Hartlepool – a brief history

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Hartlepool – a brief history

As Roman power declined in the fifth century, Anglo-Saxons from the north of Europe began raiding the coast of Northern England. They soon became settlers and established a small Anglian kingdom known as Hartness (the promontory of Hart), which eventually became Northumbria.

The promontory or headland was distinguished from Hart by the addition of the word `pool', perhaps a reference to the protected bay close by the headland. The name Hartlepool is probably derived from words "heopru' – the place where harts (deer) drink. Heorot is Saxon for hart.

The monastery at Hartlepool was founded by St. Aidan in 640 on the original headland site. The monastery prospered and Aidan installed a nun, Hilda – to be Abbess and oversee the monks and nuns. Hilda became an outstanding principal and King Oswy of Northumbria entrusted his young daughter's education to her in 655.

The site of the old monastery is marked today by the beautiful abbey church bearing the abbess' name – St. Hilda. A twelfth century building, the church was begun at about the time a fleet of ships bound for the Crusades was being assembled in the harbour, and completed around 1240. It became the burial place of the De Brus family – Norman landowners who had acquired Hartlepool at the time of the Conquest in 1066.

The Brus' hold on Hartlepool began after the building of Durham Castle by William the Conqueror. They brought stable times for the town with Robert de Brus being the biggest landowner in the north east, becoming Lord of Hartness. It was during these times that the villages of the area were first mentioned in official records, having been omitted from the Domesday Book of 1086.

The town's first charter was received before 1185. Hartlepool's fortunes blossomed and the town gained a mayor, an annual two-week fair and a weekly market. After two hundred years the Brus connection with Hartlepool was severed when "Robert the Bruce' of national historical fame, and last Lord of Hartness, was crowned King of Scotland in 1306. Angered by this King Edward I confiscated his title to Hartlepool.

Savage Scots!

A particularly savage Scots sea-borne assault took place in 1315 when the townspeople took to the sea with their goods and possessions until the marauders left. After this attack the port began to build fortifications with defensive walls constructed around the Headland. The impressive Sandwell Gate, which can still be seen has walls over eight feet thick.

Three hundred years later the Scots returned to the town. During the English Civil War, Scottish troops in alliance with the Parliamentarians, having captured Newcastle, attacked Hartlepool. The town surrendered and the Scots garrison occupied and repaired the crumbling defences, including the walls, to repel the Royalists.

Apart from defending the town against pirates, the occupying forces drained resources and the end of the war saw Hartlepool's fortunes at a low ebb. The local coastal fleet was reduced to just two vessels and by the beginning of the eighteenth century further decay had set in. The pier and walls were again crumbling, as was St. Hilda's church.
Hartlepool established gun emplacements and defences in 1795 to repel a possible French invasion. Later the Crimean War revived the idea of protection from seaborne attack and two batteries were built close together, the lighthouse battery in 1855 and the Heugh battery in 1859.

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Top image: Damage from the bombardment of 1914

Bottom image: M.S.Blanchland – the last ship to be built by William Gray and Company Ltd 1961

Hartlepool was visited seven times by preacher John Wesley and before the end of the eighteenth century a Methodist Chapel was built. At the same time both Hartlepool and nearby Seaton Carew were gaining reputations as rather select resorts for sea bathing. Prosperous Quakers from Darlington found the area amenable and the sea front at Seaton was redeveloped with elegant Georgian hotels and lodging houses.
Hartlepool entered the nineteenth century with a population of just 993, a town, harbour and pier falling apart and barely a living to be made from fishing. The silted outer harbour, the Slake, was enclosed and corn grown for five years until it was reopened to the sea.

A national need for coal followed the wars in 1815 and it made sense to transport the fuel from Hartlepool to London where the biggest demand lay. It cost less to carry the coal from the Durham pits to the capital by sea than it did to haul it just ten miles overland. Local businessmen took the idea forward and the Hartlepool Dock and Railway Company was formed in 1831.

From 1835 the deepened harbour at Hartlepool was shipping more coal than any other port on the north east coast. In 1839 Ralph Ward Jackson opened the Stockton and Hartlepool Railway which resulted in the building of a new harbour and docks on the west shore – the beginnings of the new town of West Hartlepool.

Although the population of the Headland area had mushroomed to over 9,000, antagonism grew between the two towns which remained for many decades. Shipbuilding began in 1835 in "Old Hartlepool", but soon transferred across the water where more space and facilities were available.

