Scarborough ‘spaw’: The early years

Dicky Dickinson, first governor of Scarborough spa.
Dicky Dickinson, first governor of Scarborough spa.

Why was there such a long delay between Mrs Thomasin Farrer’s “discovery” of the spa spring in the 1620s and Dr Robert Wittie’s printed promotion of it in the 1660s? If the doctor’s propaganda was historically accurate and news of the medicinal properties of Scarborough’s mineral water gradually spread from the town, to the Ridings and, by 1660, to the nation at large, then the same question remains unanswered: why did it take so long?

First of all, no gentleman in his right mind would have chosen Scarborough in the 1640s or the 1650s as a place that might guarantee a health cure and a gathering of affluent gentry and nobility. Few towns in England had suffered more property damage, more depopulation, and longer martial law than Scarborough. As a county, Yorkshire was well known to have experienced more prolonged sieges, more pitched battles and a greater passage of marauding troops, Royalist and Roundhead, than any other in the kingdom. Scarborough itself and its hinterland was wrecked and ransacked repeatedly between 1642 and 1649. During these years the town changed hands five times. Alternatively, should any potential visitor have considered reaching Scarborough by sea, news of the constant activities of privateers and Dutch warships would have been sufficient deterrent.

Secondly, though Scarborough Corporation assumed that, since the spring emerged from Driple Cotes (South Cliff), it was its property, the foreshore sands belonged to the Crown and the borough’s use of them as a fish market was granted by royal charter. Yet, as with so many Crown rights, they went by default during the republic and were not reasserted after the Restoration. Scarborough borough’s considerable privileges were still purchased from the Crown during the reigns of Charles II and his brother James II, but not after the Revolution of 1688-9. Perhaps uncertainties in the Common Hall about the legality of the foreshore sands between high and low tides might well be one reason why it was slow to exploit the commercial potential of the spa. It was not until nearly the end of the century that the Corporation took the trouble to secure the waters against theft by building a cistern for them with a sealed cover and appointing night watchmen to safeguard them.

Another possible explanation for the failure of the town’s rulers to appreciate the commercial possibilities of the spa for nearly half a century was its remote location and the difficulties and dangers of access to it. After centuries of erosion and periodic collapse, South Cliff is nothing like as steep-sided today as it was 400 years ago. Only a roped mountaineer could then have reached the sands from the top of Driple Cotes or St Nicholas Cliff. Also, the site of the spring was vulnerable to tidal flooding as well as cliff falls.

Spawers would moreover have to cross Millbeck, the overflow of Scarborough Mere, which then contained sufficient water to drive three mills and ran down Ramsdale valley and over the sands into South Bay. Finally, until John Bland constructed his “coachway” in 1722, the only route from the town to the spa was by way of West Sandgate, a distance of nearly a mile over the foreshore, and then only when the tide was out.

Scarborough spa’s slow progress was also the consequence of well-established competition. The southern aristocracy and gentry were already well-served by Bath and Bristol, Londoners by Epsom and Tunbridge Wells, northerners by Buxton in Derbyshire, and more recently by Harrogate and Knaresborough. It is quite possible that Mrs Farrer had read Dr Edmund Deane’s The English Spaw Fountaine, published in 1626, which eulogised the recovery of Harrogate’s mineral waters, first discovered in 1571.

Scarborough’s only advantage over spas such as Buxton and Harrogate/Knaresborough was that as a town of some age and size it could offer guests food, lodging and stabling. On the other hand, because, like Bath, its spa belonged to the Corporation, not to a private landowner, its early development was more handicapped rather than stimulated. At least until the 1690s, the fame of Scarborough’s spa owed most to the enterprise of three men, Dr Robert Wittie, John Fiddes, and Dicky Dickinson, its first governor. Ironically, it was not until the well-head was buried under a mountain of cliff rubble and earth in 1738, that the Corporation at last began to realise its value to the prosperity of the town.

Though we might concur with Thomas Gent, the local historian, who in 1735 wrote that Mrs Farrer’s “memory ought to be forever precious”, the chief credit for launching Scarborough as Britain’s earliest seaside resort must go to Dr Robert Wittie.

The publication of Wittie’s Scarborough Spaw in May 1660 was perfectly timed. Perhaps “the good doctor”, as one of his patients called him, had delayed going into print until such a propitious moment arrived. Published in York and London simultaneously and advertised in two of the capital’s weekly news-sheets, Parliamentary Intelligencer and Mercurius Publicus, it gave its author an opportunity to express his loyalty to the Crown and his science as a physician. For the past two decades, he had treated only Yorkshire’s gentry, now he hoped to catch bigger fish from more distance sources.

After a lengthy, unscientific and irrelevant introduction on the many different kinds of natural water to be found in rain, hail, rivers, lakes, sea and springs, Wittie went on to pour praise on the comprehensive medical benefits of drinking Scarborough’s own seaside spa. Though it had beneficial affects on all illnesses, it was a special antidote to chronic constipation, excessive flatulence and “frequent fluxes of the belly”. Those who suffered from the results of eating too much red meat and taking too little exercise, would find a daily dose of four or five pints acted as a speedy and painless purge. On this subject, he had nothing favourable to write about “sallets”, such as fresh fruit, vegetables or herbs.

It was necessary to take this daily dose of spa water between May and September, when it was not diluted by heavy rainfall. Wittie recommended a lengthy course of such treatment: after arrival, several days of rest and relaxation, followed by a gradual intake every morning from one up to five pints at a time. Seven years later, he was able to announce many further medical successes scored by Scarborough’s “spaw”.