Devastating aftermath of the Scarborough bombardment

Marine Drive in the early years of the 20th century
Marine Drive in the early years of the 20th century

by Dr Jack Binns

Reports and advertisements published in The Mercury of Friday, April 16, 1915, provide some indications of how the Great War had by then begun to affect the town and its remaining people. Naturally we tend to remember most the losses of life and property caused by the German naval bombardment of December 1914, but other consequences of warfare since the previous August were still damaging to the borough’s economy, though now less well appreciated.

Until the August bank holiday of 1914 Scarborough had been enjoying a lucrative summer season, but the onset of hostilities and in particular the shock and awe of the bombardment struck a devastating blow to the town’s finances.

A Town Council meeting in mid-April 1915 was told by the finance committee of the great loss of borough income during the past six months. All the treasury receipts were well down: Valley Bridge tolls had lost £500; rents on stalls on the sands and borough properties were more than £800 short of the 1913-14 figure; receipts from lavatories were £150 lower; from entertainments nearly £500 less; and tolls on the Marine Drive had declined by £712. For the financial year 1914-15 the borough treasurer estimated a deficit of almost £10,000. Receipts from the borough, water and district rates had fallen by more than £7,000. The only good news was that because of the fall in the number of occupied properties six million gallons of water had been saved!

The reaction of councillors to this depressing but not unexpected report was interesting. Some of them assumed that the borough would now have to tighten its belt drastically: there must be no further or increased investments, however once thought necessary or even previously approved. For instance, they argued that the house building, slum clearance and road widening schemes proposed in the aftermath of the Queen and Market Street fire in February should now be postponed for the duration of the war.

Opposed to this pessimistic, cautious view was senior Liberal Alderman and Justice of the Peace, Meredith Thompson Whittaker, who was always on the side of innovation and development. He expressed no regrets for the town’s heavy, on-going investment in the expensive Marine Drive or even the most recent construction of the South Bay gardens and the open-air swimming pool below them. There was no question of stopping or suspending any of these works or deploring the debts they had laid on the borough.

In contrast, two Conservative councillors, White and Morgan, even challenged the borough rate levied to finance the Municipal School. In the words of William Morgan, proprietor of the Aquarium, “there was something wrong with the system”. The Muni might well prepare young men and ladies for university entrance, but in preparing others for local employment it was inferior to the town’s Board Schools. He knew of a Muni school-leaver of 16 who had spent four years there and still could not even write legibly, spell the name of his schoolmaster or the name of the school he had attended. In the heated exchange that followed, Cllr Ascough, on the Education Committee, explained that beyond the borough’s penny rate the North Riding County Council was entirely responsible for funding the Municipal School. As for the Board Schools, after the departure of many families from the borough it would have 500 fewer elementary pupils to support.

Though a Conservative, Alderman Valentine Fowler, a former mayor, supported Whittaker. Whatever the outstanding cost of the Marine Drive, who now, he asked, would put the clock back 20 years. Who now did not recognise that the 
Marine Drive had proved to be one of the greatest attractions possessed by the town. Though he was less confident about the wisdom of investment in the South Cliff gardens, he agreed that some of the town’s houses made it “almost impossible for a man to lead a decent life” and should be demolished and replaced as soon as finances permitted.

Cllr Briggs agreed that slum clearance was an urgent necessity: “the people of the East Ward,” he said, “lived in slum districts which were a disgrace to Christian England.”

After a passionate 
exchange of strong opinions, Cllr White asked “What would they say in London when they heard that they had started a [re-building] scheme...after the trial of the bombardment?” And Cllr Briggs replied, “They will say, Bravo Scarborough, we are not downhearted yet.” (Loud laughter).

Of all the commercial businesses in Scarborough that had suffered badly from the bombardment, loss of trade and depopulation, none compared with the plight of the Boyes family after the total destruction of their store and warehouse in the fire of February, 1915. Yet their resilience and recovery must have been an inspiration and an example to the likes of William Morgan.

By April 16, 1915, the Mercury announced that Boyes were back in business. At 19, 20 Newborough, there were carpets, bedding, glass, china and furniture for sale; at St Nicholas Hall, the former Town Hall, you could now buy their drapery, fancy goods and stationery; at 35 Nicholas Street, their boots, shoes and millinery; and at 66 Newborough, Boyes had opened a new cafe and restaurant. Though it was scarcely “business as usual”, it demonstrated what could be achieved with courageous enterprise.

Some homes had been shattered by German shells, many more had been evacuated by their frightened occupants, but Scarborians who had stayed on or returned were at least not short of fuel to keep them warm and hot-watered. The Mercury advertised no fewer than 21 kinds of domestic coal, described by their pits of origin, and ranging in delivery price from 27s 6d to 22s 6d a ton. (In 2015 domestic coal costs householders £360 a ton!) Most of the coal in 1915, like “Lofthouse best” and “Garforth nuts”, came by rail from the West Riding; only one kind, from Wallsend, had arrived by sea from Tyneside, dodging German submarines and mines. But at a time when South Cliff was residence only for the affluent, coal merchants charged them an extra threepence a ton for delivery.

Perhaps the worst penalty imposed on Scarborough as a result of the bombardment was not the damage done to its property or commerce, but the fear that there might be more naval attacks. At the quarterly meeting of the Council’s welfare committee it was pointed out that a large number of lodging-house keepers had lost their guests and their only means of livelihood. Many families were subsisting on separation allowances paid by the War Office; but when it was suggested that the town now had spare accommodation for up to 5,000 troops, the reply from London was that Scarborough was no longer a safe place to billet them! It would take several years, rather than months, for Scarborough to win back its place as a prosperous, happy, holiday resort.