Nostalgia: St Mary’s – remote and bleak

Sketch of St Mary's Church; vegetation can be seen growing on the building.
Sketch of St Mary's Church; vegetation can be seen growing on the building.

As the daughter of a dean and rector of two parishes in Hampshire, Jane Austen was well placed to describe and understand the duties, responsibilities and entitlements of an Anglican clergyman; but the growing number of non-Anglican Christians at that time would not have agreed with her favourable commentary on the established church.

To become a clergyman in the Church of England was not so much a religious vocation as a career choice, though senior members were very particular about their appointments. A clerical “living” was taken mainly by the younger sons of the educated gentry and upper class. Only the eldest son inherited his father’s estate which left his younger brothers little choice but to marry a rich heiress, go into the army or the navy, or the established church. There was a world of difference, however, between a rector or vicar who had the right to tithes (a compulsory levy on all parishioners) and the fees for baptisms, weddings, burials and other services, and a curate, who received a small salary, an insecure tenure, but often did all the church duties including preaching sermons. In return for receipt of tithes, the rector was required to maintain the chancel, whereas the nave and aisles were the responsibility of the parishioners.

The tithe (literally one tenth of a parishioner’s income) was the subject of bitter controversy between the established church and those Christians who dissented from it. After the Reformation, income from tithes was often bought by lay rectors such as local landlords and Oxbridge colleges. Sometimes the right to collect tithes was auctioned to the highest bidder. In the past, all tithes had been paid in kind, such as fish, fruit, grain or wool, but by 1800 they had become a money tax. If they were paid it was often with the greatest reluctance and resentment. Some “rebels” such as Quakers had their goods confiscated or suffered gaol sentences rather than subsidise the Church of England.

The situation of the Anglican church in Scarborough 200 years ago was similar to that of many contemporary urban communities. Since the Reformation, successive vicars of St Mary’s had been appointed by lay patrons, first by the Thompsons of Humbleton and then by the Hothams of Scorborough, both East Riding wealthy landowners. The tithe had been bought by the Corporation which no longer collected it, but the vicar’s stipend or annual salary of £28 was paid in instalments by the patrons.

Since the chancel of St Mary’s had been ruined during the Civil War sieges of the castle and never re-built, the Thompsons and the Hothams had no responsibility for the church fabric, only ownership of the properties attached to it. However, by 1810, all this land to the west, to the east (Paradise Close), and the south-west (Vicarage Close) of St Mary’s had been sold by the Hothams to the Corporation which reserved them as public graveyards.

As a result, Scarborough’s Anglicans had more space for their buried dead than their living worshippers. Until Christ Church was opened in 1828, St Mary’s was their only place of devotion and for at least a century both residents and visitors had been complaining about its unsatisfactory location and accommodation. One description of Scarborough’s parish church as “remote, bleak and inconvenient” was an understatement.

A sketch of the west front published in 1812 shows a tree growing out of the south-western corner of the building. The interior was said to be so “barbarous” that the archdeacon of the East Riding refused to hold his annual visitation there. A few free places were assigned to “the use of the poor”, but the whole of the ground floor and the galleries above were crowded with rented box pews, all beyond the means of most of the town’s householders.

The population of the borough had more than doubled since the pews were first built and allotted, yet instead of restoring the chancel, north transept and north aisle, all Civil-War casualties, only a small number of extra pews had been set up in lofts and ugly galleries reached by wooden stairs. A north gallery dated from 1694, a south-west loft from 1710, and a western gallery for “the boys and girls of the charity school” in 1719. Worst of all, the grammar school still occupied Farrer’s Aisle, the whole of the south transept, 150 years after it had been put there by the Corporation as a temporary measure!

In these circumstances, it is surprising that Scarborough was so well served by a succession of long-lived vicars. From 1676 until 1828, six clergymen, all learned and distinguished, occupied the seven-roomed vicarage in Longwestgate until their deaths. Their curates or deputies had a smaller tenement nearby with a parlour, kitchen, two bedchambers and an attic.

One explanation for the loyalty of Scarborough’s vicars and curates was their responsibility for the grammar school as its headmasters and ushers. Not until 1824 was it discovered by the Charity Commissioners that Scarborough Corporation, not St Mary’s, was legally the guardian of the town’s grammar school. The same investigation revealed that the school’s endowments, which included gifts of money and land, dating back to 1640, had been appropriated by the Common Hall’s chamberlains. For instance, Worlington Grove in Falsgrave had been given to the school in a will of 1640. Though commonly called Grammar School Field, its rental income, unknown to the vicars of St Mary’s, had gone into the borough’s treasury. Accordingly, in 1825, the Rev Thomas Irvin, who had been curate and headmaster for nearly 30 years, accepted an annual salary of £5 from the Common Hall which affixed the borough’s seal to his appointment document.

What saved St Mary’s from further decay was a Parliamentary grant of £1,800 from a fund designed to rescue neglected places of worship. Scarborough’s Anglicans were naturally delighted with this huge donation; but the town’s Methodists, Baptists, Independents and other dissenters, who were denied any public assistance, local or national, were astounded and affronted by this act of such blatant discrimination.