Written by Dr Jack Binns
Readers might well assume that in the past, when living conditions were infinitely harsher, poorer and more insecure, or “nasty, brutish and brief”, there was more domestic and public violence than today.
Apart from scolding, cursing, conceiving bastards and petty theft, most crimes committed and brought to court four centuries ago in Scarborough were those of men; but not all. Assault, usually described then as “blood and [af]fray”, was not a male monopoly.
Jane Porritt and Ann Duck, wife of Nicholas Duck, were called before the sessions in January 1646 for fighting each other in Ann’s house. Whether Nicholas was present at the time to encourage, observe or intervene is not recorded, but a few months later he was assaulted by two men, William Peacock, a mariner, and Thomas Fenton, “batchiller”.
Sometimes a male was the target of female aggression. Normally a well-behaved, respectable, rich widow, Mrs Margery Fysh, drew blood from the body of Robert Deeton in September 1646 and it was not for his health. After one of the town’s constables, Christopher Clarke, had attacked Thomas Carr twice in two different places on the same day, his wife, Ann, not to be denied personal satisfaction, gave Carr a third beating.
Wife-beating was perfectly acceptable, even expected, as long as it was your own wife in your own home, not someone else’s in theirs. For example, in 1621, John Weatherell was in trouble for thrashing John Harwood’s wife in Harwood’s house “without his leave”. However, a fortnight later, a second re-drafted charge indicated that the first was inaccurate. Now Weatherell was accused of beating his wife in John Harwood’s house without Harwood’s permission. In other words, Weatherell should have beaten his wife at home!
Even the highest members of the town’s governing body in the Common Hall were not as self-controlled as they ought to have been. In 1602, John Farrar had already served once as bailiff and he was soon to be re-elected. He was also the husband of Thomasin, nee Hutchinson, of Wykeham, who later discovered the spa springs. Nevertheless, he was ordered by the court to pay a bond or recognizance of £10 to keep the peace towards Tristram Lowson.
Another rich merchant and prominent burgess, James Conyers, tried to settle a trespass dispute with Christopher Keld, a gentleman of Newby, by drawing his blood. Two years later, in 1624, this same excitable James Conyers was required to enter a bond of £40 to keep the peace towards William Thompson, junior. The following year, already five times bailiff and now in his sixties, John Farrar had to be restrained by court order from attacking both Henry Flinton and his son Robert.
Yet the most hot-tempered, violent bailiff at this time was Mr Robert Harthropp. In May 1602, he actually assaulted one of the constables and a quarter of a century later, though now elderly, he was twice presented for causing blood and affray, once on William Nesfield and again on George Weare’s wife! The next year he was chosen senior of the two bailiffs. It seems that magistrates then were not required to set the best, law-abiding examples.
As today, law-enforcement officers were the most vulnerable to physical attack as well as verbal abuse. To be one of the 10 constables, two for Falsgrave and two each for the four Quarters, Newborough, Oldborough, St Mary’s and Undercliff, was the most dangerous of all occupations.
In 1623, a constable acting on behalf of the court was said to have been treated “badly by insult and affray, modo crudeli [in a cruel manner]”. Christopher Clarke, who has been mentioned already, had to defend his wife and son, as well as himself, from revengeful attacks. Not that in his case the violence was all one way: in 1629 he was charged with striking Nicholas Briercliff with a spade. What Briercliff had done to him was not recorded.
Constables attempting to execute bailiffs’ warrants were not safe from the town’s womenfolk. In 1643, Margaret Hunter was found guilty of “striking at the constable” and not obeying his summons. Three years later, husband Roger Bowton and his wife Ann both shed the blood of constable Ralph Huthcinson in two separate attacks. And in April 1648 four women were brought before the court “for threatening the constables to beat them & abusing them with evil words”.
Severe penalties were imposed on those who had the temerity to abuse, verbally or physically, corporation members and their officers. John Potter, a York panyerman (travelling pedlar), was fined 3s 4d for making an affray on constable Peter Lepington with his knife and running it through his “cloath”, but the colossal sum of five pounds for saying that the bailiffs were “knaves”!
Offenders often used insulting language to describe those sitting in judgement on them. To call the coroner “a snotty [contemptible] fool” incurred a fine of 3s 4d on one of the town’s butchers in 1654, but we are not told what punishment was meted out to William Slee for calling the jury “shitbuckets”.
Unfortunately, there is no surviving account of what happened to William Southwell who battered and abused Jane, wife of the town’s surgeon, John Worster. According to her complaint, in June 1644 William had entered the Worster home, beaten Jane with his hands, pulled her hair, knocked her violently against a wall and “did further abuse her with verye manie reprochefull and evill termes vizt called her a baise jayd [worn-out horse] and baise borne hower [whore]...and threatened to abuse her to her death”.
There is no doubt that during the most disorderly years of Civil War when Scarborough suffered siege, bombardment, food rationing, forced military billeting and street fighting, there was a marked increase in law-breaking there, though nothing to compare with the drunken orgies characteristic of its present Friday and Saturday nights. On the same day, July 8, 1644, that Jane Worster’s statement was read to the general sessions, the clerk of the court wrote “omnia bene” (all’s well): there were no other cases to consider!