Seahouses and North Sunderland : our friendly and useful community and trades website.

HISTORICAL ASPECTS OF NORTH SUNDERLAND AND SEAHOUSES

VILLAGE DEVELOPMENT

"Sunderland" was originally the name of a small inland community south, "sunder", of the capital of the Kingdom of Northumbria, Bamburgh. Although an almost exclusively agricultural area of widespread farms, modest village development resulted in the appearance of both church and chapel, balancing the greater number of hostelries. But in the eighteenth century the nearby coastal rocks were developed too, forming a modest harbour. Initially mainly for the export of corn, a major expansion came into use in 1889 thanks to investment by the Trustees of Lord Crewe (one-time Bishop of Durham). Some resulting industries are detailed in paragraphs below.

Meanwhile the expansion of another "Sunderland" further south, in County Durham, caused such confusion that 'our' village re-designated itself "North Sunderland" (an oxymoron?). But as the herring fishery developed so too did the specialist on-the-spot accommodation around the harbour: sea-end houses were initially quite separate from the North Sunderland community. "Sea-end houses" soon became branded as "Sea Houses" - the smelly (reportedly 'malodorous'), down-market working community accommodating itinerant fishwives among others, conveniently remote from the village proper. The name was finally unified as "Seahouses".

1920s Ordnance Survey map.
Ordnance Survey map ~1920. Source: http://communities.northumberland.gov.uk/006755FS.htm.

Only as Seahouses diversified and slowly expanded did Seahouses' Main Street unite seamlessly with that of North Sunderland. Tourism and the advent of the static 'mobile' home naturally brought the emphasis seawards, turning Seahouses into the major partner. Not until the twenty-first century did the harbour became officially recognised as "Seahouses": the Parish Council maintains its historic "North Sunderland" designation.

LIME

Lime has always been a vital material for maintaining the fertility of all but chalk and limestone soils. In the days before Portland cement had been invented lime was the principal active ingredient of the mortar holding brick and stone constructions together as well as providing both the smooth plaster finish and the final white lime-wash. Geologically, Seahouses is based on a carboniferous foundation - of carboniferous limestone with lesser quantities of the coal that gives these strata their name. The designation of 'Quarryfield' on the southern edge of the village has a realistic origin, and the golf course lake owes its existence to commercial excavation.

Limestone is converted into lime by the simple but taxing process of heating it, mixed with coal, to an incredibly high temperature in purpose-designed kilns. Such kilns were constructed on the very edge of Seahouses harbour in 1768 and were kept in use for a century or so. Most of the output was taken away by ship. (Modern Health and Safety considerations would prohibit such handling of the potentially blinding 'quicklime' - calcium oxide - as it came from the kilns.)

Substantial structures, the kilns survive to this day, hollowed out and roofed over to provide storage facilities associated principally with the local fishing boats. A pleasing folio of their current form may be inspected here.

COMMERCIAL FISHING AND THE RAILWAY

There is an on-line archive of Seahouses harbour activities, going back to the earliest days of photography.

The following article recounting the history of Commercial Fishing in Seahouses has been kindly donated to seahouseswebsite by local (well, Beadnell) historian-poet Katrina Porteous - www.katrinaporteous.co.uk
Until the late 18th century fishing from Seahouses was mostly carried out from the beach just north of the present harbour by a few small local boats called 'cobles'. These mostly fished for highly-prized white fish such as cod and haddock using 'long lines' baited with mussels and limpets in winter, or for a mixed catch using lugworms for bait in summer. Some shellfish were also caught in traps called 'trunks'. In addition, herring were caught in summer using small drift nets, but this was a low-value catch, difficult to preserve.

All this changed in the early 19th century, as innovations in the way herring were caught and processed led to a massive expansion of fishing from Seahouses. Herring, found off the Northumberland coast between May and September, were netted close to shore, at night, when they rose to feed. As methods of preserving herring improved and the overseas market expanded, boats increased in size. Rather than using cobles, fishermen worked from larger 'keelboats' of Scottish design, which could carry more gear and fish, and bring the herring ashore quickly for processing. Each keelboat was crewed by six men and a boy.

The development of herring processing in Seahouses was led by Alexander Ewing, who began life as a 'cooper' (barrel-maker) on the Scottish side of the Tweed. Ewing acquired land between South Street, Union Street and what is now Crewe Street in the 1820s, and built herring yards and smokehouses. For the next century, he and his family exerted their benevolent Presbyterian influence over the expanding village. The altered remains of several of Ewing's yards, now in residential use, are still recognisable from features such as the blocked-up 'bowly holes', through which herring were once unloaded from horse and cart. Swallow's smokehouse and shop is the last working example of this once-bustling part of the village.

By 1855, Seahouses harbour supported six herring yards. Besides Alexander Ewing's, there was his son James', George Beal's, Thomas King's, Morton and Taylors' and George Wilson's. In each of these yards, teams of local women, together with itinerant Scottish 'herring lasses', packed the herring into barrels with layers of salt for export to the Baltic. Some herring was smoked as an alternative means of preservation. The kipper (split herring, cold-smoked for a few hours) was introduced into the North East - some say invented - by John Woodger at Seahouses in the mid-1800s.

The massive expansion of the summer herring industry in Seahouses was accompanied by other changes. Some Seahouses keelboats, fishermen and fisher lasses followed the herring shoals to East Anglia in autumn. Other fishermen from the village reverted to long line fishing from their cobles in the winter months. By 1889, the year the newly-expanded harbour opened, 150 men and boys from the village were directly employed in fishing. The women worked tirelessly, too, not only gutting and packing herring in summer - work for which they were paid - but also providing unpaid labour in winter. Every one of the 1,400 hooks on every line had to be baited with a mussel and a limpet every day a fisherman was at sea.

Seahouses' herring boom ended before World War I. In 1901, for example, 16,857 crans (more than 12 and a half million herring) was considered a disappointing catch for Seahouses' herring season. Around the same time, new methods of catching herring were superseding the red-sailed keelboats. After World War I, Seahouses was more able to accommodate changes in fishing practice than were most of the smaller communities. The new Scottish steam drifters, too large for most Northumbrian harbours, could land herring at Seahouses, enabling many of the village's 10 herring yards to survive. Local fishermen, meanwhile, bought smaller boats, particularly versatile Scottish double-enders known as 'mules', which were used for herring fishing in summer and for long lines and pots in winter.

After World War II, Scottish ring-net boats continued to land herring at Seahouses alongside local boats. Long line fishing from the village for white fish ended after World War II, and was replaced, first, by small-scale seine-netting, then later by small-scale trawling. In the 1970s-80s, Seahouses had around 30 boats, including a fleet of small trawlers which fished for one day at a time. This kind of fishing was short-lived, however. Larger boats from far afield worked the same areas, leading to pressure on the fishing grounds, which in turn led to the introduction of quotas. Today most fishing from Seahouses is for shellfish only.
As the British railway network developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all other land-based and some coastal transport systems were increasingly eclipsed. By the 1880s great tonnages of fish were being handled: the need for local railway facilities was becoming desperate. Requiring a specific Act of Parliament, an extension from the North Eastern Railway finally came to fruition in 1898. But its lifespan proved to be limited: diminished by the failing fish trade, it fell foul of the Beeching economic axe and consequently fell silent too, in 1951. But it makes a pleasant present-day footpath, and the former station yard and mini-marshalling yard provide parking for today's transports of delight!