Thomas Gent

St Mary's Church
St Mary's Church

WHO WAS Scarborough’s first historian? Thomas Hinderwell (1744-1825) is generally regarded as the town’s earliest and best historian, but did he have any less well-known predecessors? And if he did, how dependent on them was he? One of Hinderwell’s few forerunners was Thomas Gent, a master-printer of York.

We know little about Gent’s early life other than he was born in Ireland about 1692 and came to York from London in 1725 to set up a business as a printer and publisher there. Several portraits of him depict a short, thick-set, heavily-bearded, long-haired man. One bibliographer wrote of him that “in his person he was as eccentric as in his mind”.

However, whatever his eccentricities, Thomas was responsible for researching, writing and publishing several original histories of Yorkshire towns, some of them printed at his office near the Star Inn in Stonegate. The Antient and Modern History of the Famous City of York came out in 1730 as a bound, illustrated volume and sold well for only four shillings. Three years later, a similar account of Ripon, with additional references to Beverley, Pontefract, Wakefield, Keighley, Skipton castle and Knaresborough, emerged from the Stonegate press at the same price. Gent was trying to reach what at the time were called “the poorer classes”. A third history, this one of the Royal and Beautiful Town of Kingston-upon-Hull, “faithfully collected by Thomas Gent”, was available at the Scarborough booksellers, Ward and Chandler, in 1735.

Ward and Chandler sold Gent’s history of Hull because in a postscript running to ten pages he had included information on Scarborough, past and present. In a series of “letters” said to have been written by an anonymous correspondent from Scarborough in 1734 and 1735, he provided the reader with something much more than the routine visitor’s guide.

In a lengthy footnote to the first “letter” there is a list of Scarborough’s old-town street names, most of which still exist nearly 300 years later, though some in a slightly different form. “Steeth-Bolt”, for instance, we know as The Bolts.

The author explains that he intends to write and print a history of the antiquities of Scarborough at his “new printing-house, pleasantly situated near the sea-shore [on] the way to the celebrated spaw”. According to another source, the town’s earliest “printing office was first set up by Mr Thomas Gent, about June 16, 1734, in a house in Mr Bland’s lane, formerly called his Cliff”, but there is no evidence that it produced anything, not even a history of Scarborough.

Nevertheless, in the “letters” that followed, Gent’s fictional correspondent provides the reader with what might be called a potted history of the town, beginning properly with its castle. Quoting William of Newburgh’s Chronicle (c 1190), John Leland’s Itinerary (1542) and William Camden’s Britannia (1586), the narrative ends with the castle’s “destruction” in the Civil Wars. Here Gent made no effort to disguise his Cavalier bias, referring to Charles I as a “distressed” and “abused” royal “martyr”.

The next two “letters” are about St Mary’s, then Scarborough’s only Anglican church and its principal place of burial. Inside the church, he identifies three former chantry chapels where before the Reformation priests were employed to say prayers for the souls of their deceased benefactors, yet he does not appreciate that these chapels were then (and still are) all on the south side of the nave. He understands only that the disused, empty chancel or “east part” was a major casualty of the Civil Wars and therefore “stands roofless”.

But the most valuable information comes in the form of a list of gravestone and plaque inscriptions, both inside the church and outside it in the “almost filled” church-yard. Many of these inscriptions have not survived and some are now illegible and Gent offers much more personal detail than St Mary’s existing but brief, bare register of burials. Here are some of Scarborough’s leading burgesses, such as William Stockdale, who kept the Old Globe Inn in a street named after his family; William Tindall, founding father of the ship-yards, “a very honest man, a friend to everyone and for whom everyone mourns”; Stephen Thompson, “gent”, who lived in the family mansion in St Sepulchre Street; and, rather surprisingly, two surgeons (“chyr”).

Lack of space prevented Gent from printing all these dedications to the dead, so in alphabetical order, from Allatson to Woolfe, he lists 48 surnames of Scarborough’s recently deceased. Nearly all of these names are still to be found in Scarborough, some of them of Scandinavian origin, such as Braithwaite, Gamble(s), Knaggs and Sterriker, as well as others very familiar to Scarborians, such as Boyes, Porrett, Potter and Woodall.

Inside St Mary’s, Gent found other historical evidence which has long since disappeared. It was then the custom to display records of gifts bequeathed to the town’s poor and in one “letter” we are told of Thomas Sedman’s endowed hospital in Carrgate, Gregory Fysh’s gift to the grammar school, Admiral Sir John Lawson’s bequest of £100 and many others. All these “tables” were removed when St Mary’s was “restored” between 1848 and 1850.

Gent must have had access to Scarborough corporation’s archive, since he refers at length in the original Latin and in translation to the borough’s oldest royal charters.

For instance, he knew that Henry II had granted Scarborough, both the old and the new boroughs, the same customs and privileges as York, for which its burgesses paid an annual tax to the treasury of 4d or 6d, depending on whether their properties were lengthways or end-on to the street, the so-called gablage.

Finally, after the predictable commercial on “the sweetness of the air from the ocean, the beauty of the prospect, and the diversions of the town”, Gent tells Scarborians that they should be grateful to “Mrs Farrow”, the happy discoverer of the spaw, “whose memory ought to be for ever precious”.

Thomas Gent died in his 87th year in 1778 and was buried in St Michael-le-Belfry church in Minster Yard, York. His property was returned to his relatives in Ireland.