‘Scottishman’ takes reins

A view of the south transept of St Mary's which is still known as Farrer's Aisle.
A view of the south transept of St Mary's which is still known as Farrer's Aisle.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

In 1627 the boys of Scarborough’s high school got a new headmaster. After nearly 30 years in that role Gregory Dickinson had finally died or been retired and his replacement, Mr William Penston, had been licensed by the archbishop of York in January. The following November, with the consent of the Common Hall, he took up his post at Scarborough.

However, Penston was a “Scottishman” and therefore not sufficiently trusted to warrant a permanent appointment without trial. In the words of the Common Hall minute book, “...[he] shold be allowed and admitted for the headm[aste]r of the schoole for half a yeare upon the good likyng of the towne and yf he be lyked to stay in the same chardge for the spaice of seven yeares without chandging”. In the event, William Penston was so liked by the town that he was Scarborough’s high schoolmaster for the next 50 years!

Having rejecting Henry Darley’s bribe in 1614, the town’s governors were still without endowment for their school. Then, in 1640, Mr Gregory Fysh, one of Scarborough’s richest residents who had been borough bailiff no fewer than five times, bequeathed “to the Grammar schole, one close...for the teaching of four poor schollars, being of my own kindred, or near alliance to me”. The close in question was a one-acre field in Falsgrave called Worlington Grove. Nearly 200 years later, this same land was still providing the schoolmaster a rent of six pounds annually.

One of the many casualties suffered by Scarborough’s deep and damaging involvement in the Civil Wars of the 1640s was the loss of its grammar school building – the old charnel chapel. In anticipation of a siege of the castle, in 1643, its Royalist commander, Sir Hugh Cholmley, ordered that the former chapel should be occupied by his troops and made into a stronghold. Mr Penston and his boys were turned out, possibly into St Mary’s church on the other side of “Castle Road”. That Penston was paid five pounds, the second half of his year’s salary, as late as September 1644, suggests that his school had not yet closed.

We do not know what happened to Mr Penston and his scholars during the great siege of the town and castle in 1645, only that their schoolhouse was in the centre of a bloody battlefield. As a key location, the charnel house was repeatedly fought over and St Mary’s itself became a forward artillery battery for the Parliamentary besiegers. It therefore seems unlikely that after Cholmley’s surrender in July 1645 the boys would have returned to their old school. The windows that the corporation had formerly paid 3s. 4d a year to maintain were now all shattered and its walls blasted with cannon fire. Finally, three years later, what remained of the charnel house was totally destroyed on the orders of the Royalist Colonel Matthew Boynton in his preparation for a second siege of the castle.

After two prolonged and costly sieges which had devastated its trading economy and depopulated the town, by 1649 Scarborough no longer had the means to build a new schoolhouse for its boys.

So, in February that year, the Common Hall decided that “Farrers Isle shalbe made fitt for a schoole house and the money made of the charnel stones to be imployed towards that worke”.

Farrer’s Aisle was and still is the south transept of St Mary’s church. During the two castle sieges Scarborough’s parish church had suffered extensive destruction. The eastern chancel and north transept were roofless and irreparable and the central tower over the crossing was so weakened that a decade later it collapsed on to the roof of the nave. But the south side was almost intact.

The south transept was named after John Farrer, a principal benefactor and the deceased husband of Thomasin Farrer, the lady who had discovered the medicinal merits of the spa spring at the foot of South Cliff. Now the town’s masons, carpenters and plasterers were set to work to convert it into a schoolhouse.

The transept was blocked off from the main body of the inside of the church, divided into two floors, upper and lower, connected by an interior staircase, and a new doorway entrance cut into the outer west wall. And what was originally intended to serve as temporary accommodation for the town’s grammar school was to remain there for almost exactly two centuries!

The misfortunes experienced by Mr Penston and his boys were not allowed to relax the rules governing the town’s schooling. In October 1649, the Common Hall declared that “according to ancient custom no person is to bee permitted to teach schollars within this towne which are above 7 seven yeares of age but that the master and usher of the free schoole”. The bailiffs authorised Penston and his deputy to “carry” any boys to their school who were being taught illegally elsewhere. A rival to Penston, a certain Robert Dakins, was pronounced “unfitt to teach schollars in this towne” because he “hath beene in actuall service against the parliament”.

To qualify for his post in 1627 William Penston had to swear allegiance to the head of the established church. King Charles I, and prove that he was a practising Anglican, but by 1650 England no longer had a monarch or an established church. Accordingly, in August of that year, we find Penston declaring before the two bailiffs that he would be “faithfull to the commonwealth without king or house of lords”. This so-called Engagement was a requirement made by Parliament on all those who held “any place or employment of public trust whatsoever within the Commonwealth”. To

survive in those troubled times, even schoolmasters had to be adaptable and flexible.

Finally, one small illustration suggests that not everything in schools might have changed in the last 400 years. On the back of a discarded churchwarden’s account sheet Francis Rosdale wrote “Everlasting most holy and most glorious omnipotent only wise imortall Lord God” 31 times. Was it punishment, piety or merely handwriting practice?

A view of the south transept of St Mary’s which is still known as Farrer’s Aisle.