Nostalgia: Scarborough’s grammar school

Farrer's Aisle in St Mary's Church was divided into two levels, to provide temporary accommodation for the town's grammar school.
Farrer's Aisle in St Mary's Church was divided into two levels, to provide temporary accommodation for the town's grammar school.

Scarborough’s grammar or high school for boys was a medieval foundation. The earliest surviving documentary reference to it concerns Hugh Rasen, who was one of the borough’s Bailiffs, one of its MPs elected in 1422, and subsequently “magister scolarium grammaticalium”, master of the grammar school. Though he was buried near the font at the western end of St Mary’s parish church, he was a layman, not a priest, and an appointee of the Common Hall, not the church authorities.

However, that is as much as we know so far of “the High Schoole” until it reappears in the Corporation records in 1559. In that year, a new headmaster, Henry Langdale, was appointed. Yet though he was also the vicar of St Mary’s and his licence to teach Latin grammar was endorsed by the archbishop of York, his annual salary was paid and his appointment made by the town’s authority. He was a servant of the borough as well as of the established Protestant church.

Fast-forward 265 years to the Charity Commission report of 1824. The headmaster of the grammar school, the Rev John Kirk, was then also vicar of St Mary’s and, during the previous 42 years as such, he had chosen four successive clergymen curates to be the schoolmasters. However, unlike Langdale, neither Kirk nor his curate head, the Rev Thomas Irvin, had ever received a penny in salary from the Corporation and neither was aware of any contractual obligation they had to it.

That both assumed that the grammar school belonged to the Church of England was hardly surprising since its classrooms were inside the south transept of St Mary’s building and had been there since 1649. That the town’s grammar school came to be held in Farrer’s Aisle, as the south transept was then called, was a direct result of the destruction done during the Civil Wars. In 1547, after the closure of the chantry and mortuary chapels dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, it seems that the obsolete buildings were then used as a schoolhouse. The boys learned their Latin and Greek amongst the bones of their ancestors.

In 1648, however, when the Royalists again seized Scarborough castle, their colonel, Matthew Boynton, decided that the schoolhouse, situated between the parish church and the castle entrance, should be denied shelter to the Parliamentary besiegers. He ordered that the building should be entirely destroyed and thereby made the boys and their master homeless.

After the surrender of Colonel Boynton and his garrison, the Common Hall on Sandside had to determine the fate of their grammar school. St Mary’s Church was in the ruins: its north transept and eastern chancel were irreparable, but the southern side of the building had survived almost intact. It was therefore agreed that the south transept should become temporary accommodation for the boys and their master. Accordingly, Farrer’s Aisle was divided into two levels, upper and lower, and blocked off from the nave, and a new doorway was cut in its west wall to give access from the outside.

Since 1649 many attempts had been made to find an alternative site for the grammar school, but there was never sufficient money forthcoming. When the Rev John Kirk faced the charity commissioners in 1824, nothing much had changed for nearly two centuries, except that everyone concerned seemed to have forgotten that the school had once belonged to the municipal corporation, not the Church of England: it was the Charity Commission that discovered and revealed the truth.

Unknown to John Kirk, his school had been the intended beneficiary of two valuable legacies. In 1640, Gregory Fysh, then a member of one of Scarborough’s most affluent and influential families, had donated a field in Falsgrave, called Worlington Grove or Grave, to pay the fees of four scholars. The four were to be his kindred, or two chosen by the Bailiffs and two by St Mary’s vicar. Since then, and long after the Fysh family had become extinct in Scarborough, the rental income of what was also known as Grammar School Field in upper Ramsdale had been misappropriated by the borough treasury.

Secondly, in 1692, Francis Thompson (1653-93) had agreed that he and his descendants would pay the Bailiffs £6 a year, interest on the principal sum of £100, “for and towards the use of the schoolmaster”. This arrangement lasted until 1743 when William Thompson, son of Francis, handed over £142 to the Bailiffs, the original grant and seven years’ unpaid interest on it. Again, the proceeds of the legacy seem to have travelled no further than the Town Hall treasure chest.

When these disgraceful deceits were made known to the headmaster, Thomas Irvin, he conceded the right of Scarborough corporation to appoint his successors, accepted an annual future municipal salary of £5, and agreed to give free tuition in English and arithmetic to four poor boys from the town. From 1825 the borough seal was affixed to the headmaster’s document of appointment.

When royal commissioners investigated the finances of the Corporation in 1833, William Travis, the Council spokesman, admitted that it had only Thompson’s £100 on which it paid out £5 a year. “They have nothing else belonging to the school”, he added. No reference then seems to have been made to Grammar School Field, which was bought freehold by the York and Midland Railway Company for their new line in 1845. It took another six years before the grammar school’s trustees received the sale price of £150 from the Town Hall treasurer.

So in 1824 the charity commissioners were content with Scarborough high school’s management, though unhappy about its location. Thomas Irvin then taught about 40 fee-paying boys between the ages of eight and 14 and some of them boarded with him at his home in Queen Street. Latin was still on the curriculum, but it now also included “useful liberal subjects” to attract the sons of farmers and tradesmen who wanted practical instruction for them. Despite the objections of churchmen and parishioners, the school remained in Farrer’s Aisle until 1848, after 200 years of “temporary” occupation.