John Cossins – Scarborough’s first map-maker

John Cossins' A New and Exact Plan of the Town of Scarborough
John Cossins' A New and Exact Plan of the Town of Scarborough

IN MAY 1987, lot no. 508, John Cossins’ A New and Exact Plan of the Town of Scarborough, anno 1725 was offered for sale at HC Chapman’s auction room. This large sheet of yellowing paper, measuring 24 inches by 39 inches, decorated with brown age-spots, and originally priced at 2s 6d (12½p) was snapped up for £330!

Since John Collins had had 167 subscribers for 183 copies of his plan and there were several originals in Scarborough’s Rotunda, Town Hall and Vernon Road library, why was this map considered so valuable?

John Cossins was the elder of the two sons and three daughters of William Collins, who lived at Brompton-by-Sawdon and was steward of the Hackness estate from 1707 until 1725. John was born and baptised at Brompton in 1697 and died in 1743.

The Hackness estate, then consisting of the townships of Hackness, Suffield, Everley, Silpho, Broxa, Langdale End, much of Harwood Dale and some of Burniston, had been bought by John Vanden Bempde, a merchant of Pall Mall, London, for £31,000; and it was as map-maker of this lordship that John Cossins first learned the practice and skills of land surveying and drawing.

Then, in 1725, now working alone, young Cossins turned his hand to draw an original town plan of Scarborough town. There were previous sketches of Scarborough such as the bird’s eye perspective of 1538 and the profile views of South Bay by Francis Place about 1715 and Samuel Buck in 1722, but Cossins was the first to produce and publish a scaled, linear street map illustrated with miniature sketches of prominent buildings. Moreover, whereas the anonymous Tudor draughtsman intended to demonstrate only Scarborough’s defensibility from the sea and Place and Buck saw the town only from the vantage of South Bay sands, Collins’ purpose was to advertise all of Scarborough’s many attractions to potential visitors. His was the first tourist trap.

Collins must have been pleased with the response he received from subscribers. Though three York booksellers took only one copy each, the names of other buyers indicated that Scarborough had become the preferred destination of many distinguished visitors.

The subscribers’ list included three peers, the earl of Carlisle of Castle Howard, who wanted four copies, and the marquesses of Carmarthen and Falconberg; four baronets, Strickland, St Quintin, Boynton and Wentworth; one knight, Sir Richard Osbaldeston of Hunmanby; 30 gentlemen described as “esquire” with names such as Cayley, Cholmley, Constable, Langley and Robinson; eleven clergymen; five lawyers; and four doctors of medicine, one from London and two practising in York. The rest was made up mainly of Scarborough’s own resident leading businessmen, such as John Bland, who built the road to the beach in 1722 and Robert North, who founded the Amicable Society, as well as familiar shipbuilders, with names such as Cockerill, Tindall and Sollitt, who were honoured with the title of “Mr”.

At the foot of his plan Cossins added a description of Scarborough that was economical with the truth and meant clearly to attract more spawers. Not only did the town afford “a very agreeable prospect to the sea” but its “air was serene and healthfull”. So famous were its “medicinal spaw waters” that they brought in “nobility and gentry from all parts of Great Britain”. Strangers to Scarborough were assured of “extraordinary accommodation” there. Situated in latitude 54 degrees 21 minutes north, the town was only 160 miles from London and 30 from York and Hull.

Though Scarborough is in fact 54 degrees 17’ north, the road distance to London in 1725 was 224 miles using the Humber ferry route or 250 by way of York. York was and still is 40 miles away by the shortest route and Hull nearer 45. So not only was there no reference to the icy blasts from the German Ocean or the perils of sea fret, but Scarborough was moved several miles closer to London, York and Hull to minimise the discomfort and time suffered to reach it which in fact took five days from the capital by road and three by sea.

So if you thought that deceptions like “five minutes from the beach” were contemporary lies in holiday brochures, John Cossins and his Scarborough patrons were already practising such deceits nearly 300 years ago.

Otherwise A New Exact Plan was just that: it is a rich source of accurate information about Scarborough as it was in 1725. In addition to the detailed street layout, it locates all or nearly all the principal buildings in the town which underlies its recent development as a resort for the well-to-do.

Scarborough now had several substantial inns, the New Inn and the New Globe opposite each other in Market Place (Newborough), the Crown and Sceptre in Blackfriargate (Queen Street) as well as the Old Globe in Flesher (Globe) Street. The Long Room in Low Westgate (now 11 and 11A, Princess Street) had recently been superseded by the much grander Assembly Rooms at the end of St Nicholas Street. And a sure indication that the rich and fashionable had arrived, there was now a coffee house at the corner of Market Place and St Thomas Street.

Above all, there was now “Dickey’s house” next to “the spaw well” on “a clean dry sand” left behind at low tide. Here the Corporation’s eccentric governor, Richard Dickinson, had built houses, one for himself and another for the convenience of spawers who had urgent need to relieve themselves. Yet there was no suggestion that the houses and well were overlooked by a perpendicular cliff or “the coach road” from the Assembly Rooms down to Mill Beck was steep and hazardous. In the absence of contours, Scarborough seemed to stand on a flat bay.

Cossins’ Plan was the earliest to show clearly how the old town was divided into four Quarters, Undercliff, Oldborough, Newborough and St Mary’s, each coloured differently and the precise locations of its three cisterns or conduits where its inhabitants drew their water. The upper conduit was at the junction of Market Place and St Thomas Street, the middle where St Sepulchre joined the Dumple, and the lower where St Mary’s met lower Cook’s Row (Princess Square). Important buildings were then still on Sandside: the Post House and Customs House were on either side of the bottom of East Sandgate and the “Town’s House” just east of them.

Cossins announced that Scarborough then had a population of about 2,000 families which was probably a slight exaggeration, since his Plan also showed extensive areas within it that were gardens, closes and empty spaces where religious houses had once stood. “Fryeridge” was still unoccupied. St Thomas and St Sepulchre were now only “churchyards”, the latter a bowling green. Scarborough’s “old bowling green”, where the mayor had been tossed in a blanket for his trespasses, was on the site now covered by Maria’s Court.

Scarborough was only the first of Cossins’ street plans: soon afterwards, he drew similar maps of York and Leeds, Beverley and Whitby, though the last two were never published. In 1725 Scarborough was less than half the size of Leeds and perhaps a third of York, yet his list of subscribers for them, 192 and 190 respectively, was another indication of Scarborough’s growing relative reputation. And Scarborough’s success as a high-class health and pleasure resort which reached a peak in the 1730s owed not a little to Cossins’ flattering advertisement.