by Dr Jack Binns
If Roman Catholicism owed its support and strength in Scarborough mainly to Irish immigration from the mid-19th century onwards, Presbyterianism in the town existed and survived here mostly because of the port’s early Scottish seafaring associations.
When Scarborough’s Presbyterians built their first chapel in 1703, it was then one of only three places of licensed worship in the town: the others were St Mary’s parish church and the Society of Friends’ meeting-house. Forty years later, the vicar of St Mary’s, Theophilus Garencieres, told the archbishop of York that in his parish there were 27 Presbyterian families with 120 members and that they had two services every Sunday and a special communion assembly every two months.
Scarborough’s first Presbyterian minister was William Hannay, junior. Like so many other Scottish Covenanters of his generation, he had suffered severely for his stubborn refusal to take the oath of supremacy to Charles II. After the Covenanters were defeated at the battle of Bothwell Brig in 1679 where 400 of them were killed, 1,500 survivors were taken in chains to Edinburgh and forced to live in the open for five months in Greyfriars churchyard. Many of them perished there and the remainder were shipped out to Barbados as plantation slaves. As a 15-year-old, William had been tortured with the thumbscrews, imprisoned and then transported to Barbados to work in the sugar fields. After his homecoming, he arrived in Scarborough carrying his father’s Geneva Bible of 1599, which had been slashed by a trooper’s sword as he hid with it under a pile of straw. When William retired and returned to Scotland, he took with him his father’s mutilated Bible.
Hannay’s chapel was built on the lower slope of Palace Hill, running down from Low Conduit to Merchant’s Row, long before Eastborough existed as a thoroughfare. Though then there were perhaps only a dozen resident Presbyterian families in the town, during the summer season “crouds of Scottish gentry” swelled Hannay’s congregation. Spawers might come to Scarborough mainly for their health and pleasure, but for most of them Sunday chapel attendance was a social as well as religious requirement of their visitor experience.
The Rev William Whitaker succeeded Hannay in 1725. He was a Yorkshireman, born at Almondbury, near Huddersfield. Mainly because of his inspiring sermons - plain, simple, conversational and sincere - Presbyterian membership grew enough to extend the chapel in 1744 and again in 1774. By the later year Whitaker had stepped down and at the tender age of 22 the Rev Samuel Bottomley took his place.
Samuel Bottomley’s ministry ran from 1773 until 1830. A further enlargement of what was now called the Independent chapel in 1801 provided places for as many as five or six hundred. Bottomley became one of the most respected religious leaders in Scarborough. In 1812 he was a founder of the Auxiliary Bible Society and in 1825 he delivered a published tribute to his close friend, the historian Thomas Hinderwell. When he died in 1831 at the age of 80 after a long illness, he was described in the local press as “Scarborough’s Good Samaritan”.
George Balderson Kidd might well have chosen medicine as his professional career, since for several years he was apprenticed to a surgeon, Dr William Travis. Though born in 1794 at Cottingham, son and nephew of Nonconformist ministers, George was brought up in Scarborough by his mother’s Balderson family and in 1812 joined Bottomley’s congregation. After training at the Dissenter college at Rotherham, he was ordained in 1820 and returned home to succeed Bottomley.
It was the Rev Kidd who insisted on calling his Presbyterian chapel the Old Meeting House. For him the sectarian disunity of the many Nonconformist chapels was a matter of the greatest regret and he preached and published numerous appeals for cooperation and unification. By marrying a Quaker, Mary Tindall, he set a personal example.
George was active in local politics: he campaigned against slavery and for municipal reform. He was a leading member of the newly-formed Scarborough Philosophical Society. One of his many charitable concerns was as trustee of Mrs Clark’s hospital for “spinsters of 50 years and upwards”. Mrs Elizabeth Clark, widow of shipowner Francis Clark, had endowed a refuge for 11 elderly unmarried ladies at the north end of St Thomas Street in 1841.
After he died suddenly in 1851, the Gazette described the Rev Kidd as an eminent Biblical scholar, a valued supporter of the Mechanics’ Institute and the Agricultural Library on King-Street Cliff and a true Christian who had worked so hard but unsuccessfully for church unity. In 1844 he had bought Hannay’s Bible for £3 10s. and put it on display in the Old Meeting House.
After George Kidd, Scarborough’s Presbyterians had only two more ministers at the Old Meeting House on Palace Hill which, after re-building, in 1869 re-opened as Eastborough Congregational church. Presbyterian loss had become Congregational gain. The Presbyterian community never really recovered from the opening in 1850 of Bar Congregational church at the corner of Aberdeen Walk and Newborough and the extraordinary success of its first minster there from 1851, Robert Balgarnie.
Without church premises of their own, Scarborough’s remaining Presbyterians struggled to survive as a distinctive group. With a membership of less than 50, they held irregular services in the Mechanics’ Hall, Albemarle Baptist chapel, the Albert Hall and even the Town Hall on Castle Road. Their annual summer tea festivals held from 1882 until 1887 were well attended yet never raised sufficient money for a building fund. Finally, after a Mediterranean cruise and a voyage to Australia failed to revive their last minister, the Rev James Climie, another Scotsman, Scarborough’s residual Presbyterians accepted temporary defeat. It would be another 60 years before their congregation was re-born.