A succession of strong, powerful civic and business leaders then took West Hartlepool forward to the end of the nineteenth century when it had a population of well over 60,000, its own newspaper, football team, three theatres, two parks and housing spreading westward and southwards linked by new roads and even electric tramways.

Cameron's Brewery and logo -right

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The city walls with St Hilda's church above

In the years leading up to the Great War, the Hartlepools were at the peak of commercial success. This prosperity was associated with the heavy industries of iron and steel and shipbuilding. By 1913 upwards of 150,000 tons of ships were being launched each year, record turnover in the port saw over one million tons of mainly iron ore and timber imported and almost 1½ million tons, mainly of coal, were exported. Forty-two companies owned over two hundred and thirty ships.
Many public and major buildings were built during this time including the Grand Hotel (1899), St. Oswald's Parish Church (1904) and the Co-op Stores (1913). Skating rinks, parks, the Headland promenade and six cinemas all appeared in this period of national optimism.


The outbreak of WWI was devastating for Hartlepool. On December 16th 1914 at 8.10 in the morning three cruisers of the German High Seas Fleet struck the Headland with a fierce bombardment. Initially aimed at the batteries, shells inflicted the first army casualties of the war on home soil. The battery guns replied and caused damage and casualties on the marauding ships. This was rapidly followed by an indiscriminate shelling of the twin towns. 1150 shells rained down on the Hartlepools in the 42 minute bombardment, killing 112 townspeople and 9 soldiers, leaving over 400 with serious injuries and causing extensive destruction. The ships then turned and disappeared into the mist, leaving a stunned population to count the cost of this worst event in Hartlepool's history.

A peculiar result of the event was a spur to military recruitment and a collective contribution of more money to the war effort than any other town in the country. This gesture was doubtless encouraged further by three Zeppelin raids during the conflict when bombs rained down on the towns.

Despite many improvements in the inter-war years, including a bathing pool and promenade extension on the Headland, the Great Depression and stagnating world trade saw the Hartlepool's unemployment figures top 24% and the population remained static at around 90,000.

During the Second World War, air raids brought more death and destruction to the towns with 36 raids on West Hartlepool and 7 on Old Hartlepool. These resulted in just 70 fatalities, although over 7,500 buildings were damaged. Designed to disrupt shipbuilding, the raids were generally unsuccessful with almost ninety vessels being launched during the conflict.

Determined not to return to the days of mass unemployment, West Hartlepool progressed plans for reconstruction and development of the town. New housing and trading estates followed.

End of an era

In the sixties the old problems of unemployment surfaced. Already almost twice the national average, the numbers out of work leaped when the last of the shipyards, Sir William Gray's closed in 1962. The advent of a North Sea gas and oil industry eased matters when the docks became a base for exploration activities, and the fortunes of the two towns finally merged on April 1st 1967 when a single Hartlepool was born.

The new County Borough now took in outlying villages from other authorities and significantly the boundaries almost matched the ancient estate of Hartness in the twelfth century.

Although the population had reached over 97,000 in 1971, unemployment still rose to a staggering 25%, steel production ceased and coal shipments stopped. The docks became mainly deserted and only the construction of two oil platforms temporarily relieved the decline. Car imports began to revive the docks in the early 1980's, but it was another unlikely visitor to the docks that was to capture the nation's imagination – the battered hull of "HMS Warrior".

Hartlepool, with it's dock capacity and skilled shipwrights, was chosen to restore this great Victorian iron-clad battleship in 1979. In all the work took some eight years to complete and scarcely had she left the docks for her new home in Portsmouth, than a new venture "HMS Trincomalee" took her place for restoration. The oldest warship afloat in the UK, this unique refurbishment surely has secured Hartlepool's place as a national centre for ship reconstruction work.

With the assistance of the Teesside Development Corporation in the 1990's the docks area has become a maritime haven for small craft. The 400 berth Marina development has brought with it up-market housing, shopping and leisure facilities the envy of many other parts of the country.

The Hartlepool Historic Quay heritage centre, now housing – afloat – the almost completed "HMS Trincomalee", presents a realistic glimpse of a seaport such as Hartlepool in the early nineteenth century.

Hartlepool's legacy of maritime history and built heritage have been combined to make Hartlepool a fascinating destination for tourists – Have you been there yet?

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