by Dr Jack Binns
In March 1894 the Scarborough Gazette and Weekly List of Visitors told its readers that the congregation of the Society of Friends was about to leave its old meeting house and the adjacent Adult School in St Sepulchre Street. They had been sold to Lady Louisa Sitwell, mother of Sir George, “for the purposes of an hospital and mission room”.
This event prompted a brief, though inaccurate, press account of the history of the Quakers in Scarborough since they had first identified and associated themselves with George Fox as early as 1651. Second only to the Anglicans of St Mary’s, they were the oldest, continuous religious group in the town and their premises in St Sepulchre Street dated from 1801.
A new meeting house, the Society’s fourth in succession, now being built, was to be on a plot at the south-eastern end of York Place. It had been bought from Mr W Hebden for £1,000.
Whereas the earliest meeting houses in Low Conduit and lower St Sepulchre Streets had once been convenient places for Scarborough’s Quakers and visitors, by 1894 the westward growth of the town since meant that they were now “the least desirable localities”. They were far from the homes of most Friends and difficult for strangers to find: York Place was a much more suitable site.
The final meeting of the Friends in St Sepulchre Street was enlivened by a special address given by one of their oldest and most esteemed members, Mr William Rowntree, JP. He had first come to Scarborough to attend a boarding-school along with half a dozen other Quaker boys. The school was “at the top of Newborough Street, near to the ancient Bar and Prison”. William was then about seven years old but he could still remember conversations with prisoners through the bars of the gaol. One Society member William recalled was David Priestman, surprisingly a special constable at Malton. When he was taunted by a tramp who presumed he was safe from the constable’s staff, Priestman warned him that though he was forbidden to strike he was allowed to shake! The tramp was given such “a terrible shaking” that he pleaded for mercy.
Of the many Quaker families living in Scarborough, the Rowntrees were the most prominent, active and greatly respected. The family who first lived in Princess Street, John and his two sons, John and Joseph, who had their grocery business at 1 Bland’s Cliff, had all been engaged caring for the poor, promoting schooling for young and old, and in the anti-slavery campaign. Other names that William recalled from past Quakers were Tindall, Stickney, Mennell and Yeardsley, whose members were buried in the St Sepulchre graveyard. Not least of those many who had gathered in the old meeting house were visitor Friends from as far away as America.
Finally, William paid particular tribute to the Society’s female Friends. “No other religious society...from its origin [has] given so much prominence to the position of women,” he said. They were at least as important as male Friends in running so many of the town’s benevolent voluntary associations such as the Bible Society, the Religious Tract Society, the Town Mission and the Temperance Society. As for Scarborough’s Adult Schools, they were chiefly the responsibility of the Friends, especially their present president, Joshua, grandson of the John Rowntree who had founded the family’s business.
The following June 1894 there was a full house in York Place for the opening of the new meeting place. William Rowntree was in the chair to introduce the principal guest speaker, Richard Ball Rutter from Bristol. His dull lecture on the origin and history of the Friends was received in polite silence until he declared that they were “very much the Salvation Army of the day”.
In contrast, Joshua Rowntree followed with a rousing panegyric on George Fox. He said that the founder’s views on education, employment and parenting were centuries ahead of his time. For instance, long before anyone had even thought of national labour exchanges (Job Centres), he had recommended to Oliver Cromwell that he should set up a register of workers and employers in every market town.
Scarborough’s Quakers, who now numbered more than 80, were looking forward to celebrating their centenary in York Place when in 1987 a £20 million shopping centre plan for the area bounded by Westborough, Vernon Road, Somerset Terrace and York Place was approved in the Town Hall. The death knell had sounded for both the Rowntree (latterly Debenham) store, “Harrods of the North”, and the meeting house where so many of that family had worshipped. Only the “unsightly Woolworth building” was to survive.
A year later, the bulldozers demolished the Friends’ fourth Scarborough home and they had to take temporary shelter with Hoxton Road’s Methodists, though sitting in rows of pews instead of a square or circle was not their custom. After councillors rejected their plea for a site in Brook Square on the grounds that the town centre needed carparking space more than another place of Christian worship, the Friends finally received planning permission for a one-acre plot on Woodlands Drive.
As a result, in June 1996, 86 local members welcomed their new, fifth meeting house in what appropriately was named Quaker Close. Next to it a three-bedroom bungalow had been built for the warden and six bungalows opposite for the elderly by the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust. Scarborough Borough’s planning officer thought that the whole ensemble was superb: it even had its own carpark.
For hundreds of years, Scarborough Quakers had been cruelly persecuted, abused and mocked; they had been denied public office and professional qualification; and they had suffered discrimination and desertion. However, they had endured and to their credit held fast to their conscientious principles of pacifism, honesty and philanthropy. Without them, Scarborough would have been a much poorer place.