Edmund Withers

The Royal Hotel,formerley the site of the Long Room.'Picture by Neil Silk  112913a
The Royal Hotel,formerley the site of the Long Room.'Picture by Neil Silk 112913a

AFTER HER unpleasant experience of its spa in the summer of 1732, Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, vowed never to return to Scarborough, but the 1733 season there was possibly one of the best the town had ever yet enjoyed.

Two letters written from Scarborough at the end of July, one by an anonymous gentleman to his friend in London, the other by Edmund Withers to his cousin in Leeds, described the resort in glowing terms. The first, published by Caesar Ward and Richard Chandler, who had booksellers’ shops in Scarborough and London, was clearly a bogus exercise in commercial advertising, whereas the latter, not printed until as late as 1850, was the detached, private view of a genuine visitor. Nevertheless, the two accounts have much in common.

Both agreed that the situation of Scarborough was “very romantic”. Withers was particularly impressed by the site of “the vast and stately ruins of the old castle”, standing on “the summit of a stupendous precipice, surrounded on three sides by the ocean”. Employing the characteristic exaggeration of the holiday-maker writing home, he described the promontory as “upwards of fifty acres”, when in fact it was less than 20, and the castle itself as “built in the Conqueror’s time”, a century too early.

Both noted the size, strength and busy activity of the harbour, yet without referring to ship-building there. Withers thought that the great stone pier (he did not mention the little one inside it) was 300 yards long and had been constructed at “immense” cost and labour. He was also aware that the borough had recently secured an Act of Parliament which would allow it to build another new pier to enlarge the port at a cost of “about £10,000”. He did not appreciate that the money would come from duties on the coastal coal trade and he would have been surprised to learn that Scarborough’s great east pier would take nearly a century to finish.

Like all Anglican visitors to Scarborough until Christ Church was opened in 1828, Withers complained about the “incommodious” situation of the parish church. St Mary’s, he wrote, was a “sore pull up-hill and toil necessary to come to it”. Perhaps he settled for the more accessible Quaker meeting-house in lower Cook’s Row or the nearby Presbyterian chapel in lower St Sepulchregate, as other visitors did.

Since most of the streets of the old town were so steep that, in Withers’ words, they were “impracticable to coach or cart”, they were generally avoided by the majority of spawers. They gathered in the upper Newborough Quarter and on the South Bay sands, “the polite parts of town”. These sands, “two miles long” and “as level as a bowling green” (no crown greens in those days), according to Ward and Chandler, and “a good mile in length”, according to the more accurate Withers, tide permitting, were the parade ground for the visiting assembly.

Whereas the duchess of Marlborough had been appalled by the indiscriminate mixture of all kinds of classes, in contrast, Edmund Withers, the commoner, was delighted by the informality of the visiting company. In his words, there was “no difference or distinction made of quality, but high and low, equally privileged, pass and repass, mix and separate, as if it were in the Elysian fields”. What had been hell on earth for the duchess was paradise at the seaside for Edmund Withers.

Ward and Chandler pointed out that at Scarborough “gentlemen appear in all places naked, that is without their swords”, explaining that they did so to eliminate distinctions of rank “in a general complaisance”. Whatever formalities might have to be observed at home, in the company at Scarborough the quality and gentry of both sexes mixed freely with each other on equal terms.

Such exceptional “promiscuity” occurred at the spa well, presided over by Dicky Dickinson. Deformed, uncouth, ill-mannered and witty, “the governor of Scarborough spaw”, charged five shillings to allcomers who then had the free use for the season of his “retirements”.

After availing themselves of Dicky’s “gentle spring” and conveniences for ladies and gentlemen in the morning, in the evening the company “seldom less than one hundred” gathered in the Long Room. This “noble spacious building, 52 feet long, 30 feet wide and 16 feet high” had been “erected upon a high eminence at the south end of the town”. Here the spawers diverted one another in dancing, gambling, drinking and eating. Below stairs there were billiard tables. Mr Vipont of Hampstead, master of the Long Room, had brought up cooks from London.

Withers was dazzled by this gathering of “stars, blue ribands and red ribands” which he thought was “much the gallantest assembly in the Kingdom”. Among the aristocracy he identified the dukes of Rutland and Argyle, the marquis of Lothian and the earls of Chesterfield, Marchmont and Huntingdon. The Scottish gentry were there in great numbers. He reckoned that during the season visitors spent no less than £14,000 in the town.

Yet he did not think that Scarborough was expensive. At one of the best unnamed inns, after the spa he was served with free bread and broth. Eight or ten dishes at noon dinner cost him a shilling, and in the evening, supper of two or three hot dishes, was only four pence. The daily tariff for stabling his horse was sixpence. Despite the presence of Royal Navy patrol ships, Scarborians enjoyed the benefits of a variety of smuggled, duty-free goods: brandy was a shilling a quart and tea five shillings a pound.

Edmund Withers never mentioned the coffee house, where for half a crown the season you could have the use of paper, pen and ink, or the shop where ladies and gentlemen could borrow books, read newspapers and collect their mail, all for a subscription of five shillings. There is even doubt that he went to one of the twice-weekly playhouse entertainments provided by Mr Keregan’s players in a “large booth” by the sign of the Crown and Sceptre.

So Mr Withers had come to Scarborough to enjoy himself and not as an invalid for “the cure” and he was not disappointed, perhaps for reasons he was too discreet to describe.