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YORK AND THE GEORGIAN CITY: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

Speaker Abstracts and Bios

Rosemary Sweet

Abstract

This lecture will survey York’s reputation as a historic city and the significance attached to its Georgian past. Although eighteenth-century York never enjoyed the prosperity or political pre-eminence it had commanded in earlier periods, it continued to operate as a political, social and religious hub for the region, as reflected in the substantial legacy of fine eighteenth-century buildings and improvements that may still be seen in the city today.  By the nineteenth century, industrialization and urban growth meant that cities such as York were being rapidly outgrown by industrial behemoths such as Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds. These smaller, older cities began to be re-evaluated as valuable evidence of the past and to be branded as ‘historic cities’, celebrated for their association with ‘olden time’.  York was one of the best known of these, visited by thousands of tourists, as the proliferation of guidebooks across the nineteenth century indicates. The wider interest in York’s historic fabric that was engendered led to some of the earliest campaigns to preserve elements of the urban historic fabric, including the city walls. The lecture will show how interest initially focused upon York’s Roman and medieval past, consider why the city’s eighteenth-century fabric was overlooked for so long and how it came to be incorporated into York’s image as a historic city in the twentieth century.

Bio

Roey Sweet, Professor of Urban History at the University of Leicester, is particularly interested in how 18th-century society understood, interpreted, and made use of the past - a question that she has explored in the context of urban culture and identity cultures of antiquarianism and in the context of the Grand Tour and travel in Italy. She is now extending this interest in two directions: first to think about the ‘invention’ of the historic town in Britain and the development of domestic tourism in the 19th century. This builds on her interests in antiquarianism early archaeology and the uses of the past to explore how towns such as Chester or York came to be branded ‘historic’ and as attractive destinations for visitors with implications for the preservation of the urban built environment. Second, she is continuing her research on British travellers in the Mediterranean, spanning the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars which are often assumed to have put an end to continental travel and looking beyond the itinerary of the Italian Grand Tour.  Her project 'War travel and cultural exchange: William Gell and the British in Iberia 1750-1830' in collaboration with the British School at Rome and funded by the Leverhulme Trust explores Britain’s relationship with Spain and Portugal in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through the records of travellers, writers, and readers, with a particular focus upon the reception of Spain’s Islamic heritage before the romantic era. Her numerous publications include The Writing of Urban Histories in Eighteenth-Century England (1997), The English Town: Culture, Society and Government, 1680-1840 (1999), Cities and the Grand Tour: The British in Italy, c. 1690-1820 (2012)

 

Madeleine Pelling

Abstract

Can we tell a cultural history of the long eighteenth century through the marks its citizens left behind? From the highest to the lowest in society, Georgian graffiti is all around us. From the centre of London to the islands of the Caribbean, I search for these lost voices, evidence of how ordinary people experienced the world-changing events that defined their lives - from political prisoners to sex workers, homesick sailors, Romantic poets and the artisans of the industrial revolution.

Bio

Madeleine Pelling is a cultural historian, author and broadcaster. She holds a PhD from the University of York and has held research fellowships at the universities of Yale, Edinburgh, Manchester. Her first book, Writing on the Wall: Graffiti, Rebellion and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Britain (Profile Books, 2024), tells the stories of immigrants, prisoners of war, debtors, sex workers and rebels in Georgian Britain through the marks they left behind, and offers a new perspective on this tumultuous period of history. Madeleine is co-host of History Hit's After Dark: Myths, Misdeeds and the Paranormal, a podcast that shines a light on the shadier corners of the past and which brings a rigorous historical lens to folklore and true crime. She is also a regular contributor for television, most recently for Titanic in Colour (Channel 4, 2025) Mayhem! Secret Lives of the Georgian Kings (2025), Queens That Changed The World (Channel 4, 2023) and Who Do You Think You Are? Australia (Warner Bros, 2023). Her words appear in The Guardian, The Independent, BBC History Magazine and History Today, as well as on Times Radio. 

