Dr Wittie’s Water-Works

The point at which the spring water appears below Scarborough Spa.
The point at which the spring water appears below Scarborough Spa.

Bible-reading Christians had plenty of reasons for their fear of the sea: Old Testament references to it were negative and ominous. In Genesis, the waters were “the great abyss” out of which God created the solid, safe and fruitful land. The Garden of Eden had a river, but no sea; and the great flood, which drowned the earth and everything on it, was an instrument of God’s punishment of his people. In its unfathomable, dark depths, the sea harboured huge monsters such as the whale which swallowed disobedient Jonah.

Only fishermen, who had no choice, deliberately risked their lives at sea. Foolhardy explorers in search of treasure and trade ventured out from beyond shores into the unknown, where maps were irrelevant. As for the sands around the sea shores, they were useful only for landing and selling fish. The idea that the seaside might be a location for pleasure, exercise and sport was inconceivable to our ancestors and swimming in the sea was to them no more than an unfortunate necessity for shipwrecked mariners.

When Mrs Thomasin Farrer took her celebrated stroll on Scarborough’s South Bay sands at low tide and noticed that the spring bubbling out of the base of the cliff gave a “russet tincture” to the stones and an “acide taste” to the tongue, there were already a dozen major English resorts calling themselves spas and claiming wonderful cures for their springs or wells. By the 1620s, Bath, Bristol, Tunbridge Wells, Epsom, Buxton and Harrogate, to name the most fashionable, were attracting numerous gentry, aristocracy and even royalty to take their waters, externally and internally, and enjoy each other’s elite company. The distances that some of them travelled to reach these gatherings were sometimes extraordinary, and often very uncomfortable and inconvenient.

However, all these English spas were inland: Scarborough’s unique claim was that its spring well was at the edge of the open sea and to reach it required a crossing of the sandy beach about a mile in length.

According to Dr Wittie, the first to write about them, Scarborough’s spa waters had already established a creditable reputation throughout Yorkshire and beyond by 1660. In his second edition of 1667, he described the spread of their fame, first to the “inhabitants of Scarborough”, for whom the waters were “the usual Physic”, then to “those of the East-Riding near adjoyning”, then to those of Hull, his native town, and finally to “the citizens of York and the Gentry of the County”. Even beyond Yorkshire, he claimed “several Persons of Quality in the Nation” had come more than a hundred miles to try them and said that they preferred Scarborough’s to “Italian, French and German Spawes...for their speedy passage and innocent working both by siege and urine, before them all”. So here was Scarborough’s endorsement from a practising physician: when it came to loosening the belly and amending the stomach, there was no better remedial laxative for constipation.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely solely on the partisan assertions of Dr Wittie. Though the Corporation records give no hint of what was happening at Scarborough’s spa during the 1650s, a casual remark written by Colonel Fairfax, a garrison commander at Hull, in a letter to General Monck, dated May 11, 1660, confirms the doctor’s claims. Professing his devotion to military duty, Fairfax told his superior that he had never left Hull, “save for a journey at the season of the year to Scarborough Spaw”. So for the colonel, stationed at Hull, an annual visit to Scarborough for its spa waters was natural and normal, and his reference to “the season of the year” is the earliest of its kind to use this term.

The main reason why Dr Wittie’s own accounts of his conduct and movements during the 1640s and 1650s were so unclear and fragmentary is because he was anxious to conceal his own politics during these two tumultuous decades. Unless stubbornly committed to one side or the other during the civil wars and their aftermath, men of position with professional status and family obligations were faced with acute dilemmas and decisive choices. Usually, most of them went with the prevailing tide and like, for instance, William Penston, Scarborough’s grammar schoolmaster, or Richard Dighton, Scarborough’s town clerk, they swore allegiance to a succession of regimes, from Charles I to Charles II.

It seems that Dr Wittie probably did the same. In 1648, after Royalist defeat in the first Civil War, he acted as informer for Parliament, whereas during the 1650s, as Cromwell’s Protectorate became increasingly unpopular, his Royalist leanings were evident, though still diplomatically clandestine. For example, in August 1652, he travelled all the way from York to Richmond just to attend Mrs Alice Thornton, who was then having her first baby. The doctor stayed with her for a week and the child died within half an hour. He had neglected his regular patients for a lady who was not wealthy but had suffered much previously for her close Royalist connections. That Wittie moved his practice from Parliamentary Hull to Royalist York in the mid-1650s is also significant.

But the most revealing and convincing indictment came from the pen of George Fox, the Quaker, in his Journal. In 1665, then a prisoner in Scarborough castle, he was visited by “the great doctor of physic”, who brought along “Lord Fauconberg [Oliver Cromwell’s son-in-law] and the governor of Tynemouth Castle and several knights” to taunt Fox in his prison cell. When Wittie told Fox that he ought to swear allegiance to Charles II, in reply the Quaker asked him whether he had not once sworn against the King [Charles I] and the House of Lords, had taken the Scotch [Presbyterian] Covenant and now had sworn for Charles II. So what was the good of swearing contradictory oaths? Clearly, Fox knew something of the doctor’s contradictory and hypocritical past which he preferred to keep secret.

Finally, Dr Wittie’s reception of the Restoration was a little too openly and strongly enthusiastic, rather than reluctant or grudging. In the doctor’s first 1660 edition of Scarborough Spaw, there is a printed prologue of 26 lines of verse, punningly entitled “The Author’s Contemplation upon his Water-Works” and dated “May 29 1660”. To this, in his own hand, he added “being the very day & year of his Majesties most happy restoration”.