Though many are misinformed, nowadays there are frequent complaints against health and safety regulations and what is called disparagingly bureaucratic red-tape; but today’s commerce, compared with that in Scarborough 400 years ago, is much freer of restriction and official control.
As there had been for many past centuries, during the 1600s there were three general rules against illegal marketing. Buying goods before the bellman rang for the start of the day’s trading was an offence called forestalling. Secondly, once bought in the open street market, goods could not be re-sold there. This breach of the law was called regrating. And thirdly, any attempt to buy up large quantities to achieve a monopoly for re-sale was condemned as engrossing.
All produce of whatever kind had to be offered for public sale in the open market. In Scarborough’s own case, these weekly markets were held on Thursdays in Newborough street and on Saturdays in what are now Princess Square and the west end of Princess Street.
Forestalling was by far the most common offence presented at the general sessions or the sheriff’s tourn. For instance, in 1625, the infamous Mary Harwood, a violent scold, was accused of forestalling by “bying butter eggs & other victualls at severall tymes by past”. The following April, Henry Flinton, another persistent trouble-maker, was charged with “buying of bread before it came to the merkit”. Other foodstuffs which were forestalled at this time included oatmeal, apples and corn.
Such regulations applied to every saleable commodity. In 1640, John Corror had forestalled the market in “hoose” (stockings?) and had then regrated by trying to re-sell them. A petty chapman (itinerant pedlar) had committed the same double offence with “wooden vessells & other things”. “Straingers” were more closely watched than residents. Engrossing was rare, but James Duck had been buying up “oke barke” in order to sell it again “contrary to the statute”. What we might regard as commercial enterprise was then illegal.
The food most often mentioned in Scarborough’s court records was fish, yet its retail was most difficult to control in a place where it was landed night and day by a multitude of foreigners as well as natives. Herring was a special case particularly when it was brought ashore in enormous catches during the late summer and early autumn. Since this “fare” at that time was largely in the hands of foreigners such as Flemings and Dutchmen, Scarborough’s authorities were keen to tax it. Hoistmen and fish porters were required from 1517 to pay the chamberlains four pence for every 250 herrings brought in by “straingers”, but a century later repetitions of similar orders from the Common Hall suggest that they were not being enforced.
Despite the risks, Scarborough’s fishwives bought and sold outside the market, so that the bailiffs had to be content with occasional exemplary punishments. For example, in April 1639, six women, three of them widows, were presented for “engrosing of fysh and sellinge of it againe in the same markit contrary to the statute”. Six years later, in the same court, half a dozen females were presented “for bying fish as it comes in the cobells and sellinge the same again”. Three of them were repeat offenders. Especially for the very poor, the temptation to break the law in this way must have been almost irresistible.
At least once a year, all stallholders, shopkeeprs and tradesmen were compelled to submit their weights and measures for Common Hall inspection and approval. As yet, there were no uniform, national standards: each community set its own. So Scarborough had its own gallon, quart and pint pots, its own bushels, pecks and half pecks, and its own “yeard wand” for measuring lengths and widths of cloth.
Failure to bring in their weights and measures or using faulty measures to cheat customers were some of the most common transgressions examined and punished with fines at the sheriff’s tourn.
Not even the highest in the town were allowed exemption from these strict rules. In April 1635, “Mr Bailife Herison, for not bringing in his measurs; Mr Francis Thomson, for not bringing in his corne meassurs; Mistress Woulfe, for not bringing in her gallan & aile pinte; Mistress Farer, for a yeard wand wanting measure; and Mr Richard Thomson, for a pound stone wanting weight” were all chastized in the public court. The Harrisons and the Thompsons were leaders of the Common Hall oligarchy and Mrs Farrer was the distinguished lady who discovered the spa springs.
As a staple diet, town bread, like town ale, was subjected to the closest scrutiny. The two annually elected breadweighers were issued with sets of scales with which they weighed every loaf in the market. The penny wheaten loaf might weigh up to two pounds (today’s large loaf) or as little as half that. Its size was determined by the current market price of its main ingredient to ensure that bakers did not profit from fluctuations in the cost of flour. In January 1647, Elizabeth Peacock managed to break all the rules: she was summoned to the sessions “for byinge breade and for forestaling the markitt, before the bread weyeres had weyed it wanting four ounces in weight”.
The town’s governors were concerned not only to prevent unfair competition and commercial exploitation: the health of the community was a matter of the highest priority. Food had to be wholesome and edible, not just sold at the right price and in the right measure. In October 1639, James Johnson, a butcher from Seamer, was accused of “bringinge meate to our markitt and selling itt, beinge nott holesume for mans bodye and beinge forbidden by the trayde”. The emphasis in the citation on “our markitt” suggests a certain bias against a butcher from outside the borough. His bad meat was duly burned at the market cross in Newborough.