At the Gates of Eboracum: Roman Coney Street

39-41 Coney Street was not always a WH Smiths. Over 1800 years ago, this building plot was a Roman granary infested with weevils. It is a great indicator of what Roman Coney Street looked like, and just how much it has changed.

In the heyday of Roman York (Eboracum), the area that became Coney Street was already bustling with life. While Coney Street as we know it is a medieval creation, there was an earlier street here, running along the River Ouse from the northwest through today’s Museums Gardens, meeting the Via Praetoria (the main street of the Roman Castrum or fort, now Stonegate) just outside where Mansion House is today, and terminating somewhere near St Michael Spurriergate’s present location.

An artist's impression of Roman York with the area of today's St Helen's Square, Coney Street and Spurriergate highlighted in yellow.
Artist: Tracy Croft, English Heritage Graphics Team
(Top) A Roman leather sandal, similar to the one found on Coney Street; (Bottom) A fragment of a leather tent panel, possibly from the first Roman camp at York.
Images courtesy of York Museums Trust (CC BY-SA 4.0)

There isn’t much evidence for what this early Coney Street might have looked like, but we do have a few hints. It certainly had infrastructure and substantial buildings; a temple dedicated to Hercules was located nearby at the junction of Spurriergate with Nessgate, and a substantial stone building was excavated beneath Lendal Post Office in 1883. A series of latrines and cesspits were also present. When excavated in 2006, they yielded remarkable finds, including a well-preserved 1st century Roman sandal and a leather tent panel which may have originated with the first Roman camp at York.

We know that the River Ouse was exceptionally important as an access route for the Roman colonists, so it is likely that early Coney Street and its riverbank were covered in wharves and warehouses and shops - as in the Middle Ages, Coney Street would have been a vital and busy centre of trade. There is clear evidence for the storage of grain in the form of the weevil-infested granary mentioned earlier.

While wharves have not been uncovered around Coney Street, several examples have been uncovered on the east bank of the Foss - it is probable that similar examples were present next the Ouse as well. They would have been made of wood and brick - some fine examples of Roman bricks are visible inside St Martin le Grand church - and may well have been in use for decades, even centuries- some of the later examples may have survived into the Early Medieval period. Much as today, access lanes and yards seem to have provided access to these structures and to the river - York Archaeology (YA) has uncovered the cobbled surface of a yard or lane near the Guildhall, along with large deposits of Roman pottery and some silver coins.

Video: A 3D visualisation of the Roman Porta Praetoria in St Helen's Square.

We also know that early Coney Street would have been dominated by the impressive walls and gates of the Roman fort, as detailed in the video above. The southern wall of the Roman fortress, which included the great gate of the Via Praetoria, the Porta Praetoria, ran next alongside the street, ending in a tower opposite St Michael’s Church, Spurriergate before turning north towards present Parliament Street. The wall, which probably looked something like the wall still visible next to the Multangular Tower (another Roman structure) in Museum Gardens, pops up from time to time in basements and tunnels, notably the basement of 1 St Helen’s Square (Harkers pub). It was made from limestone and would have provided substantial protection for the fort from attackers - most likely any disgruntled local tribes.

The Multangular Tower in York's Museum Gardens. The Porta Praetoria would have had much in common with this 3rd or 4th century structure.
The remains of the Roman walls underneath Harkers Pub.

The impression this evidence gives suggests that early Coney Street would have been very different from today, a prosperous port facing the river with sights on trade with distant places, all under the watchful eye of the city’s castrum. Nevertheless, it does reveal a crucial thread of continuity. Just like today, Roman Coney Street was an active and bustling place, providing the people of York with goods from all over the world.