By 1800 it seemed that Scarborough’s destiny had already been decided, more by geography than by its succession of residents. Unlike Hull or Newcastle, without a major riverside outlet to the sea and access to a populated hinterland, it could never become a great port. Even the river Derwent had taken a close look at the sea coast to the east and decided instead to run south to join Yorkshire’s other rivers flowing into the Humber. And whereas other northern seaports, principally Liverpool, were being linked to the interior by river or man-made canal, several schemes to canalise the Derwent “from Scarborough Mills down to the river Ouse” had come to nothing. So when the channels of the Derwent and Hartford were soon afterwards straightened, the purpose was to drain the waterlogged carrs for the cultivation of cereals, not to make them navigable.
As Scarborough’s native historian, Thomas Hinderwell, explained his town’s insoluble dilemma: “The vicinity of sterile moors and a thinly peopled neighbourhood, without any water-communication with the interior country, are formidable impediments to trade...” Even by 1811, Hinderwell, did not foresee the imminence of steam locomotives running on railways which first arrived in Scarborough only 20 years after his death.
As a result, Scarborough’s harbour commerce remained small and almost static. Its two great stone piers were paid for by the huge sea-coal trade passing down the coast out of Newcastle and Sunderland. Scarborough’s exports were mostly agricultural - grain, butter, ham and bacon - and its imports coal, timber, textiles, spirits and wine from Scandinavia, Holland, France and Portugal, and groceries from London.
By 1800, Scarborough’s once-famous annual herring fair had petered out, not because of the lack of herring, but because North Sea fishermen preferred to land their catches at Grimsby, Yarmouth, King’s Lynn and Lowestoft. What had once been for centuries of enormous value to Scarborough’s economy could not be replaced by the annual hiring markets on Holy Thursday and Old Martinmas. Two days a year were no substitute for an international fair lasting 45 days; and the town’s surviving Thursday street market in Newborough and Saturday market at the end of Princess Street were of only local produce for local customers.
Fishing was Scarborough’s oldest occupation, but Hinderwell deplored the failure of the town’s seafaring community to follow the enterprise and daring of their ancestors, or even their coastal neighbours. Whereas Scarborough’s men had once braved the Arctic waters of Iceland and Norway, now most of them were content to venture no further than the Dogger banks for cod and ling. During his lifetime the number of active fishermen had declined from over 100 to less than 60. Again, Scarborough’s chief handicap was poor hinterland communication: as a fish market it could not now compete with Hull or Grimsby. By comparison, Whitby had virtually no commercial contact with its rugged hinterland, but was profiting from Greenland whaling, from alum mining and manufacture, and from stone quarrying and export.
Scarborough’s only major industry in 1800 was ship-building and all the supportive and ancillary trades associated with it, such as sail-making, carpentry, rope-making and iron-smithery. As Hinderwell wrote: “Shipping and its dependencies are the principal branches in which the inhabitants are most generally interested.” Ship-building and ship-owning were precarious businesses, but they were “a great source of emolument”. According to the figures published in the third 1832, posthumous edition of his history, between 1785 and 1831, 301 vessels were constructed in Scarborough harbour, and this was probably an underestimate of the total. Because these were years of alternating war and peace, the demand for sailing ships from the Royal Navy and the merchant marine fluctuated steeply, but the Tindall family company, which accounted for about half of all launches, survived the bad as well as the good.
Just under half the ships built along Sandside were brigantines - two-masted merchantmen with an average tonnage of 300. Tindall’s brigantines and snows (a smaller version), up to 50 of them in family ownership, and usually crewed by Scarborough seaman, had a world-wide reputation for reliability, endurance, discipline and cleanness. They took the first convicts out to Botany Bay without a single casualty, and they were the British government’s first choice as troop transports during the American and French wars.
Scarborough’s two indestructible stone piers in the lee of the castle headland made its harbour the safest between the Tyne and Humber. The east pier, nearly 400 metres long, was then one of the greatest achievements of marine civil engineering. It took half a century to complete and yet, between 1796 and 1805, it gave secure shelter to more than 700 colliers. And not least of Scarborough’s special attractions to mariners was its harbour lighthouse built at the dangerous narrow entrance to the harbour and the town’s first lifeboat, the second of its kind in England after the one at Tynemouth.
Neverthless, as nearly all “visitants” noted when they first ventured to Scarborough, its greatest, unique features were natural, not man-made - the fortunate combination of sea, South Bay’s sands, and the drinking waters of The Spaw. Mrs Thomasin Farrer had discovered the mineral springs at the foot of Driple Cotes (South Cliff) as early as the 1620s; yet accommodation at and access to the two wells was not made acceptable for “the opulent, the gay [happy, not homosexual] and the infirm” until a century later; and it was not until towards the end of the 18th century that bathing in the sea and socialising on the sands came to outfavour taking the purgative waters with doubtful medicinal claims. Clearly, for whatever reasons, the town was very slow to appreciate and exploit the commercial potential of its unique, natural advantages.
However, by 1800, it was obvious that all was not well with Scarborough. During the 1730s, the town’s seasonal visitors compared in numbers, wealth and social rank with any of the country’s fashionable, provincial spas, even Bath’s. In 1732, the duchess of Marlborough had spent six weeks there, though she found the place “very dirty” compared with Bath or Tunbridge Wells and full of poor people. During the next season, no fewer than 695 gentlemen and 360 ladies paid subscriptions to the Long Room, the coffee house and the Spa. They included two dukes, a marquess, seven earls, three barons and five knights, most of them with their ladies. But it did not last: never again did such an aristocratic company spend summer in Scarborough.