Roman Catholic revival

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Written by Dr Jack Binns

Acts to relieve English Roman Catholics from the punitive religious laws against them, were finally passed by Parliament in 1778 and 1791. From then on, as long as they were willing if required to take the oath of allegiance to the Hanoverian crown, Catholics were free to worship in public in their own chapels. As a result, in areas where Catholics were still numerous enough, such as the North Riding of Yorkshire, priests were appointed to set up missions for local believers. Scarborough was one of the Riding’s 11 missionary districts.

According to the official report of the Anglican vicar of Scarborough to the archbishop of York, in 1743, of the town’s 1,500 resident families only three of them were “Papists”. However, thanks to the generous bequest of the local Crathorne family, by 1755 Scarborough had a Catholic mass house and by 1788 a Catholic priest lived in Low Conduit Street (now Princess Square). In 1800 his address was Westgate. As yet the Catholics had no purpose-built chapel, only temporary lodging houses where meetings and masses were held infrequently.

In 1780 Scarborough’s permanent Catholic population still numbered only about two dozen, headed by William Langdale, George Crathorne and a Swiss nobleman, Baron Fischar and his valet. During the season, however, the resort’s regular visitors to the Spa included many of the county’s remaining Catholic gentry, notably the Constables, Tempests, Tancreds, Fairfaxes and Lawsons. With the addition of their family chaplains, coachmen, domestic servants and cooks, their congregation must have sometimes swelled to over 100.

The three successive editions of Thomas Hinderwell’s History of Scarborough describe a growing religious community from “not exceeding 28” in 1798, to “about forty” in 1811, to “about 80” by 1832. And whereas the numbers of Catholic rural gentry families was in decline, those of the professional and commercial middle class were rising rapidly. In Scarborough there were now the mercer Redheads, John Loveday, the bookseller, and William Cottrell, peruke-maker.

One of the newest Catholic incomers were the Ullathornes, for many generations a persistent recusant family lately living in Pocklington. As a consequence of their association with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6, the Ullathorne estate had been confiscated and they became tenant farmers of the Catholic Constables of Everingham Park near Pocklington.

William Ullathorne, his wife and their seven children arrived in Scarborough in or about 1817 and there founded a prosperous business as draper, grocer, spirits and coal merchant and part-time banker! His eldest son, William Bernard, then about 11-years-old, attended Protestant John Hornsey’s boys’ school in Apple Market (King Street), until at 15 he went to sea by his own choice as a cabin-boy.

During his years at sea young William had not practised his faith, but after a visit to a Catholic mass in Memel, Lithuania, he experienced a reconversion. From then on, for the rest of his long life, William Bernard Ullathorne (1806-89) devoted himself entirely to celebrating and preaching the Catholic religion. In 1824 he entered the Benedictine order, in 1831 he was ordained priest, and in 1850 he became the first Catholic bishop of Birmingham. He had come a long way from Apple Market.

Scarborough’s Catholics had built their first chapel near the top of Auborough Street as early as 1809 and worshipped there until 1858. But it was not until after 1835, when John Walker came to the town as its resident priest, that the Catholic congregation, grew to fill its 400 places.

Born in 1800, educated at St Cuthbert’s, Ushaw seminary in Durham, ordained in 1826, as St Peter’s first rector for 38 years, the Rev Walker became one of the town’s most admired religious leaders. The Scarborough Gazette gave him a fulsome and deserved tribute when he died in 1873 and 10,000 Scarborians lined the route to his grave in Dean Road cemetery. For many years he had clothed, fed and schooled up to 200 poor children often at his own expense. He was said to have once removed his shoes and given them to a desperate vagrant.

By the 1870s Scarborough had more than a thousand resident Catholics. As the census returns of 1851, 1861 and 1871 clearly demonstrate, of the million Irish who crossed the Irish Sea after the famine of the late 1840s hundreds of them eventually found their way to Scarborough; and nearly all of them were Catholics. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the foundation stone for the present church of St Peter in Castle Road was laid in 1856 by the Most Rev George Errington, archbishop of Trebizond and future cardinal. Amongst the many donors to the building fund was Empress Eugenie, wife of France’s Napoleon III.

Chief architect of St Peter’s was George Goldie of Sheffield, who was responsible for many other new Catholic churches in Yorkshire, notably St Wilfrid’s at York, St Joseph’s at Richmond and the Sacred Heart at Northallerton. Consisting of nave, apsidal chancel and lateral aisles ending in chapels, Goldie’s Gothic recreation was still far from finished two years later when Cardinal Wiseman opened it for services. Heavily burdened with debt, consecration was delayed until it was all paid off in 1908. George also designed much of the internal furnishings and decoration and one of his brothers, Charles, painted the inside of the apse above the reredos.

The old chapel in Auborough Street was gradually converted into school rooms and by 1873 had 70 pupils. At first, it was intended that the children might be supervised by nuns from St Joseph’s Bar Convent in York who would live in the former priest’s house behind the old chapel. Given Scarborough’s reputation as a health resort, nuns who were invalid or convalescent would surely benefit from time spent there. However, within a matter of months, a visiting bishop “objected in principle to a conventional sanatorium” since sisters were expected “to wait until they reached Heaven for a change of air”! So it was not until 1882, with the arrival in Scarborough of the Ladies of Mercy, that the town became home for its first Catholic nuns.