North Yorkshire County Council 1974-2023: a view from the archives

The County Record Office collects the records of North Yorkshire County Council deemed worthy of long-term preservation. These archives include the signed minutes of the council and its committees along with a range of legal documents which are essential to the business of the council. We also collect County Council agendas, reports, and plans along with records from individual departments. The County Council archives, when viewed alongside those of its predecessors, form a near-unbroken record of county government stretching back over 400 years to 1605.

On 1st April 2023 the Record Office will become part of the new North Yorkshire Council and North Yorkshire County Council will cease to exist. To mark this occasion, this post looks back at the early days of the County Council and the County Record Office.

The early days of North Yorkshire County Council

North Yorkshire County Council was established on 1st April 1974 by the Local Government Act 1972 which reorganised English local government outside London. The new county of North Yorkshire was formed from parts of four former county authorities: – the counties of the East, North and West Ridings of Yorkshire and the City of York, which had been a county borough. The new authority had an area of 2,063,173 acres – by far the largest in England and Wales – and a population of 644, 830. At its inception, the new council had over 27, 000 people on its payroll, filling the equivalent of around 20, 000 full-time posts.

The new authority provided a wide range of services – some remain the responsibility of the County Council to this day whilst some are now provided by other authorities. The county was originally much larger than it is today, as the area now forming the City of York broke off to become a separate unitary authority in 1996.

Some services have been provided by the County Council throughout its existence such as those for children and young people, highways, libraries, planning, registration, adult social care, trading standards and waste disposal.  Until 1996 this list included police, fire, probation and magistrates’ courts as well as the Yorkshire Museum in York and the Upper Dales Folk Museum in Hawes. Until 1997 the County Council also ran the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales national parks.

The day-to-day work of the 1974 County Council would be largely unrecognisable to most of today’s staff. The new authority had a single computer system, the ICL 1900, which it had inherited from the old North Riding County Council and used almost solely for finance work. Development of computer programmes for other purposes, such as library book stock, would take place in the late 1970s. The County Council’s computer system was initially shared with four of the district councils who didn’t have systems of their own.

The new North Yorkshire could claim to have the second largest mileage of roads in the country (after Devon) with 5,974 miles of publicly maintainable highway. This figure included 244 miles of trunk road and 6 miles of motorway maintained by the County Council on behalf of the Department of Transport. As well as maintaining and improving county roads, the council also carried out improvement schemes to trunk roads on an agency basis. These schemes included huge projects such as by-passes at Topcliffe and Asenby, Malton and Tadcaster as well as widening sections of the A1. The Highways department even invested in its own laboratory in Northallerton to test materials used in maintenance and improvement works and for soil analysis.

EF488 From left to right: The Topcliffe and Asenby bypass showing the road under construction, its opening in 1977 and the road open to traffic

The County Council’s Social Services department provided adult and children’s social care along with a range of other services. In the mid-1970s it had responsibility for 46 residential homes for the older people, 22 children’s homes and 13 mental health settings. Having inherited a number of older properties from its predecessors, the County Council set about building new homes for older people in Whitby, Pickering, Bedale, Easingwold, York and Thorpe Willoughby.

The new County Council inherited an enormous 13, 600 acre estate of agricultural smallholdings, including Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, which it administered through a dedicated Agricultural Committee. The smallholdings estate comprised 225 separate holdings let on an agricultural tenancy and a further 46 cottage properties.

The Local Government Act 1972 brought in a new planning system. Whilst the eight districts of the county would each prepare a local plan and determine the majority of planning applications, the county prepared the County Structure Plan which set out the broad strategic planning policies to be followed by the County Council over the next 15 years. The County Planning department determined minerals applications, with the most important planning application of the council’s first term being the National Coal Board’s Selby Coalfield application and the subsequent public inquiry which lasted from April to June 1975. The County Council also had its own Industrial Promotion department, to encourage job creation through the development of industry, offering an industrial mortgage scheme for companies wishing to expand or relocate to the county.

EF221/9 North Yorkshire County Council industrial promotions stand from the 1970s

The County Council’s Emergency Planning department planned for both wartime and peacetime emergencies. The County War Plan, published in 1979, aimed to assist the survivors of a nuclear attack and help them to rebuild the community.  The plan provided for a modified system of local and regional government to continue following an attack, where communications may be poor or non-existent.

