Written by Dr Jack Binns
In the beginning, Baptists or Anabaptists had a bad reputation. On the Continent they were harried out of communities and some were even drowned or burned by their outraged neighbours. Though there was no example of or authority for infant baptism in the New Testament and these radical Protestants argued that baptism ought to be a deliberate conscientious act of faith, splitting humanity into believers and non-believers was thought to be an intolerable break with centuries of Christian tradition. Nevertheless, out of all the many sects spawned by the Protestant Reformation, a few Baptists survived in scattered places in England and especially Wales.
Admiral Sir John Lawson (c.1615-65), Scarborough’s most famous seaman, had been described as a Baptist during the 1650s, but there is no evidence of a permanent congregation of that kind in the town until more than a century later. Like so many other religious radicals of his time, Lawson later reverted to the established church and was buried in London as an Anglican.
The first Baptist chapel in Scarborough was built as late as 1776-7 at the western end of the north side of Longwestgate. Its original founder and minister was the Rev William Hague (1736-1831), who previously, since 1767, had held services “in a large upper room near the sands”.
Hague was born of poor parents in Malton and apprenticed to a barber there for six years. At Scarborough he saw so many well-clothed and jovial seafarers that he decided to join them. During the next three years at sea he learned to sin and swear but not to read: at the age of 23 he was still illiterate.
Back on dry land in Scarborough, working 15 hours a day in a shop, he taught himself to read and write at night in his garret home. Since there was no Baptist pastor or group at Scarborough, William walked to the nearest at Bridlington, 36 miles there and back, every Sunday!
In 1767 he was baptised at Bridlington and joined a Scarborough group of only six members which was licensed to meet weekly. Each agreed to pay twopence every Sunday to cover their expenses. Three years later, their number had grown to 15.
Finally, early in 1771, “the church of Christ” at Bridlington and its pastor, Brother Joseph Gaukrodger, recognised the independence of the Scarborough congregation. Led by William and his wife Jane, it consisted of seven men and eight women. Later that same year, William was ordained pastor there. Before the chapel was built, Scarborough’s brethren were baptised by Hague in the sea or “in a small brook of water about two miles from the town”.
Their site in Longwestgate cost £60 and was only 35 yards by 20 and on it they built their first Ebenezer chapel. From then on their congregation increased rapidly, so that extensions had to be added in 1790, 1801 and 1809 until it could hold up to 500 worshippers.
William Hague was the father of nine children and lived until the age of 94. He was still preaching at 85 and retired from the pastorate after 48 years continuous service at Scarborough.
When asked in 1743 to report on the number of non-Anglicans in his parish, Scarborough’s vicar, Theophilus Garencieres, could not bring himself even to use the words “Catholic” or even “Roman Catholic”: he said that there were “3 families of Papists” in the town.
After the alarming experience of a Catholic king, James II (1685-8) and then of a failed attempt by his Catholic son, the Old Pretender, to recapture the throne in 1715, Protestant hostility to Catholicism intensified. All “papists” were regarded as actual or potential traitors and their lands and property subjected to a special and heavy tax.
The only Catholics to be found in Scarborough were county gentry such as the Constables of Burton Constable and the Fairfaxes of Gilling who when they took the Spa waters brought with them their servants, cooks, maids, grooms and priests. During Scarborough’s season, according to the historian of North Riding Catholics, their “congregation must have often swelled to over a hundred”.
However, after 1745-6 when Bonnie Prince Charles, invaded England with his Scots, rebel “Jacobites” and “Papists” again became identical terms. In the event, though the Young Pretender chose to lead his Highlanders down through Lancashire not Yorkshire, Scarborough made expensive preparations to repel them. No fewer than 99 guns were deployed to defend all the approaches to the town. Ironically, two Catholics, Stephen and Henry Redhead, mercers, gave five shillings to a voluntary subscription raised to pay “for the Defence of the County of York”.
Even as late as 1780 there were still only 24 resident Catholics in Scarborough. Masses were held in the town’s lodging-houses until the first simple Catholic chapel was built at the top of Auborough Street in 1783. And it was not until 1809 that “a more commodious place of worship was erected” on the same site for as many as 400 Catholics.
However, the religious movement during these years which won by far the greatest popular support in Scarborough, as everywhere else in the country outside Ireland, was Methodism not Catholicism.