Begging – a common nuisance

The Buttercross on the corner of West Sandgate and Princess Square - local women, male 'strollers' and beggars were often whipped from here up Newborough to the gaol
The Buttercross on the corner of West Sandgate and Princess Square - local women, male 'strollers' and beggars were often whipped from here up Newborough to the gaol
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Written by Dr Jack Binns

Though the evidence is elusive and patchy, it seems that during the 18th century, as a health and pleasure resort of the rich, elderly and invalid, Scarborough also attracted large numbers of undesirable rogues and “loose woman”. And the Corporation adopted and practised the harshest remedies to combat them.

As the borough’s constables recorded in their account books, as a result they had a busy but profitable time. Here are some extracts from the 1780s:

Attending with search warrant, apprehending & keeping safe five women in the [Common] Hall, whipping. 5 shillings

For turning a strolling woman and handing her out of town. 1 shilling

For taking & whipping & releasing the loose girls out of gaol to Peasholm. 6 shillings

For taking Scotch James & putting him in the workhouse cellar. 1 shilling

For taking a vagrant girl, keeping her in custody a night and a day, expended to eating. 3/6

For taking a man who threatened to set the town on fire & putting him in the cage [blank]

At this time street begging was a common nuisance. In 1788, a new officer, called Beadle, was appointed by the Town Hall to “parade the streets and the spaw...to prevent strollers and other persons presenting themselves as objects of charity from begging at the lodging houses”. Five years later, the constables were awarded a bonus of two guineas to clear the town of vagrants and to maintain good order, particularly on Sundays. By 1799, the constables were claiming a shilling a time for whipping vagrants and prostitutes out of town to supplement their annual salaries of two guineas.

It seems that this heavy-handed regime had worked. No more is said of a beadle.

During the 18 days that William Hutton spent in Scarborough in the summer of 1803 he did not see a single street beggar which clearly impressed him.

The town’s bellman was still employed to whip local women as well as male “strollers” and beggars. In 1780, Ann Edwards was found guilty of stealing a piece of linen cloth and for her “wickedness” she was whipped from the market cross up Newborough to the gaol. From there, attended by two constables, she was “escorted to the extremities of the Liberty to Cloughton where she lived with her husband”.

In the same year, Mary, wife of Thomas Londesborough, was also whipped by the bellman from the market cross to the gaol and then imprisoned there until she had paid a huge fine of 40 shillings and given sureties of good behaviour. She had been found guilty of keeping a bawdy house.

In 1789, Joan Pratt was guilty of “a nuisance in keeping a disorderly house”, but she was pregnant. So she was kept in prison until delivered of her child by “a skilful surgeon”. Only then was she bound to a cart “at the [Butter] cross called Saturday market”, whipped up St Sepulchre Street then Newborough Street and so back to gaol at the Bar.

If public whipping and expulsion were not sufficient deterrents to thieves, beggars and prostitutes, the threat of imprisonment in one of the town’s prisons should have been.

When His Majesty’s Commissioners investigated Scarborough’s government in 1833 they noted the appalling state of the town’s gaol and house of correction. Neither had exercise yard or garden; both were strangers to light and fresh air. The house of correction was effectively a place of solitary confinement where the stench, in the word of a local solicitor, was “abominable”. A third place of criminal confinement, was described variously as “the cage”, “the hoppit” or, most ominously, as “the black-hole”.

In these circumstances, therefore, perhaps it is no surprise to read that the Commissioners were satisfied that Scarborough was well policed and that “few places are so quiet and orderly”.

A surviving serjeants-at-mace account book covering the years 1812 to 1841, though ill-kept and very incomplete, provides a more factual and immediate picture of what crime and law enforcement were like in Scarborough during these years.

Some customs had not changed for centuries. One of the duties of the two serjeants was to “seize all unsound flesh exposed for sale” and their book gives several examples of this practice. In May 1818, they “took a leg and fore quarter of lamb from John Sedman and burnt it at the cross”; the following December, they “took five pieces of beef from John Moak and burnt it at the Cross”; and as late as February 1831, they confiscated several sheep parts and burnt them all at the Cross on the same day, though they needed a shilling’s worth of straw to start the fire.

Forgers were still “uttering base coin”. From the sale of “8 stone 5 pounds of base & counterfeit halfpence seized from David Estil, Taylor”, £1 16s. arising was given to the churchwardens for the poor of the parish. John Greaves was tried at the Easter quarter sessions in 1820 for coining shillings and in October 1823 Isabella Burns was found guilty of the some offence. She was sentenced to 12 months in the house of correction.

The shipyards on the shore were still targets for thieves. Some sailors stole rope from Tindalls in October 1825 and tried to sell it in the town. For some townsmen, shipwrecks were too tempting. In June 1829, James Lancaster and John McKeverly were found guilty of stealing the rudder belonging to the New Albion which had been driven ashore beyond the Spa.

There were, of course, many cases of petty theft. In April 1832, Rachel, wife of the barber, Richard Monkman, had stolen “12 muslim and some combs and brushes” from a Thursday market stall. In 1833, George Yates took jet from a warehouse in Bird Yard belonging to George Franks. In the same year, both the Talbot and the Bull Inns lost cloths and napkins to thieves.

Robbery was rare; house burglary not mentioned. Only one case of poaching was reported, that of snaring a hare on Weaponness [Oliver’s Mount] in 1825.

What did change, however, during these pre-Victorian years was the end of whipping and the stocks, an increased resort to fines and imprisonment at Northallerton, and the start of transportation.