A History of Scarborough

By Tim Lambert

The Romans built a signalling station at Scarborough around 370 AD. At that time Saxons from Germany were raiding eastern England. If their fleet was sighted off Scarborough signal torches were lighted to warn the Roman armed forces.

Scarborough in the Middle Ages

However, it is believed that the Danes founded the town of Scarborough in the 10th century. The ‘borough’ part of its name is a corruption of burgh, which meant fort or fortified settlement. Scarborough was devastated in 1066 when the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada invaded England. His men burned Scarborough and killed many of the inhabitants. However, Hardrada was killed shortly afterward at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

However, in the 12th century, Scarborough revived. Around 1136 a castle was built there. The keep of Scarborough Castle (which still stands) was built in 1158. Soon a little town grew around the castle. In the Middle Ages towns sometimes grew up beside castles because the garrison was a market for craftsmen’s goods. Often a market started in the shadow of the castle.

By the 13th century, Scarborough was a busy little market town and port. In 1253 the townspeople were granted the right to hold an annual fair. (In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and buyers and sellers would come from a wide area to attend a Scarborough fair).

Many of the people in Medieval Scarborough were fishermen or sailors. The main export from England at that time was wool and some was exported from Scarborough.

In the 13th century, the friars arrived in Scarborough. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach and help the poor. There were 3 orders of friars in Scarborough. There were Franciscans (called grey friars because of the color of their costumes), Dominicans, or black friars, and Carmelites, or white friars.

The church also ran the only hospitals in the Middle Ages. In Scarborough, there was a leper hostel. There was also a hospital (almshouse) for the poor and infirm.

In the 14th century, Scarborough probably had a population of between 2,000 and 2,500 people. To us, it would seem tiny but towns were very small in those days. However, in the late Middle Ages Scarborough went into decline. It was devastated by the Black Death, which struck in 1349. Afterward, it faced increasing competition from the port of Hull.

Furthermore, with the invention of gunpowder and the development of cannons, Scarborough Castle became less and less important. The decline of the castle harmed the town.

Scarborough 1500-1800

In the 16th century, Scarborough continued to slowly decline. Henry VIII closed the friaries in Scarborough.

However, in the 17th century, Scarborough began to revive. That was partly because of the growth of the coal trade. Increasing amounts of coal were transported from Newcastle to other parts of England. Some of it was transported in ships from Scarborough.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. Scarborough was in the royalist’s hands. However, by 1645 the king was losing the war. In February 1645 the parliamentary army captured the town of Scarborough but the royalist soldiers retreated into Scarborough castle. They held out until July 1645.

Scarborough Castle was besieged for the second time in 1648. The king persuaded the Scots to invade England on his behalf and some of the English sided with him. This time the siege lasted from July to September 1648. After they captured Scarborough castle the parliamentarians ‘slighted’ (damaged) it to prevent it from ever falling into the royalist’s hands again.

In the 17th century, Scarborough developed into a spa town. At that time when people were desperate for a cure they believed they could be healed from all sorts of diseases by drinking from a spa. A lady named Mrs. Farrer discovered a spring at the bottom of the cliffs containing iron. Soon people came from all over Yorkshire to drink from the spa’s waters.

In the late 18th century bathing in seawater became fashionable. Doctors claimed it was good for the health and many wealthy people went on trips to the seaside. Many new resorts grew up. Scarborough was already a flourishing spa town but it grew into a seaside resort as well. It was also a busy fishing port and had a prosperous shipbuilding industry.

Scarborough in the 19th century

In the 19th century, Scarborough continued to be a genteel seaside resort. The fishing industry continued and Scarborough continued to be a busy port. However, shipbuilding declined.

The population rose rapidly. In 1801 Scarborough had a population of about 6,000. To us, it would seem tiny but by the standards of the time, it was a respectably sized town. It grew rapidly during the 19th century. By 1851 the population of Scarborough was around 13,000. By the end of the 19th century, the population had more than doubled to over 30,000.

The 19th century saw several improvements to Scarborough. In 1805 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Scarborough (with oil lamps).

The Rotunda Museum opened in 1829. A waterworks company was formed in Scarborough in 1844. A Market Hall was built in 1853 and the first cemetery opened in 1857. Meanwhile, Cliff Bridge opened in 1827. Valley Bridge opened in 1865.

The railway reached Scarborough in 1845 which, of course, made it easier for visitors to reach the town, and a hospital opened in Scarborough in 1893.

Scarborough in the 20th century

In the 20th century, Scarborough continued to be a thriving seaside resort. However, the population rose only slowly. By 1951 it was 43,000. Growth then leveled off.

From 1904 to 1931 electric trams ran in the streets of Scarborough. However, they were replaced by motor buses.

During the First World War Scarborough was bombarded by 2 German ships. On 16 December 1914, the Derfflinger and the Von Der Tann approached Scarborough and fired their guns at the town, killing 18 people.

After the war, Scarborough recovered and continued to flourish. The council began slum clearance in the 1920s and the 1930s and the first council houses in Scarborough were built at that time.

Meanwhile, the Futurist Theatre opened as a cinema in 1927 (it first became a theatre in 1958). A miniature railway opened in Scarborough in 1931 and an open-air theatre opened in 1932.

Then came the Second World War. In 1939 many evacuees were sent to Scarborough but most of them soon returned home. However, Scarborough did not escape the wartime bombing. Some 137 people from the town were killed by the German bombing.

In the 1960s the traditional seaside holiday was replaced by cheap package tours abroad. Nevertheless, Scarborough continued to prosper. In 1991 a Sea Life Centre opened. Also in 1991, The Brunswick Shopping Centre was completed.

Scarborough in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Scarborough is a flourishing town. In 2022 the population of Scarborough was 61,000.