Nostalgia: Rebuilding of St Mary’s was beyond resources of the town

Scarborough's St Mary's Church and South Bay from a painting attributed to Francis Nicholson. The painting shows the rebuilt tower.
Scarborough's St Mary's Church and South Bay from a painting attributed to Francis Nicholson. The painting shows the rebuilt tower.

After the Restoration of 1660, Scarborough’s oldest, finest and now only place of religious worship was not restored. Running from 1649 onwards, St Mary’s churchwardens’ accounts show how the repair and rebuilding works of the town’s parish church were slow, piecemeal and ultimately quite beyond the resources of a diminished population to complete.

Though interior furniture and fittings were gradually replaced after 1600, it took more than decade to rebuild St Mary’s truncated bell tower. The western front pair of towers were never restored, and neither was the north transept and the eastern chancel or choir. The north aisle was not rebuilt until the major Victorian restoration of 1848-52 and the boys’ grammar or high school continued to occupy the two floors of Farrer’s aisle for two centuries!

Scarborough’s parish church owned lands and buildings in the town, but the annual rental income from them averaged a mere £15. They included the Common, St Thomas’ churchyard, the conduit bank, St Sepulchre’s yard and the properties running along the western side of St Thomasgate, which each paid only two or three pence a year in rent.

The vicar pocketed the fees for weddings and baptisms for himself; the charges for burials were standardised and went to the churchwardens, sexton and grave-digger. A child’s funeral cost 3s 4d, that of an adult outside in the yard, 6s 8d, and special interment inside St Mary’s, 10 shillings. These charges were the same in 1679 as they had been in 1622!

The final calamity occurred on the stormy night of October 10, 1659, when the medieval bell tower over the crossing collapsed, bringing down with it what remained of the chancel and damaging the roof of the nave. In effect, St Mary’s was now too unsafe to use.

Just over a year later, on December 5, 1660, Charles II granted Scarborough leave to launch a national appeal to restore its parish church, which was expected to cost £2,500 “at the least”. The following Sunday, December 9, the appeal was made from every parish church pulpit in the land.

Unfortunately, however, the collector appointed for London, the richest part of the kingdom, absconded with the £940 he had acquired and elsewhere the response to Scarborough’s plight was feeble. The sum raised altogether amounted to less than £250. When a similar appeal was made to the townspeople it brought in only £21 14s 1d. Clearly, with little more than a tenth of what was required, rebuilding on any scale was impossible. The most that could be achieved was to make the remaining structure secure and weather-proof.

During the next decade, the plumbers mended the windows of the nave and the masons and plasterers made good the blocked east end of the crossing. The great west window over the doorway was not re-glazed until 1666-7, the year when a labourer was hired for two days to clear out all the rubble and rubbish from inside the ruined choir.

Yet almost as much money was spent by St Mary’s churchwardens on restoring the instruments and symbols of royal authority. A new Bible for the lectern cost £2 15s, a Book of Common Prayer, 13 shillings, a display board to carry the words of the Ten Commandments, another 15 shillings, and, most costly, a wooden frame to carry the royal arms of Charles II. John Taylor, the parish clerk, was supplied with pens, ink and parchment for his register.

When Admiral Sir John Lawson died of his battle wounds in 1665, he left £100 in his will to be distributed amongst the poor of Scarborough, his birthplace. His widow, Lady Lawson, was most reluctant to hand over her husband’s legacy until she was convinced that it would be used for its intended purpose. Her caution was well founded. It seems that, without notifying her, the Common Hall decided to employ the Admiral’s welcome windfall to pay for St Mary’s new steeple.

Work on the tower was not finished until 1672 and by then it had cost nearly £200. Part of the money was raised by a double assessment on the town “for the use of the church” which raised more than £84 and the rest, with Lawson’s gift, was borrowed.

Three and a half thousand stones were brought up from North Bay sands and “six great loads” more came from Cloughton quarry. Finally, the town’s chief-plumber laid 158 stone of lead at 19 pence a stone on the roof of the old nave and the new steeple. Two ships’ masts “for the great ladder” up to the top of the steeple cost just over two pounds.

According to surviving records, Lawson’s legacy seems to have possessed magical expanding properties. One source claimed that his £100 was “vested in the corporation at five per cent” and paid out by the churchwardens to the town’s poor at Christmas. Another document reveals that the capital sum was held by the corporation in reserve “until such time as their can be convenient piece of ground found out to be purchased” with it.

However, when Ralph Thoresby visited Scarborough briefly in 1682 he noted that, opposite the site of the former church of St Sepulchre, the Society of Owners, Masters and Mariners had lately built an almshouse or hospital for their distressed members. The land in question was approximately 250 square yards and had been purchased by the bailiffs and burgesses for exactly £100 and then give to the society in exchange for the mortgage of Northstead Close.

So Lawson’s bequest had served three different purposes: interest on it at five or six per cent paid for Christmas boxes for the inmates of St Thomas’s poorhouse; it had gone towards covering the costs of rebuilding St Mary’s church steeple; and it had been used to buy the land on which the Hospital of Trinity House had been erected. The plain truth is that we shall never really know or understand what actually happened to the Admiral’s gift to Scarborough’s poor because we were meant never to discover it.