Old Hartley and Seaton Sluice
Old Hartley and Seaton Sluice are in the county of Northumberland half a mile up the coast from Curry’s Point and St Mary’s Island. Nearby Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and North Shields, though historically in Northumberland are in the Borough of North Tyneside.
Hartley was originally ‘Hart-law’ rather than ‘Hart-ley’ and means ‘hill of the hart or stag’. During the reign of King John, Hartley belonged to Adam of Jesmond who conveyed it to the Delaval family. There is a pub here called the Delaval Arms and a good view of St Mary’s Island lighthouse .
Less than a quarter of a mile to the north is the angular promontory of Crag Point and to its north Colywell Bay which hosts Colywell Sands and the rocks of Charlie’s Garden. This is supposedly named from an old man called Charles Dockwray who once, reputedly, cultivated a garden on the rock tops.
To the north of and adjoining Old Hartley is Seaton Sluice at the mouth of the Seaton Burn. The stream here flows into the sea by two routes, one being man made and the other formed by nature. The natural course of the stream is the one to the north but is obstructed by the coastal rocks causing it to make a sudden turn northward to enter the sea at the south end of the Hartley Links beach that stretches north to Blyth.
Once known as Hartley Pans from the salt making pans first mentioned in the thirteenth century, Seaton was described as a port as early as 1565 but its natural harbour wasn’t the easiest for ships to use.
Between 1660 and 1676 Sir Ralph Delaval constructed a small pier to create a haven for ships in the natural harbour but this was dry at low water and much troubled by the accumulation of silt and mud which blocked the harbour.
Delaval’s solution was to build sluice gates which enabled the collection of a considerable volume of tidal water that could then be released twice daily to flush the harbour clean. The industrious Delaval certainly went to great lengths to develop and protect his port and even built a defended battery on an overlooking promontory for the harbour’s protection.
A later owner of Seaton Sluice called John Hussey Delaval, found the shallow depth of the harbour unproductive and it was unable to meet the demands of the coal trade and the bottle making works he had established here in 1763.
He resolved to make a new 900 feet channel cut through the sandstone rocks so that the Seaton Burn could reach the sea directly. The new cut, which opened in 1764, was thirty feet wide and 52 feet deep and created a promontory island called ‘Rocky Island’ which like the cut is still a feature of Seaton Sluice today.
A combination of local coal export, salt making, the glassworks and the opening of a copperas or iron pyrites works at Seaton ensured its success as a port and in the 1760s it eclipsed the neighbouring port of Blyth in the value of its shipping and exports.
The glassworks established by Delaval at Seaton Sluice was known as the Hartley glassworks where Delaval employed specialist German glassmakers from Nienberg in Hanover to train the workers.
Salt making ceased around 1820 but the glassworks continued to flourish even after it was inherited in 1822 by Susannah the Marchioness of Waterford of Ford Castle whose grandfather was a Delaval.
Later in the century Seaton Sluice found it increasingly difficult to compete with the ports of Tyne and Blyth and the damage to the coal trade caused by the Hartley Colliery disaster of 1862 virtually marked the final chapter for the port. Unfortunately, the glassworks closed in 1870.
The family name of Waterford is recalled in the nearby Waterford Arms pub that overlooks the Seaton Cut in Colywell Bay Road. Alongside the pub is a curious little building called ‘The Octagon’ which dates from the eighteenth century.
The Octagon was built as a customs house and the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner suggested that it was “perhaps an after-dinner idea” of the famed architect, John Vanbrugh who is thought to have created it while working on the nearby Seaton Delaval Hall.
‘Rocky Island’ on the north side of the cut at Seaton Sluice was once crowded with houses that formed a little community but today only one white painted house remains alongside the Watch House Museum.
The old Watch House with its little tower, now houses the museum. It dates from 1880 and was built for the Seaton Sluice Volunteer Life Savers and later served as a coast guard station.
Seaton Delaval Hall
To the north of the Seaton Burn and less than a mile inland from Seaton Sluice is the wonderful Seaton Delaval Hall which is a National Trust property. It was built by Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim Palace, between 1718 and 1729 for Admiral Lord Delaval. Sadly, Vanbrugh (in 1726) and Delaval (in 1723) both died before its completion though it is still almost entirely Vanbrugh’s work and recognised as one of the finest old houses in the north.
There was a destructive fire at the hall in 1752, in the west wing, and a much more disastrous fire in 1822 which reached such high temperatures that glass was reduced to liquid. Today this means that some parts of the hall are still an empty shell but this is nevertheless a very impressive building with beautiful gardens and has some extraordinarily strange and amusing stories connected with it through its association with the Delaval family.
