There’s a particular incident in this town’s glorious history that we’ve wanted to write about in this column for some time, but have been prevented from doing by the lack of an appropriate item in the Scarborough Collections to represent it.
That changed when, during research for the upcoming exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery Scarborough Historical Pageant and Play 1912, Collections Assistant Julie Baxter came across today’s photograph.
It shows the recreation at the pageant, which took place at Scarborough Castle in the July and August of 1912, of the ignominious tossing of the town’s mayor in a blanket in 1688.
In 1687 King James II had issued the Declaration of Indulgence which allowed Catholic and Nonconformist believers to worship as they saw fit, rather than adhering to the tenets of the Church of England.
The King decreed that the Declaration should be read aloud in churches around the country on certain Sundays, an order which aroused widespread, and sometimes violent, opposition. Many clergymen refused to comply, including the Vicar of Scarborough, the Reverend Noel Boteler.
The mayor, Thomas Aislabie, was present in St Mary’s Church on the occasion of his refusal, and took it upon himself to publicly thrash the vicar with a cane as he stood at his lectern.
The highly regarded historian Thomas Hinderwell rather drily reported on the aftermath in his 1832 History of Scarborough:
“This behaviour, being disliked by some of the congregation (though probably by none more than by the divine himself), was particularly taken up by a captain in the army, who was then at church. The officer took the liberty next day to send for the mayor to the old Bowling Green; but the mayor taking no notice of this message, the captain sent a file of musketeers to compel his attendance. These having brought him to the said place, he was obliged to undergo the rough discipline of being tossed in a blanket. Soon after which the mayor set out for London to obtain redress from the king, on which his adversary thought proper to leave Scarborough and follow him.”
All seemed to end rather disappointingly anti-climactically – a manuscript in the British Museum dated 29 September 1688 tells us: “The Mayor of Scarborough and Captain Ouseley, who tossed the other in a blanket, were heard last night before the council; the captain pleaded His Majesty’s gracious pardon, and so both were dismissed.”
So, the big question is: just what sort of punishment is tossing someone in a blanket?
Extensive googling has thrown up a bewildering variety of cultural references to the practice. In certain Inuit tribes, it was a method of elevating hunters high enough (up to 6m, or 20 feet) to spot far-off prey – a technique celebrated to this day in Canada’s Northern Games.
In some primitive societies, it was used to accelerate labour in women about to give birth – distressingly some cultures only used it where the foetus was determined to have died in utero.
And in the States, it’s used to this day during the ‘hazing’ of undergraduates into university fraternities – hazing being ritual abuse or humiliation to initiate someone into a group.
And that’s probably the direct cultural descendant of our mayor’s blanket toss – a punishment that was relatively safe in that the victim was unlikely to be seriously harmed, but was simply socially humiliating. However, if you know differently, do please contact us!
Today’s photograph can be seen in an album of photos of the 1912 pageant which can be in the exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery until Sunday 9 October.
To read more about the pageant, visit: http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/featured-pageants/scarborough-historical-pageant-and-play-1912/
The album is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org or 01723 384510.