A History of Beverley

By Tim Lambert

Beverley in the Middle Ages

Beverley means beaver stream (beavers were once common in Britain). In about 705 a monastery was founded by the stream. In 721 John of Beverley, the Bishop of York died and was buried at the monastery. He was canonized (declared a saint) in 1037. It was said that miracles occurred around his tomb e.g. people were healed from illnesses. Soon pilgrims came to his burial place, some of them hoping for cures, some merely to worship. Soon a little trading settlement grew up around the monastery at Beverley.

Medieval Beverley did not have a stone wall but it did have a ditch and an earth rampart probably with a wooden palisade on top. However, there were 4 stone gates known as bars (bar is an old word for gate). Merchants bringing goods into the town had to pay tolls at the bars. The 4 bars were North Bar, Norwood Bar, Keldgate or South Bar, and Newbegin Bar. Only 1 of the 4 gates survives, the North Bar. The present one was rebuilt in brick in 1409. When the town grew a suburb appeared outside the gate and was called North Bar Without. The buildings inside the gate were called North Bar Within.

Beverley was famous in the 15th century for brickmaking and tile making. In 1461 a by-law was passed that stated ‘on account of the stink, fouling of the air and destruction of fruit trees no-one is to make a kiln to make tiles in or nearer to the said town (Beverley) than the kilns that are already built’. The kilns were obviously on the outskirts of the town but it is not known exactly where.

There was also a large leather industry in Beverley and there were many tanners. Some butchers lived and worked in Butcher Row. In Beverley, there were also potters and coopers.

However, Beverley was most famous for its cloth industry. Wool was woven in the town. Then it was fulled. This means it was pounded in water and clay to clean and thicken it. When it was dry the wool was dyed. In 1390 a total of 38 trades were mentioned in Beverley. Commerce in Beverley was helped in the 12th century when the Archbishop persuaded the people ‘to make a channel from the river of sufficient depth to carry barges’. This made it easier to bring goods to and from ships on the river.

In the Middle Ages, there were weekly markets in Beverley. There were also 3 annual fairs. Fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and buyers and sellers would come from all over Northeast England to attend. Originally the market was held in the south of the town, in a large triangular piece of land by the Minster between Eastgate and Highgate. Gradually shops and other buildings were erected in this market place and it shrunk in size. The market continued to be held there but it became known as the Wednesday Market.

In the 12th century, a new marketplace was built north of the town. It became known as Saturday Market. A chapel dedicated to St Mary was built there and in 1269 it became a parish church. The Archbishop of York was Lord of the Manor of Beverley and he had the right to charge tolls on stallholders in the markets. Toll Gavel may have been the place where tolls were charged.

In the 13th century, friars arrived in Beverley. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. By the 1230s there were Dominican friars in Beverley. They were known as Black friars because of the colour of their costumes. By 1267 there were Franciscan friars in Beverley. They were called Grey friars because of the color of their habits. By the end of the 13th century, they moved to a site outside Keldgate Bar.

In the early 13th century the Knights Hospitallers came to Beverley. They were an order of monks who provided hospitality to pilgrims and travelers.

In the Middle Ages, the only ‘hospitals’ were run by the church. In them, monks or nuns would care for the poor and infirm. Trinity Hospital was founded in Beverley in 1397. By the mid-15th century, there were 3 more, St Mary’s, St John the Baptist’s west of the Wednesday Market, and St John’s Hospital by Lairgate. There were also 2 leper hospitals. One was outside Keldgate and another was outside North Bar.

From the 12th century, there was a grammar school in Beverley run by the church. However, in 1188 Beverley Minster was burned. However, it was rebuilt in the years 1190 to 1420. There was also, after the 12th century, a parish church of St Nicholas. Meanwhile, in the 12th century, Flemings arrived in Beverley. They came from Flanders (roughly modern Belgium) as craftsmen or merchants.

By the late 14th century the population of Beverley had risen to over 5,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large town. It was much larger than Hull.

In the Middle Ages, the church and Lord of the Manor gave the people of Beverley land on 3 sides of the town. These were common lands where the townspeople could graze their livestock. The last one, Westwood, was given in 1380. The lands, on 3 sides of the town, are sometimes called Beverley pastures. In the 20th century, they formed a ‘green belt’ around Beverley.

At first, the town of Beverley was owned and controlled by the Archbishop of York, who was Lord of the Manor. He built a house in the northern marketplace in the 12th century. But in time the Archbishop’s grip on the town weakened and the merchants increasingly took control. At first, the Archbishop appointed a steward to run the town but from the 14th century, Beverley was run by a council of 12 keepers elected by the merchants.

In the 15th century, like many East Yorkshire towns, Beverley went into decline, mostly because of competition from up-and-coming towns in West Yorkshire such as Bradford and Sheffield.

Beverley in the 16th century and 17th century

In 1520 the central tower of St Mary’s church collapsed killing several people.

By the 1530s Beverley had declined a long way from its peak in the Middle Ages. One visitor said it had ‘diverse and many houses and tenements in great ruin and decay’. Another visitor said there had been ‘good cloth making at Beverley but that is now much decayed’.

In the Middle Ages people believed their sins would be forgiven if they went on a long, difficult journey called a pilgrimage. The Protestants rejected this teaching. When England became a Protestant country the practice of going on pilgrimages was ended which was a blow to Beverley. For centuries the town had benefited from pilgrims who came to visit the tomb of St John and spent money in the town.

