Nostalgia: Tale of two Scarboroughs

St Nicholas Cliff  where the so-called New Buildings on the west side were constructed in the 1760s.'Picture reproduced courtesy of the Max Payne Collection
St Nicholas Cliff where the so-called New Buildings on the west side were constructed in the 1760s.'Picture reproduced courtesy of the Max Payne Collection

By 1800 there were beginning to be two Scarboroughs, not one. The old town was populated by permanent residents who lived and worked there, and the new Scarborough was being built largely to accommodate the seasonal “spawers” and their families.

A century earlier, in 1697, when Celia Fiennes rode side-saddle into Scarborough, she later described it as “a very pretty sea-port”. Yet, though Mrs Thomasin Farrer had discovered the mineral springs bubbling out of the base of “an exceedingly high cliffe” (Driple Cotes) 70 years earlier, there was still only minimal catering in the town for well-to-do visitors. The “good accommodation...on reasonable terms”, Miss Fiennes found only in the private homes of Quakers, who kept clean rooms and served set meals at fixed prices. As yet, Scarborough’s many inns were designed only for commercial travellers, not for guests staying for the summer season. Accommodation for visitors and horses was smaller there than even Northallerton and only a tiny fraction of that of York, Leeds, Malton, Beverley or Thirsk.

As a result, across the four Quarters of the town, Undercliff, Oldborough, Newborough and St Mary’s, rich and poor residents lived side by side. In contrast, England’s larger urban societies, such as York, Newcastle, Bristol and Norwich, already had affluent central parishes surrounded by the poorest in outer suburbs. Scarborough’s only impoverished “suburb” was Falsgrave, then a detached rural village, whereas in the town the wealthy were scattered fairly evenly on Sandside, on St Mary’s hillside, in St Sepulchre Street and in Newborough, which despite its name was not new at all.

Scarborians were very slow to respond positively and productively to the special needs, expectations and high standards of their opulent, leisurely and often infirm visitors. Some of them came just for a good time to a place where strict conventions of behaviour were relaxed or even ignored; others, who were obese, elderly or diseased, came for the curative reputations of cold, salt sea-bathing and pungent spa waters, which one imbiber said “smelled like ink and tasted of acid”. A few came to find a suitable wife or husband. Yet whatever their purposes, they expected clean, safe streets, an abundance of rich food and fine wines, theatrical and literary entertainments, and upper-class living amenities.

But the “pretty sea-port” experience by Celia Fiennes offered none of these delights. Throughout the 1700s “polite” visitors frequently complained of “steep, dirty, smelly” streets “littered with garbage of fish and Cods Heads”. The foul stench of fish pervaded and prevailed everywhere. Streets were unpaved and unlit. Even the way to the sands and the Spa wells down a “toilsome cliff” required a “long fatiguing walk.” There were no walks or gardens where the “polite company” could walk, relax and congregate. And perhaps the most serious deficiency of all was a lack of sufficient, clean, accessible water. As William Hutton wrote as late as 1804, apart from “two miserable springs” at the Spa, in the town itself there were only “two dirty wells in the street, from which is drawn a miserable supply with a string and bucket.”

Even as late as 1760, Scarborough town was still confined physically within its medieval ditches, walls and gateways, at Newborough and Oldborough Bars. The old perimeter ditch ran along the top ends of what are now Tollergate, Auborough, Queen and St Thomas (then Tanner) Streets, cut across to North Street (Ropewalk) and, after Newborough Bar, southwards to St Nicholas Cliff. The only substantial buildings then outside this boundary were the Seamen’s Hospital (now the site of the fire station) and the Bull Inn, now the Balmoral site.

The first significant breakout from this straitjacket occurred during the late 1760s when the so-called New Buildings on the west side of St Nicholas Cliff were constructed. “Handsome and stately”, they were the earliest purpose-built seaside lodging houses in Britain. They consisted of a terrace of seven tall dwellings, each spacious enough to accommodate several families and their servants, since it contained two parlours, two dining rooms, six bedchambers, five attic rooms and a kitchen. At the back of each of them was stabling for eight horses and cover for three coaches; at the front there were superb views over gardens on the Cliff northwards to the castle and harbour (subsequently blocked a century later by the Grand Hotel). Near to the New Buildings were footpaths leading down to the sands and the Spa.

Next came Robert Harding’s private walk which by 1779 was fronted by Joseph Huntriss’s long row of terraced houses and had become a public road linking the Bull Inn just outside Newborough Bar with the New Buildings. By 1805 the Corporation had consented to pave Huntriss Row which by then consisted of two boarding and eight lodging houses. Scarborough was moving inland.

Thirdly, to escape the lower town’s fetid odours of the fish and flesh shambles, by the 1790s, for what Hinderwell called “a trifling annual subscription”, visitors were now able to take fresh air and exercise and mix socially in Mr Bean’s enclosed pleasure gardens - an amenity long enjoyed at other resorts before Scarborough. The gardens provided not only fresh fruit and vegetables in season but such exotic produce as peaches, figs and grapes, all on an extensive area to the west of Huntriss Row.

Finally, and most significantly, the 44 members of the borough’s Common Hall abandoned their old town hall on Sandside and went up the hill to Long Room Street (St Nicholas). There they leased one of the two Assembly Rooms (formerly Newstead’s) at an annual rent of £42 for 31 years. It seems that Scarborough’s centre of gravity had moved from Sandside and the old town and harbour to the new upper town; from fishing and seafaring to attracting, accommodating and amusing well-heeled visitors for the summer season, just as the oldest assembly rooms had gone up-town from Sandside and Princess Street some years earlier.

So, as usual, the borough’s unelected, self-perpetuating, self-interested oligarchy had been slow and reluctant to acknowledge changing realities. The improvements that had been carried out during the 1700s to meet the needs and convenience of seasonal visitors had been the product largely of the enterprise and investment of individual residents such as John Bland, Dicky Dickinson, Robert Harding, Joseph Huntriss and John Bean, not that of the Common Hall. Scarborough’s handicap was as much its governing body as its geographical location.