Victorians lead the way in town’s transformation

Edwardian Scarborough before the outbreak of World War One. Picture courtesy Max Payne collection.
Edwardian Scarborough before the outbreak of World War One. Picture courtesy Max Payne collection.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Two events in the 1880s were decisive in shaping the future development of Scarborough. In 1882 the borough’s councillors agreed to make no further extensions or improvements to the harbour. In practice, this meant that henceforth the
governors of the town would give priority to its development as a tourist and retirement
resort by the sea, not as a seafaring community.

In retrospect, this was a wise decision. The harbour was far too small and shallow to accommodate ship-building yards. The last launch of a vessel of any size from Tindall’s had taken place in 1863. Apart from the annual harvest of herring catches from July to September, Scarborough’s own fishing industry was also in rapid decline. Though Scarborough men crewed the steam trawlers of Aberdeen, Hull and Grimsby, these boats no longer belonged to Scarborough. Even in-shore shell fishing from cobles now afforded little profit to their owners; and by 1914 Scarborough possessed only one remaining line-fishing yawl. The result was that “below the pump”, from Princess Street down to the shore at Sandside, the closely-knit, inward-looking families of fisherfolk were slowly declining in number, affluence and influence.

Secondly, the implementation of the Scarborough Improvement Act of 1889 made the town much healthier and infinitely more attractive to visitors. Though the borough’s population increased from 30 to nearly 40 thousand between 1881 and 1911, the annual death rate fell from above the national average to well below it. In 1893 Scarborough 
acquired a general hospital with 50 beds in Friars’ Entry, an isolation hospital for infectious diseases in 1903 and a sanatorium for consumptives the following year.

Under the Act of 1889 the Corporation had secured special powers to enforce proper sanitation in lodging houses, pubs and open spaces. Scarborough was said to have had more free public conveniences than any town in the country of comparable size. After they had bought it from JW Woodall his workshop on the Foreshore was converted into public toilets. Scarborough’s Edwardian councillors knew what day trippers needed.

Thanks mainly to the energy, enterprise and foresight of its chief engineer since 1897, Harry Smith, Scarborough was quickly becoming an unrivalled, popular pleasure garden by the sea. What had been the family home and private, enclosed gardens of the Woodalls under his direction became the new Town Hall and St Nicholas cliff gardens. What had once been a barren donkey field became public bowling greens, tennis courts and the Floral Hall in Alexandra Gardens. And what formerly were boggy allotments and piggeries in Tucker’s Field were transformed into the glories of Peasholm Park. Similarly, on the south side, by 1914 George Lord Beeforth’s private estate below the Esplanade had become the town’s Italian Gardens and a new seabathing pool was to be finished for the 1915 season.

Yet the greatest achievement and improvement of all was the construction of the Marine Drive, linking north and south Scarborough. That it had taken more than ten years to build and had cost the immense sum of £125,000 was proof of Scarborough’s determination to remain “the fair mistress” of England’s north-east coast. In the words of one of the borough’s leading councillors, their purpose was “to develop Scarborough majestically”.

In fact, partly because of its relative remoteness from population concentrations such as Hull, Sheffield and Leeds, and partly because of a deliberate Town Hall policy to channel working-class railway excursionists to the south foreshore, Scarborough had not profited as much as it might have done from the enormous increase in national seaside holiday-making. In 1881 Scarborough was sixth in size behind Brighton, Hastings, Great Yarmouth, Southsea and Southport; but by 1911 it had also been overtaken by Bournemouth, Southend, Blackpool, Eastbourne, Dover, Hove and Torquay. In other words, Scarborough was still regarded as chiefly a resort for “the better sort”, a legacy of its long history as a seabathing spa for the invalid and the rich.

So, by 1914, Scarborough had become a place of stark seasonal and cultural contrasts. From Easter to September, the hordes of railway excursionists arrived at the purpose-built Londesborough Road station and by electric tram or on foot made their way down to the entertainments designed to please them. If the day was wet and cold, they might spend all of it in the People’s Palace and Aquarium. There, for only sixpence, they could watch variety shows, animals acts and acrobats, dance in the ballroom, play billiards, or just drink in one of the three bars. Alternatively, along the Foreshore Road, there were picture houses called the Grand, the Olympia and the Palladium, each showing the latest black and white silent films continuously from nine in the morning.

If the day was warm and sunny, sitting on the sands and paddling in the sea were free to all. (Swimmers would have to pay 4d. to use one of the Mr Rawling’s changing vans.) If they were sufficiently curious, visitors might walk to the East Pier and watch the “Scotch fisher lassies” preparing fresh herring for export to Russia and Germany; and if they were fit enough they could pay the penny toll to walk the 1,100 yards along the whole length of the Marine Drive. Entry to Scarborough castle would cost them twopence, but a stroll through some of the town’s 55 acres of gardens and parks would cost them nothing to admire “the rose garden of the North”.

