How Scarborough became the first seaside spa

Farrer's Bar and Brasserie, Scarborough Spa. The bar is named in honour of Mrs Thomasin Farrer, who discovered the Spa waters.
Farrer's Bar and Brasserie, Scarborough Spa. The bar is named in honour of Mrs Thomasin Farrer, who discovered the Spa waters.

The popular, received view of the Restoration of 1660, which restored monarchy, the established church of England, and the House of Lords, is that immediately it also ushered in a time of unrestrained self-indulgence. Pleasure-seeking and pleasure-making became not only fashionable, their public legality was restored. Where previously there had been “Saints”, now there were rakes. Not just king, bishops and peers came back, but so did maypoles, theatres, bear- and bull-baiting and social license. By parading his mistresses and bastards, Charles II provided his kingdoms with a permissive role-model as far removed from Cromwell and his “Saints” as it could be. The king’s illegitimate offspring included an earl and six dukes.

In an indirect but substantial way, Scarborough profited richly and permanently from this relaxation of morals and manners: after 1660 it became increasingly famous and successful as the country’s earliest seaside health resort for the affluent.

Mrs Thomasin Farrer is thought to have made her legendary walk along the foot of South Cliff, or Driple Cotes as it was then called, about 1628. She was an educated lady, by birth one of the Hutchinsons of Wykeham abbey. Her father, Edward Hutchinson, was granted a coat of arms and family crest in 1581, sat for Scarborough in the Commons of 1586-7, and left four sons and six daughters at his death in 1591. Thomasin’s eldest brother, Stephen, inherited their father’s estate and was also MP for Scarborough in the Parliament of 1626. Thomasin’s elder sister, Isabel, married one of Scarborough’s richest merchants, Christopher Thompson, who was Bailiff of the borough four times between 1599 and 1617. Thomasin herself also married into Scarborough’s plutocracy: her wedding to John Farrer is recorded in 1600 and he was elected one of the Bailiffs in no fewer than six years from 1599 to 1625.

John Farrer died about 1628, so that his widow must have taken that stroll just before or after his death. In his will he had left “two small tenements in Cook’s Row, near the low conduit” to be the homes of poor widows and this gift was later recorded on the benefactors’ tables kept in St Mary’s south transept for at least a century. As a result, the south transept came to be known as Farrer’s aisle and his charity homes Farrer’s hospital. It is possible that John was buried in St Mary’s south transept.

Thomasin lived on in Scarborough until at least 1655 and, despite all the losses and damage inflicted by civil wars, she was still wealthy enough to leave £104 10s in her will. The bequest was divided unequally between three of her Hutchinson cousins who received £10 each down to ten shillings each for her Royalist neighbours, Christopher Fysh and Richard Billborough. The poor of Scarborough were to have £3 and her share in the ship “Primrose” was to go to its master, Henry Nicholson and his son.

Once a widow and therefore propertied in her own right, Thomasin appears in all the many lists of tax and assessment payers, to St Mary’s new windows, to the King’s Ship Money and to Sir Hugh Cholmley’s levy to defend the town. When the parish church was at last furnished with private, rented pews, Mrs Farrer bought her own preferential place close to the vicar’s pulpit. Until as late as 1654, she was paying a penny a week towards the maintenance of a ten-year-old boy called John Deeton, who was in St Thomas’s poorhouse and not yet “fitt to be put apprentice”.

The civil wars must have been particularly painful for Thomasin. The contents of her will indicate a Royalist preference and all her Thompson relatives supported the king, but the Hutchinson family was deeply and irrevocably divided. In his will of 1646, Stephen Hutchinson, then 73 years old, could not reconcile himself to his eldest son’s recent conduct. Edward had joined the Royalist army and had become a colonel in the cavalry, thereby incurring his father’s strong “displeasure” and disinheriting himself. As a consequence, Stephen bequeathed his mansion house, the site of the priory at Wykeham and the rectory of Wykeham and Ruston to his two-year-old grandson, another Edward.

If Thomasin had children by John Farrer there is no known record of them in Scarborough’s parish register and no reference to any in her will, yet no one in Scarborough’s lengthy history contributed more to its narrative. Nevertheless, in 2013, when Scarborough Borough Council at last condescended to call their new bar and brasserie at the Spa after Thomasin, they named it Farrer’s, which was her husband’s surname. And how, in the reported words of the general manager, calling the bar Farrer’s “provided families with the chance to learn about Thomasin’s discovery all those year’s ago”, must remain baffling to them as well as us.

It could be argued that if Mrs Farrer had not “discovered” the medicinal potential of the spring water at the base of South Cliff, someone else would soon have made similar claims for it. In her favour, however, it was not until nearly 40 years later, in Dr Robert Wittie’s second edition of Scarborough Spaw in 1667, that acknowledgement of her revelation was made public by a qualified physician.

On the other hand, there is evidence that long before the Restoration and Wittie’s first edition of 1660 (which omitted mention of Mrs Farrer), the curative properties of Scarborough’s seaside springs were known widely. Wittie himself was licensed to practise medicine in Hull in 1641, having qualified (so he claimed) as “Doctor of Physic” at both Cambridge and Oxford universities. We know that he was in Scarborough in July 1648 and that he was the first observer to warn Colonel Overton, Parliament’s governor of Hull, that Colonel Matthew Boynton at Scarborough castle had changed sides and declared for the king.

Again, according to Wittie, three years earlier when Cholmley’s starving, sick soldiers were carried out of the castle, suffering from scurvy, they were soon cured by drinking spa waters. Wittie also wrote that during the 1650s he was “usually wont every year to step to Scarborough”, presumably to treat his patients there. And finally, from the autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton, we learn that she and her sickly husband were attended by Dr Wittie from as early as 1652, in their home at East Newton near Nunnington and at Scarborough. In the summer of 1659, for instance, she stayed in Scarborough for a whole month and was convinced that the spa spring had cured her haemorrhoids.

(to be continued)