Scarborough Spa and the First British Seaside Resort: Part I

This is an article originally published in the Yorkshire Journal (Spring Issue, 2010) by Sarah Harrison. She has kindly given permission for her work to be republished here.


Above: The Scarborough Spa Complex (via the Yorkshire Journal, Spring Issue, 2010)

It happened by chance, in about 1626, when a Mrs. Farrer discovered natural springs bubbling out beneath the cliff to the south of Scarborough. She saw that the waters stained the rocks a reddish-brown colour and that it tasted slightly bitter. The spring water was later found to cure minor ailments.

Mrs. Farrer was the wife of one of Scarborough’s leading citizens, John Farrer who was several times Bailiff of Scarborough.

When she told her neighbours and friends about the beneficial effects, they too drank the waters, and this became a widely accepted medicine for local townspeople.

The mineral waters were analysed by medical professionals and found to contain a high level of magnesium sulphate – its healing properties were just as effective as Andrews’ Liver Salts are today.

Dr Robert Wittie of Hull was the main medical supporter promoting the mineral waters and in 1660 he published his book “Scarborough Spa”, in which he proclaimed the waters as a cure for all ills. He recommended that the waters were best drunk in the summer season, mid-May to mid-September. He also began promoting the health benefits of sea bathing, and by the middle of 1660 the resulting publicity made the town’s wells famous.

Scarborough developed not only as a fashionable spa town but as the original English seaside resort. “Taking the Water” quickly became a popular medicine, and attracted a flood of visitors to the town

The first Spa House was built on or near this site in about 1700. This basic wooden structure designed for the sale and dispensing of the waters, and to provide basic amenities to visitors. The water was also bottled and sold further afield. Dickie Dickinson was appointed the first Governor of the Spa and was responsible for keeping order and collecting money from visitors. 


Above: Dickie Dickinson, first Governor of the Spa (via the Yorkshire Journal, Spring Issue, 2010)

All went well until a massive landslide buried the Spa House, conveniences and the springs in 1737. Fortunately the water source was quickly located again, and in 1739 a sizeable building or saloon was built. This offered fine views over the sea and a long flight of stairs to reach the wells.


Above: The Spa, depicted in a plate from the Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813 (via the Yorkshire Journal, Spring Issue, 2010)

Scarborough was now well established as a seaside resort and Spa town providing every fashionable amenity. There was a Long Room in St Nicholas Street that provided nightly dancing, music, gaming tables and billiards. In the afternoon, plays were acted under the management of Mr. Kerregan in 1733, and from 1776, evening performances were given in the theatre.

There was also a whole range of accommodation to suit every pocket – board and lodgings, rooms at inns and hostelries, a Georgian house for rent, and later, top quality hotels. Tourists could visit coffee shops and bookshops with circulating libraries, and, enjoy the added attractions of horse racing on the beach, alongside boating and sea-bathing. Scarborough was one of the first places, if not the first, to use bathing machines.

(You can read Sarah’s article on Sea Bathing by clicking here for Part I and here for Part II)

During its Victoria heyday the Spa was considered the most popular music hall venue outside London. The first orchestra appeared in the 1830s, but a series of mishaps and disasters plagued the Spa each time redevelopment occurred. The initial saloon was damaged by heavy seas in 1808, but the worst storm; according to some, of the century, devastated the building, which, as a result, had to be completely re-build in 1836.

Before this disaster, such was the Spa’s popularity, that in 1827 the iron Cliff Bridge was erected across the valley, giving easier access from the cliff and the town, where elegant hotels and Georgian lodging houses were becoming popular.


Above: The Cliff Bridge across the valley (via the Yorkshire Journal, Spring Issue, 2010)

The completion of the new “Gothic Saloon”, designed by Henry Wyatt, was opened in 1839 and included a concert hall to seat 500, a garden, promenade and an external area in which orchestras were to perform. However, by the time it opened, the impressive turreted building, was already too small. Consequently, Sir Joseph Paxton, the landscape gardener and architect responsible for the grounds of Chatsworth, Derbyshire and the Crystal Palace, London was called in to redesign the complex. The new, improved venue officially opened in 1858.


Above: The Gothic Saloon (via the Yorkshire Journal, Spring Issue, 2010)

To be continued…


For a full list of acknowledgements, and to see the article in its original format, please visit the Yorkshire Journal (Spring, 2010). All copyright retained by the author.

Many thanks to Sarah for sharing this article with Stories From Scarborough! Look out for Part II, coming soon.