The Old Parcels Office Artspace is an exciting new arts venue for North Yorkshire. Housed in a grade II listed building located on Scarborough Station, the space comprises artist studios, a gallery, and learning space.
As a writer, the Yorkshire Coast and especially the resort of Scarborough has played a significant role over the last decade. My book, Beside the Seaside, A History of Yorkshire’s Seaside Resorts, changed my life in so many ways. I was delighted therefore, to see advertised a forthcoming exhibition ‘When the Railways Came to Town’, which tells the story of Scarborough’s growth as a seaside resort from the arrival of the first steam trains in 1845 to 1945 through a collection of historical maps, postcards, memorabilia, and selected pieces of contemporary art.
I was especially thrilled to see that the exhibition is being held at the resort’s ‘Old Parcels Office’, a railway heritage building with a fascinating history. The repurposing of historic and interesting buildings is something I believe in passionately, especially when they are used for the benefit of the local community.
Scarborough Station was originally built as a terminus station for the York and North Midland Railway (succeeded by the North Eastern Railway) to designs by George Townsend Andrews. It was opened in 1845. By that time much of the country’s population had not strayed far from the village or town in which they had been born. The railway companies were quick to offer occasional specially reduced fares, for day excursions. With the adoption of half-day working on Saturdays in the mid-19th century allowing longer weekends, more working people began to take advantage of the cheap day fares.
As the number of visitors to the town increased and additional lines to Pickering and Whitby opened, the platforms were extended in 1859 and the main station building in 1870. Eventually platform one was almost exclusively used as an excursion station. Ultimately it was the introduction of bank holidays that was to change the resorts forever and was the catalyst for the huge crowds that were eventually drawn to the coast.
Expanding for the visitors
In the 1880s work began to extend the platform roofs followed by the erection of a new building to the designs of the then North Eastern Railway architect, William Bell. The large rooms were all double height spaces with yellow glazed bricks to the lower levels and unglazed yellow bricks above.
By 1896, the number of visitors arriving by train has risen substantially, with 850,277 tickets being collected at Scarborough. As a result, an entirely separate excursion station was built in 1908 to the west at Londesborough Road. With the new station in use and the decline in excursion traffic in the late 1920s early 1930s, the new building ceased to be used for passengers.
The buildings therefore took on a new use as a parcels office, housing a luggage in advance facility, fruit and vegetable store, wet fish store and other offices. Following a much later change of use to a store, the building fell into disrepair.
The Old Parcels Office
Fast forward to 2009 when the derelict building came to the notice of local artist Jo Davis. Over the next 12 years, Jo and other artists and volunteers raised more than £850,000 to convert the space into the Old Parcels Office, a community arts space featuring artists’ studios, a learning space, and a gallery space big enough for “gigs, talks, screenings and larger events”.
The Old Parcels Office artspace is managed by Scarborough Studios CIO, a charitable organisation founded in 2021 to oversee its running and its programmes. This charitable organisation builds on the work of Scarborough Studios Ltd, a not-for-profit company, which has managed and fundraised the capital redevelopment. Much of the funding came from Historic England, the Railway Heritage Trust, Arts Council England, Network Rail (the buildings owners who lease it on a peppercorn rent) and Yorkshire Coast Community Led Local Development.
Multi-purpose arts centre
Following delays due to the Covid pandemic, the Old Parcels Office Artspace eventually opened in September 2021. Speaking last year, Jo Davis said:
“There have been so many ups and downs with this project … but every time I walk into the building and see the light streaming in through the restored roof lights, I know all the effort is worth it. Scarborough is going to have a major new contemporary arts centre and that is something I am really proud of, but I couldn’t have done it on my own.”
Jo’s optimism would appear well founded. Sally Gorham, chair of the Old Parcels Office, told me “The Old Parcels Office is an amazing building. Since it re-opened last September as a multipurpose arts centre, we have had over five thousand visitors. Although the [Old Parcels Office] is run almost entirely by volunteers we have already establish a reputation for the quality of our exhibitions, music night and other events”.
When the Railways Came to Town
When the Railways Came to Town runs from Saturday 8 to Sunday 18 September 2022 (Thursday–Sunday 11am–4pm). It celebrates the history of the Old Parcels Office as Scarborough’s first dedicated excursion station.
The original historical maps, which form part of the exhibition, have been enlarged and are part of a collection owned by architect Adrian Spawforth, whose family have a longstanding connection with Scarborough. Adrian said:
“After 1845, Scarborough saw a period of rapid expansion as a holiday destination as the railway made access to the town cheaper and easier. Many of the town’s great landmarks were built during this period and remain today, while others such as the underground Aquarium, the pier and the revolving tower lasted for just a few short years before falling into disrepair and ultimately being demolished.
“The maps I have collected over the last 20 years reveal an amazing social history of the town and are illustrated by some rare artefacts I have managed to collect along with photos and images dating back from the earliest days of photography.”
On the first evening of the exhibition there will be an illustrated talk at 7.30pm about the history of Scarborough stations by the president of the Scarborough Railway Society and well-known local author Robin Lidster. Further details are available on the Old Parcels Office Artspace website.