Written by Dr Jack Binns
Two hundred years ago, Scarborough’s half dozen constables had a busy time in and out of season on the town’s streets. Fragments of a surviving book of bills, covering the years from 1809 to 1819, written by one of the borough’s junior law enforcement officers, provides a vivid picture of the many kinds of duties he was required to carry out. Since, at two guineas, his annual salary was nominal, to make a living he had to arrest, escort and deliver to court or prison many different categories of offenders.
He also had to be ready to attend gatherings where the peace might be endangered.
On his list of claims for expenses there are frequent references to the “hoppit”, “hoppet” or even “oppit”, presumably the town’s lock- up cell for short-term prisoners.
On one occasion , in 1810, his claim for 13 shillings and sixpence for bread and two shillings for straw suggests that he was responsible for feeding the hoppit’s temporary inmates and bedding them down for the night.
Accommodating all sorts of miscreants and misfortunates in his prison cell was only one of the constable’s many contributions to the peace of the town. In addition, he had to convey them beyond the borough boundaries and, in the worst cases, whip them out into the next parish.
In 1809, he charged two shillings for “putting a woman in the hoppet and a child in the workhouse”. He did not say whether the child was hers. His bill for putting “a solger [soldier] in the hoppet” was also two shillings, the same charge for “posting bills concerning vagrants”. Possibly, the “solger” was a deserter or drunk or both.
The following year, he cleaned out the “hoppet”, put new straw down on the floor or in bed sacks and bought bread to feed its involuntary guests. Bread and water was the hoppit’s only fare for “two prostuts [prostitutes]” and several vagrants who after a night in the cell were driven out of the town.
As a major seaport, garrison town and fashionable playground for the well-heeled, Scarborough was then a magnet for whores, beggars, thieves and confidence tricksters. The borough’s constables had to deal with them all.
Our man charged half a crown in 1811 for patrolling the streets at night “among the prostitutes”; one shilling and sixpence for attempting to separate brawling soldiers and sailors; a shilling for preventing “the mountebank [itinerant quack]” from performing at Peasholm; and another shilling for arresting “a man for damning the King”.
Disabled visitors seem to have been victimised. A man with “only one leg”, one “wanting one hand” and “a dumb woman, her daughter and a man with them” were all ill-treated as unwelcome “straingers”.
Apart from the beggars, who operated mainly on St Nicholas Cliff pestering “spawers” walking to and from the Spa, there was a rich assortment of cheats and fraudsters active in Scarborough. In 1813, our constable put “a fortune teller woman” in his hoppet and then sent her out of town. A man “calling a prophecy”, another “acting slight [sleight] of hand tricks”, and one “with books” were all subjected to the same summary expulsion.
So-called vagrants got the harshest treatment. As late as 1818, the constable took three of them “to the whipping post” and then turned them out of the borough. For this service he was paid three shillings. Attendance at a whipping in the workhouse yard earned him only a shilling, whereas the flogger himself got five shillings.
Some of the constable’s entries are intriguingly cryptic. Why did he turn “the Little Man out of town”? Was he a professional dwarf? What precisely were the two men and a woman doing when they were “fooling about the streets”? Were they just disorderly? And why did he have to use “a hand barrow to carry a man to the hoppit”? Was he just too drunk to walk there?
1814 was a busy year for Scarborough’s constables because it was a time of a succession of decisive military victories. The war with France had first begun as long as 1793 and had cost the British people dearly in loss of trade, excessive food prices, high unemployment and widespread social unrest. News of Bonaparte’s final defeats were therefore greeted throughout the land with extraordinary celebration and inebriation. Scarborough was no exception.
In March 1814, the constable charged two shillings for “attendance in the street on account of Bordeaux being taken”. The allied armies had expelled the French from Spain, crossed the Pyrenees and were now advancing rapidly through France. The following month, Paris fell and Bonaparte was captured and banished to Elba. So again the constable was on street duty to prevent celebrants getting out of hand. For the fall of Paris he claimed two shillings, but for Boney’s defeat and departure sixpence more. Finally, in June 1814, “the Palemanories were signed”, the constable’s crude attempt to record that the preliminaries of peace had been signed between the allies and the restored French monarch, Louis XVIII.
Unfortunately, there is only a blank for 1815, the year of Waterloo, Napoleon’s exile to St Helena and the Vienna peace treaty. No doubt Scarborough also accompanied these triumphant events with bonfires on the beach and an orgy of drunken revelry to test the borough’s peace-keeping constables to the utmost limit.