Nostalgia: ‘The refined amusements of polished life’

One of James Green's sketches of 1812 Scarborough shows the inside of the Theatre Royal.
One of James Green's sketches of 1812 Scarborough shows the inside of the Theatre Royal.

For gentlemen who wanted to catch up with the latest news there was the coffee-house. Scarborough seems to have had only one of these places which, as shown on John Collins’ street plan, dated from at least 1725. It stood at the corner of Tanner (St Thomas) Street at its junction with the north side of Newborough and nearly a century later it was still there.

Tea was taken by all classes except the very poor, but coffee-drinking in public was the preserve of affluent gentlemen. The coffee-house was the ancestor of the exclusive, gentlemen’s club. In 1800 at Scarborough the house was kept by Mrs Park who charged her subscibers five shilling for the season. For this gentlemen could read the London and provincial newspapers which arrived daily by post. Mrs Park also provided dinners and suppers, some of which were carried out to lodging houses in the vicinity.

In Scarborough, newspapers were very expensive. Until the 1820s the town did not have a publication of its own. Local news was to be found in only the Yorkshire Post from Leeds and the two York papers, the Chronicle and the Herald. The mass circulation national papers that we know were not founded until the 1890s and the early 1900s. In Jane Austen’s time there were four London newspapers, the Morning Post, The Times, The Observer and the Morning Advertiser, all established recently.

Government stamp duties and a tax on newsprint were intended to put news-sheets beyond the means of ordinary working people, half of whom could not read anyway. At up to eight pence a time, a newspaper was far too costly to buy for all but the very wealthy and so the coffee-house was much the cheapest source of advertising, political news and gossip.

After drinking the prescribed dosage of spa water and plunging themselves into the frigid, salty sea of South Bay during the mornings, visitors to Scarborough might then indulge themselves with an after-dinner promenade to the theatre. In 1768, what had once been the site of no more than a “large booth” became the location of Mr Cadwell’s “fine theatre” on the east side of Tanner Street.

Fortunately, one of James Green’s sketches of 1812 Scarborough is of the inside of what by then had become the Theatre Royal. The conventional apron stage is piled high with dead theatrical bodies which suggests that a performance of Tom Thumb the Great had reached its climatic conclusion. The sketch of only one wing of the theatre shows three different seatings: two boxes, upper and lower, and the pit stall. If there were upper galleries for the cheapest benches they were not drawn. According to one play bill, a box place cost three shillings, pit stall seat two shillings and one in the gallery one shilling.

Even at only one shilling, however, a gallery place was not for the riff-raff: that plays there were performed on alternate afternoons or nights between June and October indicates that Scarborough’s one theatre was in Hinderwell’s words a “refined amusement of polished life”, not for the entertainment of low life.

More than a hundred play bills, dating from between 1777 and 1798, record what was actually performed then in Tanner Street’s theatre. An evening programme usually consisted of two short plays, a comedy and a tragedy, separated by a juggler, a singer or an acrobat. Alternatively, an abbreviated version of a play by Shakespeare might have songs or recitations between the acts.

Sheridan’s witty, satirical comedies seem to have been especially welcome at Scarborough, as they were in Drury Lane. The Rivals (1775), The School for Scandal (1777), She Stoops to Conquer (1779), and The Critic (1779) were all performed many times at the Theatre Royal. In 1813, Stephen Kemble, one of the members of the famous theatrical family of that name, took the part of Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals. Amongst the audience were the Duke and Duchess of Leeds and the Marquess of Carmarthen. Stephen’s other favourite parts were Shylock and Falstaff. For the latter role it was said he needed no padding.

From as early as 1733, for a seasonal subscription of five shillings, visitors to Scarborough were able to borrow up to six books at a time from a shop in Long Room Street. By 1787, James Schofield, author and publisher of Scarborough’s first guide, had 4,000 volumes for hire from his bookseller’s store in Newborough. Green’s “The Library” was not identified in the text of his Political Sketches of 1813, but it probably belonged to William Ainsworth, then the town’s leading librarian. The sketch shows the inside of a building with handsome bow windows and stocks of books from floor to ceiling. One elderly lady is attended by a black boy who carries several books under his arm while a younger, well-dressed female customer points out the book that she wants.

In his Tour of Scarborough written by William Hutton after his visit there in 1803, he described how he acquired a copy of Hinderwell’s first edition of 1798. First he paid the bookseller a shilling for a loan of two hours and a guinea deposit, but within the time limit he was so delighted with the work that he returned to the shop and bought the volume outright for half a guinea.

Hinderwell’s History sold well and was printed in several versions and editions. Less demanding and cheaper were the various guides such as Schofield’s own second edition of 1796, priced at three shillings, Hatfield’s of 1798, Broadrick’s of 1806, Ainsworth’s own of 1806 and that of 1815 by Thomas Coultas. Most of the these town guides were published and re-published in subsequent editions for each new summer season.

If the reader had a taste for fiction there were the Scottish ballads and historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, from Marmion (1808) and Lady of the Lake (1810) to Waverley (1814) and Guy Mannering (1815). Ainsworth also offered the fashionable Gothic novels “full of dungeons, ruins and wicked men”; or, less likely, Sense and Sensibility, a novel, by a lady, the first of Jane Austen’s, which appeared in print anonymously in 1811.