Old Hartlepool : The Headland

Surrounded on three sides by the sea, the Magnesian Limestone headland or peninsula called the Heugh at Hartlepool is more familiarly known as Old Hartlepool.

Old Hartlepool
Old Hartlepool. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In prehistoric times Hartlepool’s headland is thought to have been an isolated tidal island covered by thick forests. In the nineteenth century during excavation of the adjacent marshy inlet of the sea called the Slake, trunks of trees from the ancient forest were found embedded in the clay along with antlers and the teeth from deer that seem to have inhabited the area in large numbers many years ago.

Hartlepool forest is still recorded in existence in the thirteenth century. In fact the ancient Anglo-Saxon name for Hartlepool was Herut eu meaning Stag Island which is a reference to either the stag’s head shape of the headland or perhaps an indication that the area may have been well inhabited by forest deer. The first record of the name was in 750 AD when the Venerable Bede described the place as ‘Heruteu, id est insula cerui’ – ‘Stag Island’

Church of St Hilda, Old Hartlepool
Church of St Hilda, Old Hartlepool. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Heruteu was later known as Hart or Hartness and was in fact the name of a whole district which included the Heugh headland and the villages of Hart and Billingham to the west. At an early stage the coastal headland was distinguished from Hart by the addition of the word ‘pool’, a reference to the sheltered coastal bay adjacent to the headland.

The Norman French element ‘le’ in the name Hartlepool is the same as that in names like Chester-le-Street or Hetton-le-Hole and is used to distinguish places with similar names in this case to distinguish that part of Hart on the coast from Hart, the inland village. Old Norse documents of the 1100s record the name Hiartar Poll (stag pool) but do not include the element ‘le’. The pool was the bay formed by the hook-shaped headland of the Hartlepool peninsula.

Church of St Hilda, Old Hartlepool
Church of St Hilda, Old Hartlepool. Photo © David Simpson 2018

St Hilda of Hartlepool

Hartlepool’s headland is of course the site of the original Hartlepool and was to form the natural harbour for the old fishing town for many centuries. In earlier times this area may have been the site of a monastery associated with St Hilda.

The Anglo-Saxon monastery at Hartlepool was founded in 640 AD by St Aidan for both men and women and its first abbess was an Irish princess by the name of Hieu. Some say that Hieu gave her name to Heugh, the name of the headland. The word ‘Heugh’ is in fact Anglo-Saxon and signifies a hill spur or spur-shaped promontory. For example, Tynemouth Castle and Priory are located on a site called the Heugh. In 649 AD Hieu was succeeded by St Hilda who was here until 657 AD when she founded the monastery at Whitby.

In its later days the monastery at Hartlepool seems to have declined in importance until it was finally destroyed by the Danes in the ninth century. Scandinavian invaders may have continued to be a problem for Hartlepool in following centuries as there is a record of an attack upon this place by Norwegian pirates under King Eystein in 1153 when ships and goods were carried off from the port. This was the last known Viking raid on the North.

The main focus of Old Hartlepool’s history today is the beautiful church of St Hilda. In 1833 a cemetery thought to be associated with the old monastery was discovered nearby. The present church of St Hilda dates from the thirteenth century and was built as a burial place for the Norman De Brus (Bruce) family who owned much land hereabouts.

Church of St Hilda, Old Hartlepool
Church of St Hilda, Old Hartlepool. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Bruce’s Port

In the thirteenth century the coastal port and fishing town of Hartlepool became a fortified place with defensive walls constructed around the Headland. The defences were instigated by Robert Bruce the first, who was grandfather of the famous King of Scotland of that name.

The Bruces acquired Hartlepool after the Norman Conquest although their period of ownership was characterised by disputes with the Prince Bishops of Durham over who exactly owned the place.

Sandwell Gate, Old Hartlepool
Sandwell Gate, Old Hartlepool. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Some parts of Hartlepool’s town wall date from the 14th century including the historic Sandwell Gate which can still be seen. Here the wall is eight feet three inches thick. Hartlepool needed to be well defended as it was the chief sea port of the powerful Prince Bishops of Durham and was a target for Scottish and sea-borne attacks.

One notable Scottish raid on Hartlepool occured in 1315, the year after King Edward I had been defeated by King Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn. Robert the Bruce may have had a particular grudge against Hartlepool as it was the place to which the English King Edward had fled following the battle. Furthermore Robert the Bruce had once been the owner of Hartlepool, but it was confiscated from him by the English, when he was enthroned as King of the Scots.

Medieval Port

Throughout the Middle Ages Hartlepool virtually monopolised the shipping of the Durham Bishopric and was one of the busiest places on the eastern coast. Such was its importance that it regularly attracted pirates who hampered the trade here and at neighbouring ports like Whitby.

Sea wall, Old Hartlepool
Sea wall, Old Hartlepool. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Hartlepool was recognised for its strategic importance during rebellions and in times of religious conflict. In the conflicts of the sixteenth century for example its significance was recognised by all sides as a potential landing place for the enemy.

At the Siege of Dunbar in 1650 it was said that the French had come into the possession of a detailed map of Hartlepool and hoped to set men ashore to fortify the place as a base for seizing the whole of northern England.

In August 1561 Hartlepool was again asked to remain vigilant when the activities of Mary Queen of Scots came under close scrutiny. The Hartlepudlians were advised to keep a watch out for foreign ships entering the town. Eight years later during the Rising of the North in 1569 the Spanish ambassador had instructed northern rebels to capture Hartlepool in order that the Duke of Alva might land troops from the Netherlands to lend their support.

