by Dr Jack Binns
The success of Protestant Nonconformity and especially the spectacular explosion of Methodism, Wesleyan and Primitive, finally shocked the established church in Scarborough into reaction and response.
For several decades, Anglicans had been aware that St Mary’s was too marginal and inaccessible to suit both residents and visitors. Some upper-class “Spawers” preferred to attend Baptist, Presbyterian or even Quaker meeting-houses down-town rather than exhaust themselves climbing up the hill to the parish church.
Leading members of Scarborough’s Anglican community had made proposals that a more convenient chapel- of-ease ought to be built in the upper town, but nothing came of any of them. When Robert North, Queen Street’s rich eccentric, added to his will in 1749, he left the huge sum of £200 to “a new Anglican chapel”; but in the absence of such a new place of worship, his money financed the Amicable Society’s school instead.
In 1757, the Corporation had offered 100 guineas (£105) towards the building costs of a second Anglican church, yet still no one supported the initiative. Fifteen years later, the Corporation again agreed to raise 100 guineas by buying out the rented pews nearest to St Mary’s pulpit and even offered a site in Beast Market (lower end of Queen Street), but to no avail.
Then, in 1791, the Rev Dr James Falconer of Lichfield asked the Common Hall for permission to construct a new roadway to South Bay sands and the Spa to run down from Bean’s Gardens to Ramsdale. He explained that his intention was to build a new Anglican chapel in Great St Nicholas or White Bread Close which later became the Crescent gardens. His chapel would have 2,000 seats, each rated cheaply at between two and seven shillings and sixpence a year. His new approach roads from St Nicholas Cliff and what soon was to be called Huntriss Row would be tolled and exclusively for light vehicles, not “waggons, carts or timber trucks”.
However, though the coach road down to Ramsdale was finally finished by 1793, outbreak of war with France in that year put a stop to Falconer’s planned chapel. In 1806 the Tindalls purchased Falconer’s Great St Nicholas Close for 3,000 guineas, a shilling a square yard, and his road to Ramsdale. Eventually, in 1819, the Corporation bought Falconer’s road from James Tindall.
Meanwhile, St Mary’s continued to deteriorate. The only accommodation that increased was for dead Anglicans. In 1779 adjacent land on the west side of the church was acquired as a cemetery extension; a year later, Paradise Close on the opposite eastern side was bought for the same purpose; and in 1809, Vicarage Close, on the south-west slope below St Mary’s, was added to the parish graveyard. All these lands were sold to the Corporation by Sir Charles Hotham,the hereditary patron and impropriator of St Mary’s.
Inside St Mary’s there were seats for at least a thousand, but there is no way of knowing just how many Scarborians could afford to rent and occupy them. It is known, however, that despite the income from pewholders and the bequests of rich Anglicans, the interior and fabric of the parish church were neglected and dilapidated. A picture of the west front published in 1813 shows a tree growing out of the base of the south-west corner and about the same time the archdeacon of the East Riding refused to hold his annual visitation in such a “barbarous” place of worship. Not least of the many forthright criticisms of St Mary’s was that the whole of the south transept had been sealed off and fully occupied by the grammar school for nearly two centuries.
At last, in 1826, two years before Parliament lifted the last major legal restrictions on Nonconformists by repealing the Test and Corporation Acts, a foundation stone was laid in what had been Bean’s gardens. William Bean had been persuaded by the Corporation to exchange his recreational and fruit and flower gardens on the west side of Huntriss Row for St Catherine’s Close off Bull Lane (Aberdeen Walk). Falconer’s dream was to be realised, though not quite where he had wanted it.
Christ Church was consecrated by the archbishop of York in August 1828. Sir John Johnstone, then one of Yorkshire’s two county MPs, had provided soft sandstone from his Hackness quarry and £2,000 had been raised from private subscribers. But much to the indignant anger of Scarborough’s Dissenters, the bulk of the money, £5,000, had been granted by Parliament. It was to be one of the last blatant acts of Westminster’s religious favouritism.
The list of donors to Christ Church also illustrated that the establishment could still rely on the wealth of the wealthiest. The Earl of Mulgrave and the Duke of Rutland each contributed £155; their proteges, the borough’s two MPs, Edmund Phipps and Charles Manners Sutton, each gave £70; and the two borough bailiffs, Edward Hebden, the rich banker, and George Nesfield, the rich brewer, had their names inscribed on the brass plate underneath the foundation stone.
So now there were seats for at least two thousand “Anglicans”, more than a quarter of the borough’s population, and far many more than there were practising worshippers who could pay for them. In contrast, denied a penny of public assistance, Scarborough’s Protestant Dissenters, who altogether far outnumbered the parish’s Anglicans, were obliged to worship in overcrowded and makeshift chapels.