Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

Durham Coast

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THE extensive works at Hartlepool not only involve the fate of an asylum harbour on the eastern coast, but are peculiarly interesting at the present time, having been suspended, from causes whereon local opinion is at variance; not that there remains any doubt that the present harbours existing between the Humber and the frith of Forth are inadequate ports of refuge for our shipping, and that heavy annual losses of life and property are attributable to the dangerous navigation; but it appears to be a matter of question whether or not the harbour of Hartlepool, notwithstanding the large sum of money that has already been expended upon it, will ever be qualified to supply the deficiency.

The town is curiously situated, on a small nook of land or peninsula, the latter taken in the most literal sense; for a natural creek or inlet, entering at its base, and stretching in a line directly across, has separated it, as nearly as may be, from the main land; so that it might, if thought advisable, by an artificial cut of about a hundred yards in length, through a soft, sandy soil, be rendered an island altogether. On the flat space, within this creek, and immediately adjoining the town, are the works in question; capacious docks, connected with the sea by a tide harbour, the latter calculated to receive and float vessels of large size. The approach to the town by land is extremely bad, the road for the last two or three miles being through a bed of sand so heavy and deep that the seashore, at low water, though by no means hard and sound, afforded formerly the better track of the two; the new works, however, have entirely cut off the latter communication.

It happened to me to be a witness of the operations, when in full progress during the summer of 1834, and again to contrast the desolate appearance of the ground, 88 exhibited only a few months since, with the display of energy and unremitting labour that enlivened it at a former period.

On the first occasion, three steam engines and two large limekilns sent their smoke into the atmosphere, within about a square mile of ground, on which spot, like a huge ant's nest, not less than eight hundred labourers found employment, all divided into knots or gangs, cooperating in the harmony of discipline, and guided as it were by a uniform impulse, though proceeding independently in many contrary directions; so that of labourers alone, chiefly Irish, the temporary increase of population in the small town of Hartlepool was equal, it is said, to not less than sixteen hundred persons.

The principal operations in progress were the excavation of the docks, and the removal of the rubbish a distance of a couple of miles, to the elevated causeway, forming part of the line of the newly projected Durham Railroad. This railroad, now nearly completed, may be taken as part and parcel of the Hartlepool operations, whereby a communication has been opened between the Durham coalfield and the sea.

The scene presented to the eye was a flat extensive space, carved by huge excavations, and covered by heaps of soil and embankments, while temporary railroads intersected the ground in every direction.

Along these railroads all converging in a point, numerous horses were employed to draw the rubbish to the foot of an inclined plane leading to the aforesaid causeway. At the top of this inclined plane, three quarters of a mile in length, was the stationary steam engine, by which eight laden wagons coupled together were drawn in sets to the top; these were then dragged three quarters of a mile farther by the same engine, by means of a messenger line and endless rope, to a spot whence they were removed onward by the aid of horses.

The messenger line and endless rope also brought back hither to the same spot the empty wagons, which then, in order to be filled again, were made to descend the inclined plane by their own gravity, under the guidance of a man who regulated a brake upon the wheel.

Thus one steam engine was employed in drawing backward and forward the laden and empty wagons; the other two were meanwhile engaged in pumping water from the bed of the new docks.

The masons proceeded at the same time with great vigour, raising the inner walls; cranes of the largest power were elevated in various parts, and the strength and activity of the labourers were remarkable, as they wheeled one after another laden barrows along single planks, placed zigzag over perilous precipices, and at angles of considerable elevation.

One man especially, performed a service of this sort in an extraordinary manner. The thing to be done was to remove wheelbarrow loads of earth from below, to a plane forty feet above, along a plank laid at an angle of forty-five degrees elevation, or thereabout. An old horse at the top, at a windlass, walking steadily round in a circle, drew up with great ease the laden wheelbarrow, together with the man; the latter holding the same, and steadying it by the handles. Having discharged the contents of the wheelbarrow, in order to go down again, for the plank was too steep to allow him to walk upon it, he held the barrow by the handles, his back towards it, the rope being fixed to the fore part. The horse was then made to back at the windlass, and the man, thus supported by the barrow behind him, actually slid all the way from top to bottom. This feat he performed all day and every day, having by practice acquired a suitable attitude, so as by bending his knees to balance his body to such nicety as, though the plank was not more than fourteen inches wide, to be confident and steady, talking to his comrades with great unconcern, and smoking his pipe all the time as he went up and down.

