Nostalgia: Shattered Scarborough

A view of Clarence Gardens, North Bay, formerly known as Tintinholmes. A plague 'pesthouse' once stood in this area outside the town's residential boundary.
A view of Clarence Gardens, North Bay, formerly known as Tintinholmes. A plague 'pesthouse' once stood in this area outside the town's residential boundary.

If a veteran of Henry Cholmley’s Bluecoats (who had disgraced themselves on the battlefield of Edgehill in 1642) finally returned home after an absence of 18 years, he would have found his 
native town almost unrecognisable.

Conspicuously, Scarborough’s familiar skyline had changed. Looking up from Newborough Street towards the castle, where Henry II’s majestic keep had stood proudly for half a millennium, he would have noticed that there was now a gaping hole in its western wall. The great tower had lost its turrets, its roof, upper floors and interior newel staircase. It was now no more than a forlorn wreck, offering neither shelter nor high lookout. Here was one permanent reminder of the destruction inflicted by modern cannon on medieval, military architecture.

On the other hand, looking more closely, our veteran would soon have observed that the barbican gateway, the drawbridges, the long curtain wall and its many towers had been fully repaired. Also, what had been Sir Hugh Cholmley’s artillery platform on the South Steel, overlooking and dominating the harbour, was again in use as a cannon battery. Formerly abandoned to pilferers, stone robbers, hares and pasturing cattle, Scarborough castle was once again a manned, armed stronghold with a permanent military garrison. And Sir Jordan Crosland, royalist hero, was receiving £131 2s 8d a month from the excise commissioners of beer and ale to pay his royal garrison.

In contrast, Scarborough’s town defences had reverted to their pre-war state. Newborough and Oldborough gateways were again in urgent need of major repairs. In vain, the town’s rulers appealed to residents not to unload their refuse and rubbish into the perimeter ditch or add to the middens already accumulating at Scarborough’s two main entrances. A traveller approaching the town would smell it before he could see it. It was assumed that the danger now came only from the sea in the form of pirates or Dutch warships. When the second war with the old naval enemy began in 1665, Scarborough raised 30 fully-trained militia under the command of Captain Francis Thompson.

Some buildings were irreparable. All that now remained of the church of St Thomas the Martyr, which had stood just inside Newborough Bar for nearly 500 years, was a street name and a few of its pillars and stones re-used to shore up the north side of St Mary’s. And the parish church, which twice had been a fierce battleground, was now reduced to a sad, shrunken, towerless remnant of its former medieval glory. Only the outer shell of its chancel had survived.

A third religious building, the former chantry or charnel chapel, on the North Cliff had disappeared entirely. As a result, Scarborough’s homeless grammar school had been transferred over the road to Farrer’s Aisle in St Mary’s.

Other buildings the town was happy to lose. During earlier “visitations” of the plague, the Common Hall had put up “pesthouses” outside the residential boundary – one at Tintinholmes (Clarence Gardens) and another on Driple Cotes above South Cliff.

Fortunately, when the pestilence returned elsewhere in 1665, this time Scarborough was spared by “God in his mercy”. In fact, having learned from many past experiences of the so-called black death, the Common Hall sealed off the town by day and night, compelled all inhabitants to take part in “voluntary” watch-keeping, and fined anyone who refused to cooperate.

Other structures, essential to the town, were by 1660 mostly restored and back in use. The borough’s only windmill, which Meldrum in 1645 and Bethell in 1648 had employed to observe the besieged town below, was again leased out to local millers. The borough’s pinfold, where straying animals, particularly pigs, were kept by the borough’s pindar and returned to their owners after payment of a fine, had been re-built. And the borough’s prison, which had once been in Oldborough Quarter, seems to have been re-located to the north side of Newborough Bar.

Most striking to a homecoming traveller would have been Scarborough’s loss of population and of market trade. In the absence of a continuous, well-kept parish register of baptisms, marriages and burials until after 1682, and relying on only fragments of other documentary evidence, it is impossible to make accurate assessments of population; but the general trends are clear enough.

The average number of annual baptisms at St Mary’s during the 1630s was 87; during the 1660s, it was only 48; and even by the 1680s, it was still only 77. The presence of a small community of the town’s Quakers, who would have refused baptism for their children at the parish church, does not begin to explain this fall and failure to recover pre-war numbers.

Using the new Hearth or Chimney Tax returns, the households charged in Scarborough rose from 341 in 1660 to 366 by 1673, but at four per household the population of the town by the latter date was still short of 2,000. Only by the late 1680s had Scarborough’s residential numbers recovered to those of 50 years earlier. Falsgrave village, counted separately, was poorer than any part of Scarborough: no one living there had more than three hearths and 42% of its householders were excused the tax altogether on account of their poverty.

However, the surviving evidence does indicate that, unlike most larger towns in England by that time, in Restoration Scarborough there was still even distribution of residential wealth. All four Quarters, Undercliff, Oldborough, St Mary’s and Newborough, contained the homes of both rich and needy, living side by side. Scarborough’s grandest mansion, with 12 fireplaces, the home of William Thompson, the borough’s MP, was in St Sepulchregate in Oldborough; but two more of the Thompsons, Richard and Francis, owned houses on the steep slope running down from St Mary’s. With its breweries, tanneries and street markets, Newborough was the industrial and commercial centre of the town, yet some of its most affluent burgesses such as the Fyshs and the Foords, had their homes there. Finally, Undercliff on the harbour front behind the shipyards and quays, was favoured by the Tindalls, Cockerills and Porritts. It would be some years yet before the well-to-do moved up the hill away from the sea front.