Today's Citizens, Past Lives at Beverley
Social Life and Self Improvement
In the eighteenth century, Beverley was a gentry town. The social season revolved around the races and, during the mornings and evenings of race weeks, cock fights were held in many parts of the town. Walking on the Westwood was a popular pleasure and a formal promenade was provided in the 1780s with the making of New Walk, a tree-lined parade alongside North Bar Without. The Assembly Rooms, built in Norwood in the 1760s, hosted elegant evening gatherings.
By the mid 1830s the social climate had changed. Cock-fighting and bull baiting were suppressed, theatres and races declined and the Assembly Rooms were no longer the centre of town. Church and chapel, book clubs and charitable societies, political groups and the Mechanics Institute had taken their place. The town became middle-class and professional, with a growing industrial population.
The Assembly Rooms now provided accommodation for events demanding extensive space, such as flower shows, theatrical entertainments, dances and concerts, chess clubs, parties and lectures. The numerous inns, public houses and beer houses offered conviviality, drink and entertainment and were the meeting places for friendly societies and clubs.
In July 1840 the Beverley and East Riding Public Rooms were opened. This building could accommodate even larger events. It was lit by gas, heated by coal, provided seating for concerts, lectures and theatrical entertainments and the largest room could accommodate formal balls. Dance classes in the rooms were a Victorian favourite. Friendly societies such as the Oddfellows and the Foresters held meetings and social events there. Religious societies such as the Church Missionary Society, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Protestant Association all used the rooms, as did the Archery Club, the Choral Society and the Church Institute.
The Mechanics Institute movement began in the 1820s to improve the education of the working classes. The Beverley Mechanics Institute was established in 1832. The highest figure for membership was 360, recorded in 1847 (Crowther, J, Beverley in Mid-Victorian Times, 1990, 109). However, as other societies opened the membership declined. By 1870 the Mechanics Institute’s building was disused and, in 1890, demolished.
Religious societies flourished in the town. The Young Men’s Christian Instruction Society began in 1864, in association with the Baptist Chapel. In 1866 the Young People’s Christian Improvement Society was established in connection with the Independent Chapel, Lairgate. An Anglican rival began in 1867, called the Church Institute, to fill the gap when the Mechanics Institute collapsed. The Church Institute was popular and offered a programme that covered history, science, politics and religion and offered excursions and entertainment. Several libraries were established in association with these societies.
Beverley’s numerous inns, taverns and beerhouses played a central role in the town’s social life. The entertainments to be found here extended from singing to skittles, billiards and bowls. Beverley’s Total Abstinence Society was established in 1839 to try to reduce the consumption of alcohol. The Society’s programme consisted of lectures, tea meetings, concerts, galas and processions. A temperance choir, a brass band and a juvenile fife and drum band were formed and played at many events.
Travelling shows were very popular. Barnum and Bailey’s circus visited the town in 1899. What a spectacle its long procession winding its way through the town and onto the Westwood would have been! People also enjoyed trips by train to Bridlington to take a dip in the water.