In recent times, the National Trust received a £3.7 million Heritage Lotery Fund Grant for a project called ‘The Curtain Rises’ which will carry out conservation and repairs but also bring to life the peculiar story of the famous and often infamous Delaval family.
The Delavals arrived in England with William the Conqueror. The first notable Delaval was Guy Delaval who was married to a niece of William the Conqueror. The family originated in the valley of the Mayenne in the Maine area of France where a Guy de la Val (the name means ‘of the valley’) built a castle called ‘La Val’. After arrival in England this family name came to be long associated with Northumberland but the family line died out altogether in 1814.
In England the most notorious members of the family were the ‘wicked Delavals’ of the eighteenth century, namely the practical joking brothers Lord Delaval and Sir Francis Blake Delaval who lived at Seaton Delaval Hall where they considered their grand home a great place to play pranks on visiting guests. Their mischief included placing trapdoors under the beds of unknowing house guests who were haplessly dropped through the floor into huge tanks of cold water after they had retired to sleep.
Another spectacular trick was for guests to wake up and find that their room had been turned upside down, with furniture attached to the ceiling. On other occasions guests, who had undressed to their undergarments and de-wigged in their bedrooms found that their rooms had sliding walls that were lifted by pulleys revealing them to equally surprised guests in neighbouring rooms in a similar state of undress. Masquerade balls, sack races and girning competitions were amongst the other more modest activities associated with the Delavals at the hall.
The Delavals also had a passion for acting and several of the family members at one point put on their own production of Othello in London’s Drury Lane with the cast composed of Delaval family members.
Sir Francis Blake Delaval (1727-1771) was a particularly notorious and mischievous character. For a time he disguised himself as a conjuror and accompanied by a companion used his knowledge of city society in London to make startlingly accurate revelations to his audiences. He took this to an especially devious level when in his guise as the conjuror he persuaded the recently widowed Lady Nassau Paulet (who had inherited a fortune of £90,000 from her late husband) to marry the “gallant Sir Francis Blake Delaval”. What is more, he went through with the marriage, though they were later divorced by mutual consent.
Near the grounds of the hall is the small Norman chantry church of Our Lady. It contains the fourteenth century effigy of a knight. The chapel is near the supposed site of a ‘Seaton Tower’ or ‘Seaton Castle’ that was mentioned in the area in 1415 but of uncertain location. It is thought that a Tudor manor house was later attached to the tower and that this was later replaced by a Jacobean house.
Hartley Colliery Tragedy
To the west of Seaton Delaval Hall are the former mining villages of Seaton Delaval and New Hartley which were associated with neighbouring coal mines in the area. Coal mines nearby included the Hester Pit of Hartley Colliery which was the scene of one of the saddest events in our region’s history.
Coal had been worked in the Hartley and Seaton Delaval areas since medieval times and a Hartley Colliery had prospered from the 1700s. In 1846 a new pit called the Hester Pit was opened that formed part of the colliery but this pit would become the site of a most terrible events.
On the morning of Thursday, January 16, 1862, there were 200 men at the coal face of this mine. Some were about to begin work, others were just finishing, as the men began a change of shift. The colliery had only one shaft with a division down the centre separating the winding shaft from the ventilation and water pumping operations. Above the shaft stood an engine for pumping water from the mine and this engine included a 43 ton beam.
As the first of the eight men, who had completed their shift, ascended in a cage the beam above which had been fitted, with some complications, into new bearings the previous week, suddenly snapped in half with one half plummeting down the shaft.
It took with it much debris and completely destroyed the structure of the shaft below. It missed the cage which did not take the full impact but two of the four supporting chains were broken and four of the men fell from the cage to their deaths. The others clung on, three of whom were successfully rescued but with much difficulty and one fell to his death during the rescue attempt.
With the pump out of action the men in the coal mine below moved to a higher seam to avoid the inevitable flooding but as the pit’s one and only shaft was now severely blocked by a mass of iron, rock, rubble and woodwork at great depth it meant that there was no ventilation and that there was a huge danger from the build up of carbon monoxide and methane gases. This would even create a danger for rescuers approaching from above ground as when they finally started to break through into the mine they slowly released noxious gas into the air above. However days would pass before they would even get this close and by that time it was too late.
Sadly, it seems from the evidence of a diary record found underground that all the men had succumbed to the gases by the afternoon of the Friday. The men above ground did not know this and held out a hope, working day and night for several days to find a way through to the men below. Meanwhile, the news of the trapped men had reached far and wide across the nation and on the Sunday a crowd of 60,000 is said to have gathered at the pit.
Tragically it was not until the following Wednesday that the first rescuers were able to make their way into the seam where the men underground had gathered. A shift man from the Hartley pit called William Adam, who lived at Cowpen near Blyth soon returned to the surface to break the dreadful news, tearing his hair out with much emotion. The bodies of the men below ground almost seemed to be sleeping in two rows, some boys with heads resting on their father’s shoulders, another boy embracing his brother. They would be sleeping for all time.
