Soldiers and spies

North Marine Road where the North Bay's new picture hall was granted a licence just after the outbreak of war.
North Marine Road where the North Bay's new picture hall was granted a licence just after the outbreak of war.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

After the immediate shock and initial panic, Scarborough began to accustom itself to the novelty of war. On Saturday, August 8, the Evening News reported that at the height of the summer season many townspeople who let apartments had not a single occupant for the following week, an experience that was both unique and alarming.

The reason for this was not so much the outbreak of war but the false rumours that were going the rounds in places such as Leeds and Sheffield. “A proprietor of a well-known local hotel” was told that one visitor to Scarborough had written to his friends back home that the resort was “in a state of siege”, that boarding house windows were being smashed and shop premises looted. Not a word of this was true, but such stories caused incalculable harm. Indeed, as the Evening News commented, if it suppressed such damaging tales, “some kind of censorship would be a real boon to Scarborough”.

In fact, by the next week, it seems that censorship of malicious gossip was unnecessary: visitors were returning to Scarborough. Contrary to exaggerated fabrications, by August 12 the town seemed almost normal. All the shops were open, there were no reports of bloated prices, no food shortages, the Foreshore lights were undimmed and the Aquarium had its usual busy throng. The Earl and Countess of Londesborough had returned to their Lodge in the Crescent to celebrate their 27th wedding anniversary. The only noticeable change was the presence everywhere of soldiers in uniform.

Throughout the whole country reservists were reporting to their regimental depots to re-join the Colours and Territorials were coming home from their summer camps and training grounds. At Scarborough the reserves of the regiment of Hussars were leaving Burniston Barracks. Those left behind were billeted at the Grand Picture House and at the Olympia and provisioned by adjoining restaurants on the south Foreshore. Incoming were the Yorkshire Hussars (Yeomanry) arriving with their horses by train from York stopping at Malton on the way. Leading them were the local county gentry, Major Viscount Helmsley and Second Lieutenants Beckett and Lascelles. About 150 strong, each issued with 100 rounds of live ammunition, they were quartered in the Royal and Grand Hotels.

More troops were expected shortly. The old barracks in the Castle Yard and the open fields next to Burniston Barracks were being prepared to receive them. They would add to the numbers seen enjoying bathing in North Bay. What the town had lost in excursionists it had gained in khaki.

So was there really a war going on? The herring were now arriving off-shore and there were reports up and down the coast of excellent catches. Only the deep-sea trawlers were effectively confined to the harbour. Officially, the Admiralty had closed the North Sea to fishing. Pleasure craft of all kinds were warned not to venture out. The clash of great battle fleets that would decide the war had not yet happened, but it was expected soon.

Just to show that Scarborough could ignore what was happening to millions all over Europe, on Tuesday, August 11, the town’s newest cinema received its licence. With seating for 439, the North Bay’s New Picture Hall on North Marine Road was granted Council approval after the Chief Constable had testified that it was safe for public entertainment.

Nevertheless, even press euphemism and optimism could not altogether conceal some degree of local anxiety. Thirty “Germans” living and working in the town had been rounded up and kept in detention at Burniston Barracks since August 8. A week later, 19 of the younger ones of German and Austrian nationality (Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary on August 10) were escorted from there by armed guard to the train bound for York and an undisclosed number left Scarborough soon afterwards. As yet there had been no reported incident of an attack made on German property or person, but given the hostility of the press and the gullibility of its readers no foreigner was entirely safe anywhere in the country.

“Spies” were everywhere. One had been seen by the two daughters of Whitby’s MP, Gervase Beckett, as they rode out over the moor from their family home at Kirkdale Manor. A man of “distinctly foreign appearance”, with a large map spread out before him, was noticed by them in the vicinity of Lord Helmsley’s home, Nawton Towers. However, the alerted local police and a posse of gamekeepers failed to find him. Under the heading “A Ryedale Sensation”, this was exactly the kind of alarmist nonsense that the Evening News had chastised other newspapers for printing.

But there was one local press warning that should have been taken seriously. On Thursday, August 13, the Evening News told its readers:

“We are officially informed that no person, after dark, should go anywhere near the wireless station. The sentries there have strict orders to keep the district clear of the public, and anyone disregarding the instruction runs considerable risk.”

What was happening inside the wireless station on Sandybed Lane, day as well as night, no one outside it knew for sure; but the sentries were issued with live ammunition.

Still, none of this much mattered. The war was going splendidly, wasn’t it? The French were winning great victories in Alsace and the Germans suffering heavy losses there. In Belgium, the Kaiser’s barbaric invaders were massacring the civilian population, but their advance had been halted. In the Mediterranean, the German battle cruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau were making a dash for Constantinople “to face almost certain destruction” by the Royal Navy waiting for them.

Hardly a word of these reports was true. In their blue overcoats and red trousers, the French infantry were being mowed down in tens of thousands by German machine guns; the German right wing as planned was moving rapidly through Belgium; and both the Goeben and Breslau escaped safely to Constantinople where their presence there helped the Turks to decide which side they should join.

In the absence of radio, television or any other broadcasting medium, the Scarborough public was at the mercy of the Scarborough press.