In the twenty-first century, what most people do to socialise is to meet at a fashionable pub or bar for a few drinks with odd, elongated names, or collectively watch a movie-film on a very large screen. Some go bowling, or paintballing, or kayaking, or birdspotting, or any of the other myriad offers in today’s fast-paced world. In York, a trendy city sprinkled with culture and history, there is a wide and varied choice of venues, events and activities for those with the inclination.
There was once a time when the same kind of choice was nowhere to be found. Post WWI, the youth of York had very few places to call their own; to meet up and to be sociable. However, there was one place, and it increased in popularity very quickly, due to both its situation and what it had to offer.
On St. Leonard’s Place, across from York Art Gallery, is a large, white building; one that regularly goes ignored. The De Grey Rooms, a neo-classical Victorian ballroom built in 1841 in the centre of York, played host to countless social engagements throughout the twentieth century. Originally an officer’s mess for the Yorkshire Hussars, the rooms were designed by George Townsend Andrews and named for Thomas Philip De Grey, second Earl and colonel-commandant for the regiment.
Once the ballroom was opened up to the public, it was used for a multitude of balls, concerts and parties, and also merely for young people to dance and socialise. Dance became a huge release for the teenagers of the Second World War, and the De Grey Rooms became a haven for those who just wanted to let their hair down in the midst of fear and ration books. Those who remember the De Grey Rooms in their heyday recall the vibrancy of the place. “Radio had got stale and so, dancing was life. That’s how the girls met the lads; the meeting place was the dance hall.”
York Conservation Trust now own the De Grey Rooms, and it was purchased from City of York Council in 2005 in an effort to preserve the site for posterity. Leased by the Theatre Royal, the rooms are used as rehearsal space and training workshops, as well as a popular venue for hire, particularly for weddings and conferences. York Theatre Royal also plan to establish a complex of creative and cultural organisations on the site.
It might not be your comfy local, or the next blockbuster at the cinema, but there was a time when the De Grey Rooms were the social hub of the city, where York’s movers and shakers would literally come to move and shake, soaking up every ounce of enjoyment and savouring it, not knowing when it would come again. Take a leaf out of their book, and live in the moment.