In the 1530s Henry VIII closed the friaries in Beverley. He also dissolved the Knights Hospitallers. The hospitals were also closed.

During the Middle Ages, the Archbishop of York was Lord of the Manor of Beverley. In 1542 the town was transferred to the crown. In 1573 Beverley was incorporated. In other words, it was given a corporation and a mayor. After 1573 Beverley was independent and no longer had a Lord of the Manor.

But at the end of the 16th century, Beverley was still impoverished. In 1599 a writer said it was ‘very poor and greatly depopulated’ There were ‘four hundred tenements and dwelling houses utterly decayed and uninhabited besides so great several poor and needy people altogether unable so to be employed any way to get their own living’.

The population of Beverley slowly declined from about 5,000 in the Middle Ages to about 3,000 by the late 17th century. The cloth industry slowly declined. By the end of the 17th century, some prosperity returned to the town but it was no longer a major manufacturing center. Beverley was a market town and a center where farm produce was processed e.g. millers ground grain to flour, skinners and tanners processed leather, and malt and hops were brewed.

At the end of the 17th century, a travel writer named Celia Fiennes said that Beverley was: ‘a very fine town for its size. It’s preferable to any town I saw except for Nottingham. There are 3 or 4 large streets, well-paved, bigger than any in York, the other lesser streets about the town being equal with them. The market cross is very large. There are 3 markets, one for beasts, another for corn, and another for fish, all large. The town is served with water by wells, there are many of these wells in the streets. The buildings are new and pretty lofty. The Minster is a fine building all stone, carved on the outside with figures and images. There is another church called St Mary’s that is fine and good. There is a very good free school for boys, they say the best in England for learning and care’.

Beverley in the 18th century

Lairgate Hall was built in 1700. In 1714 a market cross was erected in Saturday Market. On it are 4 shields with the arms of Queen Anne, Beverley Borough, and the Warton and Hotham families who gave money to help build it.

Horse racing has been carried on in Beverley since the mid-18th century.

In the early 18th century the writer Daniel Defoe visited Beverley and said that there was ‘no considerable manufacture carried on there’. But later in the 18th century, there was some shipbuilding in Beverley. There was also some brickmaking. There were also many craftsmen working in Georgian Beverley such as bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, tilers, tailors, coopers, shoemakers, butchers, bakers, and brewers.

By 1770 the population of Beverley had reached about 4,000. It was a fair-sized market town and also an administrative center for East Riding.

Beverley in the 19th century

In 1801 at the time of the first census, Beverley had a population of 5,400, which was about the same as it had been 400 years before. By 1831 it had reached about 7,400 and by 1871 it was around 10,200. After 1809 Beverley was lit by oil lamps. From 1824 it was lit by gas. Then a railway to Hull was built in 1846.

In the 19th century, there was still a leather industry in Beverley and there were several tanners. There were also brickyards and breweries. There was also an industry making and repairing farm implements. A shipbuilding industry also existed.

There were other craftsmen such as blacksmiths, coopers, and wheelwrights. Nevertheless, Beverley was still essentially a small market town for the surrounding countryside rather than a manufacturing center. A corn exchange was built where grain could be bought and sold was built in 1886. It is now a cinema.

Beverley was much later than other towns in obtaining modern facilities. A piped water supply began in 1883 but there were no sewers until after 1889. Even then it was decades before everyone was connected to them. Given the lack of sanitation in the town, it is not surprising there were epidemics. A cottage hospital was built in 1876 but there was an outbreak of typhoid in Beverley in 1884. Digging sewers and creating a piped water supply finally ended the epidemics.

Beverley in the 20th century

In 1901 the population of Beverley was about 13,000. By 1951 it had risen to about 15,500. The first public library in Beverley opened in 1906. A museum and art gallery followed it in 1910. The first cinema opened in Beverley in 1912.

However, some of the amenities in Beverley were still primitive. There was no electric streetlight until immediately after World War II. The townspeople did not have electricity in their homes until 1930. In the 1930s only about half of the homes in Beverley had flushing lavatories. They did not become universal until 1960.

In the 1920s the first council houses were built in Beverley. In the 1930s council houses were built around Mill Lane, Grove Hill Road, and Cherry Tree Lane.

In the early 20th century some traditional industries such as brewing declined. The manufacture of farm machinery also declined. Brick-making ended in the 1920s. The shipbuilders of Beverley carried on making trawlers. The only significant new industry was making parts for vehicles.

In the 1950s and 1960s, many slums were demolished in Beverley. In the 1950s the council built new estates at Riding Fields and Swinemore. Many private houses were built at Molescroft. In the 1960s Swinemoor industrial estate was built to encourage light industry in the town. But manufacturing industry in Beverley suffered severely in the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Unemployment was very high in those days but Beverley recovered.

Today Beverley is largely a dormitory town for Hull.

The Southeast bypass was built in 1973. The Southwest Bypass was built in 1981. In 1981 Toll Gavel and Butcher Row were pedestrianized.

Beverley in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, Beverley continued to thrive. The Treasure House opened in 2007. Flemingate Shopping Centre opened in 2015. In 2023 the population of Beverley was 31,000.