One of the more difficult questions confronting Sir Meredith Whittaker in the early 1980s when he was researching his Book of Scarborough Spaw was why it appeared to fall into decline in the second half of the eighteenth century after its previous phenomenal success.
Clearly, the calamity of the so-called “earthquake” of 1737, which buried the original spring and all the on-site buildings, must have given potential spawers cause to consider their safety. The borough’s distinguished marine engineer, William Vincent, was very well regarded, but was it really possible to make the cliff behind the Spaw permanently stable? Removing overhanging rocks and clay could be only a temporary solution to the fundamental fragility of Driple Cotes.
Indeed, the records of the Common Hall show that Vincent continued to work on the security of the whole area up to 1749, by both “lighting the Spaw cliff” and rebuilding the staith “before the Spaw wells” with stones from White Nab. It seems that repairs and reconstruction there never really stopped. In 1803, William Hutton noted that the wells were “far below high-water mark” so that the Corporation had been obliged to spend a thousand pounds building an earth bank five yards high and ten yards wide at the base, reinforced with timber beams and “stones of all sizes”. After further damage to “this ponderous work”, between 1808 and 1811, a new staith, with “a wall and footpath on the top...for the convenience of passengers”, was built and opened to the public in 1812.
Secondly, the death of Dicky Dickinson was an irreparable blow. He alone had made the Spaw into a great commercial success, despite the indifference of his landlords sitting at Sandside. It proved impossible to replace him. First, William Tymperton, was paid handsomely at £30 a year and lasted 17 years in the post of governor. William Allason, who followed him, was already 84 when appointed “keeper of the Spaw” in 1755, and died still in office at the age of 104! He was succeeded by Thomas Headley who, like other Corporation officers, was chosen annually at Sandside. Finally, James Cooper, the next elected governor, lasted from 1791 until his death in 1810. Yet none of these compared with the founder and supreme showman of the Spaw who in his time seems to have been at least as much as an attraction as his medicinal waters.
Nevertheless, despite the evident insecurity of the site, the absence of Dickinson to promote it, and the great schism in the membership of the Common Hall which almost paralysed it between 1736 and 1743, surprisingly the Spaw was more profitable during these years than before or afterwards.
Receipts for bottled waters reached a high point in 1738-9, when well over 6,000 dozen were sold for more than £130, but then declined steadily. Forty years later, income from this source came to a mere £10 a year and by 1800 it was insignificant. The highest recorded number of subscribers to the Spaw, paying 7s 6d to Tymperton for the season, was 766 in 1748. Afterwards, the decline was continuous and irreversible: only 581 in 1762-3, 328 in 1779-80, around 300 in the 1780s and 1790s, but in some subsequent years of the Regency, less than 200. Until the 1760s, the Corporation ran the Spaw at a profit; afterwards, it became a financial liability, costing more to maintain and protect than income from subscriptions and sales of bottled water.
The increasing popularity of sea-water bathing, as already noted, compensated to some extent for the fall in the numbers drinking the spring waters, but there were other causes of Scarborough’s relative decline as a resort for the well-to-do.
Despite the improvement in road travel secured by the turnpikes, compared with other elite destinations, Scarborough still suffered from its distance from the concentrations of affluence in the south of the country. It was just too far away from London: 217 miles by road via the direct route across the Humber ferry, and 239 miles via York. The sea journey from London by collier was cheaper, yet less fashionable and subject to bad weather. Even as late as 1808, the steampacket from Newcastle was only fortnightly. By the 1780s there were stagecoach connections to Scarborough from Birmingham, Wakefield and Sheffield, though most of its “visitants” travelled much shorter distances.
Improved turnpiked roads in the second half of the eighteenth century promoted spas all over the country. Between 1700 and 1749 there were at least 34 new English spas, but in the 1780s alone there were 39. The established resorts, Bath, Cheltenham, Epsom, Tunbridge and Bristol, expanded rapidly during this decade, but Scarborough now found much stronger competition from other new Yorkshire spas such as Boston, Malton, Bridlington and, above all, Harrogate. By the 1790s Harrogate had become a serious rival. In 1774, the York Courant listed the numbers of visitors to Harrogate, not to Scarborough; and in 1813 the York Herald reported that whereas Harrogate had 1,320 visitors that year Scarborough had only 500.
Scarborough’s long history as a port of refuge, fishing haven, ship-building harbour and local market for the hinterland meant that, unlike other new health and pleasure resorts, its leaders were slow and reluctant to give priority or even preference to seasonal Spawers. Driple Cotes was a long way, in more than one sense, from Sandside. This explains why the Common Hall left social improvements and amenities to private developers; its members were shipowners, merchants, master mariners, bankers and shopkeepers, not apothecaries and physicians, as in Bath. Innkeepers were actually excluded from the Common Hall.
One illustration of the Corporation’s lack of concern for the expectations of “polite” visitors was its resistance to paving, cleaning and lighting the town’s street. Newborough was first paved out of the pocket of the Duke of Leeds. Long Room Street, St Sepulchre and the Dumple were not repaired by the chamberlains until 1773; and Helperby Lane (King Street) was paved only as late as 1801 at the expense of its residents. Despite repeated complaints, the Old Shambles and the Market Cross (St Helen’s Square) were not cleared away until 1802 and only then because local property owners agreed to pay the costs. Geography was Scarborough’s permanent liability, but a radical reform of its municipal government would help to mitigate the disadvantage of distances.