New Oral History Publication – York’s Golden Half Mile
Look around Coney Street today and you’ll find the mix of shops found in high streets up and down the country. But peer a little below the surface and an altogether different picture emerges. We see a world of independent shopkeepers, small businesses and elegant establishments, as well as small warehouses, offices and churches. It was a street much envied and nicknamed ‘York’s Golden Half Mile’ by an early travel writer because of the glamour of its costumiers and furriers, pubs and restaurants.
York Archaeological Trust’s oral history project brings the history of this area vividly to life with a splendid book by Van Wilson, ‘York’s Golden Half Mile: The Story of Coney Street’. Van Wilson interviewed some 50 people who have lived or worked in the area, which also covers the Mansion House, the Guildhall and Spurriergate, from the 1930s onwards. Included are current establishments such as the Spurriergate Centre, St Martin’s Church, the City Screen, WH Smith and The Press (formerly Yorkshire Evening Press), as well as those now gone such as Leak and Thorp, York’s first department store. The foreword is by York’s Councillor Julie Gunnell, previous Lord Mayor of York.
As always with oral history, fascinating material emerges revealing a completely different era of terrifying waitresses (one particularly ferocious female referred to as General Booth), cinema attendants who would rap around the head any cinema-goers deemed misbehaving, and allocation of shop assistants to workplace by size!
Ernest Johnson, Picture House Manager from 1936, recalls refurbishment of the Picture House (where Woolworth’s and then Boots were sited), which closed in 1955.
Once they re-seated the Picture House, they were trying to get more seats in. They put 18 inch seats in. And I thought there’d be trouble. One afternoon somebody said, “There’s a woman been sat in the cinema for three hours and she can’t get out of her seat”. So I had to go and rescue her. And then I had a word with the head office. “My patrons are country people, not the slim type. And I had one stuck in for three hours”. And I was most unpopular with my supervisor because we changed all the seating back to 20 inch seats.
Full of wonderful photographs never before published, and under-pinned by considerable historical research, the book will appeal to anybody interested in York’s history and social development, and in oral history in general.