Nostalgia: Scarborough’s litany of grief

Scarborough's own fishermen had so monopolised the trade that fishermen from other parts of the country no longer landed their catches in the town.
Scarborough's own fishermen had so monopolised the trade that fishermen from other parts of the country no longer landed their catches in the town.

By 1583, Sir Henry Gate was confident that the case for opening Seamer market was sound and that Scarborough’s objections to it were specious and flimsy, or, as he put it, “very uncertayne, frivolouse, slanderouse and insufficient in the lawe”.

As he argued, the charter of 1382 was still valid and the right to hold a market and fair at Seamer rested exclusively on his lordship of the manor. By reviving the royal charter he had not acted out of malice or personal profit.

Scarborough’s decline had long pre-dated the opening of his market. In their petition to Queen Elizabeth dated as long ago as 1565, the burgesses had claimed that the number of Scarborough’s households had fallen from 700 to 400 during the previous 30 years. Where buildings once stood, now there were only open, empty spaces in the heart of the town.

If Scarborough had become poor, he continued, the people who lived there had only themselves to blame. Once they had prospered as a seafaring community, fishing, salting, net-, rope-, and sail-making, but foolishly they had neglected these profitable crafts for “maultings and ingrossinge of corne”, so that now the town was “impoverished almost without hope of recovery”.

Only a few rich and greedy Scarborians, “the Baylives and their consorts”, he suggested, would benefit from the suppression of Seamer’s weekly market. Scarborough’s poor had welcomed the lower prices and the greater supply of food and other commodities the new market supplied. Whereas Seamer offered a free and open exchange of goods from the neighbourhood, Scarborough’s two markets denied “strangers” fair access for their produce. As a result, traders, both foreign and local, had “now utterlie forsaken them but in tyme of distresse of wether”.

Scarborough’s own fishermen had so monopolised the trade that “Flemings, Frenchmen, Devonshire men, Cornishe, Dorcetshere & Sussex men”, who previously had come to Scarborough to sell their catches, no longer did so unless forced to seek refuge there from storm and tempest. One reason for this avoidance of Scarborough by “strangers” was because “the Baylives & their consorts” had misused “the fines, amerciaments and fees due for anchorage & peerage” for their own benefit instead of spending the money on pier and harbour repairs.

Though exaggerated and self-serving, Sir Henry’s argument was powerful. The Common Hall’s reply to it was another litany of grief. Since the opening of Seamer’s market, Scarborough’s economy had plunged into terminal decline. The number of town bakers had fallen from eight to four, of shoemakers from 14 to five, of drapers from four to only one, glovers from six to three, butchers from eight to four, weavers from 14 to four, tailors from 20 to nine and victuallers from more than 40 to only half that number. To save their livelihoods, many of the town’s tradesmen and craftsmen had been compelled to live and work in Seamer.

The sale of corn at Scarborough had collapsed; that of hides from Malton, Pickering and Whitby had ceased altogether. Grass now grew in the town’s market places. Revenue from the annual gablage tax on property had fallen from £30 to £20 and the returns from Scarborough’s water and windmills were now negligible. Addressed to the Privy Council in London, this latest tale of woe was endorsed by the master of Trinity House and issued under the common seal of the borough.

Not that such endorsements carried much weight with the authorities at York or in London. Scarborough’s oligarchy sitting in the Common Hall on Sandside knew all too well that Sir Henry Gate was “a man of great countenance with great friends, alyes and kinsmen in the countie of York”, whereas they were only “townsmen and artificers and such like personnes of small ability”.

Much of this disparity was true. Sir Henry’s authority and influence had continued to grow since he opened his market at Seamer. In 1579, his eldest son and heir, Edward, had become justice in both the North and East Ridings, and, after the death of Sir Richard Cholmley in 1583, Edward was named as his successor as constable of Scarborough castle and tenant of the royal manor of Northstead for life. In London, Queen Elizabeth’s ministers placed the highest value on the proved trustworthiness of the Gates living in an area which was still regarded as potentially rebellious. As the war with Spain intensified and the imprisoned Mary, formerly Queen of the Scots, became the chief source of inspiration and conspiracy for Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects, Sir Henry Gate’s presence in Yorkshire was vital and irreplaceable. No doubt Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s secretary of state and principal intelligence officer, was being kept informed by this keen listener and look-out at Seamer.

Frustrated by their failure to make any headway, Scarborough’s ruling burgesses now resorted to direct, heavyweight action. Early in 1584, Sandside ordered that every town inhabitant was forbidden to attend, to buy, or to sell in Seamer’s Monday market, on pain of imprisonment, a fine of ten shillings, and the loss of all rights in the borough. Whether Scarborough’s leaders had the right to pass, or even less enforce, such draconian measures is most doubtful and there is no surviving evidence that this sanction was carried out, though it might have served as a deterrent.

On the contrary, one of Scarborough’s richest merchants, William Fysh, had actually opened a shop in Seamer, which according to one source, “forfeited the goodwill of his fellow burgesses”. However, it seems that William’s defiant transgression was subsequently forgotten or forgiven in the Common Hall, since in 1589 he was chosen by it to be one of the borough’s MPs in the short-lived parliament of that year and in October re-elected as senior bailiff!

William Fysh’s shop in Seamer had done him no harm in Scarborough. When he died in 1591, he bequeathed a handsome estate of a mansion, gardens, garths, barns, tannery, shops and pastures, none of them in Seamer, to his five sons, two daughters and widow. Two of his sons, Robert and Gregory, later became leading members of the Common Hall where they were described as “gentlemen”.