Nostalgia: Tolerating the dissenters

The old Quaker meeting-house in St Sepulchre Street, Scarborough, built by the Tindalls, was opened in 1801; the land for the burial ground seen in the foreground was bought two years later.
The old Quaker meeting-house in St Sepulchre Street, Scarborough, built by the Tindalls, was opened in 1801; the land for the burial ground seen in the foreground was bought two years later.

After his 18-day stay in Scarborough during the summer of 1803, William Hutton expressed several compliments for his former hosts and their town, but one in particular was deferential rather than observed.

Unlike some other places known to him, “to the honour of Scarborough”, the “animosities arising from the difference of religious sentiments did not prevail there”. Hutton thought that Scarborough’s Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians all lived and worshipped in the town without “intolerant hostility” towards each other. Yet given what historians know of his time, Hutton’s thought looks more wishful than factual; and the reader of his Tour to Scarborough might legitimately question the opinion of a “visitant” formed after only 18 days.

In his Tour, Hutton also found space to praise Thomas Hinderwell’s recently published history of the borough. He had first offered a shilling to a local bookseller for a two-hour loan of the volume, but was so enthralled by it that within the time limit he had bought it for half a guinea.

At the end of a brief section of only two pages, under the title Chapels of Dissenters, Hinderwell had concluded with the following verdict: “The harmony which prevails among members of the different religious societies in Scarborough, is creditable to the town, and a distinguished mark of liberal principles.”

Hinderwell himself displayed a remarkable “tolerance” of religious Christian denominations other than his own Anglicanism. His generous donations to local charities were not exclusively to established church groups such as the Amicable Society but, for instance, to the non-denominational Lancasterian school. Unfortunately, however, Hinderwell’s own “liberal principles” were not always shared by his colleagues in the Town Hall. When the borough’s Anglican Bailiffs were offered places on the governing body of this new school which opened in 1810, the offer was abruptly rejected. Instead, the Common Council voted to grant five guineas from the borough’s treasury to the neighbouring school of the Amicable Society!

So Hinderwell’s reference to religious “harmony” was misleading: his own “tolerance” was exceptional and far from typical for an Anglican. Some who then belonged to the established, majority church might have been willing to accept Baptists or Presbyterians as fellow Protestant Christians, but most of them drew the line to exclude Quakers and Roman Catholics (“Papists”) were beyond the pale.

Hinderwell’s first reference to George Fox and his followers in a footnote was to describe them as “this contemptuous denomination”; only to retract it later in the text saying that their “religious principles” were now tolerated in “a more enlightened age”. In short, whereas he deplored the violent lawlessness of Fox’s adherents in the previous century, now he acknowledged that they had become an “orderly society” deserving the name “Friends”. This was indeed an “enlightened” attitude still rarely found two hundred years ago.

Not that Scarborough’s other Christians had reason to fear competition from the town’s Quakers. Though a Quaker community had existed in the town from as early as 1651, by 1810 there were still only about 70 members of the Society of Friends. However, what they had lost in numbers during the previous century, they had gained in affluence and influence. Once nearly all of them were poorer seafaring folk, now they included prosperous grocers, tanners, merchants and at least one gentleman. By far the biggest shipbuilders on Sandside were the Quaker Tindalls. In 1801 they built a new meeting house and two years later bought the ground in front of it on St Sepulchre Street which they used as their exclusive burial plot.

The Presbyterians or Independents, as some preferred to call themselves, had a much larger and grander chapel with seats for up to 600 on the opposite side of St Sepulchre Street. The success of the Presbyterians was due mostly to the popularity of Samuel Bottomley, minister from 1773 until 1830, and the town’s long-standing association with Scottish fishermen and women.

The Baptists also owed their support and growth to the longevity and activity of their founding minister. Originally a Wesleyan, the Rev William Hague had established a chapel for 38 communicants at the western end of Longwestgate in 1776-7. By the year he retired in 1816, his Ebenezer chapel had been enlarged to accommodate 500 members. Like the Quakers, the Baptists had secured their own adjacent graveyard.

But the religious movement that had attracted the greatest popular appeal in Scarborough as elsewhere throughout the whole country was Methodism. John Wesley first rode into Scarborough in 1759 and subsequently preached there 14 times more before his death in 1791. By that time there were 621 of his followers living in the town. Yet whereas the Quakers there were now tolerated as eccentrics and even respected for their honesty and reliability, the town’s newest religious gathering, known disparagingly as “Methodist”, was given a very hard reception. Their first purpose-built preaching house near the site of the Shambles was invaded by a violent mob and wrecked. John Wesley himself was refused a pulpit in St Mary’s, though when he preached in “the shell of the new House” on Church Stairs in 1772 there were nearly 300 there to listen to him.

In his History, significantly Hinderwell gave only four sentences and six lines to Scarborough’s Methodists and in 1811 recorded a gross underestimate of their numbers as only 160. Like many Anglicans of his day, it must have been particularly galling for him to see so many, like John Wesley himself, turn away from the established church and compelled reluctantly to die outside it.

Finally, there was one religious “denomination” with which there could be no reconciliation or even toleration - the Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, the seasonal presence of monied Catholic gentry, such as the Constables of Burton Constable and the Fairfaxes of Gilling, kept the “old faith” alive in Scarborough. Not until as late as 1809 was there enough support for a Catholic place of worship built in Auborough Street. At least Hinderwell called them Roman Catholics, not Papists, a slight still usually preferred by Protestants.