 

Constance Halstead

Abstract

Penned between 1806 and 1840, Anne Lister’s expansive diaries recorded in minute detail every aspect of her daily activity from her travel, studies, and business dealings, to her bodily functions and love for ‘the fairer sex’. Lister’s use of a coded ‘crypthand’ allowed her a textual medium through which to negotiate the social, emotional, and sexual challenges of her lesbian identity. While this code provided a private space within the journal, the journal was not a wholly private document, but rather one which was read aloud, shared, and discussed amongst Lister’s friends, acquaintances, and lovers. Drawing examples from Lister’s time in Halifax, York, and Paris, this paper will explore how Lister’s journal was perceived and discussed differently according to the social milieu and concerns of these three cities. This paper demonstrates how Lister frames and presents her journal in different ways to navigate or exploit the social circumstances of these cities. Whether utilising her journal as evidence of her respectability, or weaponising it as a means of flirtation, Lister’s journal is fundamental to her self-presentation.

Bio

Constance Halstead is a doctoral student at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York. Her research is focused on the journals of Anne Lister, and investigates how Lister’s negotiation of her journal’s generic, textual and material form facilitated her self-creation. Constance’s studies are funded by the Sally Wainwright PhD Scholarship. She holds a BA from the University of Oxford and an MLitt from the University of St Andrews where her dissertation Privacy and Self Orientation: Some Problems of Reading Anne Lister’s Journal made important discoveries about Anne Lister’s use of multiple codes.

Rachel Feldberg

Abstract

The 1803-1805 Journal of Jane Ewbank, the twenty six year old daughter of a York druggist, vividly illustrates the cultural and social landscape experienced by women of the city’s middling sort in the early 1800s. But, in what will be argued was a deliberate project of self-education and improvement, Ewbank applied her critical eye to everything she saw and heard. Her account of her activities gives an insight into how she evaluated the world around her and her expanding intellectual aspirations and suggests some of the ways in which Georgian women took advantage of the opportunities a city like York offered. Like many middling women, Ewbank was both audience and participant. A regular visitor to York Theatre Royal and the city’s subscription concerts she also performed in domestic musical evenings. As this paper will demonstrate there is strong evidence that she was an early member of York Subscription Library and she drew on books and their authors as an important source of knowledge, particularly in relation to her interest in natural philosophy. Ewbank attended scientific lectures and visited proto-industrial sites where she applied and recorded her skills of observation and reflection. Many of the public activities she witnessed spilled across women’s sociable networks and Ewbank provides a telling example of how participation and conversation straddled the boundaries of public and domestic events.

Bio

Rachel Feldberg is a doctoral student at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, University of York. Her research explores middling women’s engagement with the production, consumption and transmission of natural knowledge, both within and beyond the home in the second half of the eighteenth century and is supported by the White Rose College of Arts & Humanities Doctoral Training Partnership, funded by the AHRC. She completed a BA in history at Cambridge, held a Paul Mellon Fellowship at Yale and has MAs from the Universities of Leeds and York. Before returning to academia in 2019 she spent four decades as a theatre director, writer, curator and arts producer. She is the author of ‘Absent Bodies? Gouty brethren and sensitive hearts in William Constable’s letters from the Grand Tour 1769–1771’ in Letters and the Body, 1700-1830: Writing and Embodiment, ed. Goldsmith, Haggerty and Harvey (Routledge, 2023).

Jon Mee

Abstract

Manchester College, York, was the premier training institution for Unitarians during its thirty-odd years in York, but it led a precarious existence after it moved from the more natural place it had occupied in Manchester until its removal across the Pennines in 1803. Most of its funding came from industrialists in the north of England and the Midlands, many of whose children studied there, not all for the ministry, but it was in danger of failing until the indefatigable efforts of Catharine Cappe - among others - helped raise money for the new building put up in Monksgate in the 1810s. The talk discusses the role of the College and the Unitarian community that worshipped at the Chapel in St. Saviourgate in Georgian York.


Bio

Jon Mee is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York.

 

Matthew Jenkins

Abstract

York has been seen by some scholars as the epitome of urban improvement and renaissance during the Georgian period. However, once York is looked at on a street-by-street basis its contradictions and complexities emerge, with old and new buildings and old and new social practices jostling for position in the street. The use of building biographies allows for the exploration of the messiness and diversity behind grand narratives and how social practices were performed on an everyday level.

Bio

Dr Matthew Jenkins is a Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, specialising in historical and buildings archaeology. His research focuses on themes of urban improvement, domestic privacy and the performance of consumption in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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