Performances and pews

St Mary's Church before restoration.
St Mary's Church before restoration.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Scarborough’s second, new Anglican place of worship, Christ Church in Vernon Road, 
exemplified and illustrated the continuing privilege and extraordinary wealth of the established church in 1828.

Though built of Hackness sandstone, which was destined to “weather wonderfully” and erode alarmingly, Christ Church was in the beautiful style of 13th century Gothic, with a many-sided apse at the “east” and a very tall square tower, 116 feet high, at the “west” end. Significantly, the east window’s five lancets had the royal arms in the centre and on either side the arms of Scarborough borough and those of the archbishop of York – a perfect, pictorial representation of Christ Church’s provenance and status.

On the other hand, though the building and its furniture had cost £7,000, unlike St Mary’s parish church, its only endowment was rent from its 600 appointed pews. As a result, to pay for maintenance costs, Christ Church had soon to become a concert hall for performances of “sacred music”, with Mr Wilson on the organ to accompany invited outside choirs.

In July 1839, concert tickets varied in price from 3s. 6d. for seats “round the organ” to a shilling for those in the side aisles and galleries. “No money was to be taken at the doors.” However, even at the height of the season, the Scarborough Herald was “exceedingly sorry” to report that “the [latest] Performance was very thinly attended”. It seems that church pews were not normally regarded as places of entertainment, however uplifting.

One of the purposes of Christ Church’s concerts of “sacred music” was to raise money “for erecting a new chapel, principally intended for the accommodation of the poor in East Sandgate”. Especially during summer Sundays, visitors were taking the free seats in Christ Church, depriving locals who could not afford to pay for private pews. Yet the greatest deficiency was not in the upper town but in the lower part for the seafaring community. And it was to make good this deficit that a foundation stone was laid on December 21, 1839 for Scarborough’s third Anglican place of worship, the “Mariners’ Church” in East Sandgate.

Some years later, the Scarborough Gazette reported that the Church of St Thomas was called after a church of the same name “formerly existing in this town, but long since destroyed”. The report was mistaken: December 21 is the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle, not of St Thomas of Canterbury, who had been martyred on December 29, 1170, which became his feast day. For a church down by the harbour, a dedication to the Apostle made sense, whereas the 
medieval church of St Thomas in Newborough, a Civil War casualty, has left the town only a street name.

Though there is no proof of them, for centuries European Christians believed that the Apostle’s missionary travels took him as far as southern India, another link with Scarborough’s seafaring history. The town’s first Society of Shipowners, Masters and Mariners, founded on 
December 21, 1602, had 
chosen St Thomas the Apostle as its patron.

The new brick church in East Sandgate was not so expensive or so well financed as Christ Church: it received only £300 from the national society for building (Anglican) churches, but only on condition that at least 330 of its sittings were free. Most of the building money was therefore raised by local voluntary subscription after an appeal by Mayor Thomas Weddell at a meeting in the Town Hall.

There was some difficulty finding occupants for the 120 paid places, but the two Sunday services were unable to satisfy the demand for free ones. In 1853, St Thomas’ was closed while a schoolroom was added and an extra area assigned for an additional 100 seats. Six years later, a new north aisle was attached to 
accommodate 400 more places, making about 1,000 in all. In the nave 600 free stalls were built to replace the original benches. The list of subscribers to this new work included Lord Londesborough, the borough’s two sitting MPs, Sir John Johnstone and John Dent, and the town’s richest property-owner and banker, John Woodall. The Scarborough Gazette notified its readers that applications for seats could be made to A. Clapham, Esq., at his Wine Stores, St Nicholas Cliff!

Finally, Scarborough’s Anglican response to the challenge from Nonconformity and Catholicism was an overdue but major restoration of the parish church of St Mary, costing in all about £8,000.

In September 1847 the Scarborough Gazette and Weekly List of Visitors 
included a further appeal for restoration funds: £2,192 had already been collected, but at least another £1,700 was required before work could be started. The lengthy subscribers’ list included donations of £200 from Lord Hotham and £100 from the Hon. M. Langley of Wykeham Abbey.

The following May, St Mary’s congregation welcomed a new vicar, the Rev John William Whiteside, who had been the incumbent of Trinity Church at Ripon for the past 12 years. From now on he was to be chairman of the restoration committee.

On June 8, 1848, the 
Gazette invited masons, 
carpenters, slaters, plasterers, plumbers and glaziers to offer their tenders to the architect, Mr Ewan Christian. St Mary’s was closed the following October, “to be given up to restoration”, though by that time considerable work had already been completed on the tower, south transept and south chantries.

Anyone who has looked at the cluttered, dangerous and ugliness of St Mary’s interior, as it was painted by HB Carter before the restoration, will appreciate the total transformation that had taken place by July 1850 when the church was re-opened. All the boxed pews, galleries and stairs had been swept away, revealing architectural and sculptured features that had been hidden for nearly two centuries. Before restoration there had been seats for 1,100, nearly all rented and appropriated: after restoration, of an estimated total of 1,300 places, more than 400 were rent-free. Extra ground-floor space was provided by re-building the north St Nicholas aisle, originally another Civil War victim. The old tower of 1669 was replaced by a clock tower with eight instead of four bells.