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History of the Docks at Hartlepool

Origin of Hartlepool’s Railways and Docks

The situation before 1800

The beginning of the docks in the Hartlepools goes back to the late 18th century. At that time Hartlepool was a small coastal town whose inhabitants for the most part made their living from fishing. The town had been important in the middle ages, when the Bishop of Durham had used it as a port to import his supplies. Since then the inland harbour had fallen into serious disrepair. The harbour had silted up and had even had crops grown on it. In 1795 the population of Hartlepool was only about a thousand.

With the industrial revolution, which started to get going at the end of the 18th century, there was an increased demand for coal, to fuel the new machines being developed at the time. Coal was also used in the making of glass and the smelting of iron and other metals.

There were collieries a few kilometres inland from Hartlepool.  The coal had to be carried from the collieries to ships, and then taken to London. At that time there were very few railways, and the wagons were hauled by horses. The waggonway ended at Stockton-on-Tees. The ships travelled up the river Tees to Stockton, and loaded the coal there.

There was no coal near to Hartlepool, a fact proved in 1735 by testing nearby, but in 1795 Mr R. Dodd, a surveyor, was asked to make a report on the condition of the old harbour and slake (a large area of inland water which almost cut off the outcrop of land on which Hartlepool was built from the mainland). His report recognised the possibilities of the site and said it could make a harbour to accommodate the entire English Navy. Mr Dodd made the first mention of a Harbour of Refuge. He also estimated that the price for creating a harbour would be £21,537. 4s 8d (£1,203,736.00 in today’s money) including a lighthouse. But there was no money available, so no action was taken.

Coal and the Railways, early 1800s

A local disaster

At Hartlepool, in 1810, the end of the harbour pier collapsed. Money was raised locally for the repairs, but it was not enough. In 1813 a Bill was put through Parliament, making funds available, but these had to be recovered by a charge on cargo shipped through the port. The Port & Harbour Commission came into being as part of the 1813 Act.

The Stockton Darlington Railway

On 18th September 1810, a banquet and meeting was held in the Town Hall, at Stockton. It celebrated the opening of a cut in the River Tees to straighten out the river and thus help ships coming to Stockton. The River Tees followed a very winding course, with many sandbanks, which made it very difficult to navigate. At the meeting they formed a committee to consider building either a railway or canal for bringing coal to the Tees. Between 1812 and 1818 surveys were done and discussions held. After considering building a canal, it was decided to build a railway between Stockton and Darlington. This required an Act of Parliament. Permission was finally granted in April 1820, and work began in 1823. In September 1825, the Stockton Darlington Railway opened. As well as carrying coal, it could also transport people. This was the first passenger railway in the world.

An idea that fell through

In 1823 Hetton Coal Company had an idea to use Hartlepool for their outlet for coals. Coal drops, to load the coal onto the ships, would be built on the north side of the old harbour. The plan fell through owing to the death of the principal partner, and other factors within the coal company.

The Rivals

Seaham Harbour was opened on 31st July 1831. It was on the estate of the Marquis of Londonderry, who ordered its construction. On 23rd May 1828 an Act of Parliament became law for Clarence Railway to take coal to Port Clarence. Christopher Tennant, a railway promoter from Stockton, took the bill through Parliament. This meant that ships were coming to ports nearby, both to the north and south of Hartlepool, but not to Hartlepool itself.

The Building of Hartlepool Harbour and Victoria Docks

With a railway to Port Clarence to the south of Hartlepool, and Seaham Harbour to the north, the people of Hartlepool realised that they would lose out on a profitable trade if they did nothing. So in 1831 the Hartlepool Dock and Railway Company was set up. A bill making it official went through Parliament on 1st June 1832. In that year Christopher Tennant moved to Hartlepool, to take up the official capacity of superintendent of works.

Stockton may have been nearer than Hartlepool to the collieries, but it was hard to get the coal to the sea.

In 1833 the Clarence Railway, another Christopher Tennant enterprise, was completed, ending its journey at the edge of the river Tees at Port Clarence, a few kilometres down river from Stockton. The following year the first cargo of coal was shipped from Port Clarence in the brig Elizabeth of London. Stockton and Port Clarence were not well placed for coal shipments because of the difficulty in navigating the river. The time it took to get from London to the mouth of the Tees (about 490 kilometres) was sometimes no longer than it took from the mouth of the Tees to Stockton (about twenty four kilometres). Over the following three years, the line did not make money because of the navigation problems. At some points on the river, the larger ships had to be towed by a horse. Christopher Tennant had the idea to extend the Clarence Railway, to bring the line to Hartlepool.

