The Shambles is one of York’s most visited streets today given its unique charm and atmosphere.
The street has had several names over the centuries, Haymongergate, Nedlergate, Fleshammels and then the Shambles. It takes its name from the butchers that once occupied many of the properties along the street, the name deriving from the word shammel, which were the benches outside the shops where the meat was displayed. There is evidence of butchers using this street for their shops from before the Norman Conquest. The street has also been known as Great Fleshamels (literally flesh benches) to distinguish itself from the Fish Shambles which were located on Foss Bridge.
Although today the street may seem quaint, it is very different to the conditions that existed here for centuries when an open sewer ran down the centre of the road. The buildings are tall and lean in towards each other on upper stories to try to keep sunlight away from the meat below, to preserve it for as long as possible. In 1860, Henry Richardson wrote a letter to the Sanitary Improvement Act Committee regarding the slaughter houses along the street, saying that they were “in a very nasty and objectionable state”.
By 1830 there were 25 butchers based on this street, out of a total of 88 across the whole city. Rules dating back to the Middle Ages had meant that foreign merchants were only allowed to sell meat on the market day every Thursday, unless the Lord Mayor declared that the butchers on the Shambles hadn’t prepared enough meat.
At number 35 on the street is a Shrine to Margaret Clitherow, although she actually lived at number 10. She was arrested in 1586 for her Catholic beliefs, and was beatified in 1929 and canonised in 1970.