From the Vicars’ Choral dining hall to Victorian slums and a bakery to a butchers, Bedern Hall’s story stands as an important and intriguing part of York’s history.
The history of Bedern Hall is closely tied to that of York Minster. It was originally part of the College of the Vicars Choral which occupied the area between Goodramgate, St Andrewgate and Aldwark. The hall was the refectory (or dining hall) for the college from the 1390s until the middle of the 17th century when it passed into private hands. The hall, chapel and gatehouse are all that remain of the college.
The name Bedern is first mentioned around the year 1270 in documents relating to the college, although the word is Anglo Saxon meaning ‘house of prayer’. A similar name was given to other Yorkshire colleges in Ripon and Beverley.
The Vicars Choral, who used the Hall, sang services in York Minster in place of the Canons who were occupied elsewhere in their prebends. There were thirty-six Vicars Choral by 1300, one for each member of the chapter (the governing body of York Minster). One interesting feature associated with the Hall, now no longer visible, was a bridge which linked the college area with the Minster Close on the other side of Goodramgate so that the vicars could travel easily between the two, avoiding the hoi-poloi.
The present hall, the second around this site, was built from 1370 and was used for shared meals – in the Hall archways can still be seen which once led to a buttery and a pantry. In the college accounts we read of a payment for 2 weeks’ work tiling and a payment for clearance of rubble from the doorway in 1399 – this suggests a date for final competition.
17th century – 19th century
With the Reformation, the numbers of vicars declined and many of the individual houses in the area were let to lay people. With permission to marry now granted, many vicars married and moved away, meaning that a decision was made to stop common dining altogether.
Although the Hall was used for meetings and feasts for about another half century the upkeep of the Hall was difficult and in 1650 part of the Hall was incorporated into a private house. The dissolution of the Cathedral during the Commonwealth period also led to the sale of a lot of property in the area. In 1644 St Peter’s School moved into Bedern, possibly after damage to their own buildings during the Civil War. The School petitioned to establish a university here, but without success. It was not until the 1960s that York finally acquired its present university.
By the 1790s the Hall was divided into tenements, and became badly overcrowded. By the 1840s, with a rise in numbers of Irish immigrants following the Irish potato famine, Bedern’s inhabitants were living in a slum area, described as a ‘sad spectacle of poverty and wretchedness’.
In the 1870s the Bedern National School was founded. The building of the school meant that many of the remaining buildings of the College of the Vicars Choral were finally demolished.
The building we now know as Bedern Hall survived, and in the early 20th century was owned by a local bakery. The Barton bakery altered the building considerably, inserting doors for vehicular access. A flour store occupied the first floor, with a joiner’s workshop and coach house below.
In the 1950s, the Hall and neighbouring properties owned by Barton’s bakery were bought by Wright’s, the pork butchers. The Hall formed part of the curing department at Wright’s, and passageways through the Hall were used for trucking hams, bacon sides, and curing tanks through this area.
In 1971, following the influential Esher report, this city centre area was earmarked for redevelopment. The City Council acquired the area and cleared it in the mid-1970s, demolishing the more modern industrial buildings but leaving the Hall and chapel, recognised as the surviving remnants of the medieval College of the Vicars Choral.
York Archaeological Trust studied the site before redevelopment work in the area began. During excavations a bay window was revealed with a fan-vaulted roof. It is a very early example of such vaulting and has a design similar to those found in the eastern arm of the Minster which was begun in 1361. It is possible that they are the work of the same mason – either William Hoton or Robert de Patryngton. It was only with the clearance of the buildings around the Hall that its features came to light.
As the Hall had been badly neglected, it would need a large amount of funding for a major restoration programme. Restoration began in 1979.
The Hall’s original fabric was retained where possible, and the restoration ensured that any modern additions were in keeping with the original structure of the building, but were clearly distinguishable from the original features.
During restoration, many of the roof timbers were replaced with modern oak and softwood so that they could be recognised as replacements.
The Hall now has a floor of York stone, but it was originally covered with green glazed tiles, two of which were found during excavations. Medieval timber-framing is still visible in one wall.
Research was needed by the restoration team to decide where doors and windows should be reinstated. The original tracery from the medieval period survives in one window on the north-east front of Bedern Hall, with other obviously more modern windows placed during the restoration.
A new home for the Guilds
Following its restoration, a suitable use needed to be found for the Hall, and after centuries of neglect it was important to protect this historic building for the future. In 1980, a steering group was formed by members of some of York’s surviving guilds, to discuss the possibility of using the building as a new guild hall.
The Company of Cordwainers, the Gild of Freemen and the York Guild of Building formed the Bedern Hall Company. The company raised the funds to add further facilities to complement the Hall, and a modern annexe was added to ensure that the building was equipped for the needs of future generations.
Among the most striking of the modern additions are the stained glass panels in the windows, commemorating Guild members.
Since restoration, the Hall has been used by a variety of organisations as a venue for dinners, meetings and conferences. In 2005, it was licensed for civil wedding celebrations.
Bedern Hall today
The building as it now stands represents a fine example of a rectangular medieval hall. In 1983 its historical significance was recognised when it became a Grade II* listed building.
The Bedern Hall Company exists to ensure that the Hall is preserved for the benefit of generations to come.
Buy the booklet – ‘Bedern Hall and the College of the Vicars Choral’ by Dr Richard Hall of York Archaeological Trust