The two hundred and four who lost their lives included many young boys. Five were aged only 10 or 11 years old and more than twenty were aged from 12 to 14 years of age. A third of those who lost their lives were under 19. Among the dead were 47 year old married man, Henry Clough. It was his first day at the pit. Another of the dead, William Smith, a glass worker from Seaton Sluice, was just visiting.
The task of recovering the bodies proved a long and deeply unpleasant process. Several of the cottages of the relatives were filled with coffins which which were transported for burial in a procession to the churchyard at the village of Earsdon (near Whitley Bay), some four miles to the south. A memorial in the cemetery at Earsdon lists the names of the men and boys who died.
This horrific event was, in terms of lives lost, the very worst of so many coal mining disasters that occurred throughout the Northumberland and Durham coalfield.
The only positive note was that this tragic event brought about a change in the law with the introduction of the Mines Act in 1865 that made it compulsory for mines to have more than one shaft, creating a means of escape and alternative ventilation to prevent such an occurrence ever happening again.
Today the site of the Hester Pit and its shaft is now a memorial garden that commemorates the disaster. Opened in 1976, it is situated off St Michael’s Avenue in the Hester Gardens area at the eastern end of the present village of New Hartley. In 2012 a memorial pathway by Russ Coleman was built as an additional feature of the garden recalling the names of those who lost their lives.
Although the Hester pit and its shaft closed following the disaster, Hartley Colliery continued to operate until closure in 1959.
Seaton Delaval, Holywell, Seghill
There were several other coal mines to the west of New Hartley in the Seaton Delaval, Seghill and Cramlington areas. The mining village of Seaton Delaval originally stretched southward from Double Row near the colliery site where Seaton Delaval Colliery operated from 1838 to 1960 . This mining village which was originally one long row still stretches south towards Holywell with which it merges.
Holywell is an older settlement and is named from a St Mary’s Well which was once thought to have had medicinal properties. Here there are some old farmhouses – one of which dates to 1654 – amongst the more modern houses.
The name of the village of Seghill to the west of Seaton Delaval comes from’ Seg-halh’. The word ‘Halh’ (it’s an old form of haugh) meant ‘flat water-meadow land’ and referred to the land alongside the Seaton Burn which presumably belonged to an Anglo-Saxon called Siga.
In Norman times Seghill belonged to Tynemouth Priory and in the Tudor era was a property of the Mitford family. There was a medieval tower house here mentioned in 1415. It stood in the area of the present Seghill Comrades Club and a manor house was later attached.
Seghill Colliery opened in 1824 and transformed the village from an agricultural settlement into a mining village but the mine has long since gone. It ceased production in 1962.
South of Seghill is Backworth and to the west Annitsford also former mining villages. Just north west of Seghill is the new town of Cramlington which is also a place with a mining past. The oldest part of Cramlington is the area around St Nicholas Church and the stone-built pubs of the Plough and Blagdon Arms. The church only dates to the 1860s but the village is much older than that.
Cramlington once gave its name to a local family the De Cramlingtons first mentioned here in the reign of Edward II in the early 1300s. However, surname died out in the 1420s and through a female line Cramlington passed to the Lawsons and was then bought by the Storeys in the 1700s. The Storeys lived at Arcot Hall which is now part of Cramlington’s Arcot Hall Golf Club.
Cramlington Colliery opened in the 1820s, followed by West Cramlington Colliery in the 1840s (this closed in 1938) and the nearby Nelson Colliery operated from 1934 to 1958.
During the First World War an airfield opened near Cramlington in response to German airship attacks upon Newcastle and Tyneside. It was closed in 1919 following the war. The defences had included a massive airship hangar which stood in what is now the Nelson area of Cramlington new town and was not demolished until 1968. Built of corrugated iron, the hangar was used for housing and building airships and had double doors at either end which rolled out on trolley tracks. Following the war airships based here were sometimes used to fly over Tyneside displaying advertising banners.
The mining and industrial area near Cramlington suffered some decline in these post war years and in 1926 the bitterness reached a new high, or low, when striking miners derailed a locomotive on the main line.
The development of a new town at Cramlington began in 1964 and was commenced, with central government approval, at the instigation of Northumberland County Council rather than as an official government designated new town. Today the town stretches south from Annitsford on the northern fringes of Newcastle upon Tyne northward towards the wooded valley of the River Blyth.
As with other new towns Cramlington is divided into several housing estates and has a modern town centre which is near the old village area. The Cramlington industrial estates are focused in the north west corner of the town and are not far from Plessey Woods. Two of the North East’s major thoroughfares, namely the A1 and A19 intersect near the village of Seaton Burn just to the south west of Cramlington.
