The Water Lanes were three streets which led from the River Ouse to Castlegate. In the nineteenth century, they were known as the First Lane, Middle Lane and Far Water Lane, although in the twelfth century they had been known as Kergate, Thrush Lane and Hertergate.
The lanes were known for their unsanitary conditions and crime, and much of York’s cholera problems started in these streets. The improvement commissioners in the 1840s discovered that the toilets facilities for the residents were nearly non-existent, noting that “the inhabitants have to use those of their neighbours by stealth or go into the street”.
The police reports of the time made constant reference to the problems of crime in the streets, with offences ranging from murder to mugging, and even a case of a lady who was having her fortune told in a house on Water Lane, who found that her money had been taken from her during the reading.
Attempts were made over many decades to look at either improving or demolishing the lanes. In February 1830, the City Commissioners looked seriously at the “plan of the projected New Street from Low Ousegate, across the Water Lanes, and to the present entrance to the Castle”. Although it obtained support, no firm action was decided for the area.
After continued debate, in the 1850s the City Corporation decided that the lanes should be demolished, although work didn’t finish for around twenty years. During a meeting of York City Council in 1851 when the new road across the lanes was being discussed, Alderman Leeman noted that “the purpose of clearing away an immense amount of property which, they would all admit harboured a class of persons they would all desire to see out of the Water Lanes”.
Finally, in 1880 Clifford Street was later constructed across the Water Lanes, and was the site of York’s first library, York’s magistrates court, the Liberal Club and space was left for a new police station and fire station.