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New archive reveals snapshot of a wartime Christmas in York

Posted on 23 December 2023

Archivists at the University of York have stumbled upon a “moment in time” picture of a group of young soldiers celebrating Christmas in York – just months before they were posted to the Western Front.

The soldiers decorated the hall and made themselves at home -- they may even have played football. Image credit: Company of Merchant Adventurers of York.

The unearthed photo shows the group from the “Leeds Rifles” West Yorkshire Regiment in the historic Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, which is decorated to the rafters for Christmas 1914. Just four months later, the men would head to the front line and the horrors of the trenches. 

It is not known what happened to the men in the photo, whether they survived service on the Front Line and enjoyed another Christmas, or became some of the many victims of the Great War.

Important role

Archivists at the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives came across the photograph, which reveals the Hall’s small but important role as a billet for soldiers during the first few months of the War, while cataloguing the archive of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of York. The project is part of a new research and access partnership between the Company and the University, which has seen the Company’s archive transferred into the care of the Borthwick Institute for Archives. 

The records, which date back to the 12th century, consist of nearly 300 boxes of material which have now been fully catalogued and published online.  The archive documents the rich history of the Company and their Hall, which have been central to the commercial life of the City of York for over 655 years. 

The photograph was found among a pile of papers bound with string and titled “Agreement with the Secretary of State for the War Department”. They reveal that up to 50 men were billeted in the Hall before being moved to Gainsborough in March 1915 and then France a month later. They would play an active part in some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, including the Somme, Ypres Salient and Passchendaele.


Gary Brannan, Keeper of Archives and Research Collections at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York said: “The photo captures a moment in time before one of the most significant events in British history that would change society forever. These young men had recently said goodbye to their families and were transforming from civilians to soldiers. For many of them, it would have been their first time away from home.

“We can see that the soldiers decorated the hall and made themselves at home, reading, studying papers and smoking cigarettes. The Christmas greeting on the photo and large drum at the back of the Hall indicated that the men would also have played music in the Hall as those billeted here were part of the Regimental Band. 

“The papers found alongside this photo also suggest they may have played football, as there is a long list of the repairs, including window frames and lamps, that had to be made after they left!”


Other highlights of the archive include an Elizabethan Royal Charter, Victorian minute books and maps of York, which together show how the City has grown over time. The original medieval deeds for the Hall were found alongside inn receipts for Georgian merchants on official business.

The records tell the story of the Merchant Adventurers, a guild for venture capitalists founded at a time when York was the second capital of the country and a major centre for trade. 


As well as playing an important role in the religious and charitable life of the City, by the 16th century, the Company had a near monopoly of business and trade in the city. They appointed officers known as searchers alongside a network of informers. The searchers had the authority to inspect all weights and measures against government-issued standards and to ensure any trader opening a shop in the city was a member of the guild.

Many of the City’s famous residents have been members or governors of the Company, including Noel Terry, JB Morrell and several members of the Rowntree family.  

The archive also documents the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, which has been the Company's meeting place since the 14th century. It reveals its many uses through time, from a chapel and medieval hospital for the poor and sick to a museum, wedding venue and cafe in the modern day. 

Through history

Now that the project to catalogue the archive has been completed, the archive is open to anyone who wants to explore what the records can tell us about how people in York have lived through history. 

“These important records remind us that since Roman times, York has been a place where industry, business, innovation and creativity has always flourished”, Gary Brannan added. 

“Through court records, legal documents and all the other treasures in the archive, they also have much to reveal about the individual lives of ordinary people. Together with other archives held at the Borthwick - including the equally historical archive of the York Merchant Taylors Guild - this partnership with the Company of Merchant Adventures provides access to the greatest density of historical records in North England.”

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