The works were carried on with equal alacrity both day and night without intermission, except on Sundays; the men being divided into gangs of eight, with three reliefs in the twenty-four hours; that is to say, at six in the morning, at two in the afternoon, and at ten at night.

As I was observing the progress of the laden wagons up the inclined plane, as has been described, I was near meeting a serious accident. Being then close to the thick rope, straining upon a weight of more than twenty tons, it suddenly snapped asunder, and flew in coils, like lightning, into the air; the point of fracture was so exactly opposite to where I stood, that although not more than a yard distant, I escaped untouched.

The determined energy displayed in the course of these operations by the public authorities, imparted, as may be naturally imagined, a wonderful stimulus to private speculation; and the consequence was, that all at once buildings, to the amount of upward of one third of the old town, were raised above their foundations. It was impossible, at that period, to move along the streets without being obstructed by heaps of bricks and cartloads of lime at every turning, and the spirit of enterprise had pervaded all classes to such a degree that everybody seemed unanimously willing to hold cheap the most grievous inconvenience, provided that, even indirectly, it tended to profit.

. Such was the state of things in Hartlepool in the summer of 1834. In the summer of the present year I paid the town another visit, when it might well be said of a spot before seen in the zenith of its glory, "Heu quantum mutatus ab illo!" An over anxiety on the part of those concerned to throw open the harbour before the subordinate arrangements were altogether perfect, had urged them prematurely to accelerate their operations, and to this unfortunate measure the catastrophe which followed is admitted to have been wholly attributable. The new dock gates, which, according to common report, were secured by buttresses within, instead of without, were, at all events, lifted up and floated by the weight of water, and the sea, rushing with tremendous force through the breach, bore down everything before it, inundating the whole extent of ground occupied by the works; the immediate consequence of which calamity was, that the efforts of the projectors were paralyzed, the works abandoned, the town deserted, interests in the neighbourhood split asunder and divided, and the general cry spread abroad that the scheme was a total failure. In the mean time, the appearance created by all these events was truly deplorable. The whole space within the tide harbour, appropriated to the site of the new docks, was a picture of watery devastation; the town, owing to the sudden discharge of the numerous bands of labourers, by whom it had been enlivened, seemed now desolate; the persons connected with the operations had all departed—the countenances of the remaining inhabitants were visibly dejected—most of the new houses, amounting, as before stated, to one third of the old town, and many in an imperfect state, were altogether abandoned; and speculators in these edifices crushed by the panic attendant on the prostration of the scheme, derived little consolation from the principal alleged cause of the failure; namely, want of funds to carry on the operations. And though last, not least, of all these misfortunes, another most serious obstacle had presented itself —a bar had been thrown up by the sea at the mouth of the harbour.

Meanwhile, in spite of these appearances, the Durham Railroad was still progressing towards completion, and an additional daily conveyance had, even during the present year, been established to Stockton, circumstances in some degree indicative, on the part of the public, of favourable opinion; while, on the other hand, the movements of some of the opposing party seemed partly accounted for by a rival scheme—a harbour proposed at Redcar, on the southern or opposite bank, at the mouth of the river Tees.

It appears to me, at least according to the imperfect means of forming an opinion afforded to a mere casual spectator, that, independent of every rational objection and natural difficulty attendant on the prosecution of the Hartlepool works, much interested opposition has been brought to bear to their prejudice; not only on the part of the promoters of the rival harbour at Redcar, but from other quarters. After walking round and round the works in the latter part of the present summer, I certainly came to the conclusion, although not versed in engineering, not only that the plan of the harbour is good, but that the foregoing disasters are temporary and removeable, and that Hartlepool Harbour will still be an eminent acquisition on the eastern coast. As to the proposed harbour at Redcar, I passed a day on the spot, but was unable to appreciate the advantages of the undertaking, which seemed mainly to rest on the natural reef of rocks, which reef, it was said, coincided exactly with the most eligible line capable of being chosen for a foundation. The extensive flat sandy shore seemed to me to offer no peculiar facility towards forming a harbour other than the reef aforesaid; and hereon, as I understood, it was proposed to erect, by way of a beginning, a wall of the enormous length of twelve thousand feet, or of two miles and a quarter very nearly.

In the mean time the present state of things at Hartlepool is as follows: I have already stated that the site of the works is very near an island, in consequence of a natural creek, which runs almost directly across the peninsula at its base. This creek has been converted into a tide harbour, and now forms an oblong piece of water of capacious dimensions, in depth from twelve to eighteen feet, and communicating by means of the dock gates, burst open by the sea, as before stated, with the new docks immediately behind the town. Besides a set of coal staiths and landing places, a noble set of sluices has been constructed at its extremity, by which sluices means are afforded of overflowing at will an extent equal to one hundred and forty acres of flat barren land in the rear, and letting this water pass through back again at the return of tide, with a force tending in a great degree to clear the mouth of the harbour.

