Prosperous Regency resort

Early engraving showing Vickerman's public baths on the foreshore, Scarborough
Early engraving showing Vickerman's public baths on the foreshore, Scarborough
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Written by Dr Jack Binns

Four centuries ago Scarborough offered no accommodation to visitors: on the contrary, all “strangers” were met with suspicion and residents in the borough were forbidden to take guests into their homes without permission of the Bailiffs.

By 1812, all this had changed. As a historian of Yorkshire wrote in 1810, Scarborough had “many excellent lodging-houses where visitors may be accommodated in a genteel and agreeable manner”. Not only were “spawers” provided with spacious houses on the Cliff, in Huntriss Row, along Newborough and in Long Room and Queen Streets, 
the town also had several good-class inns for travellers.

Overlooking Prospect Place, the Old Bell Inn on Blands Cliff had the best sea views and was famous for its sumptuous breakfasts. Up the road, on the south side of Newborough was the George, where you could stable your horse or hire one for rides, drink the landlord’s home-brewed ale and sleep in one of his well-aired beds.

Like the Bell, the Talbot in Queen Street was served by the daily mail-coach to and from York. Further up Newborough were the New and the London Inns and just outside the Bar, the Bull, which came to be known locally as Houson’s, the name of its proprietor from 1797 until 1840.

This was still the age of the horse and coach. Though the journey from London or Edinburgh to Scarborough was cheaper and faster by sea, it was less fashionable and more dangerous, especially during the long wars with France. The steam packet from London was only fortnightly and cost £1 6s, whereas the coach from the capital arrived in Scarborough four times a week and cost twice as 

During the previous half century, the main roads to Scarborough from Leeds via York and from Hull had been much improved as tolled turnpikes, raising the price to travellers but increasing their safety and comfort. The stage from Leeds took 11 or 12 hours to reach Scarborough and cost “insiders” 12 shillings and “outsiders” eight – far beyond the means of all but a wealthy minority.

To cater for these privileged folk, Scarborough had to provide entertainment as well as board and lodging. After Newstead’s Assembly Room in Long Room Street had been hired by the Corporation as their new Town Hall in 1800, Edward Donner’s at the end of the street enjoyed a virtual monopoly and might well be classified as Scarborough’s first hotel. Not only did it have 40 bedrooms “furnished in a very superior manner”, but downstairs there was a ballroom, musicians’ gallery and places for gaming and billiard tables. Edward Donner described himself as a “wine merchant”, yet he was much more than that: for many years he was one of the First Twelve and in future would be senior bailiff of the borough.

When they were not dancing, drinking and flirting Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights at Donner’s, the “company” sat on seats in boxes or galleries or stood in the pit at the Theatre Royal in Tanner Street. There, in 1813, they would have seen Stephen Kemble, senior member of a famous theatrical family, playing Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals or Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. He was so fat that it was said he did not need extra padding when he played Falstaff. Amongst the distinguished audiences of 1813 were the Duke and Duchess of Leeds and the Marquess of Carmarthen.

To cater for its literate, leisured customers, Scarborough boasted no fewer than three private libraries and newsrooms, belonging to Messrs Ainsworth, Scaum and Whiting and the Agricultural and General Library at the end of King Street. These were subscription bookshops with high seasonal charges and heavy fines on overdue returns. In 1803, William Hutton had to pay a shilling for a two-hour loan of Thomas Hinderwell’s History and Antiquities of Scarborough 
and the Vicinity and then bought it outright for half a guinea.

However, the main attraction and venue for Scarborough’s well-heeled, over-weight and sickly visitors was the Spa itself and more so now, sea-bathing, both outdoor and indoor. As Hutton noted, drinking the medicinal spring waters was an old, dying custom, whereas salt-water bathing had become a growing fashion. Once the Corporation had sold tens of thousands of bottled spa waters at substantial profit, but after a long continuous decline now there was no market for them. At the wells there were fewer drinkers and the Town Hall was spending more money repairing the staith and the footpaths leading to them than it was gathering from subscriptions.

So by 1800 there were between 30 and 40 “large, roomy and commodious bathing-machines” operating in South Bay. Whatever the medicinal claims for Spa drinking water, full, and for men, naked, immersion in cold sea water was now generally regarded as a sure remedy for gout, rheumatism, scrofula and even mental disorders! Should potential bathers fear the trauma of the German Ocean, by 1830 Scarborough had no fewer than five bath-houses. They ranged from the luxurious, belonging to Dr William Travis at the entrance to St Nicholas Cliff, to the basic, Vickerman’s, fronting the south foreshore sands.

Finally, there were Scarborough’s shops, some of them open only for the season. Mrs Kelsall made and sold corsets to order; Mrs Peacock, at 2, The Cliff, was a high-class milliner and dressmaker, who also had a shop in York; and Messrs Harland, Champley and Ainsworth were all chemists with cures for every kind of malady from indigestion to fainting fits. For basic foods, you could buy the best Indian tea from John Rowntree’s corner shop or the finest hams and bacon from William Boyes. But if it was strong spirits you craved, any amount of them could be had “duty-free” in smugglers’ Scarborough.

So now that the Corporation no longer had a close grip on the borough’s commerce and the town 
was wide open to rich, pleasure-seeking outsiders, what had happened to Scarborough’s law-abiding reputation? Future articles will examine crime and punishment in Regency Scarborough.