Nostalgia: Riches from the sea-coal trade

The growth in the sea-coal trade out of Sunderland and Newcastle led to the Privy Council granting Scarborough the right to levy colliers trading between Newcastle and London.
The growth in the sea-coal trade out of Sunderland and Newcastle led to the Privy Council granting Scarborough the right to levy colliers trading between Newcastle and London.

Round about 1600, radical changes were taking place in the construction of houses, not just those of the rich but even the homes of the “middling sort”. Brick was replacing timber, thatch was giving way to tiles, chimney flues succeeded holes in walls and roofs, upper storeys were being added to ground floors and large glazed and leaded windows displaced narrow, boarded openings. In other words, homes were becoming more comfortable, better lit, less draughty and warmer.

One of the main reasons for these improvements was the growing use of coal instead of wood for fuel. And no town in England experienced these changes more rapidly than Scarborough. In more ways than one, coal saved Scarborough from the long decline in its population and prosperity that had begun with the first visitation of the great plague in 1349.

At the beginning of the reign of James I in 1603, there was yet another cry of woe from the bailiffs and burgesses to the Crown. Once Scarborough had been a “towne of great traffique by sea”, but lately it was decayed and depopulated, “3 parts thereof to the number of 600 tenements being utterly ruinated”. The petition then went on to recite the huge financial burdens on the borough which it could no longer bear: £100 plus for pier maintenance; the fee-farm rent to the King of £91 a year; and the aparliamentary subsidy of £66 13s 4d of 1601 which it had still not paid. Similar appeals had been addressed to Queen Elizabeth and had been supported by the Lord High Admiral, the Earl of Nottingham, and the second Lord Burghley, formerly Lord President of the Council of the North at York.

Though no doubt exaggerated, this petition, like its predecessors, failed to arouse the sympathy of either Crown or Parliament. No help was offered to meet the costs of pier repair and no reduction in the onerous fee-farm rent was allowed. All that King James conceded was to reduce the subsidy by half.

As a result, the great outer pier, so vital to Scarborough’s claim to be the only safe haven between the Tees and the Humber, went unrepaired, until the inevitable happened.

The first indication of a disaster came in a petition to the Privy Council from Newcastle’s mayor, dated December 15, 1615, a copy of which was sent to the bailiffs of Scarborough. A great storm on November 1 had damaged Scarborough’s pier much to the alarm of Newcastle’s maritime traders. Another petition to the Privy Council, this time from the mayor and aldermen of Hull, soon followed with more detail. The “peeres and defences against the sea belonging to the town of Scarborough [had been] greatlie broken by a sore and sudden storme and tempest which happened on or about the feast of all saintes last”. Both petitions pointed out that, since there was no other secure and convenient shelter for ships sailing between Tyne and Humber, it was essential that Scarborough harbour should be speedily restored.

From them on petitions poured into London from almost every east-coast port, from Lynn, Great Yarmouth, Dunwich, Ipswich, Boston, Harwich, Colchester, Deptford to London itself. Finally, there came a general petition of shipowners, masters and mariners “trading for Newcastle and the north ports of England” with 361 signatures from 14 different ports. Hull was the only one in Yorkshire to endorse it: presumably, Scarborough’s closest rivals, Bridlington, Whitby and Coatham, had hoped to gain from its misfortune.

This response to events at Scarborough was unprecedented and irresistible; but what was not explicit in the petitions was the spectacular growth of the sea-coal trade out of Sunderland and Newcastle which prompted it. We know that by 1615 there were as many as 400 ships engaged all year round in this carrying commerce, at least half of them supplying London’s domestic hearths, furnaces and boilers. Exports of coal out of the Tyne and Wear more than doubled between 1603 and 1630.

So during these years Scarborough had begun to find a new purpose, importance and source of profit. The Privy Council promptly acknowledged this by granting the town the right to levy fourpence on every vessel under 50 tons and eightpence on everyone of above 50 tons trading between Newcastle and London. There were to be no exemptions. From now on, this “pier money”, as it grew in value, was sent regularly to Scarborough’s coroners and became much more than enough to pay for all necessary repairs and improvements.

Another consequence of these providential events was that Scarborians started to build colliers of their own for the trade and their seamen began to sail in them. In 1600, no Scarborough ship was engaged in coal-carrying; by 1625, 75 cargoes of coal were transported in Scarborough’s colliers; and in 1639, of the 154 colliers bringing coal into Scarborough, 138 were home vessels. So, in more than one way, sea-coal had rescued Scarborough and turned round its economy.

All Scarborough’s residents profited, if only to have cheap coal brought directly to their homes, to blacksmiths’ forges, to brewhouses, bakeries and salt-pans. Coal had replaced wood as the basic, essential fuel.

A bailiffs’ order of 1625 illustrates how sea-coal was changing the town. Each of the borough’s nine licensed “horseporters” had their “pokes” (sacks) regularly checked. Every horse carried six “pokes”, each containing six bushells, making a total, full load of one chaldron. The charge for a chaldron depended on how far away from the harbour was the place of delivery.

Customers “along the sands” would pay eight pence; beneath Longgreese Steps, ten pence; all along Westgate and up the Dumple, 16 pence; up to Paradise, 20 pence; all the “leade Stoope” (Leading Post) up to the Corn Cross at the end of Westgate, 16 pence; all Merchant Row, sevenpence; from the Corn Cross to Beast Market (lower Queen Street), 16 pence; from Beast Market to the high conduit (corner of Newborough and St Thomas Street), 20 pence; all St Nicholas and St Thomas streets 20 pence; and from the high conduit to Newborough Gate, two shillings.

So all the town’s inhabitants and industries were within range of coal deliveries, except for the poor people of Falsgrave.

[to be continued]