Nostalgia: Corporation in total disarray

The Corporation instructed the boroughs engineer, William Vincent, to enclose the two new wells with a stout stone wall and stabilise the cliff above them
The Corporation instructed the boroughs engineer, William Vincent, to enclose the two new wells with a stout stone wall and stabilise the cliff above them

During the 1700s Scarborough’s development as a superior seaside resort for the aristocracy and gentry was seriously hampered and delayed by the ineptitude of its unreformed and unrepresentative local government.

The landslide that buried and destroyed the Spa buildings at the end of December 1737 and the sudden death of Dicky Dickinson, their first governor, only six weeks later, was a coincidence that might have dealt a fatal injury to Scarborough’s future. But, remarkably, within a few days, Mrs Farrer’s old mineral spring was uncovered and two more new ones discovered. By the 1738 season the two “houses of convenience” for ladies and gentlemen were re-built and re-opened. The so-called “earthquake” had jolted the Common Hall out of its accustomed lethargy and alerted it to the indispensable value of the wells and their affluent customers.

Having restored the two “walking rooms” in record time, the Corporation then instructed the borough’s construction engineer, William Vincent, to enclose the two new wells with a stout stone wall and stabilise the cliff above them. So instead of having an exposed and vulnerable spring on the sands, the Spa now boasted two, protected by a staith against high tides.

Unfortunately, the Corporation that had acted so promptly and effectively to secure the Spa was by then in total disarray. For reasons which are far from evident at this distance, the 44 members broke up into two warring factions, ostensibly over the election of one of the borough’s two MPs.

The death of Sir William Strickland in 1735 prompted a parliamentary bye-election. Usually, the 44 councillors had no difficulty or disagreement at the poll: most elections to the Commons at Westminster were pre-determined and uncontested. Scarborough’s ship-building economy depended crucially on securing Admiralty favour so invariably government candidates were returned unopposed. However, on this occasion, William Osbaldeston of Hunmanby, the ministerial candidate and lobby fodder, was opposed by Lord Duplin, the cousin and nominee of the Duke of Leeds, the most powerful local peer.

Osbaldeston beat Duplin by 26 votes to 18, but the two bailiffs, who were the returning officers, refused to accept the verdict, called in the borough’s freemen who voted 154 to one for Duplin! However, the House of Commons ruled that by ancient royal charter the parliamentary franchise belonged exclusively to the 44 and declared that Osbaldeston was therefore duly elected.

Though Duplin now accepted his defeat, his backers did not. At the annual re-election of the Common Hall at the end of September 1736, two sets of bailiffs, coroners, chamberlains and other senior officers were chosen. For the next three years, Scarborough had two rival Corporations! The members met separately, but actually wrestled with each other for their official, privileged pew seats in St Mary’s.

When another bye-election was caused by the death of William Thompson in 1744, the quarrels came back to the boil. After their candidate lost by 24 votes to 18, the minority would not attend the annual elections in September 1746. As a result, Scarborough had no recognised government during the critical months of the Jacobite Rising.

The worst consequence of “the great schism” of 1736 to 1746 was financial. Taxes were not always collected or not delivered; the annual rent to the Treasury which paid for the borough’s privileges was not paid; and two bailiffs were arrested for unpaid debts of £255 to Trinity College, Cambridge. The lawsuits brought by both sides incurred costs of more than £3,000 and were quite beyond the borough’s means.

Worst of all, coal-duty revenue received from Newcastle and Sunderland to finance the new or outer harbour pier disappeared into the pockets of racketeers and loan sharks.

The Corporation was so discredited that in 1752 it forfeited responsibility for the new pier to an independent body of commissioners. When the financial records of the borough mysteriously went missing after 1760 the Corporation was still heavily in arrears and taking bribes from prospective parliamentary candidates and aspiring office holders – indeed, anyone able and willing to offer them.

The financial embarrassment of the Common Hall on Sandside during the second half of the 18th century explains, at least in part, its failure to respond to the town’s urgent and growing need for improvement and modernisation and its dependence on the patronage and “generosity” of rich, private benefactors. For instance, the paving of some of its main streets was actually paid for by the Duke of Leeds and the Marquess of Granby. The borough was lucky not to lose its ancient right to choose its own two MPs when it sold their seats in the Commons to local landowning aristocrats, such as Lord Carlisle of Castle Howard, the Duke of Rutland of Belvoir, and the Phipps family of Mulgrave; though, in fairness, it was one of many “rotten boroughs” at this time. To secure one of the borough’s places required a huge investment in electoral “treating”, as it was called.

Nevertheless, the transfer of the Common Hall from Sandside up to Long Room Street in 1800 seems to indicate a growing realisation of economic realities and the town’s deficiency of social amenities.

One major problem experienced by all resorts like Scarborough, that they were a magnet for vagrants, thieves, beggars, charlatans and prostitutes, appears to have been solved by the Common Hall; the town was well and effectively policed. In addition to the two magistrate bailiffs, two serjeants-at-mace, two constables for each of the four Quarters, the town also had its own house of correction, gaol and debtors’ prison. The two weekly street markets were still being strictly regulated. Bread, beer, meat and leather sold there were all checked for price, quantity and quality. Bad meat and unfit fish were ceremoniously burned in Newborough on market days. And the bailiffs had appointed a beadle 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”.

These precautions seem to have succeeded. William Hutton spent 18 days in Scarborough during the summer of 1803 and did not see a single street beggar. Thirty years later, when crown inspectors published a report on the state of the town, they noted that there were “few places so quiet and orderly”. If only that verdict had been true of the inside of the Common Hall.