Regency Scarborough had the best and the worst of water supply: it prided itself as a watering resort where its natural South Cliff springs cured every illness from constipation to rheumatism, yet at the same time the town’s residents had to make do with an unreliable and murky flow into open street troughs. William Hutton, who spent 18 days as a visitor to Scarborough in 1803, was at least one who appreciated the irony of the contradiction.
By 1803, with two major breweries and a resident population of nearly 6,500, Falsgrave’s springs were no longer adequate to meet the town’s rising demands. In the summer of that year, there were long queues of Scarborians waiting to draw from only two public street “wells” with “a string and a bucket”. In fact, these were not “wells” at all, but stone troughs at the junction of St Thomas and Newborough Streets and where St Mary’s met Princess Street, known as Low Conduit. These so-called conduits drew their supply from natural springs in what is now Falsgrave Park by way of underground lead or iron pipes.
By 1803, Scarborough’s public water supply source and route were 500 years old. Originally, the Franciscans or Grey Friars had tapped Falsgrave’s springs on Gilduscliff (Spring Hill) and conveyed their water by an underground aqueduct more than a mile down to their town priory. After the closure of Grey Friars in 1539, the borough continued to use and maintain the pipes, now of lead, which filled three troughs known as the upper, middle and low conduit.
A plumber was contracted by the town’s chamberlains to keep the pipes in good condition and fines were imposed on anyone who allowed his horse or beasts to drink at the conduits or attempted to wash clothes or vessels within six yards of them. So many infringements of these regulations occurred that the middle conduit at the head of St Sepulchre Street was first locked for 12 out of 24 hours by the bellman and then closed permanently.
By 1730, to satisfy the demands of a growing number of affluent visitors during the summer dry season, the Corporation employed a “miner” to deepen Falsgrave’s springs by 12 yards. However, by 1805, it was clear that additional sources of water would have to be found and tapped. As a result, in that year, the Corporation leased Stoney Haggs spring from Joseph Dennison at an annual rent of five guineas. How this new flow was conducted all the way to Scarborough town is not clear, only that it was no better than a temporary solution.
As usual, the Common Hall was very slow to react positively to the borough’s water crisis. It was suggested that to guarantee a constant and ample supply a reservoir should be constructed in the heart of the town. Lord Mulgrave offered £500 and the Duke of Rutland promised twice the sum to meet the costs, yet it was not until 20 years later that the Corporation first acted on such a scheme. Even so it was left to another outsider, the geologist, William Smith, to design the reservoir which was finally finished in 1828.
Smith’s unequalled knowledge of local geology allowed him to plan the largest, covered, brick reservoir then in England. The site he chose was Workhouse Yard, later called Chapman’s Yard and now off Waterhouse Lane. Forty feet in diameter, twenty feet deep, under a domed roof and covered with clay, Smith’s waterhouse had a capacity of more than 200,000 gallons. However, though his sufficed for the time, by the 1840s the expanding town was again running dry in summer. The final resolution to this age-old handicap came only with the installation of steam pumps at Cayton cliffs in 1845 which brought up 400,000 gallons every day.
In Regency towns generally piped water to homes was still a rarity and where they existed the pipes were often of rotting elm wood or poisonous lead. Acute water shortages were common in country villages where wells ran dry and donkeys carrying water barrels were common sights throughout England. For instance, for centuries Sawdon’s water was brought up from Brompton by this method.
On the other hand, the demand for clean water for washing was then much less per head than it is today. Gentry households employed hired washerwomen only once every four or five weeks, whereas most of the poor in town and country wore the same clothes day after day until they fell to pieces and never gave them the benefit of hot water. The same applied to bed linen, sheets, blankets and towels. Soap was heavily taxed and beyond their means. Only the rich had baths and showers. Even a genteel lady like Jane Austen was embarrassed by body odours during hot summers.
In the absence of flush toilets, indoors, men and women used chamber pots or “jordans” and outdoors, side alleys and even pavements. In private and public yards and gardens, earth or ash closets were called “Jerichoes” or necessaries.
In these smelly circumstances, it is therefore hardly surprising that bathing of any kind, in cold or warm water, inland in bath houses or in the open sea or river, was regarded as a luxurious experience. Scarborough had pioneered sea-water bathing as early as the 1660s, but by the end of the eighteenth century Thomas Hinderwell was able to record that the town had two “handsome and commodious” bath houses on the cliffs: one of them was owned and run by Wilson and Travis, surgeons and apothecaries, and the other by Willis of the same medical profession.
By 1832, the third edition of Hinderwell’s History reported no fewer than five “neat and commodious structures for warm, sea-water bathing”. Travis’s, at the approach to St Nicholas Cliff, now had additional rooms for steam and vapour baths; Weddell’s, built in 1812, overlooked the harbour near the old pier; Harland’s, was at the end of Vernon Place; Champley’s, opposite, had suites for ladies and gentlemen; and Vickerman’s, the newest, opened in 1829, stood on the foreshore. It seems that the cold, sea-water plunge was losing its appeal to Scarborough’s visiting spawers, despite its favourable recommendation by King George III at Weymouth. No doubt there the sea was warmer.