The first County Council had to overcome enormous financial challenges brought about by a worsening national financial situation combined with industrial unrest and severe weather. In its first four-year term, the council strove to maintain rather than expand services and limited its revenue expenditure to guidelines set down by the Government. Rapid inflation caused a huge challenge as the wages of some workers had almost doubled in the period from 1972 to 1977 and the price of goods had risen dramatically also. Whilst within Government limits, revenue expenditure increased from £88.9m in 1974-1975 to £136.6m in 1976/77 with around 65% of the figure met by rate support grants from Government. The new authority expressed concern that the formula used to calculate Government funding diverted funds from rural non-metropolitan counties to the metropolitan areas. Despite the challenging financial situation, the first County Council was still able to carry out a series of capital expenditure programmes and could proudly claim that the outstanding Council debt per head of population was second lowest of all county councils.

EF161/6 The retirement speech of County Council Chairman JT Fletcher on 25 May 1977 in the Council Chamber, County Hall

The early years of the North Yorkshire County Record Office

The North Yorkshire County Record Office (NYCRO) was established in April 1974 taking on the collections, staff and facilities of the former North Riding Record Office based at County Hall. The new service had a much larger geographical collecting area than its predecessor which, combined with the effects of local government reorganisation, led to a massive influx of records. Some 340 separate deposits were received in its first four years.

Local government reorganisation had brought about the abolition of boroughs, urban and rural districts which led to the deposit of several tons of minute books, ledgers, rate books and correspondence files. Whilst the Record Office accommodation in County Hall had expanded in the 1960s much of the newly acquired material had to be held off site – initially at a site in Knaresborough then at Sharow View in Ripon. A separate office containing the archives of the City of York was housed in premises adjoining York City Art Gallery.

EF329 A view of the early County Record Office search room in County Hall

The Record Office continued to receive substantial deposits of private records after reorganisation. The enormous Swinton Park Archive was deposited in two parts in 1975 and 1977 and joined an earlier deposit of maps from the same source. This collection contains a large collection of deeds and estate records relating to Mashamshire and Middleham, manor court rolls dating from the medieval times and the personal papers of the Danby family. 1976 saw the deposit of the Jervaulx Abbey archive which contains the records of the Marquess of Ailesbury’s Yorkshire estates including William Senior’s very fine maps of the Jervaulx estate dating from the early seventeenth century.

ZJX 10/1/2 Plan of East Witton by William Senior for Thomas Lord Bruce, 1627

The passing of the Parochial Registers and Records Measure of 1978 led to the deposit of hundreds of parish registers which were of increasing interest to genealogists. To improve access and aid the preservation of these registers (which could date back as early as the 1530s) the Record Office began to produce transcripts of the earlier registers. The office had acquired a microfilm camera in 1974 and began a programme of microfilming parish registers and other items.

The number of visitors to the Record Office increased in the years following re-organisation – recording 2000 visits for the first time in 1975 and almost reaching 2500 by 1980. In its first four years, NYCRO also mounted or provided material for 22 exhibitions and gave 48 lectures across the county.

The Record Office could not escape the financial challenges experienced by the County Council with a reduced staff capacity and an increasing pressure to generate income through carrying out paid searches on behalf of customers. Another useful source of income was derived from the sale of in-house publications including an annual Journal and volumes of transcribed records.

The Record Office’s collections continued to grow through the 1980s to the extent that by the end of the decade it had completely outgrown its accommodation in County Hall. New premises were found in the form of a former fire-surround factory on Malpas Road which were adapted to form the County Record Office we know today. The new building was formally opened by Lord Lieutenant and Custos Rotulorum Sir Marcus Worsley on 22 November 1991. In 2004 the Record Office began to also offer a Records Management service to County Council which has now grown to over 5 miles of records.

Some of the five miles of shelving in Records Management

The introduction and development of digital technology has had the greatest impact on the County Record Office in its 49-year existence. Archival catalogues are now produced digitally and entered into an online catalogue that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Through digitisation, many records can be accessed online through websites Ancestry and Findmypast. The Record Office can also supply high quality colour digital images of almost any of the records it holds via e-mail. The digital age also brings its challenges, none more so than safeguarding the preservation of born-digital records so that they can be kept for centuries to come, alongside the paper and parchment.

Today’s County Record Office searchroom, with public access computer and digital microfilm readers

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