Written by Dr Jack Binns
Of all the many felonies and misdemeanours recorded in the serjeants-at-mace and constables’ book between 1812 and 1841 by far the most common was imprisonment for debt. William Thornton, junior then senior of the two serjeants from 1811 until 1835 and William Simpson, his junior from 1830 until 1835 and then senior until his death in 1841, seem to have spent more time and earned more money chasing, apprehending and bringing debtors into the borough court of pleas than doing anything else. And their activities were not entirely confined to the territory of Scarborough Liberty.
In 1815, Thornton was taking debtors to court from as far away as “Hutton Bushill” and Scalby Nabs. In 1821, James Donkin, one of the famous family of carriers who ran a service from the Beverley Arms in Newborough, was “in debt to Mr Benson for £21” and the serjeant was employed to seize “two wagons for security”. Later that year, the premises and ships in the harbour belonging to Thomas Ward of Seamer were taken into custody by Thornton on behalf of the bankrupt’s creditors.
On February 18, 1822, Moorsom’s bank at the Customs House on Sandside failed with liabilities of above £70,000 and for many of the following weeks Thornton rode far and wide serving summonses on Moorsom’s tenants and debtors and notices to the bank’s creditors. Some of the many places he visited were Cayton, Binnington, Snainton, Harwood Dale and Bickley. Hiring a horse for the day cost him 10 shillings.
Until it was demolished in 1842 and replaced later by another, Newborough Bar was the site of Scarborough’s old gaol. On the north side, just inside the Bar, was the Nag’s Head Inn, later called Miller’s after its proprietor Robert Miller and subsequently the Bar Hotel. Overlooking the Nag’s Head rear yard were a number of prison cells built into and under the archway over the pedestrian path. These cells were for short-term occupation by vagrants, drunks and petty thieves, whereas the more spacious rooms on the other side of the main arch were for the imprisonment of debtors.
Since debtors could not hope for release until and unless their creditors were fully satisfied, they spent years in confinement. In 1778, Martha Gamble died there after more than 30 years and in 1782 Captain Hawson, another debtor, met the same end in the same place after more than 12 months.
But the most notorious long-term resident of Scarborough’s debtors’ prison was John Hatfield. He spent eight years, from 1792 until 1800, as an inmate of Newborough Bar after failing to pay for the board and lodging he had received from William Stephens who kept the nearby New Inn in Newborough.
Hatfield was much worse than an ordinary debtor: in fact he was a handsome, professional confidence trickster, impostor and forger, who preyed on the gullible and the rich, especially young heiresses. He had already seduced and abandoned the daughter of the Duke of Rutland and in Scarborough he posed as an army major and client of the Duke. After his imprisonment for an unpaid bill some of his wicked past was revealed and there was no one willing to bail him out. No one that is until he captivated Michaeli Nation, a wealthy young spinster living in lodgings opposite at the Nag’s Head.
According to anecdotal evidence, almost every day for more than six years Michaeli gazed at Hatfield as he stood behind his prison bars wearing his major’s uniform and shedding crocodile tears. Finally, she agreed to meet his bill, secure his release and marry him the following morning by special licence in St Mary’s parish church.
Afterwards the pair went off to live in the bride’s home in Tiverton, Devon, where Hatfield exhausted her inheritance and credit within 18 months and then abandoned her for the fleshpots of London.
After further deceitful impersonations, forgeries and a third illegal marriage, this time to “the Maid of Buttermere”, a Lake District beauty, the “Great Seducer”, as he was now known nationally, was finally caught out and arrested. He was sent for trial at Carlisle, found guilty of forgery, and hanged in September 1803.
Though Hatfield was a very persuasive swindler and liar, the regime in Scarborough’s debtors’ prison during his time there seems to have been extraordinarily lenient.
Nevertheless, in A New Scarborough Guide, published anonymously in 1797, without revealing his identity, he complained about the conditions endured there by its inmates. He wrote that the building was “a public nuisance” and “a disgrace to the country”; that debtors were locked up day and night; and that the so-called exercise yard was used by the female keepers to wash and dry the linen of “strangers who came to the spa”. How he was permitted to research, write and publish a 52-page guide to the town which sold for a shilling remains an intriguing mystery.
What Hatfield also failed to reveal was the appalling treatment of Scarborough’s other prisoners in the old gaol and the house of correction. Debtors had furnished bedrooms for which the keeper charged threepence a night whereas the four Bar cells were nine feet square, two of them were underground and all were damp, dark and foul-smelling.
As a result of the Royal Commissioners’ damning report of 1833 and the radical reform of Scarborough’s municipal government which followed it in 1835, both the old gaol at Newborough Bar and the house of correction nearby were demolished.
John Uppleby, solicitor and town clerk, who was soon to enter his newly-built house, Crescent Villa (now the Art Gallery), bought the old Bar buildings for £55. To pay for the new borough gaol in Castle Road which altogether cost £3,624 19s 10d, the council sold the correction house and its garden for £450 and all its closes and fields south of Ramsdale Road for £3,240. The correction house was not replaced.