Nostalgia: A tale of two centuries ago

The Departure ' the last of James Green's Poetical Sketches (1813), shows a gentleman and his lady leaving a lodging house opposite the London Inn just inside Newborough Bar.
The Departure ' the last of James Green's Poetical Sketches (1813), shows a gentleman and his lady leaving a lodging house opposite the London Inn just inside Newborough Bar.

Some years ago, amongst old papers in his Queen Street office, a solicitor friend discovered a list of Scarborough’s constables’ accounts, starting in 1812 and ending in 1849: it’s a rich, unique source of local information.

The town’s eight constables, two for each of the four Quarters, had many, various duties and responsibilities. They served writs for private and borough law suits and summonses, entered houses with distraint warrants, took thieves, beggars, forgers, drunks and disorderlies to the prison in Newborough Bar, collected market tolls, rents and window taxes, burnt bad meat at the market cross, attended street celebrations to protect the public peace, and delivered proclamations of important national events.

One particular entry, dated August 12, 1822, seemed to be more significant historically than any of the others.

After a reign of 60 years, George III had died at the end of January 1820. Scarborough castle’s guns fired 82 times to mark the event and the borough’s Bellman proclaimed the accession of the Prince Regent since 1810 of George IV. That evening, in celebration, after a procession through the streets, “the Corporation gave a cold collation [light meal] at the Town Hall. The Castle guns fired a royal salute and a company of the 88 regt. in the Castle barracks joined the street procession in front & rear and fired three volleys in Newboro”.

A new monarch after 60 years might have been an event of great moment, but George III had long been invisible and absent as far as the nation was concerned. There was hardly anything notable about a transition from Regency to monarchy.

However, the next lengthy note, written in the constable’s best handwriting (as if he appreciated the momentum of the episode) is worth quoting in full, with all its spelling errors:

Aug 12, 1822 King George the Fourth past by Scarbro on a Tour to Scotland. The Bailiffs [Henry Cook and Robt Marflitt] went to meet him in Mr Marflitt’s Musco. The preventive [customs] boat went with us to carry an adress from the Inabitance and the Visitors. The King was in his own yot towed by a steem packitt. It was very calm. The sailing ships could not keep company with the steem boats, they past by the next morning. The adress was presented by Doctor Travis, George Porritt & Henry Leasley. They were going so swift through the water it was with difficulty they could get it on board.

Here, then, was a glimpse of the future. Sailing ships “could not keep company with the steem boats”, especially when there was no wind to fill their sails.

Because Scarborough had no textile mills, no adjacent coal mines and no direct experience of the industrial revolution which had introduced steam engines into manufacturing and mining, the steam boat was its first sight of this new source of locomotive power. Within five years, by 1827, there would be no fewer than five steam packets passing Scarborough every week, the City of Edinburgh, the Tourist, the Soho, the London, and, most appropriately, the James Watt, who had died in 1819.

Self-propelled steam engines, running along rail tracks, had long been in use for the haulage of heavy goods, such as stone, timber and coal, but it was not until 1825 that the Stockton & Darlington railway first carried passengers. Scarborough had to wait another 20 years before the first steam carriage train brought visitors from York. Until then the horse-drawn vehicle, public and private, served most of Scarborough’s interior transport needs. This, after all, was the golden age of the turnpike road, the stage coach, the roadside hostelry with its rooms and stables, and the Royal Mail coaches.

Contrary to the received assumption that the coming of the railway transformed Scarborough into a popular, seaside holiday resort, unseen by many local historians of the town, it was the steam-engine pumps at Cayton Bay, operated by the Scarborough Waterworks Company founded in 1844, which made that transformation possible. These pumps at last solved Scarborough’s oldest handicap – the lack of sufficient, reliable, clean water supply all year round. Without them it would have been impossible for the town’s first, new modern hotel, The Crown, to offer its opulent guests “hot, cold and shower baths” in 1845.

The absence of mills, mines and factories also spared Scarborough not only an influx of migratory workers, industrial air and water pollution, and the urban slums suffered for instance in the towns of the West Riding, it allowed the borough to claim truthfully that it was indeed a health resort, second to none in the North. For the past 150 years, since the days of Dr Wittie and Mrs Farrar, such specious claims had been made frequently, but they were based factually only on cleansing, refreshing sea breezes and the steep gradients that ran effluent and offal into a tidal sea.

However, by the 1840s, the first reliable statistics for the United Kingdom proved that on every ground, from infantile mortality to respiratory diseases, Scarborough was one of the healthiest places to be. You really could expect to live longer there. And in 1848, when a cholera epidemic carried away hundreds of thousands, not a single case was reported in Scarborough. Scarborians now had plenty of clean water to wash in and drink and their new, flush sewers took their waste beyond the foreshore sands into the sea.

So, as a holiday and health resort, Scarborough, it seemed, had everything to gain from the engineering skills of Trevithick, Watt and the Stephensons, whose engines brought ships, water and passenger trains to a relatively remote and backward location. On the other hand, in the long term, they devalued the harbour. Steam ships were not as vulnerable to tide and tempest as sailing vessels and Scarborough was to lose gradually its once vital role as a place of refuge for colliers. Also, as steam ships grew in size, Scarborough harbour no longer had the space and capacity to build them. Only the fishing industry enjoyed something of a revival, thanks partly to the new craft, yawl and the trawling smack.

I have to confess to an irrational nostalgia for pre-steam engine Scarborough, when for instance it boasted four or five windmills. The last of James Green’s Poetical Sketches (1813) called The Departure, shows a gentleman and his lady leaving a lodging house opposite the London Inn just inside Newborough Bar. The day is wet and windy. The weather has broken; the season is over. The caption reads: “Adieu to Scarboro’s sweet diversity”.