workforce, and on the 4th August, 1914, these workers would have arrived to find the site no longer operating as expected.

At the beginning of the war the British Army owned 25,000 horses. This was considered insufficient and in the next two weeks a further 165,000 were recruited from Britain. Military Authorities in York commandeered the Barbican Road Cattle Market and its wool sheds as a depot for requisitioned horses, permitting only a single auction ring and some of the pens to retain their original function. 

The following day York residents witnessed mounted yeomanry arrive in the city and begin commandeering horses indiscriminately and from anywhere they found them. One account of this was recorded by the Yorkshire Evening Press; a farming convoy moving along Blossom Street, it reported, was left stationary as the military stopped them, gave a small payment and then proceeded to take the horses that had been driving the carts.

This sort of activity was not confined to York. Over the following fortnight, citizens observed a steady influx of horses brought from all over Yorkshire to be stabled at the Barbican Market. On the morning of the 13th August, hundreds of horses were brought into the city and at 3 o’clock another 150 were led down Micklegate, Clifford Street and then onto the Market. These horses had come from Halifax and were intended to be used overseas for transport as all were, as the press reported, “strong, useful-looking animals, and in good condition.”

It is unlikely that many of these horses returned. On the frontline of battle they were exposed to the same dangers and diseases as the soldiers, and almost half a million horses owned by the British army were killed during the war. The legacy of that death rate can still be identified in the number of heavy draught horses that are now classed as rare and semi-rare breeds today.

The story of York’s War Horses represents one example of the ways in which the city was adapted to meet the demands of the war. The residents of Walmgate in particular were forced to make sacrifices.

 From the mid 19th century, the parish of Walmgate had been one of York’s worst slum districts. Housing many of the city’s working class and migrant communities, the area was over-populated, poorly sanitised and the buildings were largely dilapidated. By 1914, Walmgate’s population had grown even further and the area had become notorious for deprivation and sub-standard living conditions. In his yearly report, the Medical Officer during the war, Edmund J. Smith, observed that the Walmgate district was “an absolute slum, the worst in the city in my opinion.”

 Before the war, the area had been in the early stages of redevelopment. Housing works had been planned, streets like Merchantgate had been constructed as thoroughfares, and York Council had begun proceedings for the acquisition of a large plot of land. They aimed to build a nearby housing scheme that would accommodate for the eventual clearance of the slum. Fifty Acres of land were provisionally secured in what is now the area beyond Walmgate known as Tang Hall.

However, following the reallocation of funds at the onset of the war, this project was suspended, and residents remained in the same housing that had been declared unfit for habitation for several successive years. Plans for a new Tuberculosis Hospital and an extension to the Fever Hospital were postponed, as were other works that had been prioritised to improve Walmgate.

The appalling living conditions directly contributed to the death rate for the area, which was the highest in the city, far above Micklegate’s and double that of the Bootham district. Adult and infant mortality rates increased for every year of the war. The chief causes of these deaths were mostly respiratory diseases such Tuberculosis, Whooping Cough, and Bronchitis, as well as illnesses linked to bacterial infection and poor sanitation, such as diarrhoea and scarlet fever. This was because many of Walmgate’s residents lived in over-crowded back-to-back housing; structures that literally backed onto one another, restricting both light and proper ventilation. They also shared a minimal amount of water points with up to twenty houses using one tap and two or more sharing water closets.

The Medical Officer identified the war as the chief factor for the increased death rate and wrote that any efforts to improve the situation would have to be “postponed until after the War, as it is hopeless to proceed under present conditions.” In fact, the financial legacy of the war was such that it would not be until the 1930s that many of those living in severe poverty in Walmgate would be offered the opportunity to relocate.  

Walmgate is also notable for the remarkable story of the Calpin family, which received local acclaim when ten brothers all enlisted in 1914. Press articles praised the patriotism of the brothers, and the Lord Mayor, Henry Rhodes Brown, wrote a letter to the brothers’ parents stating that “it will be hard for anyone in the Empire to equal your fine record of ten sons all serving their country.” All ten survived the war and returned home, although one son, Joseph, would die a few weeks later from the ongoing effects of gas poisoning. His name features along with 78 others on St Deny’s Church Memorial. This is one of two memorials located on the street honouring men from Walmgate, the other can be seen in St. Margaret’s church and lists the names of a further 55 men.

Stop 7. Life on the Home Front: War Horses and Walmgate.


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