They would not cross the footbridge to the grounds of the Spa or Valley Bridge to South Cliff. Both crossings were tolled and Ramsdale Valley was the frontier between old and “new Scarborough”. Since 1910, the Spa had gone further up-market with its “luxuriously furnished” cafe, new bandstand and Mr Alick Maclean’s orchestra playing “serious music” instead of the military and brass bands of the past.

South Cliff had no public houses, no music halls or cinemas, no lodging houses, no trams and very few shops: it was the exclusive suburb of costly churches, expensive hotels and fine Victorian mansions. It belonged to the rich, the elderly and the comfortably retired and it employed an army of domestic servants, nurses, dressmakers and cleaners, most of them women drawn from the other side of Valley Bridge. The census of 1911 identified 2,198 females as domestic, indoor servants, Scarborough’s largest employment.

As for the traditional, well-heeled summer visitor, there was still plenty of high-class hotel accommodation in every part of the town, at the Queen and Alexandra in the north, the Grand, Royal and Pavilion in the middle, and the Crown, Prince of Wales and Cambridge in the south. And Scarborough still had enough affluent customers, resident and travelling, to explain the presence of high quality shops such as Marshall & Snelgrove and Hopper & Mason. (Significantly, the official guide for Bass brewery excursionists in July 1914 assumed that none of them would want to shop in Scarborough.)

If the cultural gap between the “bottom-enders” and the South Cliff “swells” was unbridgeable, by 1914 there was a third residential Scarborough. Housing was spreading westwards and northwards out into green-field areas. Only the railway line to Whitby now separated town from village, so that in 1890 Falsgrave had been incorporated into the borough of Scarborough. Beyond Gladstone Road and what became upper Columbus Ravine and Trafalgar Street East, Scarborough was expanding northwards towards the old borough boundary of Peasholm Beck. These long rows of new terraces housed a growing lower middle class of professional, clerical, semi-skilled and small business occupants who might take summer guests to supplement their incomes. As newcomers to the town’s economy, they tipped the balance further away from its historical seafaring and hospital role. By 1913, a sixth ward, the north-west, had been added to representation in the Town Hall.

Except during the recession of 1910-12, unemployment in Scarborough was low, even in winter, mainly because only 15 per cent of the resident population were men between 15 and 39 compared with the national average of 20 per cent. So many men of these years were serving abroad in the army, the Royal Navy and at sea. Overall, females outnumbered males seven to five. In 1911 there were nearly 10,000 unmarried and more than 2,000 widows living in the town. Also, as a retirement refuge and final destination, Scarborough had a disproportionate number of the elderly, male and female. More than 12 per cent were over 60, compared with the national figure of 8.2 per cent.

Though there were already 500 free public libraries in the kingdom, Scarborough’s enlightened rulers still rejected Andrew Carnegie’s generous offer of one. However, Scarborough had some of the best schools in the entire country. At their head was the “magnificent” Municipal School in Westwood, which took an elite of local boys and girls to university entrance in science as well as arts. Among its most successful students before 1914 were Sydney Harland, who became the world’s leading plant geneticist and prolific novelists Storm Jameson and Leo Walmsley.

Below the ratepayers’ Muni came the Anglican St Martin’s grammar school on Ramshill and a rich variety of fee-paying academics, some barbarous like Wheater’s in Albemarle Crescent, some very exclusive, like French Ladies in West Street. Yet thanks to a very active and progressive elected School Board, by the early 1900s Scarborough had a complete complement of infant, junior and senior elementary schools.

Scarborough had a parliamentary history as long and as undistinguished as any borough in the kingdom. In 1885 it had forfeited its second MP, so that contests for the remaining seat between Liberals and Conservatives became increasingly sharp and closely-fought. Two issues dominated elections: temperance, which the Conservatives opposed and Irish Home Rule, which the Liberals supported. Against the brewers, publicans and anti-Irish, the Liberals usually won.

In the three elections since 1906 the borough had been well represented by Walter Russell Rea, a Liberal radical who actually had a home in Scarborough. Though a mere backbencher, he was partly responsible for providing poor children with free school meals and free medical inspections out of Treasury funds.

At the last general election, held in December 1910, Rea’s majority had been cut back to only 52. Then only 5,474 votes were recorded, all of them cast by male house and property owners at least 21 years old. December 1910 was to be the last time that Scarborough borough alone was entitled to its own Member of the House of Commons.

Nevertheless, in 1914, much in contrast to 2014, the fate and future of Scarborough was still largely in the hands of local municipal and county councillors: Westminster and Whitehall were then very distant and peripheral. This might well explain why the Town Hall still attracted and engaged the energies of the most influential and gifted members of the local community. A glance at the lists of mayors, aldermen and ward councillors with names such as Whittaker, Rowntree, Boyes, Tonks, Fowler and Sinfield reveals a predominantly commercial interest, but these men were moved by more than business self-interest. They had civic pride and moral conviction. Many of them were driven by religious faith and duty. And in the last pre-war generation, in support of Harry Smith, they did more to enhance and enrich Scarborough, their home town, than any of their many predecessors.