Written by Dr Jack Binns
The final closure of Thomas Swalwell’s Scarborough grammar school in St Thomas Street in 1872 coincided exactly with the opening of St Martin’s grammar school on Ramshill Road, South Cliff.
Scarborough’s old grammar or high school had always been associated closely with St Mary’s parish church both before and after the Reformation and only in its last years had it not been held inside the church and not run by an Anglican clergyman. St Martin’s was Scarborough’s first purpose-built grammar school, but it was also intimately attached to St Martin’s church and for the first decade of its existence its headmasters were ordained Anglicans. Indeed the new, red-brick Tudor-style building was designed by George Frederick Bodley who had been responsible also for the new neo-Gothic church 10 years earlier.
Yet in some vital respects the new grammar school was very different from the old one. St Martin’s was an independent religious school, predominantly day but with some few boarders. Though there were borough councillors on its board of governors, Scarborough Corporation had no say in its government. Chairman was the vicar of St Martin’s and members of the board included two baronets, JD Legard of Ganton and William Worsley of Hovingham and several North Riding justices who later included Sir Samuel Servington Savery who founded Bramcote school. From 1909 until 1919 Savery acted as secretary of St Martin’s governors.
Secondly, St Martin’s school was perfectly located to receive the boys of local resident families of means. The completion of Valley Bridge in 1865 had led to a very rapid development of the South Cliff as an affluent, middle class suburb of Scarborough so that the governors were able to charge substantial fees. The town’s “best people” lived on South Cliff.
It was St Martin’s first vicar, the Rev Robert Henning Parr (1826-88), who appreciated the potential for a new grammar school that would serve his parishioners. As he wrote in his Lenten letter of 1872:
“On my coming to take charge of this Parish nine years ago, I formed an opinion that a great need in Scarborough was a middle-class school. I mean a school which should rank above the National [Anglican] and Elementary [Board] Schools, and yet shall give a really good education at a price within the means of ordinary persons.”
The vicar was probably unaware of the incomes of “ordinary persons”, but he must have soon discovered that Scarborough already had an amazing abundance of every kind of school, day, boarding and mixed, for all ages and both sexes and offering all subjects from Greek to embroidery. Yet all of them were small and all were housed in Victorian villas. According to a survey of 1867, the town then had no fewer than 30 “academies”, 17 of them day only and the others mixed. Nevertheless, on South Cliff St Martin’s had no serious competitors and even in the town there was only James Wheater’s academy in Albemarle Crescent.
Wheater’s had a good reputation, but hardly deserved it, judging by Tom Laughton’s experience there. Soon after their father moved over from the Victoria to the Pavilion hotel in 1908, when Tom was four and his elder brother Charles nine, they were both sent together across Westborough to Wheater’s. As Tom recalled in his autobiography, Pavilions By The Sea:
“Charles would take me by the hand, lead me across the main street up a back lane to the school yard. It was a wretched school conducted by Mr Wheater with a single assistant and a drill sergeant. Mr Wheater was a dapper little man with staring eyes and an upturned moustache, he taught with a cane in his hand. One day he seized Charles by the collar and flogged him in front of us all. I was horrified; it upset me far more than Charles, so much so that I refused to go back. When father discovered the reason, we were withdrawn from Wheater’s.”
The boys were sent instead to Mr Paton’s in Princess Royal Terrace which was “a much kinder school” with girls and a fox terrier that chased its tail. That Mr Wheater had a class which contained a nine-year-old and a four-year-old tells us much about his standard of teaching.
So, not until Scarborough College opened in 1900 as a mainly boarding school for boys, did St Martin’s have a neighbouring rival. In the 1870s the nearest successful grammar school was Lady Lumley’s at Thornton Dale. The old foundations at Malton, Whitby, Bridlington and Beverley had not yet been revived.
So St Martin’s grew quickly in size and repute. By 1890 it had already 50 boys on its register and its curriculum compared favourably with any one of the 40 grammar schools then in Yorkshire. A full-time teaching head with one qualified assistant offered English, Classics, German, French, Mathematics, Science, Drawing and Painting, Music, Drill and Games. Once a week for 20 minutes the vicar came in to give religious instruction, the only time the head was actually free of teaching. Only Archbishop Holgate’s at York with short-hand and land surveying and Lady Lumley’s with Hebrew (“two guineas extra”) had more on the timetable than St Martin’s at Scarborough.