Mrs Thomasin Farrer: “her memory ought to be ever precious”

IT IS astonishing that the lady credited with the discovery nearly 400 years ago of Scarborough’s spa waters, perhaps the most important event in the town’s modern history, should be the subject of so much misunderstanding and confusion.

Because 17th century spelling was carefree and inconsistent, her married name has come down to us in extraordinary variety. I have seen Faro, Fayrey, Farroe, Farrere, Farer, Farden, Farrow and even Pharaoh! Farrer is preferred here since it is written most frequently with this spelling in contemporary manuscripts.

No matter how often her name appears wrongly in print as Elizabeth, she was in fact baptised Thomasin(e), the seventh of Edward Hutchinson’s ten children. Edward of Wykeham abbey (1543-91) was elected one of Scarborough’s two MPs in 1586 and his eldest son, Stephen (1573-1648), also served in the same capacity in 1626. The Hutchinsons had bought the Wykeham manor in 1544 and were granted a coat of arms in 1581. In his will, Edward styled himself ‘gentleman’.

So Thomasin Hutchinson was no ordinary woman but a privileged lady from a local gentry family with influential relatives. Her elder sister, Isabel, was the wife of Christopher Thompson, one of Scarborough’s richest merchants, who was bailiff of the borough no fewer than five times.

So it was no surprise that Thomasin should become the bride of another of Scarborough’s leading burgesses, John Farrer, in 1600.

John Farrer’s name occurs often in Scarborough’s corporation records. By the time of his marriage to Thomasin, he was already well entrenched in the town’s oligarchy. He had property in West Sandgate, Newborough and the town’s fields, a share with seven others in the salt-making monopoly on the foreshore and was junior bailiff to Christopher Thompson, the senior of the pair. The following year he acquired a share in a lease of Scarborough’s windmill. When Scarborough founded its Society of Owners, Masters and Mariners in 1602 his name came near the head of the shipowners.

As one of the First Twelve in Scarborough’s self-elected Common Hall of 44, John Farrer took his turn to hold one of the annual offices of local government. He was again elected junior bailiff in 1602 and 1607 and senior of the two in 1613, 1619 and 1625.

Such privileges of power incurred responsibilities. When Scarborough was assessed at £40 to be paid to the Crown, he was one of the town’s 12 ‘subsidy men’ who contributed three or four pounds each. And when the borough had to raise a trained band or home guard, he was one of 20 ‘private men with their arms’ who mustered for inspection. At different times, he had ‘a calliver’ (firearm), a ‘short pyke’ and a ‘corslet’ (body armour).

Yet however high and mighty locally, John Farrer was not above the law or immune to crime. Once he was bound over for recognizance of £10 ‘to keep the peace’ and on another occasion he was presented to the court for underweight measures. In 1627 his shop was robbed of eight pence worth of goods.

During the next year, probably his last, John Farrer left two tenements under one roof as a charity home, rent-free, for two poor widows. The building was in Low Conduit Street, now Princess Square, and survived until demolished in the early 1950s. Finally, the south transept of St Mary’s church, which was ‘temporary’ home for the High School from 1649 until 1848, was for long called Farrer’s Aisle, presumably because it displayed an account of John’s almshouse gift.

Until she became a widow, Mrs Farrer was almost invisible in the town’s records; but after 1628, as a property-owner in her own right, she figured frequently as a tax-payer and defendant in court.

When the parish church gained a new set of seats, her privileged pew cost her £1 13s 4d. And when St Mary’s needed new windows, Mrs Farrer was assessed heavily at five shillings, a sum she also contributed to the Royal Navy for a new warship.

Twice she was in trouble for blocking the common sewer’s water course which ran down the back of her house in West Sandgate.

Mrs Farrer was undoubtedly a hardy survivor. She lived in the heart of the old town throughout the two Civil War sieges of 1645 and 1648, paying compulsory levies to both Roundhead and Cavalier garrisons. When she died in 1655 she was still paying a penny a week to Scarborough’s poorhouse. For her, as for many others of her station, the Civil Wars were a disastrous tragedy. Her Thompson relations suffered for their royalism and her brother Stephen, who supported Parliament, disinherited his eldest son, Edward, who fought as a Royalist colonel.

There is no contemporary account of Thomasin’s wonderful discovery; not until 1667 was she named as “the gentlewoman of repute” who had first identified South Cliff’s springs as potentially medicinal.

Perhaps if she had not taken that historic stroll on South Bay sands, noticed that the trickle of water from the base of the cliff stained the stones a russet-brown and found they tasted bitter, someone else would have done the same. However, Mrs Farrer was an educated, well-respected lady who might have recently read Edward Deane’s book on the spa at Knaresborough and recognised that Scarborough’s water was not dissimilar.

Scarborough was far from being the country’s first spa resort: Bath, Epsom, Buxton and Knaresborough were all much older. But all these predecessors were inland so that Mrs Farrer’s revelation eventually made Scarborough Britain’s earliest seaside resort. To reach the springs it was necessary to cross the sands. This is why her memory ought to be forever precious.

In her will Thomasin asked to be buried next to her dead husband in St Mary’s. She left a total of £100 in small bequests and her share in the ship Primrose.

No mention was made there of her only son, John, who had trained as a lawyer at Gray’s Inn in London. So there is just a thin possibility that he was the ancestor of the present queen’s solicitor, Sir Matthew Farrer, whose legal firm dates from 1701.