Written by Dr Jack Binns
The monopoly of education at Scarborough exercised by the grammar school in St Mary’s Farrer’s Aisle lasted for two centuries. Several attempts made to run alternative places met with the powerful and prevailing resistance of both the Church of England and the town’s secular rulers.
For instance, we find that when a fisherman’s wife tried to earn some extra money during her husband’s absence at sea by setting up her own school to teach local little girls their alphabet and knitting, she was forbidden to do so by the church authorities.
Yet when vicar Henry Boteler was approached by “Henry Wilkinson of this town” in 1685 to run “a petty school, barely [only] teaching the English tongue”, he gave his consent. Boteler himself had refused to take over the grammar school in 1677, despite the many complaints from residents about the “barbarous” misconduct of Christopher Sollitt, the current headmaster.
In Boteler’s case, his compliance was probably the product of indifference rather than concern. During his 20 years as vicar, by his own confession, he was frequently away from his parish and had neglected his responsibilities there, not least those of recording baptisms, marriages and burials.
Boteler’s successors were more conscientious and diligent. Throughout the 18th century and beyond the vicar’s control of the grammar school went unchallenged and no inroads were made on the Anglican monopoly in Scarborough.
Henry Docker was both vicar and schoolmaster until his death in 1721. His successor, Theophilus Garencieres, vicar for nearly 30 years until 1750, also combined the two roles, and John Morfitt, vicar from 1750 until 1782 and John Kirk, vicar from 1782 until 1828, gave the post to their curates. Anglicans ruled the roost because they alone were allowed to sit on it.
In gradually changing circumstances, however, this situation seemed increasingly unjust and indefensible. By 1743, when the Rev Garencieres conducted a religious census of his parish, it revealed that of Scarborough’s population of about 5,000 only 1,000 had ever been inside St Mary’s to be baptised, married or buried. Of these “Anglicans”, only 120 took regular communion and only 220 had taken the sacraments the previous Easter.
Not that Scarborough was yet a hotbed of religious nonconformity: according to the vicar’s estimates, there were only 27 Presbyterian, 29 Quaker and three Roman Catholic families living in his parish. In short, the vast majority of Scarborians were poor, illiterate pagans. “Poor” by definition since every pew in St Mary’s, the only Anglican church in the parish until 1828, had to be paid for by its occupants. The Presbyterians and Quakers had their chapel and meeting-house, but not yet their schools or even their own burial grounds.
Yet even if Anglican fathers could afford the fees for their boys, many of them preferred neighbourhood boarding schools to St Mary’s day school. For example, Thomas Hinderwell spent several years at Coxwold grammar school as a boarder where he learned Greek as well as Latin from the Rev Robert Midgeley, the headmaster there.
Other Scarborough parents, who were less enamoured with the classics, might send their boys to private residential schools where they could be taught practical, modern subjects. This was the experience of another great Scarborian, Sir George Cayley, who was educated in science and mathematics in Nottingham and London.
Alternatively, the town’s shipbuilders, master mariners and merchants regarded an apprenticeship in seafaring as the best preparation for manhood. This, for instance, was the family custom of the Tindalls.
The continued presence of the boys in Farrer’s Aisle and the established tradition of a clerical schoolmaster, either the parish vicar or his curate, meant that the town effectively lost all control of the grammar school to the church. Misunderstanding and historical ignorance regarding the government and funding of the school were not finally revealed until the investigation of the Charity Commissioners in 1824.
When questioned by the Commissioners, the Rev John Kirk explained that during the past 42 years he had appointed four successive curates to be the school’s master and he denied that the town council had any right to have any say in this matter. He appeared totally unaware of the school’s 17th century endowments, either that of Gregory Fysh of 1640 or Francis Thompson in 1692. Kirk’s present curate, the Rev Thomas Irvin, vicar of Hackness since 1791 and master at Scarborough since 1786, had never received a penny in salary from the Corporation and knew nothing of an obligation to teach four free scholars.
The dispute raised by the Charity Commissioners was resolved when Irvin, presented with the relevant documents, admitted the right of the Corporation to choose the master, accepted £5 as his annual stipend and agreed to teach English and arithmetic to four poor boys from the town.
It seems that by 1825, when the borough seal was affixed to Irvin’s letter of appointment, English language and arithmetic were now considered a sufficient substitute for the Greek and Latin Gregory Fysh had required his chosen scholars to learn.
The Charity Commissioners were also happy with Thomas Irvin’s record at Scarborough. He had broadened the curriculum to attract those with university aspirations, who therefore needed the classics for the church and the law, as well as those sons of traders and farmers who wanted “a useful liberal education”. In other words, the timetable now included English language and basic mathematics, not just Latin and Greek. By 1824 Scarborough grammar school had about 40 boys, none were free scholars but a few of them boarded at Mr Irvin’s own house in Queen Street.