To the north, the Plessey Woods Country Park forms a beautiful spot which covers 100 acres and includes the wooded course of the River Blyth. The name comes from ‘Plessis’ and means ‘pleasing’ or ‘delightful’.
There is an old mill house farm near the river here. A mill was first recorded at Plessey as early as the 1200s. A local family called the De Plessis once lived at Plessey in medieval times and took their name from the place. Plessey was, however, sold to the Widdringtons in 1349 and it later passed to the Radcliffes, Earls of Derwentwater. The Plessey Woods Country Park is managed by Northumberland County Council
Northumberlandia : Lady of the North
Just west of the town of Cramlington is another country park, this park of 44 acres features the remarkable ‘Northumberlandia’ or ‘Lady of the North’ which is a land form public art sculpture that forms the centrepiece of the park.
The Lady of the North is a reclining, shapely figure constructed from 1.5 million tonnes of rock, clay, and soil excavated from an open cast coal mining site nearby.
The lady is 112 feet high and 1,300 feet long. Her outlines are formed from a series of twisting and turning paths around little hills that form the sculpture. Her head is to the west and her feet to the east.
The idea for developing a public sculpture on the site originated in 2004 and came from the open cast mining company, The Banks Group and from The Blagdon Estate which owns the land and both have privately funded this development. Artist Charles Jencks developed and designed the concept of the lady which was completed in 2012. It is managed by a national charity called the Land Trust.
Blagdon Hall and its country estate are situated across the neighbouring A1 to the west of Cramlington and Northumberlandia. The estate borders the banks of the River Blyth to the north and stretches west to Horton Grange. Today the hall offers lettings of residential and business properties on the estate.
In medieval times Blagdon (the name comes from ‘black dene’ meaning ‘black valley’) belonged to John De Plessis and was part of the Morpeth barony. By 1567 it belonged to the Fenwicks and was sold to the Whites of Redheugh in the early 1700s. A series of owners who were all called Matthew White then resided at Blagdon from that time and through their intermarriage with the Ridleys of Heaton later became the Viscounts Ridley. Many have been men of particular note and influence within the region.
The first Matthew White at Blagdon, who died in 1716, was a mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne on two occasions. It was his successor, the second Matthew White (died 1750) who built the hall which was constructed between 1735 and 1740. He also purchased the estates of Newsham and Plessey near the banks of the Blyth which had been confiscated from the rebellious Jacobite, the Earl of Derwentwater after the Jacobite rising in 1715. It was this Matthew’s son who married a member of the Ridley family. This third Matthew of Blagdon, was Sir Matthew White and died in 1763. His sister married her first cousin, a Matthew Ridley.
The fourth Matthew at Blagdon was Sir Matthew White Ridley (1745-1813) who was an MP for Morpeth and a mayor of Newcastle. During his time Blagdon Hall was extended, mostly in the period 1778-1891, by the architect James Wyatt.
It was this Matthew who played a major part in the continued development of the port of Blyth where he owned several salt pans and a glassworks. He was also noted for erecting the Cale Cross in Sandhill on the Newcastle quayside in 1783.
There had been a structure called the Cale Cross on that site near the Newcastle Guildhall since at least 1309 and it was associated with the sale of ‘cale’ meaning cabbage. In 1783 a new extravagant ‘Cale Cross’ of three bays, four pillars and four columns was donated by Matthew White and created by the architect David Stephenson. Unfortunately it proved to be an obstruction to traffic and was removed in 1807 and so was brought north to Blagdon Hall. It can still be seen within the grounds of the hall alongside a road that runs parallel to the A1.
Sir Matthew White Ridley (1779-1836) the fifth Matthew at Blagdon continued to manage the family interests in the port and collieries of Blyth and had the hall extended by the Durham architect, Ignatius Bonomi. His successor the sixth Matthew (1807-1877) was an MP for Northumberland and was succeeded by Matthew White, the first Viscount Ridley (1842-1904), who was an MP for Northumberland and one time Home Secretary. The second viscount of the same name (1874-1916) was an MP for Stalybridge near Manchester.
The third viscount, again a Matthew White (1902-1964), was a keen engineer with a passion for developing motor cars that broke speed records, testing his cars on a circuit within the Blagdon Estate. He was Chairman of Northumberland County Council and the Consett Iron Company. His successor, Matthew White, the fourth viscount was Chairman of Northern Rock Building Society, Northumberland County Council, Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland and the Chancellor of Newcastle University. He was succeeded by the present owner of the hall, Matthew Ridley, the fifth Viscount Ridley who still resides at Blagdon.