In 1600, Scarborough was little more than a big village by the sea with no more than 2,000 inhabitants, about the same as Kirkbymoorside or Helmsley today, but less than half that of Malton or Pickering.
Yet though by our standards they were few in number, Scarborians were then crowded together into a confined, small area. Nearly all of them lived within the medieval boundary wall and ditches of the New Borough, from St Nicholas Cliff in the south to St Mary’s church and the castle dykes in the north and from Newborough Gates (Bar), the town’s principal entrance, down to what we call Sandside.
Beyond the town’s two gateways, at Newborough and Oldborough, there were open fields of arable and closes of pasture. Though a part of the borough of Scarborough, with fewer than a hundred residents, Falsgrave was half a mile away along the road to York. The northern limit of the Liberty of Scarborough was Peasholm Beck, then known as Ingrift, and its southern on the coast at White Nab. Burtondale (Seamer Road) and Ramsdale (The Valley) carried the overflow of the 40-acre Scarborough Mere, which drove the town’s three water-mills, into South Bay. Weaponness (not yet Oliver’s Mount) was Scarborough’s chief summer pasture; Wheatcroft, Holbeck and Northstead were its outlying farms.
Even within the close confines of sea, castle dykes, town wall and ditches, there were still many empty spaces, especially in the Newborough and St Mary’s Quarters. Where the friaries of the Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites had once stood until closed in 1539, not much had been built to replace them. Another disused, formerly religious site, the church of the Holy Sepulchre, was let out as an animal pasture. So was the so-called New Dyke Bank which today is North Street car park.
Scarborians were still far from urbanised: their contemporary wills refer to stables, cowsheds, barns, orchards, gardens and wastes within the heart of the residential town. Many kept pigs in their backyards, though the volume of complaints suggests that they roamed everywhere in the streets, open market-places and even on the sands, polluting all of them. The town had several “dunghills”, at Smiddy Hill in the harbour, and outside the gates of Newborough and Oldborough, but the Common Hall fought a losing battle to keep highways and water courses free of “manure, dung and rubbish”.
So Scarborough still retained many of the features of an overgrown village. Every year the Common Hall appointed two pasture masters. During the days of summer they herded cattle and sheep on Weaponness and brought them down into Ramsdale for night-time security. In addition, the town’s netherd or pinder rounded up strays for the town pinfold and looked after the town bull which he kept on the Common at the end of Bull Lane (Aberdeen Walk). After it could no longer serve its primary purpose, the bull provided the Common Hall with their Christmas feast. Scarborough also had a warrener whose job was to guard the town’s ground game, mainly rabbits and hares, from foxes and “foumarts” (polecats or pine martens). St Mary’s churchwardens paid a shilling each for a fox’s head and fourpence for a foumart’s.
In contrast to the relatively rural character of Newborough and St Mary’s, down the hill in Oldborough and along the shore-line in Undercliff, living space was more restricted. The slope down to the sands was very steep and man-made east-west terraces - Paradise, High and Low Westgate, Bawdy Bank and Tuthill - were linked together in a gridiron pattern with long flights of wooden steps called Sprit (Spreight) Lane, Shilbottle Lane (Whitehead Hill) and Long Greece.
The harbourside was a dense jungle of dark passages, workshops, warehouses and tiny cottages along with grander buildings such as the Common (Town) Hall and the new customs house. Two hundred years later, a visitor called this “oldest part...a stranger to pure air...and almost to light...better adapted for the burrow of rabbits than of men.” Today, only The Bolts give some appreciation of what he saw then.
Living and working space was at a premium in the Oldborough and Undercliff Quarters. Families were bigger then than they are nowadays because three generations would occupy the same dwelling along with their maids, servants and apprentices. A man might leave part of his house to his widow, “the parlour” or “a little low room” or “the backside”, and the remainder to his sons, daughters and grandchildren.
Surviving wills of that time demonstrate the mixture of Scarborough’s economy, part agricultural and part seafaring. Edward Hickson, a master mariner, had a house in Shilbottle Lane and a close of pasture “called Holbeck”. George Pearson left a very valuable estate of houses and garths, one-eighth parts in three ships and two closes in Northstead Lane. Yet he was a “stringlayer” (ropemaker) who lived on Bawdy Bank. She had a house in Long Greece Head, but widow Ellis Thompson also had arable and pasture, meadows and cottages in Falsgrave and Burtondale.
After farming and domestic service, seafaring was the third biggest employer in the town. Nearly all the borough’s leaders had part shares in Scarborough ships. Most of the inhabitants of Undercliff were fishermen or merchant seamen or engaged in some way or another with boat-building and ship-servicing. Yet in 1600 the town had still at least nine craft gilds of tailors, weavers, bakers, masons, glovers, skinners, carpenters, blacksmiths and cordwainers (shoemakers), 20 licensed brewers and many more unlicensed ones. There were even two rich vintners selling imported French and Canary wines. Otherwise, in food, drink and clothing, the town was practically self-supporting.