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Hungate in York - a brief history

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Last year, I was contacted by a property company who had just completed part of a new development of apartments in the Hungate area of York. They had a press trip booked to show journalists the new building but wanted me to take then on a familiarization walk around York before taking them back to Hungate.

My usual York walking tour does not get down as far as Hungate and there is nothing obviously visible to show visitors. But I thought as I had taken on the job, a bit more research on the area in question was called for.

My findings were fascinating and I was able to explain to the journalists how this area fitted into York’s impressive and varied history.

As with any major developments in York, archaeological digs are allowed before work can begin to ensure that no history or finds are lost. The Hungate site had seen of one of the biggest archaeological digs before works started between 2006 and 2011. A wealth of history from the last 2,000 years was uncovered.

It’s worth looking at the geology of the area first. Hungate has always been an area of low lying land next to the River Foss. During Roman times the area was very marshy and it was found that the Romans used the area to bury their dead. A Roman cemetery was found along with many items of Roman jewelry which had been buried with the dead. A Roman necklace with 299 small glass beads was a particularly important find. The cemetary’s position was consistent with Roman history as cemeteries were usually outside the Roman city walls and away from the main fort.

Necklace photo credit - York Archaeological Trust

The area was still part of the recognized Roman settlement and defensive ditches where uncovered dated to this period when York was called Eboracum.

When the Romans vacated York and abandoned the fort – York was settled by Saxons. There is not a lot left to show from this period as they built mainly in wood but there is evidence of Saxon farming on the site between 500-800AD. It is believed that during this period the marshy land had dried out and the fertile river deposits made the area ideal for growing crops.

During the late 800’s the Vikings took over York and its name changed from Eoforwic during the Saxon occupation to Jorvik under the Scandinavian settlers. A wealth of Viking items were found on the site with evidence of dwellings and remnants of living plots. Once plot even had a cellar made out of a Saxon ship.

Dating from this period a number of beads from the Eastern Mediterranean were found which also showed that the Vikings were actively trading across Europe.

The name Hungate comes from the Viking period, but here is much debate over the origin of the name - we know gate from the Norse gatta meaning street or road. But the Hun part some believe it is from the word Hund meaning hound and therefore it would be street of the dogs. Others think it is more likely that Hun comes from the Norse word Unda which means water. Street to or through the water maybe which does make more sense with its position next to the River Foss.

In medieval times, City walls were built around York during the 1300’s and Hungate was included in the area. During this time the River Foss was partly damned to make fish ponds for the Lords of the Manor, but as the area gradually silted up it became poor marsh land again and the area become known as Merske roughly translated as marsh). The area was still habited during this period as many medieval pots and artifacts were found but these were basic items and the area would have been mainly habited by the poor.

In the 1600’s the area was designated the Cities rubbish dump and become a tip. This continued for almost 2 centuries. During this time the land was reclaimed and soil levels built up. This was partly due to the dumping and manuring from the towns refuse.

The area returned to temporary use with some agriculture and orchards being evident in the area. The Guild of Cordwainers – basically the union of the shoe makers actually moved their headquarters to the area.

During the 1800’s the city expanded dramatically with many people moving into York from the countryside. This population move to cities meant that the area started to become used for low cost housing for the workers. Small industry such as flour mills set up in the area but with the population of York trebling over the next 100 years more people re-located to Hungate .

The area became famous for its over-crowding, cheap poor quality, rental housing and slum conditions. Seebohm Rowntree of Rowntrees chocolate fame and an important social reformer declared the area one of the poorest in the country at the beginning of 1900s. Poor sanitation and many water born diseases affected the population of the area leading to a high mortality rate. The area effectively had become one of York’s largest slums and a communal toilet block was uncovered from this period which would have served many houses..

In the 1930’s the area was cleared and houses demolished. People were relocated to council estates further out of the city. Some of the evidence of slum housing could still be found on the archaeological dig.

Photo Credit Hungate Regeneration Limited

The area is within the City walls and had been one of the only brown field sites yet to be developed until the Hungate development we see today was started which has helped to re-generate the area. Work started in 2014 by the Hungate Regeneration Ltd and as this work continues a thriving riverside residential quarter is gradually coming to life.

This is just the latest phase of a fascinating history for the Hungate area – but it begs the question - what will be there in another 200 years?

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