Eighteenth-century York was the centre for northern ‘polite society’ and the pivot around which the social life of the country’s elite families revolved. Attracting families of the nobility and gentry, such as Viscount Fairfax and his daughter Anne, the city played host during the winter season and August Race Week to a round of operas, balls, assemblies and private parties, and to horse racing in the summer months. The creation of the New Walk Terrace, painted by Nathan Drake c. 1750, and buildings such as the Assembly Rooms and theatre offered new ways and places in which to see and be seen and the opportunity to parade one’s finery. While 200 miles from the metropolitan centre of fashion and London’s network of trend-setting elite, the beau monde, York had its own sense of style, couture and code of fashionability. As contemporary historian Francis Drake so enthusiastically remarked:
In short the politeness of the gentlemen, the richness of the dress, and remarkable beauty of the ladies, and, of late, the magnificence of the room they meet in cannot be equalled, throughout, in any parts of Europe … and it will be no vanity for me to say, that though other cities and towns in the kingdom run far beyond us in trade, and the hurry of business, yet there is no place, out of London, so polite and elegant to live in as the city of York.
(Francis Drake, Eboracum: Or, The History and Antiquities of the City of York, 1736)
In this setting, fashion and ‘polite society’ were inextricably linked. Dressing to impress one’s neighbours, friends and peers at the many social gatherings that York offered was a necessity, not an option. As the well-heeled resident gentry and wealthy upper classes moved into York to inhabit their elegant townhouses during the winter season, so too poured by road and river the large quantities of commodities, both British and imported, required to meet these needs. Shopkeepers, warehouse owners and tradesmen with a contingent of assistants, apprentices and employees stood ready to supply them with the most recherché of goods required for fashionable living – and prepared to make their fortunes.
The centre of York, then as now, resembled a ‘commercial showcase’ with haberdashers, wallpaper sellers, goldsmiths, book sellers, tea-men, comb-makers, drapers, mantua-makers, mercers, hosiers, toy-men, grocers, milliners, wig-dressers, apothecaries, and gold-lace makers all plying their trades within York’s walls. Shopping activity at the high-end of the market was concentrated around Stonegate, Pavement, High Ousegate and St. Helen’s Square, and here Lord Fairfax and his daughter Anne would have made their purchases. Bills and receipts amassed over years – and now preserved in the Fairfax archives – reveal that the Fairfaxes were no strangers to the world of luxury shopping, and like their contemporaries and peers, indulged their consuming passions to the full.
Such bills confirm that there was indeed a strong market for local consumption amongst York’s wealthy. Both the Viscount and Anne Fairfax patronised the mercer and tailor partnership of Tasker & Routh for much of their clothing needs, and were most likely amongst their regular customers. However, a noble patron clearly did not necessarily protect one from bankruptcy, as the following notice in the York Chronicle reveals:
Linen drapery – the whole stock in trade belonging to Mrs E. Jackson, a bankrupt, continues selling (considerably under prime cost) consisting of a very large and valuable assortment of printed muslins, cottons, linens etc.
While clients such as Lord Fairfax bought items from Mrs Jackson, the high investment in costly goods and the credit expected to be extended to regular and elite clients put tradesmen, and mercers in particular, at high risk of insolvency and financial ruin.
Tradesmen in York made sensible use of local newspapers in their quest to promote their goods. Advertisements for stock, usually boasting goods newly arrived from London, appeared in both The York Chronicle and Weekly Advertiser and the York Courant. Anne Fairfax may have read these and decided to patronise such places according to her fashion need and desires.
Mark Hallett and Jane Rendall (eds.), Eighteenth-Century York: Culture, Space and Society, Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York, 2003.
Gerry Webb, Fairfax of York: The Life and History of a Noble Family, Dales Court Press, 2001.