These sluices, solid and well-constructed, consist of three pair of twin apertures, each aperture an oblong of four feet three inches in height, by fourteen feet eight inches in breadth, and surmounted by an arch whose versed sine is one foot five inches. At each aperture are three sluice gates, each sluice gate raised by a powerful double-handled crane, so that thirty-six men would be required were it necessary, to lift up the eighteen sluice gates all together. The tide harbour is encompassed by a strong wall, and, of the coal staiths before alluded to, two are already completed, and furnished with drops, like those of Middleborough. The former communication with the town of Stockton, by the way of the seashore, as regards horses and carriages, has been entirely cut off; these now necessarily have recourse to a circuitous route, at least two miles in extent, while people on foot are ferried across in a boat. The landing places are clumsily contrived, the steps being so steep and narrow, that within the divided wall two persons have barely room to pass each other going up and down. In fact, there is hardly space to admit the head of the boat, which is lifted up and down by the wave, at the risk of knocking out the bottom; as the passenger places his foot on the point of the keel, and leaps out on the steps as well as he can, he is reminded rather of the mode of entering a marine cavern than a seaport town.

From whatever causes the bar at the mouth of the harbour may have been produced, it must have received considerable augmentation by the quantity of soil carried away at ebb tide after the unfortunate irruption of the sea over a large space of ground covered by heaps of newly dug earth; thus far the accumulation must, of course, be temporary; and as a powerful steam dredge is continually at work to raise the soil from the bottom, it is probable that, by degrees, the obstruction may by these means, in great part, be removed for ever.

A good effect may also be reasonably anticipated by the removal of the coffer dam, temporarily erected for the protection of the works. This structure stretches across the entrance of the tide harbour in a direct line towards the old stone pier, so that, between both, the current has been disturbed, neither has the sea been allowed thereby free ingress and egress. The operation of removing this coffer dam was being carried into effect during the present summer, by the few labourers still retained on the works; when totally removed, the natural force of the tide will no doubt carry away that part of the accumulation of sand which is evidently the immediate consequence of the obstacle.

A further experiment is in contemplation by erecting a jetty, in order, if possible, to turn aside the current, if not to remove the bar altogether, or at least throw it so far seaward as to be nearly harmless; and it seems feasible that, were a point taken within the bight to the southward, whence to erect a series of wooden groins, or stout planks supported sidewise one above another, similar to those between the east and west cliffs at Brighton, the effect would probably be the same as at the latter place —namely, by raising the beach at the extremity of the bight to throw the sea back altogether. At Brighton, as is well known, the sea formerly set in with such violence as to threaten with instant demolition a great part of the cliffs; nevertheless, the said measure thus proved extraordinarily successful. As soon as an accumulation of shingle settles on the western sides of these groins, they are scuttled by removing one or two of the upper planks, and the incumbent mass passes over towards the next, till, by degrees, so great an elevation of the beach has taken place that the current is changed, and the sea, taking a slanting direction, falls upon the coast full three miles farther to the eastward.


HAVING occasion to make progress the best way I could from Hartlepool for a few miles to the turnpike road from Stockton towards Sunderland, I came to the determination of hiring a gig, and was directed to a shoemaker, who, besides working at his trade, was the proprietor of such vehicles to hire. I had no difficulty in finding out his residence, for he was apparently a person known to all the neighbourhood, and had, as far as I could judge, in the way of his trade, considerable business on hand; in fact, so many different things to attend to, that, without the help of apprentice or journeyman, he was hard pressed to reconcile his various occupations one with another. When I stated my business, he at once agreed, without any hesitation, to furnish me with a conveyance such as I wanted, although on another point he seemed quite at a loss and puzzled— namely, how to provide a driver, for he had no journeyman, as I have hinted before, or other body to help him. Not being easily scared by a difficulty, the moment he perceived I was determined on starting, he gave the shoe on his lap a few smart strokes with the hammer, threw it into the box among various tools and implements, at once rose from his seat, and said he would drive me himself.

