Nostalgia: Violent murder at White Nab

View looking south from Holbeck towards White Nab where the body of Miss Lydia Bell was found at low watermark.
View looking south from Holbeck towards White Nab where the body of Miss Lydia Bell was found at low watermark.

In the summer of 1803, William Hutton and his daughter Catherine spent 18 happy days on holiday in Scarborough. The following year, William’s A Tour of Scarborough appeared in print. He had many complimentary comments to make about Scarborough, but one in particular that seems doubtful was that during those 18 days in June 1803 he had not seen “one beggar in the streets”: doubtful because the fragmentary surviving evidence from constables’ bills and court reports suggest that in season the town was plagued with “strollers”, “straingers” who were up to no good, and fraudsters of every kind who had come there to exploit and steal from the rich and gullible spawers.

Another favourable comment about Scarborough at about this time, which seems to contradict the primary evidence from elsewhere, comes from a predictably partisan source. When discussing the conduct of the law courts in the town, the Corporation solicitor, Edward S Donner, who also had a place in the Common Hall, said that the police were “sufficient to protect the peace”, that “few places were so quiet and orderly, and that they had “no need of night watchmen”. Since the Donners, Edward and his father, were owners of the Long Room, as well as permanent occupants of Town Hall seats, they had self-interest in persuading royal commissioners that Scarborough was well run by its existing unelected Corporation.

In fact, Scarborough under the old regime had serious problems of law enforcement, especially during the spa season and when it was a garrison for hundreds of soldiers, and its means of coping with local crime were clearly inadequate.

In the same year that Hutton’s Tour was published, a sensational murder took place in Scarborough. It was widely reported in the Yorkshire and national press. The corpse of a young lady by the name of Miss Lydia Bell was discovered at a low water mark under the cliff at White Nab, the borough’s southern boundary. She had not drowned and she had not committed suicide. She had been strangled to death and her body had been thrown over the cliff. It emerged that Lydia was the daughter of “a respectable confectioner of York”, who had been on holiday with her parents at lodgings in Long Room Street.

At the coroner’s inquest it was revealed that Lydia had been “walking out” with one of the young officers of the York Volunteers, who were quartered at the castle. Her parents had strongly disapproved of the relationship, but had failed to prevent her from leaving their lodgings without an escort. The officer in question was arrested and sent for trial to the assizes at York and there he was acquitted for lack of evidence.

Though no proof of guilt could be found, four “witnesses” from the York Volunteers, Val Nicholson, William Short, Jonathan Simpson and Robert Johnson, all swore on oath that they had seen the defendant with Miss Bell walking together on the Cayton Road the night before her murder.

Later, it transpired that all four had perjured themselves to protect the identity of the murderer who was one of them. All four were said to have suffered torments of guilt and chronic nightmares and to have met untimely deaths. Shortly before he died, Val Nicholson confessed that he had been responsible.

Miss Bell’s murder was undoubtedly a crime of passion and probably not the only one committed in Scarborough by a garrisoned soldier or an on-shore naval rating during the many years of war with France.

Another fertile nursery of local crime and violence was smuggling. Scarborough’s revenue and excisemen were frequently assaulted by smugglers and their accomplices. Valentine Bailey was hanged at York for shooting and killing John Smith, a revenue officer. The principal witness against Bailey was his female partner. When the jury declared the verdict of guilty and the judge passed sentence against him, Bailey was so angry at her betrayal that he knocked her to the floor of the courtroom.

But the most sensational event concerning smuggling and murder took place outside Scarborough in February 1823. A constable’s record book of the time related what took place:

James Law of Staintondale was shot by William Mead as he was returning from Scarboro’ market...going through Burniston on horses. They [Law and his friends] sang a song called The Pergerd (Perjured) Song.

It seems that William Mead was a common informer against Law, but in 1822 at a London trial he had been found guilty of perjury. Mead had vowed to take revenge on Law and took it as he rode through Burniston on his way home. “James Law lingered eight days and died of his wound.”

However, at the York assizes in March 1823, Mead was found guilty of only manslaughter, not murder, and sentenced to only two years in prison. The explanation for this lenient verdict and sentence was that Law was a notorious, wanted criminal, and professional smuggler whereas Mead was a useful informer. In normal circumstances, William Mead would have been executed for murder or at least transported to Botany Bay, but smuggling was so endemic in the area that the authorities were willing to bend the rules to combat it.

Visitors to Scarborough at this time often noted how cheap they found normally expensive commodities such as tea, coffee, tobacco, brandy and gin. During Napoleon’s blockade of European ports, trading between Britain and the Continent was reduced to a minimum. Smuggling was therefore extraordinary profitable, so profitable that many publicans, innkeepers and grocers in Scarborough believed that it outweighed the risks of being caught by revenue officers. Certain places, such as the gardens of Paradise House, and certain public houses and inns, such as the Golden Last in Carr (Cross) Street and the Old Blue Bell on Bland’s Cliff, became well-known warehouses for smuggled goods. The publican of the Golden Last made so much money from contraband that he often said that gold came down his chimney rather than soot. If, until its abolition in 1807, the ports of Bristol and Liverpool grew rich on the African slave trade, Scarborough prospered on smuggling.