Nostalgia: Radical period of transformation

Scalby sea-cut at Mowthorpe farm which runs into Scarborough's North Bay.
Scalby sea-cut at Mowthorpe farm which runs into Scarborough's North Bay.

During the lifetime of Jane Austen, from 1775 until 1817, the people of the parish of Seamer experienced three radical changes: of ownership, of drainage, and of land enclosure.

In 1787, Joseph Denison (1726-1806) and his only son and heir, William Joseph Denison (1770-1849), bought an extensive, agricultural estate on the southern and western perimeter of Scarborough from the duke of Leeds. They paid £15,000 for Willerby, £38,000 for Flixton and Staxton, £36,000 for Osgodby and £110,000 for Seamer, Irton and East Ayton, in today’s values the equivalent of several million pounds.

Needless to say, the Denisons were fabulously rich. Joseph was a native of Leeds who had walked to London as a penniless boy to seek his fortune there and, unlike most who had done the same, found it. When he died in 1806 Joseph left £20,000 each to his two daughters and an income of £15,000 a year to William Joseph, who at his death in 1849 left £2.3 million in his will. Eventually, the Denisons owned 70,000 acres in Yorkshire, earning rents of £100,000 annually.

At the time, the duke of Leeds seemed to have struck an excellent bargain; much of the land he sold was either too dry and infertile, in the case of the chalk Wolds and the Moors, or too wet, as in the case of the carrs of Flixton and Seamer, to be cultivated for profit. During their fifty years as lords of the manor of Seamer, the dukes of Leeds had tried to improve farming practices there by enclosing the open, arable fields, the East Field, the Middle Field and the West Field, leading to the creation of new compact farms, such as High and Low Eastfield, Crossgates, Herdborough and Weydale. However, the greater dependence on cattle made the whole estate vulnerable to animal diseases. After rinderpest had struck in the late 1740s, the landlord paid out huge sums of compensation to the farmers of Seamer, Irton and East Ayton.

There were two other major developments during these years. In 1752, at a meeting called to turnpike the main road between York and Scarborough, it was agreed that, after crossing the Derwent, from East Ayton it should follow the “Racecourse road” and the Stepney road to Falsgrave and thereby by-pass Seamer. In compensation for losing the centuries-old traffic of the king’s highway, the road from Staxton to Seamer would be turnpiked and a tollhouse placed at “the north end of Harford (Hertford) bridge”.

Secondly, between 1758 and 1789, the estate acquired a horse-race course on Seamer Moor, mainly for the benefit of affluent visitors to Scarborough, rather than for the benefit of the resident farmers of Seamer who lost part of their common grazing. Later, a more elaborate course was built and meetings there were revived by Lord Londesborough.

Fortunately for the inhabitants of Seamer and the Denisons who had so recently bought their land, the French Revolution that began in 1789 and the European wars that followed it stimulated cereal and cattle farming. Denied imports of grain from the Continent by Napoleon’s blockade, the English were obliged to grow all their own food. Corn and meat prices rocketed.

In these circumstances, Sir George Cayley of Brompton (1773-1857) suggested to neighbouring landlords, Digby Legard of Ganton, Richard Johnstone of Hackness, Christopher Sykes of Sledmere and the Denisons, that they might invest in an ambitious scheme to drain the flood waters of the Derwent and the Hertford rivers. In 1799 there had been extraordinary inundations of the Derwent which covered extensive areas of the Aytons and Seamer carrs.

Cayley’s proposal was two-fold: first, to divert the excess waters of the Derwent, he recommended what we know as the Scalby sea-cut, which starting at Mowthorpe would join Scalby Beck before running into Scarborough’s North Bay. Secondly, the river Hertford which snaked its way lazily and slowly through the carrs westward from Muston until it ran into the lower Derwent should be straightened and gradiented to accelerate its flow so that it did not flood the carrs of Folkton, Flixton, Seamer and Staxton. The whole project was designed and supervised by the engineer William Chapman, who was employed to improve Scarborough’s harbour works, and proved itself immediately and ever since. As a result of it, 18,000 acres of land were transformed from swamp to productive farming.

Another response to rising food prices was to enclose both the low-lying carrs and the upland high moors which had remained commons when the open arable fields had been fenced. As a result, a number of new compact farms of between 100 and 200 acres were created, such as Moor House, Carr House and Hertford Dale, which dated from about 1810.

Having lost their entitlement to commons grazing rights, the villagers of Seamer, Irton and East Ayton were in some cases compensated with allotments, one or two acres in area surrounded by earth banks.

Before the post-war slump which followed 1815, these were years of prosperity for Seamer. Hinderwell noted that the annual fair held on 15th and 16th of July attracted large crowds and gainful trade. Apart from “a considerable show of cattle and horses and a great quantity of woollen cloth from the West Riding” he saw boots, shoes and linen for sale. The villagers of Seamer itself took full advantage of the royal charter by displaying a bush over their front doors which gave them temporary licence to sell malt-liquor. Since Seamer now had only two public houses, the Denison (later re-named the Londesborough) Arms and The Grey Mare (later the White Horse), there were plenty of thirsty visitors.

In 1814 William Joseph Denison endowed Seamer’s first school which he had built on the Green with a house nearby for its teacher. Boys and girls paid a penny a week or 1s 3d per term.

In 1811, the national census recorded populations of 485 in Seamer, 94 in Irton and 327 at East Ayton. Emigration to adjacent towns and even across the Atlantic prevented any great increases in the numbers of villagers during the next century.