Hartlepool eventually proved more profitable

After much difficulty, the Harbour at Hartlepool was opened on July 1st 1835. In the same year it was realised that a pier was needed on the Middleton side of channel to protect incoming ships from the currents. The first cargo of coal from Thornley Colliery was shipped at Hartlepool in the brig Britannia. South Hetton Coal Company was the next customer. By 1850 there were eighteen collieries shipping coal from Hartlepool. The channel into the Harbour was in a bad state, however. The Hartlepool Dock Co. had to finance the Port and Harbour Commissioners to make improvements.

Building the railway to Hartlepool

In 1839 a Bill was passed giving powers to construct new line for the new Stockton and Hartlepool Railway Company. It became known as the “Junction” Line. In the same year, on 12th September, Christopher Tennant died suddenly at Leeds. He never saw the new line completed, which opened in February 1841.

Victoria Dock – the first of Hartlepool’s docks

In December 1840, the Victoria Dock at Hartlepool was opened. The amount of tonnage shipped in 1840 was already almost double that handled the previous year.

By 1851 the dock had sixteen coal drops (machinery to get the coal from the wagon to the ship) and three steam operated ballast cranes, which took solid ballast (something heavy to hold an empty ship down in the water) away from the ships. The brig Thomas Sewell was the first ship to enter and load in the new dock.

The argument between the Railway Companies

The town of West Hartlepool came into being as a result of a row between the Hartlepool Railway and Dock Company (HR&DC) and Stockton and Hartlepool Railway Company (S&HRC).  HR&DC was in existence before S&HRC with line of its own to the north to Thornley and Wingate. The root of the argument was that HR&DC charged S&HRC too much money to use their railway line.

“The Stockton and Hartlepool Railway Company” (S&HRC) came about because the export of coal from Port Clarence proved disappointing, so the idea was formed to continue Clarence Railway from Billingham to Hartlepool. A new company was needed –It was promoted by Christopher Tennant and others, including Ralph Ward Jackson. An alternative idea was to build a link to HR&DC, called the Union Railway, to link with the existing line. Christopher Tennant was involved in all three concerns – the Clarence Railway, S&HRC, and HR&DC.

What the papers said

The Sunderland News and North of England Advertiser said on June 5, 1852 –

“The new docks at Hartlepool furnishing a safe and convenient egress for vessels, where they are frequently windbound, an extension to Hartlepool of the Stockton and Clarence Railway, for the convenience of the collieries in that district, was projected in the year 1838. An act was obtained, and the new line opened in 1841. An agreement for three years was entered into with the Dock and Railway Company for leave to ship coals at the Hartlepool Dock. The terms, however were unsatisfactory, the dues being high; and this limiting the supply of coals at Hartlepool, the Hartlepool line proved unrenumerative. The old company, secure in their monopoly, disregarded all representations in favour of a reduction – foolishly preferring a small traffic with an exorbitant profit than a large one at more moderate charges. The parties connected with the railway had thus the consideration forced upon them of constructing docks of their own.”

The dispute between Hartlepool Railway and Dock Company and Stockton and Hartlepool Railway Company

On 4th February 1841 the line from Billingham was opened. The original idea was that it should go to the Victoria Dock at Hartlepool. The dues set by the Hartlepool dock company were too high, however, causing much disagreement and rivalry between the two companies. Many pamphlets were printed, stating the case for either side. At the end of the three year contract, the business relationship had become much worse, and the agreement was not renewed.

The solicitor for the S&HRC was Ralph Ward Jackson, who had a successful legal practice in Stockton. He decided to build a dock and harbour on the coast at Stranton, a small village to the south of Hartlepool, thereby taking business away from Hartlepool. The first choice of site was on the Slake, near to Hartlepool, but this was prevented by HR&DC, who were the owners.

The shipwrecks that convinced Parliament

Ralph Ward Jackson put a bill through Parliament to gain permission to build his dock and harbour, amidst heavy opposition from the supporters of HR&DC. But on 16th February 1844 eight ships were wrecked on the beach where West Hartlepool was proposed. The proposal had valuable support from the eight sea captains, who stated that had the harbour been there, their ships would not have been lost. So on 23rd September 1844 the bill received Royal Assent, which allowed Ralph Ward Jackson to form the new company to build a new harbour and dock at what became West Hartlepool. The new company was called the West Harbour and Dock Company (WH&DC).