Old Hartlepool
Old Hartlepool. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In response to this plan the Earl of Sussex ordered that Hartlepool be garrisoned by 200 men to prevent the landing. The order was not obeyed and Lord Neville, leader of the northern rebels seized the town instead.

The foreign support for the rebels at Hartlepool never materialized and on the seventeenth of December 1569 a Royal ship sailing from Scarborough to Tynemouth fired upon the rebels in the town. The rebels returned fire but the ship managed to capture a Hartlepool fishing coble with three poor, half naked men on board.

In the following century Hartlepool was occupied by the Scots during the Civil War. During the Dutch Wars (1644-67) a report and map of the place was drawn up because vessels pursued by the Dutch frequently took refuge here.

In the eighteenth century Hartlepool’s importance as a port had fallen into considerable decline and its harbour had fallen into disrepair. As Hartlepool entered the nineteenth century it was redundant as a port and was known primarily as a health resort and not a very successful one at that.

A final nail seemed to have been hammered into the coffin of Hartlepool as a port when the natural harbour was enclosed for agricultural purposes and corn was grown on the slake. Fortunately in 1813 a petition was made that came out in favour of the town. The enclosure was reversed and the harbour was saved. If the enclosure had been given a few more years to take effect, irreversible damage may have been done to the harbour.

The Hartlepool Monkey

The best known tradition and legend associated with the fishermen of Hartlepool is the story of the hanging of the monkey. Tradition attributes this legend to the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was a December day and the coast at Hartlepool was subject to a heavy battering of gales and snow, through which a French vessel called the Chasse Maree could be vaguely seen just off the Hartlepool headland.

The beach, Old Hartlepool
The beach, Old Hartlepool. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The fisherfolk of Hartlepool fearing an invasion kept a close watch on the French vessel as it struggled against the storm but when the vessel was severely battered and sunk they turned their attention to the wreckage washed ashore. Among the wreckage lay one wet and sorrowful looking survivor, the ship’s pet monkey dressed to amuse in a military style uniform.

The fishermen apparently questioned the monkey and held a beach-based trial. Apparently unfamiliar with what a Frenchman looked like they came to the conclusion that this monkey was a French spy and should be sentenced to death. The unfortunate creature was to die by hanging, with the mast of a fishing boat (a coble) providing a convenient gallows.

In former times, when war and strife
The French invasion threaten’d life
An’ all was armed to the knife
The Fisherman hung the monkey O !

The Fishermen with courage high,
Siezed on the monkey for a French spy;
“Hang him !” says one; “he’s to die”
They did and they hung the monkey Oh!

They tried every means to make him speak
And tortured the monkey till loud he did speak;
Says yen “thats french” says another “its Greek”
For the fishermen had got druncky oh!

West Hartlepool : Jackson’s Town

At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was hard to believe that Old Hartlepool, with its small population of only 993 consisting almost entirely of fishermen had been one of the busiest ports on the eastern coast.

The marina, Hartlepool
The marina, Hartlepool. Photo © David Simpson 2018

It was realised that trade had to be brought into the town in order to save it from oblivion and in 1823 it was suggested that railways be built to connect with local collieries, so that Hartlepool could be developed as a coal port.

One of the main parties involved in the development of railways and docks at Old Hartlepool was Christopher Tennant of Yarm who established the Hartlepool Dock and Railway Company. Mr Tennant had opened the Clarence Railway at Billingham in 1833 and gained permission for a new railway linking Hartlepool to the Durham coalfield, but he died before completion of this new ‘Stockton and Hartlepool Railway’ in 1839

Tennant’s railway was taken over by a Stockton-on-Tees solicitor called Ralph Ward Jackson, but Jackson was increasingly frustrated by restrictions on business at Old Hartlepool’s Victoria Dock and established the West Hartlepool Dock Company to the south west of the old town.

This signified the birth of West Hartlepool, a town which came to overshadow Old Hartlepool by its shear size. By 1881 Old Hartlepool’s population had grown from 993 to 12,361, but the newly born West Hartlepool now had a population of 28,000. By 1900 the two Hartlepools were one of the four busiest ports in the country and West Hartlepool alone had a population of 63,000.

For many years West Hartlepool and Old Hartlepool were separate towns but merged together as one town, under the Hartepool Order of 1966. Today the modern town centre of Hartlepool is in the former West Hartlepool where we find many interesting features including the unusual Victorian church called Christchurch, now occupied by an art gallery.

Royal Navy Museum and the mast of Trincomalee, Hartlepool
Royal Navy Museum and the mast of Trincomalee, Hartlepool. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The most significant developments at Hartlepool of more recent times include the Hartlepool Marina and Hartlepool Historic Quay, now The National Museum of the Royal Navy Hartlepool.

Here a wonderful complete eighteenth century seaport has been created in part of a West Hartlepool dock. The experience recreates life aboard a British naval frigate, features the story of the press gangs and the neighbouring quay features period shops and houses.

The star attraction berthed in the quay is however the beautiful HMS Trincomalee, the oldest surviving British 18th century warship which you can get on board and explore. Nearby just along from the quay is the Museum of Hartlepool which has fascinating interactive displays portraying Hartlepool’s historic past.

Our YouTube channel explores the Viking history of Hartlepool and the River Tees.

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Guisborough and Cleveland | Cleveland Coast


North East England History and Culture