What makes Yorkshire England’s greatest county?

A picture of the author's mother as an infant (front left seat) during a trip to Scarborough in 1910.
A picture of the author's mother as an infant (front left seat) during a trip to Scarborough in 1910.
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In his new book, Yorkshire, Richard Morris searches for the seeds of what makes it England’s greatest county. Here he explains how he set about this task and the challenges involved.

How do you write a book about Yorkshire? Where do you start? Come to that, where would you stop? Yorkshire has been described as ‘a continent unto itself’. Continents are big places and deciding what to leave out can be as hard as choosing what to put in.

The sheltered fishing village of Staithes, on the Yorkshire coast. (James Hardisty).

The sheltered fishing village of Staithes, on the Yorkshire coast. (James Hardisty).

When I began to think about writing Yorkshire, then, I needed some rules. The first was not to try to write a start-to-finish history. Instead I would look at a few topics, maybe a dozen, that could embody different parts of Yorkshire’s story or sense of selfhood. The result might be a bit like pictures of people and places from a family album.

Next, I did not want to tell readers about things they already knew – or if they did know about them, to approach them from new directions. The Battle of Towton (1461), for instance, is described in countless books as the goriest engagement England has ever seen.

However, if you take a long view, you will find that battles were fought time and again in the same area over at least seventeen centuries. Why? The answer is in the terrain: this part of Yorkshire provided the only path for an army on the move between eastern England and north Britain.

Putting topics from different periods in conversation is one of the ways in which the book works. For example, there are links to be traced between watchful Roman signal stations on the east coast, the acoustic mirrors that listened for Zeppelins during the Great War, and the radar base at Fylingdales.

Another running thread is bringing together personal recollection and lives of ordinary people with larger historical stories. The book is thus a kind of counterpoint in which experiences of individuals, analytical and narrative history run together.

Topics presented themselves in different ways. In several cases, like the failed attempt by northern gentry to depose Elizabeth I in 1569, they were subjects in which I had long been interested.

Another was emigration: think of all those Hulls, Maltons and Whitbys around the world. If Yorkshire is God’s Own County, why in the 19th and early 20th century did so many people leave it? My grandparents were among them. Like most of their neighbours they moved to Canada.

Canada was the cue for another theme. Between 1942 and 1945, Canada’s contribution to the Strategic Air Offensive against Germany was flown from airfields in the North Riding. Yorkshire became Canada’s bomber county, and communities that in effect were small Canadian towns became entangled with places in the Vale of Mowbray like Carlton Miniott, Ainderby Quernhow and Danby Wiske.

Some subjects turned up by chance. One run of topics was triggered by a new-found photograph of my mother. Detective work showed that it was taken at Scarborough on August Bank Holiday 1910, when she was two.

Its finding led discoveries about her neighbours, most of whom were ironstone miners or worked for the iron and steel company at Skinningrove.

Among them were Alfred Myers and Charles Cryer, two members of the Richmond Sixteen: a group of conscientious objectors who were detained at Richmond Castle in May 1916, taken to France, and sentenced to death for refusing to accept military discipline.

Their sentences were commuted to ten years’ hard labour. Myers was a Wesleyan who taught in the Sunday School attended by my mother. Coming face to face with her as an infant, and through her, him, was the moment in which the book was set going.

The book for the most part steers clear of quirky dialect and jokey ee-bah-gummery, but it will take you to places and words that in different ways are close to Yorkshire’s heart. One chapter travels the margins of the Humber and former marshlands around the Old River Don. Another uses Yorkshire’s caves, tunnels and mines as windows through which to look at the region in new ways.

A third reminds us that for at least two millennia much of Yorkshire’s economic power has had to do with its rivers, which linked places far inland with the sea, with the ships that navigated them, and thus with other nations.

Along the way I stumbled across some stupendous coincidences. For instance, who might have guessed that the aeronautical pioneer George Cayley and the geologist William Smith – two of the world’s most influential scientific minds in the early 19th century – were at work in adjoining Yorkshire townships at the same time?

In Yorkshire, then, I have not tried to tell anyone what makes Yorkshire great (we have nothing to prove), but to look for things that make it what is. The result is, I hope, intricate – an ever-changing set of interactions between place, memories, traditions, legend and landscape.

At base, Yorkshire is as much a family as England’s mightiest province. Indeed, the book finds that aback of the shire first described in detail in Domesday Book (1086), or the Viking kingdom run from York in the later 9th century, lies an elite family group that ran much of the region after the Roman army left.

Moreover, while some stereotypical features of Yorkshireness (like bloody-mindedness, an ear for different kinds of humour, or that strange blend of romanticism and emotional guardedness) have been noted for hundreds of years, one of the most persisting features is its propensity for change. Alongside all that later Victorian industrial and scientific innovation, for instance, one of the striking features of Yorkshire’s population was how many of its members had grandparents who had been born somewhere else. Here at the start of the 21st, this is still so.

A final thought (which is not in the book): the face-offs with the Tudors during the 16th century or between miners headquartered in Barnsley and a Westminster government in 1984, remind us that one of Yorkshire’s abiding traits is its permanent awareness that it is not the south.

Moreover, with a population of 5.3 million people (that is more than Norway, New Zealand, Uruguay, or even Scotland) and diversified economy, Yorkshire has heft.

Amid discussion about the devolution of powers and budgets to elected mayors to ensure that decisions affecting the north are made here, when will the penny drop in London that Yorkshire is a continent unto itself?

Richard Morris is Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Huddersfield.

Yorkshire - A Lyrical History of England’s Greatest County, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is out on January 25, priced £25.