York folklore can be a bit tough to search for on Google. It keeps trying to direct you to New York. As if the old one doesn’t exist.
Which is idiotic. The Ghost Research Foundation International even labelled York the most haunted city in the world in 2002. Every pub boasts its own ghost.
We’re not going to focus on ghosts though. Let’s explore some of the wider folklore of this picturesque English city!
York Folklore and the Cat Statues
23 cat statues stand guard on walls or rooftops around York. Well, Secret York says there are “at least” 23. Quite how anyone knows there are 23 is beyond me. According to one legend, anyone who sees all of them is cursed for the rest of their life.
The York Glass shop clearly doesn’t believe in such a curse. They sell York Lucky Cats and you can follow the York Cat Trail, available from their website. The shop’s website theorises that the original statues were to scare off mice or rats that can carry disease. Some intended the statues to ward off spirits too. Their original intention was clearly to bestow luck on the medieval city. Yet they’ve passed into York folklore as part of a curse.
If anyone knows anything about the origins of the curse superstition, please leave me a comment! I’d love to dig into it further.
The Stonegate Devil
If you’ve read my post on Newcastle’s Vampire Rabbit, then you’ll know my fascination for weird statues. York has the Stonegate Devil.
A printer’s shop once stood at 33 Stonegate, an area known for printers and bookshops in the 16th century. This carved red devil is a throwback to that era.
Printers had their own folklore and claimed a demon haunted each printer’s shop. These demons inverted type, removed lines or even mis-spelled words. The acts of these ‘printer’s devils’ eventually got transferred to the printer’s own assistant. The assistants became known as ‘printer’s devils’.
I couldn’t feature York folklore and not include one of my favourite street names ever.
No one really knows where Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, one of the shortest streets in York, got its name.
Some think its original name was ‘Whitnourwhatnourgate’, aka ‘What a Street!’ Others think York’s whipping post stood here in the Middle Ages.
And yet more think it basically means ‘Not One Thing Nor Another’. If that’s true, it makes it the most liminal place in York. Liminal places are usually crossroads or other spaces that aren’t one place or another. This street connects two other streets, so it’s a ‘between’ place of sorts. Though you could say that about a lot of short streets!
Wherever the name came from, the ‘gate’ part of the name comes from the Norse word for street, ‘gata’. So not an actual gate.
A strange place name wouldn’t normally be enough for inclusion on this blog. But Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate’s general weirdness has earned it a place in York folklore all the same!
Buried Alive in York
I’d heard this story on a ghost walk in York and found it again in a 1901 book about folklore, County Folk-Lore (1901, p. 388). As the legend goes, a wealthy woman died and her family buried some of her jewellery with her. The sexton knew of this and opened the vault after the funeral. But alas! The fingers had swollen and he couldn’t remove her rings.
So he tried to cut off her fingers. As you do. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for her, as it turns out), she suffered catalepsy. The injury to her fingers broke her trance and she came around. The sexton bolted in fright and the woman went home.
As fantastic a tale as it is, I can’t help thinking it’s just an early urban legend about being buried alive. After all, I heard the exact same story on a London ghost walk. The story relocated to the City. As in this version, the hapless resurrected woman and the thieving sexton remain nameless.
Mary Bateman, the York Witch
Every city needs a good witch story and York is no different. Their version tells the tale of Mary Bateman, the ‘Yorkshire Witch’. She’d left York in disgrace having worked as a servant, and ended up in Leeds. Mary started fortune telling there, although the records claim she conned people out of their property using her “powers”. That would be bad enough, but apparently, she also poisoned people to cover up her fraudulent crimes.
She was hanged on 20 March 1809 at York Castle. Crowds of people paid to view her body. After being dissected, “her skin was tanned and distributed in small pieces to different applicants” (Gutch 1901, p. 143-4).
That sounds gross to us now, but it wasn’t as uncommon as you’d think. Bear in mind this is 1809, well before the 1832 Anatomy Act which allowed surgeons to dissect bodies other than those of criminals. Dissection was inevitable from a convicted witch.
As for the skin? The same fate met notorious Edinburgh bodysnatcher William Burke in 1828. If you pop into The Cadies & Witchery Tours on West Bow in Edinburgh, you can see a card case covered in leather made from Burke’s skin.
There is far more to York folklore than I’ve been able to cover here. But unlike Newcastle, which boasts links to Roman gods and local deites, or Manchester, with its occult links, York folklore tends to stick to ghosts. Whether it’s spectral Roman legions marching through a cellar or ghostly nuns drifting through pubs, many of the tales revolve around the supernatural.
I’m not sure why, given the Roman and Viking histories of York. But the city’s unusual tales survive and remind us that the north is truly a culturally vibrant place to live.
Gutch, Eliza (1901), County Folk-Lore, vol. 2: Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the North Riding of Yorkshire, York, and the Ainsty. London: Published for the Folk-Lore Society by David Nutt.
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