Nostalgia: Exploiting the commercial value of Scarborough’s Spaw

Eighteenth century Scarborough, showing the 'spaws' in the left foreground before the disaster of December 28, 1737.
Eighteenth century Scarborough, showing the 'spaws' in the left foreground before the disaster of December 28, 1737.

Early in the morning of December 28, 1737, a crack appeared in the cellar of the Spa governor’s house. During the next 24 hours the sea-cliff face of Driple Cotes (South Cliff) was utterly and permanently transformed. About an acre of land, over 200 yards long and 30 yards deep, slowly subsided, taking with it five cows which were grazing there. As this upper part of the cliff dropped, the ground at the base rose up by as much as 100 yards long and seven yards high, creating a new terrace above the sands.

All the Spa buildings – the governor’s house, the two “houses of convenience” for ladies and gentlemen, the wooden staith that had protected them from the high tide and the spa wellhead, were all completely buried underneath thousands of tons of earth, gravel and sand. What was thought at the time to have been an earthquake was similar to the disaster that occurred to the Holbeck Hall hotel in June 1993.

Though the “earthquake” was an unforeseen calamity, six months later it was compounded by the sudden death of Dicky Dickinson, the governor. If Mrs Thomasin Farrer was the first to discover the possible curative qualities of the Driple Cotes spring and Dr Robert Wittie had given widespread publicity to them, it was the self-styled “Governor of the Spaw” who had originally grasped and then exploited their great commercial potential. Until he came along about 1700 there were no buildings on the site and no shelter whatsoever from wind, rain or tide. Visitors were expected to descend the perilous slope down from St Nicholas Cliff or negotiate 400 yards of sands at low tide from as far away as West Sandgate in order to reach the spring. Even then, until as late as 1699, Scarborough’s Common Hall owners of the ground had done nothing to conserve or protect the wellhead from high tides, pollution or theft.

Though the borough’s rulers at last consented to making a “cistern” to store the spring water and placing a night watch there to guard it, they were content to give Dicky Dickinson a tenancy of it for an annual rent of one pound! It seems that no one on Sandside yet foresaw what Dickinson would do with his guardianship. But by 1715 he had built three houses on a natural shelf of the rock behind the well; covered the wellhead with a stone table for the servers; and buttressed the shelf with upright timbers and a stone staith. The three houses were known then as “the Ladies”, “the Gents” and “Dicky’s”.

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, was too grand, elderly and frail to appreciate Dicky’s “Ladies House”, but his success during the 1720s and 1730s was phenomenal, a credit to his initiative, enterprise and energy. With no thanks to the Common Hall (except for its peppercorn rent), he had made the Spaw into an astonishing commercial triumph. Amazingly, he received neither aid nor gratitude from his landlords on Sandside. The new “coach-road to the Spaw” of 1723 was the result of the initiative of another private burgess, the Quaker shopkeeper, John Bland. Not until as late as 1735 did the bailiffs agree to make a proper footpath from the top of St Nicholas Cliff down to Ramsdale and then only on condition that it was paid for entirely out of the subscriptions of spawers.

From a subscription list of contributors to its earliest town plan of 1725, it is evident that Scarborough was rapidly becoming a fashionable health and pleasure resort. John Cossins, the draughtsman, received 190 positive replies from York, 192 from Leeds, but 168 from Scarborough, and only five from Whitby. Scarborough’s subscribers included 10 clergymen, four doctors, five lawyers, 30 esquires, three lords, three baronets and a knight.

By 1729, the profits made by selling and bottling spa water were sufficient to cover the costs of building a new correction house, a new prison, and an new workhouse for the town.

By 1733, the season we know most about, Scarborough had surpassed all other English resorts, except Bath. Nearly 700 gentlemen and 360 ladies paid subscriptions to the Long Room, the coffee shop and/or Dicky’s Spaw. They included two dukes, Argyle and Rutland; the marquess of Lothian; seven earls, Anglesey, Carlisle, Chesterfield, Cholmondley, Huntingdon, Marchmont and Stair; three barons, Carmichael, Coleraine and Langdale; and five of Yorkshire’s knights, Francis Boynton, George Cayley, Charles Hotham, Henry Slingsby and William Strickland. Yorkshire gentry and Scottish gentry and aristocracy were well represented. Colley Cibber, the poet laureate, and Nicholas Hawksmoor, the great architect of Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, were also in the company.

Not all married gentlemen brought their wives; not all married ladies were accompanied by their husbands. Social informality was the order of the day and the night. One Yorkshire gentleman, clearly in awe of this elite gathering, which he described as “Starrs, Blue ribbons & red ribbons”, estimated that “strangers” had spent not less than £14,000 during the Scarborough season. The following year, Dicky’s seven-year lease came up for renewal: his annual rent was raised from one to forty pounds!

This was the background then to the “earthquake” of 1737 and the death of Dicky Dickinson which together marked an abrupt and possibly terminal end to the early history of Scarborough Spaw.

Though Dicky could never be replaced, the calamitous events of 1737-8 spurred the Sandside oligarchy into unaccustomed activity. No one now could doubt the dependence of the borough on income from the Spaw and the Spawers. With astonishing speed, two brick houses for ladies and gentleman were built and fitted out before the new season of 1738 began. The corporation’s construction engineer, William Vincent, was employed to erect a stout stone wall to enclose them and two new springs that had been excavated nearby. The wells were now fully protected against the highest tides and no longer exposed on the open sands.

But there was no new house for the new governor, Captain William Tymperton, formerly master of Wills coffee house in London. He was permitted to live on the site as a paid employee of the Corporation, not as a tenant.

[to be continued]