Bid to make more of Northumberland harbour heritage

Seaton Sluice harbour heyday could link with stately home in visitor attraction package

The bottle works at Seaton Sluice
The bottle works at Seaton Sluice

It took a lot of bottle in 18th Century Northumberland to lay out £10,000 – a very sizeable sum in those days – on a business gamble.

But then Sir John Hussey Delaval had a lot of bottles.

His Royal Northumberland Bottle works at Seaton Sluice, a short distance from Seaton Delaval Hall, produced 1,470,000 bottles in 1777. It was the biggest such enterprise in the country.

Most were exported via Seaton Sluice harbour to London, where Sir John had his own bottle warehouse.

The £10,000 had been invested in improving the harbour by spending three years from 1761 carving a channel through the rocky headland.

The Cut, as it was known, was 900ft long (275m), 30ft broad (9.2m) and 52ft deep (15.9m).

Exactly 250 years ago, Captain Curry made history when his ship Warkworth, laden with 270 tons of coal, was the first to sail from the Cut with a full cargo.

The harbour was a hive of industry – exporting the local products of coal, salt and bottles. There was a small shipyard and a copperas works.

Today, Seaton Sluice is a quiet village and the harbour is a marina for small boats and a destination for people out for a stroll.

But now the Northumberland and Newcastle Society is floating the idea of how more can be made of the village’s remarkable industrial past and how its links with the National Trust’s Seaton Delaval Hall can be strengthened.

Even before the considerable engineering feat of creating the Cut, the harbour had been the scene for another undertaking which impressed many a visitor,

Between 1660 and l690 at the harbour, then called Hartley Pans, stone walls and piers were built at the north entrance to facilitate the export of coal from the local mines.

But the harbour had a tendency to silt up and so Sir Ralph Delaval commissioned the construction of sluice gates at the mouth of the Seaton Burn, where the modern road bridge now stands.

The gates dammed the high tide water and the flow of the burn. At low tide the sand and silt was scoured by horse-drawn ploughs and when the gates were opened the rush of water carried the material out to sea.

Originally the harbour had been called Hartley Pans after the salt pans which, heated by coal, evaporated sea water to produce salt, with exports earning £5,000 a year. But the sluice gave the village a new name.

The tunnels under Seaton Sluice harbour
The tunnels under Seaton Sluice harbour
 

But the harbour still had its problems, with the entrance a difficult one under certain weather conditions and a lack of water depth meaning that collier brigs could only be part-loaded, with the operation being completed at sea via keel boats.

The engineering of the Cut, overseen by Sir John and his brother Thomas, not only gave a new entrance but planks which were slotted in place into vertical grooves also created a wet dock, where colliers could be fully loaded.

“The Cut was quite extraordinary. It was a bold undertaking,” says North East historian Stafford Linsley, who studied Seaton Sluice as part of his book Ports and Harbours of Northumberland.

His research uncovered an account in the Newcastle Chronicle of the opening of the Cut:

“The new harbour was opened for the reception of ships: on which account a grand entertainment was given by Sir John Hussey Delaval to a great number of gentlemen, masters etc. Three oxen and several sheep, with a large quantity of strong beer, were given to the workmen.”

The Cut also created Rocky Island, which became a small community in it own right and was linked to the mainland by a footbridge which could be pivoted by cast iron machinery - the remains of which can still be seen - to allow tall-masted vessels to pass.

“It was one of the most interesting harbour developments on the Northumberland coast,” says Stafford.

The Hartley pits were employing 300 men by 1776 and because of the faster turnaround times provided by the Cut, collier brigs could now make more journeys per year.

Crated bottles were also loaded on to one-masted sloops, using tunnels which ran from the bottle works. The tunnels were also used to deliver raw materials to the works.

Access to the tunnels could be explored in a similar way as the Victoria Tunnel in the Ouseburn in Newcastle has become a visitor attraction, says Stafford.

“The tunnels are still there and are quite extensive,” he says. Like the Victoria Tunnel, the Seaton Sluice network was used as air raid shelters during the Second World War.

The harbour was also home to a copperas industry in which iron pyrites or fool’s gold, found in the coal measures, was processed to produce iron sulphate, used in glass making, dyes, ink and markers.

The Octagon, the 18th Century harbour master’s office, built like a mini castle, is also still standing and has been converted into a home which is currently for sale.

Stafford says: “Seaton Sluice remains a fascinating place for anyone interested in our maritime history and much more could be learned by an archaeological survey of the harbour area.”

John Matthews, of the Northumberland and Newcastle Society, says: “With Seaton Delaval Hall now owned by the National Trust undergoing major restoration, and a resurgent interest in this fascinating family, would Northumberland County Council consider restoring this 17th Century engineering?

“It would stimulate interest in the harbour as a visitor attraction. There always seems to be a great tourist interest in locks and waterways and while restoring the main sluice gates may be a step too far, the restoration and re-opening of the Cut may be feasible.”

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