Nostalgia: Growth of new industries

Scarborough Town Hall on St Nicholas Street stands on the site of the oyle house where blubber was boilded down to make train oil.
Scarborough Town Hall on St Nicholas Street stands on the site of the oyle house where blubber was boilded down to make train oil.

The ready availability of cheap sea-coal stimulated several profitable new industries in Scarborough 400 years ago. Without refrigeration, keeping food fresh and edible was then a constant concern and salt was used as a preservative for all kinds of meat and fish. So the demand for salt was great and permanent. As a result, anyone who had the means to make salt by boiling sea water was certain of a livelihood.

In 1616 the Crown granted out salt-making monopolies to a favoured few and on September 10 of that year Scarborough’s bailiffs leased the local privilege exclusively to three men – Francis Jones of London, a city alderman, Richard Burgess and Nicholas Calvert, both Hull merchants. The lease of the monopoly was for 21 years, at £8 annually for five and £10 annually for the remaining 16. The three monopolists were granted the right to set up their “poupes, spoutes, conveyances, engynes, water workes or courses” for the passage of sea water into their salt houses and vessels and any steps or stairs on the sands for the transport of their “salt sea-coles”. South Bay sands were to be covered with salt pans.

Monopolies in general and this one in particular were deeply unpopular because invariably they raised the price of commodities that were necessary and not luxuries. Also, again in this case, the profits accrued left the town and instead went to Hull and London.

This was not true of another monopoly of an essential product that used cheap sea-coal – train oil. In February 1603 the bailiffs signed a lease of 21 years to William Dickenson, Clement Potter, Richard and Stephen Dickenson and Samuel Hodgson, all local cordwainers or shoemakers, for rendering down blubber and livers “for the makying of trayne oil”. They alone had the right to make, sell and buy all the oil made and brought into the port of Scarborough.

In the absence of electricity and given the expense of wax and tallow, train oil, made from the blubber of sea creatures such as seals and whales, was the most common source of lighting in coastal towns. At Michaelmas 1629 the lease was renewed, this time to Peter Rosdell or Rosdale for 13 years at £6 a year, and then again to Samuel Hodgson and Peter Rosdell, cordwainers, at the same rate. The monopoly seems to have been kept by these cordwainer families: by 1657 it is in the hands of Robert Hodgson and Francis Rosdale for seven years at the rate of £2 a year.

From another source, we learn that the “oyle house”, where the blubber was boiled down, was at the far end of St Nicholasgate on the site of what today is the Town Hall! The stench from it must have been especially “noisesome”.

By the early 1600s radical changes for the better were beginning to take place in the homes of those of even modest means. Previously, nearly all houses were thatched-roofed, timber-framed and wattle-daubed. Windows were unglazed and closed by wooden shutters. Earthen floors were covered with straw and rushes and the one hearth was in the middle of the main living room. The interior walls were whitewashed wattle and daub without wooden panelling or even cloth hangings. Bedsteads were wooden boards covered with straw pallets or flock-filled mattresses. If there was an upper floor it would be reached by climbing a ladder.

Increasingly, after 1600, timber and daub houses were being replaced by timber and brick. At Scarborough, only the royal castle and the parish church of St Mary’s were built of stone, but by the 1630s the town had its own brick-making industry. Lack of local building stone (except that stolen from the derelict castle) and a surfeit of available clay and cheap coal explain why Scarborough made its own bricks.

An entry in the Common Hall’s Minute Book of November 1636 records that William Saunderson then effectively had a monopoly of production and members of the three Twelves were privileged buyers:” every one of the first twelve shall take 1,500 bricks, everyone of the second, 1,000, and everyone of the last, 500”. For this service, Saunderson, was to receive ten shillings for every one thousand bricks. Ten years later, Saunderson still held his monopoly, though the price had risen to twelve shillings per thousand. By 1649, the order was repeated, but the price had dropped to eleven shillings.

Descriptions of town houses are rare in Scarborough’s Corporation records. Inventories of the goods of the deceased or indebted list only contents not structures. However, they do indicate that residents were commonly using pewter instead of wooden vessels, plates and spoons.

A rare inventory of 1631 drawn up by four leading burgesses does describe what must have been a superior dwelling in the town. The house had a hall, a buttery in the hall, a parlour, kitchen and buttery downstairs, and upstairs four bed chambers. Though all its contents were assessed at only £7 4s 10d, in one of the bed chambers there were a flock bed, mattress, green curtains, pillows, cushions and a blanket; and in another, a bedstead with “teaster” (canopy), several pillows and a straw bed with sheet, blanket and coverlet.

By the 1630s, thanks to its brick-burning industry, Scarborough had “a multitude of chimneys lately erected”. Even the town gaol was given a chimney in 1637 as well as “a house of ease”, which must have been a relief to the gaoler as well as his prisoners. One of the greatest and most feared hazards of town living at this time was fire, particularly when so much property of timber and thatch was confined in narrow streets and backyards. So the Common Hall wisely required every householder, baker or blacksmith who installed a new chimney to seek its approval for siting and construction. This particular regulation probably explains why Scarborough, unlike so many other towns of the time, never seems to have been devastated by fire and unlike Dorchester, for instance, was never so frightened by it as to turn to Puritanism.