Written by Dr Jack Binns
For a community that would soon be accommodating and entertaining an increasing number of upper-class visitors in its lodging-houses and assembly rooms, 400 years ago Scarborough was especially hostile to “strangers”. There were several valid reasons for this deep suspicion of outsiders and not least of them was fear of the plague.
Historians are still arguing amongst themselves about what kind of plague, bubonic, pneumonic or septicaemic, reached England in 1348 and effectively wiped out between a third and a half of its population within a year or so. Less well known is that from 1348, until its last major “visitation” to London in 1665, the Black Death was endemic: no place in the country was entirely free of it for long and seaports facing the Continent were particularly vulnerable. Scarborough was one of those ports.
To protect the town against infection imported by ship, the bailiffs were empowered to take extraordinary measures and enforce them. There was no understanding that the plague was spread by fleas hosted by black rats, but it was generally believed that vessels, their cargoes and crews were common carriers of the disease. So, in time of periodic pestilence, no ship was allowed to land goods or seamen until its master had sworn an oath that none had been in contact with diseased persons during the previous month. In the span of half a century, from 1598 until 1646, Scarborough was “visited” five times, in 1598, 1603-4, 1624-6, 1635-7 and finally in 1645 and on each occasion the Court of Pleas recorded lists of ships’ masters who took such oaths.
As for protection of Scarborians from landward infection, a statute of 1604 gave its bailiffs sweeping powers to exclude strangers, close markets, quarantine households, open pesthouses and levy special rates for the maintenance of orphans and paupers.
Breaches of their orders might incur fines, whipping or even the death penalty.
When Scarborough’s own Thursday and Saturday markets were shut down because of high mortality in the town, Scarborians were permitted to trade at Seamer instead.
Yet when the epidemic abated and Seamer’s Monday market remained open, the town’s ruling body resorted to exceptional means to suppress it and deter townsfolk from travelling there. Scarborough men who went to Seamer on Mondays were threatened with a huge fine of £3 6s. 8d and all 44 councillors were obliged to swear that Seamer market was “a great hyndrance to the town of Scardburgh”.
When plague returned to Scarborough in the late summer of 1624 its effects were so severe that the borough courts did not meet at Michaelmas and during the following winter some people were starving to death. Two townsmen and their wives were subsequently charged with going abroad at night to steal sheep from Seamer’s fields. They pleaded “necessity & hunger” in “this tyme of gods visitation”.
In each of the four Quarters, Newborough, Oldborough, St Mary’s and Undercliff, two night watchmen were appointed to confine people to their homes and all eight were senior members of the Common Hall. They were also authorised to make weekly collections for those “impoverished by the sickness”. Any householder who refused was forced to pay double.
So serious was the epidemic that by 1626 the Common Hall had to build a pesthouse in Tintinholms (Clarence Gardens) “for the use of the infected persons of this towne”.
In effect, this was Scarborough’s isolation hospital, well distant then from its residential area. Also, at the same Common Hall meeting, it was agreed that “swine that wear suffred & foond abroad” could be lawfully killed on sight “to avoyd infection”. So now pigs were to blame!
The worst outbreak came in 1635 and reached a climax in the September massacres of that year. Since rich and poor lived side by side and no one was allowed to leave the town, there was no immunity for anyone. Five children were buried in one day, four of them from leading families.
Scarborough’s restrictions on movement, markets and quarantining all broke down during the Civil War when the town was invaded from land and sea by thousands of seamen and soldiers. There was yet another outbreak of plague in 1645. A second pesthouse was opened at Driple Cotes (Esplanade). At the sheriff’s tourn in April 1646 it was decreed that anyone who damaged it would risk a fine of ten shillings.
There was another reason why Scarborough was unwelcoming to visitors: it had no need of them and they might become an extra burden on the rates.
Thanks to the effective enforcement of bye-laws which kept the streets and gutters clear of refuse, protected consumers from being poisoned and provided all inhabitants with clean drinking and washing water, mortality figures in Scarborough in the 1600s were much lower than in other towns. Unlike London or Newcastle or Bristol, Scarborough did not have to have immigrants to maintain its working population.
Therefore the town took a hostile view towards “undersettlers” who tried to come in from outside and even more so to “vagrants” who were all regarded as thieves, beggars or both. In January 1604, the Common Hall ordered the constables to search every month for “undersettlers and such vagrant p[er]sons as shall come into this towne to dwell or remayne”. For such unwanted and undesirable “squatters”, for those who might harbour them, and for constables who failed in their duty to search them out, there was an enormous penalty of forty shillings.
Able-bodied “vagrants”, male and female alike, were whipped out of the town and sent back to their parishes of origin. Scarborough’s records are rich in such cruel treatment. In 1664, Elizabeth Carr, “a vagabond beggar”, was whipped and returned to Hull from whence she came; in 1678, Isabel Smith was whipped as a vagrant and sent back to Troutsdale; and, during the same year, Thomas Middlewood was returned to Kirkby Moorside after a whipping.
Sometimes the unfortunate victim was described in detail as “a sturdy beggar of midle parsonage, brown-haired, having a woman and child with him, born at Exeter...whipped for a wandering, counterfeit rogue” or “a counterfeit vagrant beggar of tall personage, black-haired and having two crutches with a red Jockey cap, born at Newcastle”. What little we know today of poverty and hardship!