Decline of the Quakers

Bland's Cliff
Bland's Cliff

by Dr Jack Binns

Scarborough’s Presbyterians built their first chapel at the top of Palace Hill, on the slope down from St Sepulchregate, as it was then called, to Merchants Row. The earliest entry of a Presbyterian baptism is dated August 7, 1703, and their chapel or meeting-house was probably first built at that time. According to a later deed, it seems that the property had formerly belonged to a master mariner and was bought by William Hannay, Scarborough’s first Scottish Presbyterian minister, who filled the post until 1725.

The Scottish connection was vital and significant. William Hannay was one of many Covenanters who had suffered much in his own country for his faith.

His father, William Hannay, senior, carried a Geneva Bible of 1599 which had been pierced by a trooper’s sword as he hid with it under a pile of straw. As a 15-year-old, William Hannay, junior, had been arrested in 1682, taken in chains by the military to Edinburgh and tortured there with the thumbscrews. After 18 months of imprisonment, he was then sold as an indentured servant to a sugar plantation owner in Barbados. After his release and return, young William Hannay came to Scarborough with his father’s old battered Bible and put it on view in his chapel.

When he retired the Reverend William Hannay carried his Bible back to Scotland, but under the guidance of his long-lived successors, William Whitaker (1725-73) and Samuel Bottomley (1773-1830), 
Scarborough’s Independents, as most locals called them, steadily increased their numbers. Their chapel was enlarged in 1744, again in 1774, and finally in 1801, so that it could seat 500 Presbyterians.

During these years, several summer visitors to the town noted what one of them called “the crouds of Scotch gentry” and no doubt their presence helps to account for the continuing success of Scarborough’s “Covenanters”. Spawers came to Scarborough for their physical health and sensual pleasure, but Sunday church or chapel attendance, for most of them, was also an essential part of their holiday experience.

When Celia Fiennes rode side-saddle into Scarborough in 1697 she too went in search of its religious offerings, but in her case she headed for the Quakers’ meeting-house further down St Sepulchregate in Low Conduit Street. Later, she wrote:

“The town has abundance of Quakers in it, most of their best lodgings were in Quakers hands, they entertain all people soe in Private houses in the town, by way of ordinary, so much meale, and their Ale every one finds themselves, there are a few Inns for horses only. I was at a Quaker meeting where 4 men and 2 women spoke, one after another had done...I observed their prayers were all made in the first person and single, tho’ before the body of people, it seems they allow not of ones being the mouth of the rest in prayer to God tho’ it be in the publick meetings...”

Celia deplored the “confusion” and “incoherence” of the Quakers’ meeting and thanked God that she and others were spared from their “errors”, but her curiosity and tolerance demonstrated the distance that society had progressed since the darkest days of vindictive persecution of the Friends which had ended less than a decade earlier.

Quakers were still excluded from public 
offices and professional qualification and occasionally they were still fined for refusal to pay tithes to the Church of England, but they were no longer required to take religious oaths. Now they were treated as eccentrics rather than pariahs or demons and even respected for their 
morality, honesty and sincerity.

Yet as Scarborough’s Friends gained in “respectability”, they lost in abrasive nonconformity, enthusiasm and numbers. In 1743 the Reverend Theophilus Garencieres had reported that the town had 29 Quaker families; half a century later, that number had fallen to 16. Where previously the town’s Friends were nearly all mariners and fishermen, now they were mostly merchants, tanners, grocers and shipbuilders.

Since the Friends were no longer bound closely together by external threat, the social temptation to “convert” to the establishment was sometimes irresistible. John Bland, the well-to-do Quaker merchant who gave his name to the new Cliff road down to the sands, had his son William baptised by St Mary’s vicar; Jacob Swales, another prominent Quaker, did the same for his daughter, Mercy; and in 1788 John and Isabella Tindall also finally left the Friends when they took their son James higher up the hill to the parish church.

The hardest requirement on Quakers was pacifism. In an age of almost continuous warfare with the French, Americans, privateers and pirates, in self-defence merchant mariners and even fishermen had to carry weapons when they went to sea. The moral dilemma for Scarborough’s biggest shipbuilders and shipowners, the Quaker Tindalls, was particularly acute. When William and Robert Tindall armed their crews they were expelled from the Society. Robert later returned and was buried in the St Sepulchre Street graveyard; William would not be reconciled.

However, John Rowntree, founder of the grocery business in the town and the first head of the family to live there, brought a welcome strength to the local Society.

In 1782, he was one of 12 trustees who bought the old meeting-house in Low Conduit and the burial ground in Bull Lane. In 1801, they built a new meeting-house on the north side of lower St Sepulchre Street and two years later, for £153, they bought an extensive plot around it which they made into a new graveyard and gardens. Selling groceries posed no moral problems.