He was an active, lean-visaged, little man, particularly sparing of words, and I really believe that, in five minutes from the time when I first accosted him, he had not only untied his black apron, tightened his waistband, and fastened his shoestrings, but invested himself in a coat with large white buttons that hung on a peg at his elbow, and had marched out of the shop. Here I waited his return till I began to anticipate want of success in the negotiation, for he remained absent full twenty minutes; which time, however, it appeared, had evidently been turned to good account by the horse, if not by the master; for as he lead by the head an itchy, ticklish, thorough-bred mare, her lips were abundantly covered with foam and half-chewed oats. The gig, to which she was attached, afforded an object of sober contemplation: it was a crazy vehicle, grievously injured by hard body blows, and suffering under other mechanical ailments; to every one a different remedy had been applied—one shaft was dovetailed, the other spliced, a thick plate of iron was screwed underneath both, so that, as neither could give way again, the bend or stress was thrown behind, and by the next fracture the body probably would split and go asunder in the middle; and appearances were even still worse than reality, inasmuch as neatness had been altogether sacrificed to strength in the repairs aforesaid. Scars, even though numerous and visible, are, if well cured, better than latent symptoms of constitutional debility, consequently the shoemaker's mind was not at all troubled on this point, and it was easy to perceive, from his anxious looks, that his attention was directed to another matter.

How and where he could possibly find room in the carriage for two persons to sit, together with three moderate sized portmanteaus, was really a difficult matter to determine, and at the same time I saw that it not a little puzzled him. Still he said not a word, and as I was amused by observing his operations, I encumbered him with no advice. First, he remained thoughtful for a little while, and then drawing his thumb a few times across his chin, the idea appeared to strike him at once; without further delay, except to scratch his head for a couple of seconds, he now set to work in earnest, and in as many minutes turned round with a smile of satisfaction that plainly said "All is ready."

A vacant space in the carriage had been contrived for me, where I sat certainly comfortable enough, but for himself he had omitted to care at all; apparently consulting neither ease nor appearance in the disposition of the luggage. Immediately under his feet he had placed one portmanteau, the two others resting endwise upon it; so that, while one of his legs rested inconveniently high, the other was absolutely up in the air.

Making not the slightest complaint, in that attitude he beckoned me to come in, and then, the lash of a thick-handled whip idly reclining over his shoulder, he chirruped to his high-couraged old mare. The willing animal had long been switching her tail in anxiety, and now, in spite of her load, darted off in an instant, dragging the vehicle gallantly through the deep sand; and, though grievously lame in the round bone, arriving in three quarters of an hour at the door of a public house, six miles distant, at the village of Skerrington, on the high road from Stockton, whence I took coach, and proceeded sixteen miles farther to Sunderland.

Even after a recent visit to the Menai Bridge, and bearing its proportions fresh in one's recollection, that of Sunderland is hardly seen to disadvantage. I find it impossible to remain at any time an hour in the town without being attracted over and over again to the spot with the object to view and admire what certainly was at the time when it was raised, then during the earlier stage of science—a daring project. As magnitudes chiefly depend on comparison, its stride is to a spectator even more awful and magnificent than that of the Menai; whether it be that the support is here below instead of above, or because the quivering, jarring sensation felt when standing in the centre is far greater; one can, at all events, hardly believe the span of the Menai to be so much wider. The effect is no doubt partly produced by the busy throng of ships, here by far more numerous than at the Menai Bridge, whose scarlet vanes, twinkling from the topgallant-mast heads beneath, embellish the contrast, and augment the appearance of altitude. The rise in the middle, setting aside grace and beauty, is a considerable drawback, particularly as modern improvement has now almost universally exploded this oldfashioned principle in favour of a horizontal line. Although the span is only two hundred and thirty-six feet—four feet less than that of the centre arch of the cast-iron bridge over the Thames at Southwark—the rise aforesaid is so abrupt that, standing on the spring of the arch on one side, a stage coach is entirely lost sight of as it descends on the other.

With a bird's eye view of the river below, one cannot but admire the neat, trim appearance of the Sunderland keel, compared with the heavy lighter on the Tyne, wherein a mountain of coal is confined by a fortification of moveable boards. The Sunderland keel resembles in shape the horizontal section of a walnut, divided into eight compartments, each containing a square iron tub, fitting like a canister in a tea chest. Instead, therefore, of the laborious mode in practice on the Tyne of shovelling the cargo by hand from the keel into the vessel, each of these tubs is lifted up bodily by machinery, and the contents, fifty-three hundredweight, or a Newcastle chaldron, tilted at once into the hold of the receiving vessel: a modern improvement, whereby, though the public profit generally, the loss and hardship press partially on a particular class of men. The hardy, laborious race of keelmen are every day losing their ancient occupation, as by means of new appliances vessels are now laden at the wharfs and staiths, which formerly could only receive their loads shovelled on board in the stream by their hands.

