Laymen take control

York Place where James Sykes taught
York Place where James Sykes taught
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Written by Dr Jack Binns

In 1833 the Rev Thomas Irvin at last retired from the post of Scarborough’s grammar school master. According to one source, he had held the appointment for 41 years, though it might have been only 37. He remained vicar of Hackness until his death in 1841.

After Irvin there came another Anglican clergyman, Joseph Skelton, but he survived only five years in the post. He was the last of his kind: all three of his successors, from 1838 until 1872, were laymen who lived in the town and held the school or part of it near or even in their own homes.

William Merry (1838-52) lived at 5 King Street; James Sykes (1852-61) taught in York Place; and Thomas Swalwell (1861-72) rented a room for his school in St Thomas Street. After 1848 such town sites had become necessary to the continued existence of what was left of the old grammar school.

In 1848 William Merry and his boys were expelled from Farrer’s Aisle. The school had been there for two centuries since the Civil War, but it was one of the casualties of the restoration of St Mary’s which took place during the next two years.

The interior of the parish church was gutted: all the upstairs galleries, which had been gradually added to accommodate more and more paid, appropriated boxed pews, were swept away. Where there had been private seating for over a thousand, only few of it free, now there was a similar number of places, all at ground level, but 400 of them free. All four of the south side chantry chapels were cleared of furniture and the south transept lost its ceiling and was opened up to the main body of the church.

After 200 years, Scarborough’s parish church was no longer considered a suitable place for a secular school. A contemporary account referred to the grammar school occupation as an “abuse”, a “perversion” and a “sacrilege in morals and criminal in law” for which “there was not a shadow of excuse” since it had another room elsewhere. Farrer’s Aisle became the choir vestry.

Naturally, Mr Merry appealed for help to the Town Council. He asked for “a grant of money towards the erection of a new school room in consequence of the old room in the south transept of St Mary’s church...having been taken away”. However, by 1849, the time had long since passed when the borough’s councillors regarded their grammar school with possessive pride since it no longer deserved the respect of the community. Mr Merry’s plea was rejected: the Finance Committee unanimously refused to give a penny from the Borough fund. Mr Merry and his boys had to make 
do with his house in King Street.

Yet what members of the Finance Committee did not know, or chose to disregard, was that the proceeds of Gregory Fysh’s bequest of 1640, Worlington Grove in Falsgrave, had been denied to the trustees of the school and simply appropriated by the borough treasury! It seems that about 1844 the North-eastern railway company had paid £150 to Scarborough borough council for the freehold of the one-acre close formerly called Worlington Grove, but then better known as Grammar School Field. When the Improvement Commissioners discovered this misappropriation in 1851 they ordered the borough treasurer to hand over the £150 to the trustees of the grammar school, Messrs Bean & Wellburn.

Nevertheless, the Corporation still insisted on exercising its right to appoint the next grammar school master and in James Sykes a bad choice was made: in nine years he nearly killed the school. When Thomas Swalwell replaced him in 1861 there were only four scholars left.

Some explanation of Sykes’ disastrous tenure is to be found in the autobiography of one of his pupils, Joshua Rowntree, grandson of the founder of the Scarborough grocery store, who was born in Princess Street in 1844:

“At the age of eight I went to the Scarborough grammar school, kept by a clergyman. He believed much in dunce-caps and in caning. I have seen five boys whacked and perched up at once. My recollection of the religious teaching is very unedifying. Within a year I was withdrawn.”

Joshua was wrong about the status of Mr Sykes, but can be trusted about his cruel teaching methods. After another brief spell at Falsgrave with a “venerable” but “very wooden” ex-Wesleyan minister, Joshua was sent by his Quaker family to Bootham’s Friends’ school at York as a boarder.

After Sykes’ departure, Thomas Swalwell quickly made amends. By 1864 he had 75 boys, who included five boarders at his home next to the schoolroom in St Thomas Street. In three different classes he taught Classics and Mathematics. Fifty-six of his pupils were taking Latin, 10 of them Greek, and a few French and German. No sciences were offered. Discipline was good, corporal punishment exceptional and class promotion depended on performance in half-yearly examinations. Swalwell had no library, no gymnasium and not even a playground, but he did rent a neighbouring field for games.

Swalwell’s success in St Thomas Street might have led to the foundation of a revived, modern grammar school in the town, but in 1872 it suddenly closed. Already it had seven local competitors and then Forster’s Education Act of 1870 sounded the death knell of a school more than four centuries old.