Nostalgia: Sampling the town’s night life

'Ballroom dancing' in Donner's Long Room, one of Green's Poetical Sketches.
'Ballroom dancing' in Donner's Long Room, one of Green's Poetical Sketches.

Having escorted his “transient visitors” on a horse-riding excursion to the north Wolds, Hinderwell returned them safely back to Scarborough to enjoy evening entertainment there. They had travelled south down the bumpy, pot-holed coast road, 19 miles to Flamborough, looked in awe at the “tremendous grandeur” of the sea cliffs and their multitude of nesting sea birds (no gannets then.) After dinner at the Dog and Duck (not yet Royal), they had driven back through Hunmanby and Sledmere, marvelling at the latter’s tree-lined parkland and its new country mansion.

But if these seasonal Spawers expected a guided tour of Scarborough’s “night-life” they were disappointed. Thomas Hinderwell would have told them more than their patience could endure about the town’s corporate history, its parish church, its Dissenter chapels, its mineral waters, medical baths and provisions for sea-bathing, its fisheries and charitable institutions and even its climate and natural history, all in minute, informed detail, but it would have been no use asking him about shops, theatre, inns, libraries and above all the Assembly Long Room. Hinderwell was not interested in such frivolous places and pursuits. In fact, the best literary and pictorial guide to Scarborough’s attractions and amusements for “the opulent, the gay and the infirm” was Poetical Sketches, published in 1813. The sketches had been drawn “on the spot” the previous year by James Green and etched for publication by Thomas Rowlandson.

Following a short narrative account of Scarborough’s past, mostly since its development a hundred years earlier as a watering-place for the privileged few, there follows a description of the two spa wells at the foot of what we call South Cliff and then a lengthy list of all the many ailments and diseases, serious and minor, the spa waters cure. They range from “costiveness” or constipation to unspecified “sexual indisposition”. Advice is finally given to those intrepid sea-bathers about how to hire guides and machines and avoid drowning or freezing to death. On the frontispiece, Widow Ducker and her Nymphs ride a fabulous sea monster, accompanied by naked children and a girl mounted on a swimming horse.

Altogether the 21 engravings and explanatory text show Scarborough during the height of its summer season and at this most entertaining, carefree and amusing time. Perhaps Green and Rowlandson meant Poetical Sketches to be a welcome antidote to the serious solidity of Hinderwell’s history.

No doubt because events and conduct inside the Long Room were then considered too private, improper or even illegal for public information, we are told less about them than elsewhere in the town. Perhaps, also, the Long or Assembly Room, by 1812, was losing its appeal to fashionable, monied society.

A century earlier, one visitor complained of Scarborough’s lack of “diversion”; and even as late as 1722, a traveller reported that the town had no public assemblies, only private balls. Yet three years later, there were at least two assembly rooms, one modest in Low Westgate (now 11 and 11A Princess Street) and a second spacious and grand at the far end of St Nicholas Gate (now St Nicholas Street). The latter was to become so important to Scarborough that for a time it gave its name to the whole street.

By the 1730s, According to a contemporary guide, “nobility, quality and gentry” were flocking to Scarborough, not merely to take its medicinal spa waters or for its organised sea-bathing, but for “the company”. Here, it seems, was a place at the seaside where normal social and moral restraints were relaxed or even ignored: here you could enjoy yourself in ways that might be considered impolite or unseemly at home. Here there were widows wanting husbands, impoverished younger sons looking for heiresses, and young, frisky gallants hoping to misbehave with impunity.

There is no better illustration of this extraordinary behaviour than that of “ballroom dancing” in Donner’s Long Room, one of Green’s Poetical Sketches. The “dancing” appears entirely informal, haphazard, even abandoned, more typical of the 21st than the 19th century. The well-dressed ladies, most of them young and buxom, outnumber the gentlemen. One of the standing gentlemen wears a sword, a custom considered unnecessary and inappropriate in such indoor, intimate company; and he is looking across disapprovingly at the central dancing couple. Of these the male is dressed entirely in black frock coat with tails and is “dancing” a vigorous jig holding the hand of a most beautiful and expensively 
attired young lady, who is 
also clearly enjoying her-

James Green’s Poetical Sketches were dedicated to the Rev Francis Wrangham, vicar of All Saints, Hunmanby since 1795 and the future archdeacon of the East Riding. By 1812, he would have been 43 years old, well into the middle age and already famous as a scholar, historian, bibliophile and correspondent of William Wordsworth, William Wilberforce and the Rev Sydney Smith, renowned wit and author. Whether the central male figure in Green’s drawing was indeed the most senior cleric in the neighbourhood cannot be known for certain, but if it was the Rev Wrangham he was not frolicking with his wife.

Yet by 1812 there is evidence that the Assembly or Long Room was going out of fashion. Arthur Young thought that the two in Long Room Street, Newstead’s and Donner’s, were “paltry holes”. In 1790, John Courtney, who had been to Scarborough with his family many times, deplored the decline of even Donner’s “company”.

By 1796, when the second edition of Schofield’s Guide appeared, Newstead was dead and his Room was closed and about to became the town’s Council Chamber. At Donner’s, there were two dress nights a week, Mondays and Fridays, each costing five shillings and an informal dance on Wednesdays for three shillings. Gentlemen who wished to dance were required to pay two shillings “for the music” and another shilling for tea. The place and the entertainment offered there sounds very sober and dull compared with those of Green’s “ballroom dancing” a few years later.

But tame dancing and tea parties were much less than what an Assembly Room had to offer. Visitors to Scarborough often wrote of the cheapness of food and drink there, especially alcoholic drink. Despite the routine presence of Royal Navy frigates and the vigilance of customs officers, the profits of smuggling spirits, wines, coffee and tea were too tempting to be entirely resisted, especially by those who entertained well-heeled guests.

Finally, there was the lure of gambling. Though betting on cards and dice were forbidden in public, there is no doubt they took place at Newstead’s and Donner’s; and these were just some of what Hinderwell sarcastically called “the refined amusements of polished life.”