Cleanliness was paramount

Auborough Street pictured in 1959
Auborough Street pictured in 1959

Written by Dr Jack Binns

It was the responsibility of Scarborough’s 
bailiff magistrates to make sure that the town’s bye-laws or “pains”, as they were then called, were rigorously enforced.

At a time long before the borough had underground sewers, “bin-men” and clean tap-water supply, freedom from sickness and epidemic was a constant concern of the local authorities: next to fire, their greatest fear was of plague.

So Scarborough had a comprehensive code of regulation designed to keep its narrow streets clean and clear of debris and refuse; the surface gutters free of every kind of waste, human or animal; drinking water safeguarded against pollu-
tion and misuse; and fences and walls kept in good 

Scarborough’s householders who failed to “dress”, that is sweep and scour, their front and back doorsteps, their pavement gutters, or shop fronts, were punishable by fines in the courts. No one was allowed to escape retribution, not even the bailiffs themselves, for neglect to dress their property. George Hudson was not guilty of indecent exposure in April 1643 when he was charged with “not dressing his backside”! Yet this offence of “undressing” was the most common of all brought to the attention of the sheriff’s tourn. In the first half of the seventeenth century, Scarborians were presented for littering their streets, pavements, port and sands with rubbish, rubble, offal, dung, dirt, manure, timber, carrion and, in two bizarre cases, with a “dead horse” and “dead calves”. Why Thomas Burton had been “clapping dunge on Newbrough gates” in 1638 was not explained.

Scarborough had two legal dumping grounds or middens outside Newborough and Oldborough gates – hardly a welcoming sight or smell for visitors – but some townspeople then, as now, found these locations inconvenient. Naturally, the harbour and the sands were particularly favoured by the lazy and irresponsible for their discarded fish offal and pig manure.

Yet if all householders and shopkeepers were obliged to dress their frontages, the bailiffs themselves were legally required to keep the areas around the markets and the Common Hall on Sandside clean and clear of obstruction. For example, in 1635, the bailiffs were charged with their failure to repair the Palace Hill wall and to dress the street in front of the fish shambles.

The water conduits were the responsibility of the chamberlains. They had to ensure that the pipes and public troughs were water tight and free of “corruption”. Some Scarborians did not understand the difference between a sewer and a conduit and that human beings should not have to drink from the same trough as animals. Mr Francis Thompson, the town’s richest resident, was reprimanded for letting his maid servant wash clothes in the conduit.

Readers might also be surprised to learn that early modern Scarborough had building controls and improvement regulations. In 1620, three Scarborians were presented for encroaching on the King’s streets at “kee end” (Quay End), “aubrewgat” (Auborough gate) and “merchant row”. The following year, there were four more cases of men who had built out on to the street. They included “Mr Thomas Foord for a payre of stares in St Nicholas gate”.

Even country lanes had to be defended: “Wre lane” (Wrea Lane, later Dean Road) was under attack from four trespassers in 1626. It seems that greedy attempts to privatise public highways and paths have a long history in Scarborough.

Chronic fear of fire led to frequent inspections of house and brewery chimneys. In 1622, Christopher Steele was threatened with a huge fine of 13s. 4d. if he did not provide his brewhouse with a proper chimney within the next ten days. When most houses were of timber and thatch and there was no fire brigade or even fire insurance, London was just one of many cities and towns to be devastated by fires during the seventeenth century.

A further indication of the rural character of Scarborough at this time was the perpetual presence and nuisance of pigs. Nearly everybody seems to have kept at least one in a backyard or even inside their living quarters. Unlike cattle and sheep, pigs were not grazed on the Commons or in private enclosures, so that they could be found roaming and rooting everywhere in the town.

At the beginning of 1604, residents were reminded 
that wandering swine would cost their owners twopence on market days and a shilling at any other time. But for many such fines were no deterrent: in April 1621, for example, no fewer than 19 townspeople were presented for “their swine going abroade”. Three of them were members of the Common 
Hall and one the senior bailiff! The following October, there was another long list of 24 similar offenders, “especially in the cemetery”.

By 1627 the problem had become so acute that the bailiffs decided to appoint a swineherd to keep the town’s pigs in the castle holms and insist their owners pay rent for them, The fine for roaming pigs was raised to “4d. a foot”

When stray animals were found at large in the town or its fields, they were supposed to be caught and locked up by the town pinder in his fold. Yet rather than pay the pinder for release of their livestock, some Scarborians preferred to “break the fold”, an expensive error. In 1621, Richard Harrison, a porter, was fined 4s. 4d. for removing his horse from the pinfold.

But apart from pigs and more rarely sheep “going upon the grenes” at Falsgrave, Scarborough was fairly free of loose livestock. The most intriguing entry in a court book reads: “for every tirkey sene or taken in the markitt place upon Thursday, the owner to pay also to the bailifes 4d.” Here the name “turkey” was probably used to describe West African guinea-fowl, not the North American bird.