The seafront skipping on Shrove Tuesday is unique to Scarborough these days, although at one time people in farming communities used to skip as a fertility rite to encourage good crops, and in fishing communities to ensure a good catch.
The Pancake Bell hung in St Thomas’s Hospital – not the seafront St Thomas’s which is now an arcade of shops, and was built in the 1850s, but an earlier building, dating from 1154, which stood between what is now North Street and St Thomas Street, and was demolished in the latter half of the 19th century. It wasn’t a hospital in the medical sense we now know, but a home for the elderly indigent, or destitute – so a sort of old people’s workhouse.
The bell was the curfew bell, and was rung at 6am and 6pm each day. On Shrove Tuesday – also known as Pancake Day – it was rung at noon as a signal to housewives that they could start making pancakes. When the hospital was demolished, the bell was moved to the Rotunda museum, where the Shrove Tuesday tradition continued, the bell being rung each year by the town’s mayor.
Over time, however, the bell became cracked and unsafe, and for a short period in the 1980s and 90s a brass handbell was used, until Scarborough Civic Society paid for the installation of a new bell at the end of North Street.
The tradition of making pancakes dates back to pre-Reformation days, when all eggs and butter in the house had to be used up before Ash Wednesday so they weren’t around to tempt people during Lent. It was also the last day before Easter for any kind of merry-making, so sports like pancake racing took place.
It seems Scarborough wasn’t alone in the Borough in having interesting custom around this time of year. In a book called Folk Lore of East Yorkshire by John Nicholson, originally published in 1890, I found the following: “At Filey, figs were once eaten on Palm Sunday, but the custom is now obsolete.” Can anyone explain that one?