Nostalgia: Caring for the town’s poor

Distribution of charity was usually the responsibility of either the vicar of St Mary's and his churchwardns or the Corporation.
Distribution of charity was usually the responsibility of either the vicar of St Mary's and his churchwardns or the Corporation.

Distribution of charity to the poor was usually the responsibility of either the vicar of St Mary’s and his churchwardens or the Corporation. For instance, the Rev John Kirk, vicar from 1782 until 1828, had given the proceeds of the annual rent of £9 9s of Burr Head Causeway Close of five acres in the form of bread on Old May day at St Mary’s. This bequest might have evolved from that of Thomas Sedman made a century earlier and referred to in last week’s article. 

On the other hand, when one of Scarborough’s many eccentrics, Robert North of 43 Queen Street, died in 1760 he left a will granting his four tenements in Tollergate for the use of Scarborough’s poor, but left it to the Corporation to choose their occupants. Here was one act of charity that survived traditional Corporation mismanagement: as late as 1880 these tenements housed five poor persons. 

Seafaring was, and still is, such dangerous work that mariners themselves provided for their own unfortunate brothers and sisters. Two hundred years ago, Scarborough had two major hospitals or almshouses for the widows and orphans of seafarers and “broken seamen”. The Society of Shipowners, Masters and Mariners was founded on December 21, 1602, the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle, patron saint of fishermen. Thirty-five owners and 39 master mariners agreed then to meet every year on the same day at St Mary’s church and, after a religious service, process to the Common Hall on Sandside. There they would elect four wardens for the following year. To raise funds, they also agreed that for every successful return coastal voyage and every voyage abroad, owners would pay fourpence and eightpence and their masters one and twopence respectively.

Only fragments of the wardens’ accounts have survived from the seventeenth century, but they show that “the seamen’s charity” was substantial and generously disturbed. The Society had no almshouse of its own until 1682 when Trinity House was finished, so that the wardens dispensed money to widows and “broken seafareingmen” of Scarborough and also shipwrecked sailors whatever their place of origin.

On December 21, 1780, the members of the Society decided to transfer their funds to the president and trustees of the Seamen’s Hospital which had been founded in 1752. This was a consequence of an Act of Parliament “for the relief and support of maimed and disabled seamen and widows of such” which required every shipowner to pay sixpence a month for every vessel in service into a collective fund. At Scarborough, after this fund had accumulated more than a thousand pounds in five years, it was decided to build a second home for distressed mariners to be called the Merchant Seamen’s Hospital. For £90 the trustees bought half an acre of pasture “without Aubrough” where King Street (Castle Road) joined Greengate (North Marine Road). There they built a fine stone court containing 25 apartments which normally accommodated about 100 former seamen, their wives, widows and children. 

Finally, the only medieval almshouse in Scarborough to survive the Reformation, the hospital of St Thomas the Martyr, still existed nearly 500 years after its foundation on the west side of the Ropewalk (North Street later) opposite the workhouse. It had survived because, unlike the other religious foundations, it was permanently funded by the Corporation from the rent in St Thomas fields in Burtondale. The fields were described in Corporation rentals as “three closes on the nether side of King Street (Seamer Road), commonly called Marr closes”, because they were adjacent to Scarborough Mere.  

The high rent and the high status of their tenants suggest that these meadows were highly prized, though a part of the rent, usually two pounds, was reserved for “the poor people of St Thomas house”. Even after the Civil Wars of the 1640s had led to the total destruction of the church of St Thomas, the almshouse remained and, by the standards of such refuges for the elderly, infirm and widowed, the occupants were particularly well treated.

Vacancies in the hospital were filled by the Corporation’s chamberlains, its finance officers, and the inmates received 10s 4d a year and special payments in addition - £2 6s 8d on old Candlemas Day (February 2); the same sum at old Lammas Day (August 1); and £3 at old Christmas Day. In other words, the hospital still observed the obsolete pre-1752 Julian calendar long after it had been replaced by the Gregorian. Another traditional custom took place every year on Shrove Tuesday when the hospital bell was rung at midday to signal the start of pancake-making and high-jinks on the sands and the foreshore on the last day before Lent fasting began.

Scarborough had only two public clocks: one in the tower of St Mary’s after it had been restored following the Civil Wars, and the other at the site of the old market cross (St Helen’s Square). But Scarborians would have listened for and heard St Thomas’ bell which was rung at six in the morning and at six every night to begin and end the day’s work. The bellringer was paid a quarterly salary of eight shillings “in lieu of coals and candles for the due performance of the office”.

Each tenement in this low, decaying building had two rooms, but the total number of poor people accommodated was never very great. According to Hinderwell’s third edition of 1832, there were then only thirteen tenements for fourteen aged and infirm “brothers and sisters”, so-called because in medieval times the inmates were obliged to obey the rules of St Augustine. However, whether the strict rules of conduct required of Augustinian almshouses and their inmates were still being observed in Regency Scarborough is doubtful.