I saw one of these keels in the act of being unladen at a wharf close to the bridge. A score or more lay moored together, each of the shape described, in size and figure similar to each other, and presenting to the view an outline of geometrical precision.

The one to be unladen being brought alongside the sloop destined to receive her load, and both close to the wharf, the process was as easily effected as described. A huge crane let go its grappling chain within the keel; this was in a moment fixed to one of the tubs. The tub was lifted, swung over the sloop, tilted, swung back again, disengaged from the tackle, and a fresh one hooked on: by the assistance of a man on shore the machine continued its office with the same apparent ease with which an elephant swings his proboscis out of his cage to pick up an apple.

In order to obtain a view of the bridge from a distance, I walked up the river along the south bank, and sat down on a wooden bench close to the staiths, whence the vessels were being laden by drops from the shore. Spouts are used at some of the staiths instead of drops; while the great despatch of business going forward on the spot, and the severe and unremitting labour exercised by the men at work in the holds of the vessels, is remarkable to view. These men, called trimmers, whose business it is to level the cargo as it comes tumbling below, a chaldron or fifty-three hundredweight at a time, earn 2l. 15s. for loading the vessel, which job, as it occupies five men for five hours, yields each man for his Herculean labour 2s. 3d. an hour, nearly.

From this spot the bridge is seen to particular advantage. The bench on which I sat, and the whole of the bank, were far above the level of the river; the bridge waa still higher, its figure being partially obstructed by the masts of the shipping, which, in a dense mass, occupied the space between; thus the variety of objects on the bridge, and on the water, afforded extraordinary contrast when seen together. Sometimes, amid a forest of masts, a coal wagon and a stage coach appeared to meet in the air, the stage coach performing a segment, the wagon the quadrant of a circle, as the one passed over the bridge, and the other descended from the drop towards the surface of the river; the wagons, incessantly trundling one after another along the railroad to the bank of the Wear, continued to perform these evolutions, while the entire spectacle, viewed through a network of ropes and rigging, created a most imposing effect

I afterward visited the Pemberton, or Monk Wearmouth coal pit, the shaft of which is sunk to the depth of two hundred and seventy-eight fathoms, deeper than any other in England, or, with relation to the level of the sea, perhaps the world. The sinking occupied nine years, and the working was first commenced in October, 1834. The steam engine is enormous in size, though there are others still larger in the neighbourhood; its beam weighs thirty-six tons, the cylinder is six feet one or two inches in diameter, and the quantity of water raised is three thousand gallons a minute. The site of the coal pit is within a few hundred yards of the Wear, on the north bank, about a quarter of a mile above the bridge.


To a stranger casually passing this little harbour, appearances certainly indicate its thriving condition; the new south dock is already thrown open, and the staith basin is a striking picture of the economy of space—no one but an eyewitness could imagine that the numerous vessels frequently to be seen floating together for the purpose of receiving their cargoes from the staiths above, could be disposed within such limited space. On the day I was on the spot the basin contained by no means its complement, though seventeen colliers had then already taken up their stations; as I was informed, it accommodates with ease twenty-five, and moreover an enlargement towards the northern extremity has been determined upon, and is already in progress. The works are not only interesting as the undertaking of a single individual, but, also, owing to their dissimilarity from harbours in general, which are usually formed within a bight or bay. Here a bluff headland of limestone has been scooped hollow, kilns have been erected, and the lime burned on the spot; the material having thus been turned to account, the works occupy the excavation; and as the cliffs are lofty, the vessels ride with their topgallant-mast heads below the summit.

Owing to the shallows at the mouth of the harbour, the service of a small steamer is continually indispensable to tow vessels in and out; and those of larger size, unable to carry out more than a part of their cargoes, receive the remainder outside from keels. Notwithstanding this objection, and moreover that access is utterly impracticable during a strong easterly wind, a vessel, from the open position, runs no risk of being embayed, but at all times may either make the harbour or leave it according to circumstances; even when within a few minutes of being towed into port, she may bear away, if so disposed, to another quarter.

According to the information I received, at present about thirty vessels a week are loaded from hence; many of these bring manure in ballast, fifty or sixty tons the cargo; not horse manure, but that of London streets, so that the act of unloading by men employed for that purpose in the hold, must be performed in a truly pungent atmosphere. A considerable number of colliers, bound to Shields, bear also these fragrant odours from the south.

George Head, A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2009.

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