Nostalgia: The Borough – a law unto itself

Newborough Bar and Borough jail, 1845, by Henry Barlow Carter
Newborough Bar and Borough jail, 1845, by Henry Barlow Carter

Though the old, unreformed Scarborough Corporation had no direct responsibility for the care of the parish poor, the Royal Commission inquiry of 1833 into its constitution, composition and conduct revealed that the Town Hall still retained substantial authority in matters of felony, misdemeanour and punishment.

The Corporation’s two, annually-elected Bailiffs had the same powers as justices of the peace and presided over the borough’s quarter sessions and leet court. The Common Hall appointed and paid all the law enforcement officers, such as the two constables in each of the four Quarters and the two sub-bailiffs; and the same body of men had responsibility for the debtors’ prison, the felons’ gaol and the house of correction. In effect, apart from capital crimes, which were referred to the York assizes, the borough was still a law unto itself. For instance, its burgesses had exemption from serving on juries at the North Riding quarter sessions and the York assizes.

Most of the medieval offices, such as the pinder, who collected straying animals and fined their owners; the warrener, who watched over The Plantation in Ramsdale, the Corporation’s gates and fences and prevented trespass and poaching; the Common Cryer, who often acted as an extra policeman; the leather searchers, breadweighers, alefiners and coal meters, who checked and regulated market and harbour trade, were all appointed and salaried annually by the Town Hall.

Even the court leet jury, which examined and certified weights and measures, were chosen by and sworn before the Bailiffs. Not surprisingly, the Town Clerk told the royal commissioners that it was “a great inconvenience” that Scarborough borough had only two such powerful officers. If one of them was ill, he said, no session of the peace was summoned. The town gaoler, appointed by members of the First Twelve, received a salary of £40 a year and had rent – and tax-free apartments in the prison. A description of the felons’ prison built into the north side of Newborough Bar was printed by the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1805:

There are four cells for felons, nine feet square, and seven feet high; two of them are four steps underground, very damp and dirty, with straw or plank bedsteads. The iron grating of one dungeon is over an open and very offensive drain.

If the commissioners had actually inspected the town gaol perhaps they would not have described it merely as “very much out of repair and very inconvenient” and that there ”was no place for the prisoners to walk in”. The gaolers themselves did not seem to mind. John Fowler lived there from 1811 until 1823 and his successor, Thomas Outlet, from 1823 until 1835.

Scarborough’s house of correction was hardly any better: it too had neither exercise yard or garden. Its three rooms had “conveniences” in one corner and the stench was “abominal”. Worst of all was a third place called grimly “the black-hole”. Though the number of prisoners was said to be “very small”, no one seemed to know the population of the house of correction or what form of correction was used there, but the keeper was paid only five guineas a year.

At this point it should be explained that two centuries ago, except for debtors, imprisonment was always short-term. Scarborough’s gaol and house of correction were small, confined spaces because they needed to accommodate only a few vagrants, beggars, drunkards, brawlers and prostitutes for one or two nights rather than weeks or months.

In the past, such offenders were given public whippings, put in the stocks on Thursday market days, or made to pay small fines. However, by the 1820s, Scarborough’s prisons were inadequate to deal with the growing number of petty thieves, pilferers, pick-pockets and beggars who crowded its streets and preyed on the wealthy spawers. It therefore became the custom for the Bailiffs to sentence such miscreants to months, or even years, to Northallerton’s own North Riding house of correction.

As examples, in 1829 alone, Francis MacDonald, who had taken napkins from the Bull Inn; Catherine MacNaff, a tramp and match vendor, who had stolen a shawl; and a servant girl called Turner, who had concealed a bastard child fathered by her employer, Richard Edmondson of Prospect Place, were all given a minimum of 24 months at Northallerton.

In that same year, 1829, the first offenders in Scarborough were sent as a punishment to the other side of the world. Stealing anything of value from then on incurred a standard penalty of seven years transportation to Australia, from which there was no return ticket. The first convicts had been shipped to Botany Bay in 1787, but then the wars with France checked the flow and it was not resumed until after 1815. During the war years hundreds of convicted felons were pressed into army or naval service or forced to work in shipyard docks and exist on river hulks.

The fragment of a book of bills, covering the years 1809 to 1819, written by one of Scarborough’s constables, gives us a picture of law enforcement at that time. Paid in salary only two guineas a year, he had to arrest, lock-up, convey and occasionally whip a varied assortment of vagrants, whores, confidence tricksters, drunks and brawlers to supplement his income. On his list of claims for expenses there are frequent references to the “hoppit”, “hoppet” or “oppit”, the town’s cell for overnight prisoners. There he had to feed them with bread and water and charge for fresh straw for their bedding. Usually, after only one uncomfortable night in the hoppet, they were escorted to the borough boundary and warned not to come back.

So-called vagrants received the harshest treatment: the constable was paid three shillings for taking three of them “to the whipping post” in the workhouse yard. The flogger got five shillings for his labour. Disabled “straingers” begging in the streets were dealt with mercilessly and invariably expelled forcibly from the borough. No concession was made for war veterans. Children were taken to the workhouse. This was a time of exceptional unemployment, high food prices and widespread social unrest, particularly in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.