Troublesome years at school

William Penston's tenure as headmaster of Scarborough boys' grammar school started in 1627 during the reign of King Charles I and continued through the Commonwealth period under Oliver Crommwell, and finished in 1676 during the reign of King Charles II
William Penston's tenure as headmaster of Scarborough boys' grammar school started in 1627 during the reign of King Charles I and continued through the Commonwealth period under Oliver Crommwell, and finished in 1676 during the reign of King Charles II

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Mr William Penston, the Scottish headmaster of Scarborough boy’s grammar school for almost 50 years, from 1627 until 1676, seemed indestructible. He bent with the political and religious gales that blew through England during this most turbulent half century. He was first appointed in the reign of Charles I and then swore allegiance to the crown and to the Anglican church. After England became a republic in 1649, before Scarborough’s two bailiffs, he took an oath of loyalty to the Commonwealth and later signed the Presbyterian covenant. Towards the end of 1653, when Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, Penston retained his post by accepting the new regime. Finally, when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Scarborough’s schoolmaster stayed put by affirming his Anglican faith and royalist attachment to Charles II.

But there was one change that Penston could not beat: by 1676, old age, deafness and growing blindness forced him to step down. During his half century, with the aid of his Common Hall employer, he had fought off every kind of rival: until near the end, the monopoly of his school in Farrer’s Aisle had prevailed.

In the 1660s and 1670s several attempts had been made to set up alternative town schools, but they had all failed. For instance, William Gradell, the Quaker, whose Scarborough home was one of the Friends’ meeting places, was brought before the Scarborough quarter sessions in April 1662 charged with teaching without the bailiffs’ authority or the archbishop’s licence.

The retirement of Penston brought matters to a head. In June 1677, the archbishop’s court at York was petitioned by more than 50 Scarborough residents expressing their concern with the lack of a satisfactory Latin school in the town. The signatories included former bailiffs, such as James Cockerill, Thomas Sedman and William Robinson, and the four current churchwardens.

According to the petitioners, Mr William Penston had “given over teachinge”; Mr John Taylor, Penston’s usher since 1662, “being seaventy years of age and upwards” was “so weak and infirme that he was no longer able to teach a Latin schoole”; and Mr John Boss, who lived two miles outside the town, had found it too “inconvenient and troublesome” so that four or five years ago he had turned over his school of between 30 and 40 scholars to Mr Christopher Sollitt.

However, Mr Sollitt’s school had been reduced to eight or 10 scholars “by reason of the negligence of their master...his insufficiency and inability...and his severe and barbarous usage of the children and boyes under his teaching”. So finding that their offspring were “not improving in their learning”, parents had been “constrained” to send “them abroade in the country to severall schooles there to their great charges and expenses”.

As a result, the petitioners had invited Mr Bryan Bales to come and settle in Scarborough and to teach in the Latin school there. “Satisfied of his abilities and diligence”, they also had the support of Mr William Thompson, one of the borough’s MPs, to request a licence for Mr Bales.

Along with the petition was a letter also addressed to the archbishop in York asking for a teacher’s licence for Mr Bales. It was signed by Scarborough’s two bailiffs, William Saunders and John Craven.

But Mr Christopher Sollitt, a native of the town, had no intention of giving way to a new outsider: he had already asked for his licence “to teach a grammar schoole at Scarborough”. A copy of his letter to York is now badly torn and only part readable, but in it he declared his subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, his renunciation of the Presbyterian covenant and his acknowledgement of the Act of Uniformity which in 1662 had enforced the use of the Anglican prayer book throughout the kingdom. In other words, whether incompetent, barbarous or neglectful as a teacher, Sollitt’s religious and political principles were impeccable!

Present readers, like past parents, will be relieved to learn that Bryan Bales (or Bailes) was awarded the permanent post in 1677 and the “barbarous” Christopher Sollitt was ousted.

Yet no successor could compare with the endurance of William Penston. New schoolmasters came and went in rapid order. Bryan Bales lasted until 1682. Zachariah Legard, who followed him, survived for only eight years. After Legard, the position was contested between John Urqhuart and John Phillips, though in the event the contest proved very unequal.

According to one testimonial, Phillips was “a man of sober life and conversacons, conformable to the doctrine of the Church of England and sufficiently qualified to teach a Grammar Schoole”. The letter was signed by Noel Boteler, vicar of St Mary’s since 1676, and two churchwardens.

A second endorsement on behalf of Mr John Phillips, signed by senior bailiff Timothy Foord and 11 leading members of the Common Hall, tells us more about him.

Previously, he had taught in York for two years and since coming to Scarborough he had behaved to the great satisfaction of all concerned in his office and profession of schoolmaster.

Against such competition Urqhuart had small hope, particularly since the bailiffs discovered that though he had been teaching in the town for several months he did not possess a licence. He was summoned before the magistrates who gave him only 10 days to procure one and produce it to the court, a condition which clearly they regarded as impossible.

Urqhuart’s unsuitability is fully revealed later in a letter written by Boteler. It seems that the man (the vicar refuses to dignify him with the title of Mr) “still continues his state of concubinage with Mrs Adrian”. Clearly, the parish could not tolerate a schoolmaster who openly lived in sin with a married woman!