by Dr Jack Binns
Of the multitude of radical religious sects sown by the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 1650s – Ranters, Diggers, Seekers, Familists and Levellers, to name but some – only one, the Society of Friends or Quakers, survived and prospered. Indeed, by 1660, with an estimated national following of 60,000, the “Children of the Light” or “Friends in the Truth”, as they preferred to call themselves, had become the fastest growing revolutionary movement in English history. And nowhere in the country were they stronger than in North Yorkshire, particularly along its North Sea coast. Nearly all the towns and villages George Fox had passed through on foot in 1651-2 had formed meetings of “humble people”. In places such as Staithes, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay and, not least, Scarborough, Quakerism had taken permanent root.
George Fox visited Scarborough no fewer than five times, the fourth for 16 months in 1665-6 as a prisoner in the castle. On each successive occasion he found the Quaker gathering there stronger, despite persistent and cruel persecution by the authorities. After the Friends rejected violence, even in self-defence, they became even more vulnerable to victimisation. By the end of 1660 more than 500 Quakers were imprisoned in York’s gaols and nine in Scarborough castle. Even as late as 1684, the final full year of Charles II’s intolerant regime, 232 were locked up in York, most of them for refusing to take the oath of allegiance. Of Scarborough’s own victims, at least three, William Gradell, Nathaniel Wrench and John Grenham, died in prison and Peter Hodgson was released only after five years in Clifford’s Tower. Of the 14 places in Yorkshire chosen by Fox to hold monthly meetings one was Scarborough.
Imprisonment was not the only, or possibly even the worst, treatment suffered by recalcitrant Quakers. At Scarborough, Richard Sellers, a fisherman from Kilnsea, was press-ganged for service in the Royal Navy during the second Dutch War. When he refused to work on the capstan or even eat “the King’s victuals”, he was flogged, shackled below deck in the “bilboes” and narrowly avoided a hanging from the mizzen yard-arm. Fortunately, the “Quakerly dog”, as Admiral Spragge called him, was given his freedom and allowed to return home. His name and that of his wife, “Prisseley”, appear on a list of Scarborough Friends attending an illegal meeting in 1684. One Whitby Friend, Joseph Lotherington, was taken by pirates and sold to the French into galley slavery. His liberty was bought for £20 from the so-called “prisoners’ stock”.
In desperation, some local Quakers applied to their meetings for assistance to cross the Atlantic. In 1681 Scarborough’s monthly meeting granted certificates for some of their members to travel to Maryland. The following year, several families went out to Pennsylvania “with Robert Hopper of Scarborough, maister of the ship”.
The development of Scarborough as a pleasure resort for the well-heeled provided both opportunity and temptation for resident Friends. As Celia Fiennes discovered in 1697, in the lack as yet of visitor accommodation, the town’s Quakers offered the best and cheapest bed and board. On the other hand, about the same time, a minute of a monthly meeting warned members “to shun all publick diversion (of the bowling green, long room, or any other places for plays, gaming or dancing) or any vain sights or shows whatsoever not agreeable to the Gravity of our Profession”. Scarborough already had a notoriety for sinful self-indulgence and the abstinence and strict observance of earlier days was being eroded. Young Quakers were told not to have more than two buttonholes on their cuffs or pockets “as things needless superfluous”.
Even before the Toleration Act of 1689 at last permitted the Quakers to worship openly, Scarborough’s had already paid for and built their own meeting house. Previously, the Friends had gathered at the home of Peter Hodgson on the west side of Cargate (now Cross Street) on land that had once been Dominican. George Fox was his guest there many times. Hodgson had already given Scarborough’s meeting their own burial ground on Bull Lane (now Westover Road): now, in 1675, he bought a plot of land 14 yards square from William Thompson for £40 where Cook’s Row ran into Low Conduit. Here, the following year, at a total cost of £150, a new building “for the publique meetings of the Lord’s people” was opened. The largest donation of £20 came from Hodgson: there were 37 subscribers from Scarborough and 17 more from the neighbourhood.
During her stay in Scarborough, Celia Fiennes noted that the town had an “abundance of Quakers”. Out of her curiosity she visited one of their meetings “where 4 men and 2 women spoke”, but pitied their “delusion and ignorance”. Other upper-class Spawers found the Meeting House easier to reach than St Mary’s at the top of the hill. In 1733, for instance, it was recorded that “one Sunday afternoon several stars and garters” were seen there “which is easy of access”.
Nevertheless, unlike the town’s Presbyterians, who by the 1740s had about the same number of adherents, Scarborough’s Quakers were excluded from municipal office and generally regarded with suspicion, contempt or ridicule, rather than fear. Since they continued to wear the plainest of clothes, they were immediately recognised and identified. Even a century later, Joshua Rowntree remembered that as a boy he was pursued by “street urchins” shouting, “Quack, quack, quack” at him. Social convention and conformity, ambition or material self-interest pushed many into the comfort zone of the established church. St Mary’s parish church register during the 18th century records many “conversions” whereby Quaker parents brought their sons and daughters up the hill to be baptised. Even John Bland, the Quaker merchant, after whom Bland’s Cliff was named, had his son William christened by vicar Garencierces. Most of the Tindalls and the Rowntrees were exceptions. [To be continued]