Nostalgia: ‘Gentlewoman of good repute’

Farrers Bar and Brasserie at Scarborough Spa was named after Mrs Thomasin Farrer.
Farrers Bar and Brasserie at Scarborough Spa was named after Mrs Thomasin Farrer.

It’s not often that I experience a sense of achievement or even appreciation, but such a day was August 1, 2013. Not that it was Yorkshire Day, which comes round every year, but because after nearly 400 years, Mrs Thomasin Farrer had at last been recognised, even by a lady dressed in Edwardian costume. Scarborough Borough Council had named its new bar at the Spa, Farrer’s, in her honour.

As long ago as 1735, Thomas Gent, printer, publisher and antiquarian, wrote an account, in the form of letters from a fictitious friend, of the antiquities of Scarborough as addenda to his History of Hull. Gent was an Irishman who settled in York and began a business there in 1725 as a master-printer. He was well-known as an eccentric both in appearance and outlook, who grew a long beard, wore an unfashionable long cloak and “affected an air of gravity”.

In 1734 Gent had set up what he described as “a printing office” in “Bland’s Lane, formerly called his Cliff”, but there is no evidence that any work was published there and his History of Scarborough remained no more than an intention. However, in the course of his account of Scarborough, he referred to a lady called “Mrs Farrow” who had first made the discovery of what became the Spa spring at the foot of Driple Cotes. Given that by 1735 Scarborough “Spaw” had become a fashionable resort for the aristocracy and gentry, Gent told his readers that the memory of “Mrs Farrow” “ought to be ever precious”!

Thomas Gent did not know Mrs Farrow’s first name and his spelling of her married title was only one of many variations. The earliest printed reference to “Mrs Farrow” was made by Dr Robert Wittie in his pioneer book on Scarborough Spaw published in York in 1667 and Gent had followed his spelling. Such consistency was then rare. I have seen Farrar, Farror, Faro, Fayrer, Farroe, Ferrere, Farer, Farden and even Pharaoh!

Also there has been some disagreement about the year when her momentous walk along South Bay sands actually took place. Wittie suggested 1626 or 1627; Gent preferred about 1630; Brogden Baker pushed it back to 1620; Rowntree accepted Wittie’s 1626 and his spelling of “Farrow” and so did Gordon Forster in his chapter in Scarborough 966-1966. Not that the exact year matters: only the fact of it really matters as a crucial date in Scarborough’s history.

All these secondary histories have told us nothing about Mrs Farrer, apart from the third, posthumous Hinderwell of 1832 which identified her for the first time as the wife of John Farrer, the bailiff and founder of Farrer’s Hospital. Otherwise the best we are offered is that she was “a sensible intelligent lady”, a phrase copied by Baker without acknowledgement of its source. Rowntree is even less informative: all he does is to quote Wittie, who had written that she was a “Gentlewoman of good Repute”!

Independent research here is soon rewarded. A list of wedding licences reveals that in 1600 John “Farrar” of Scarborough was permitted to marry Thomasin Hutchinson of Wykeham Abbey. The family tree of the Hutchinsons then shows that Thomasin was one of the ten children of Edward Hutchinson who was granted arms in 1581 and elected one of the MPs for Scarborough five years later. Thomasin’s eldest brother, Stephen, was also one of the borough’s representatives in Parliament in 1626 and her elder sister, Isabel, was married to Christopher Thompson, one of Scarborough’s oligarchy, who was bailiff in 1599, 1604, 1614 and 1617. As for John Farrar, he too was already in Scarborough’s First Twelve by 1600. Eventually he was one of the bailiffs no fewer than six times and makes frequent appearances in the records of the corporation as justice, tax-payer and finally founder of one of the town’s charity hospitals. He was probably some years older than Thomasin and died between 1627 and 1630.

So perhaps Thomasin was already a widow by the time she took that famous stroll along the sands of South Bay. But because she then became a property-owner in her own name and remained a resident of Auborough, she is listed along with other male tax-payers, charity donors and church pew occupants. So, in 1635, “Mrs Farroe” had her own privileged place in St Mary’s church. In 1638, she was assessed at four shillings for her contribution to St Mary’s new windows which was twice as much as William Penston, the grammar schoolmaster. And in the same year, “Mrs Tomyzin Farden widdow” paid another four shillings towards the cost of a new ship of war for the Royal Navy.

When the Civil War began in 1642, many Scarborians left the town for their own safety, but not Mrs Farrer. The Thompsons were Royalists but her brother Stephen a Roundhead, so that as the town changed hands several times these must have been stressful years for her. Nevertheless, “Mrs Farer” in 1642, “Mrs Farrer” in 1644 and “Mrs Faro” in 1647 were all present at court for blocking the sewer that ran behind her back door or “gardinge ioyninge to the king’s street”. Mrs Farrer was certainly a survivor.

Her final documentary appearances are in Scarborough’s Poor Law papers. In May 1647 she was paying a penny a week for the maintenance of an orphan boy called John Deeton who was not yet “fitt to be put apprentice”; and as late as 1654, she is still assessed at the same rate. By then she must have been over 70 years old.

The last will of “Thomasin Farrer widdow of Scarbrough” was dated March 1654. There is no reference in it to children or to her Hutchinson and Thompson relatives, only to a niece, Agnes Syme.

Finally, since both Farrer’s Hospital and Farrer’s Aisle in St Mary’s south transept are named after her husband John, at last we can say that the Spa’s new bar and brasserie belong to Mrs Thomasin Farrer.