In January 1845 the first sod of Coal Dock was cut, and in April that year Ralph Ward Jackson laid the foundation stone of the outer harbour works. Not long after these events, in 1846, the York and Newcastle Railway Company took over HR&DC.

Opening of three docks at Stranton - Birth of the town of West Hartlepool

Coal Dock & harbour – the beginning of the rebellion

The bill to build the harbour and dock at West Hartlepool was finally passed in Parliament in September 1844. The work began on the dock the following January and on the outer harbour in April the same year. The railway line from Billingham to Hartlepool was cut off and diverted to the new works. Coal drops or staiths were built at Harbour Terrace, which was near where the earliest houses were built.

Bringing in the money

The West Hartlepool Harbour and Docks opened on 1st June 1847. It covered an area of 8 acres. Ward Jackson encouraged businessmen to set up in West Hartlepool, among these were the shipbuilders Irvine and Pile, and Lauder’s timber yard and sawmill. The docks also provided “refuge and shelter to a vast number of ships” during gales. The new docks did not affect trade at the Victoria Dock in Hartlepool, and both companies prospered. The first barque to enter the dock was Prince, commanded by Captain Black, from Jersey.

Jackson Dock – and fresh fish

The Coal Dock soon became too small for the amount of traffic that used it, making it necessary to build a further dock. Jackson Dock opened 1st June 1852.

“a noble monument to the enterprise and judgement of the West Hartlepool Dock Co  and especially to their chairman, Ralph Ward Jackson”  was the comment from the Sunderland News

The dock covered an area of fourteen acres. At the upper (west) side was a graving dock, for ship repairs.

On the same day the railway was opened by Leeds Northern Railway, which connected West Hartlepool with Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield, Wakefield, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool and Preston. This opened up a trade route to the large inland towns in Yorkshire, taking fresh fish to the cities.

Swainson Dock – the opening that went with a bang and lots of fizz

Swainson Dock was opened on the 3rd June 1856, it would have been the third dock to be opened on 1st June, but that date fell on a Sunday. The dock was named after Ralph Ward Jackson’s father-in-law.

 The opening of Swainson Dock was an even grander affair than the opening of the two earlier docks. The ceremony started at eight o’ clock in the morning with a procession of ships entering the new dock.

 Something happened during the entry of the ships, which could have been very nasty.  As a ship called the Zingari was passing through the West Lock, one of its cannons was fired. The ship was immediately opposite Captain John Pigg, the Harbour Master, and the explosion took away the tails of his coat and “the greater part of his small-clothes”. Fortunately the cannon was filled with blank-shot so he was not seriously injured. He was able to find some replacement clothing in time to attend the banquet which took place after the procession.

 Following the procession, a banquet was held in a marquee (a very large tent) nearby. The weather that day was windy, and the wind blew the top off the tent, so people dined in the open air. An observer at the time reported that 800 sat down to dinner that day. He also said that they drank 1440 bottles of champagne. Some of the people had never tried champagne before and got drunk. This included all the waiters, who had to be removed from the tent by policemen

Thousands of visitors from near and far

Special trains were laid on to bring thousands of visitors from Leeds, a hundred kilometres to the south, in Yorkshire, and Newcastle, forty kilometres to the north. There were international visitors too, from Prussia and Germany. They were invited so that they would recommend the new docks as an excellent trading centre amongst their colleagues in their home countries. The opening of the new dock was talked and written about, with lengthy reports in the local papers. 

The North Eastern Railway Company

The North Eastern Railway Company (NER) came into existence in 1854. It was made up of the amalgamated companies of the York and Newcastle Railway Co. and the Hartlepool Dock and Railway Co. They joined forces with the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway Co. in 1847. When the NER was set up, it took control of the docks at old Hartlepool.

NER acquires West Hartlepool Docks

NER did not acquire the West Hartlepool dock and harbour until 1st July 1865. In 1861 Ralph Ward Jackson had been forced to resign from the West Hartlepool Harbour and Railway Company. This followed a dispute between him and a man called Benjamin Coleman, who originally had an argument with Ward Jackson’s brother, Edwin.

At the time both Hartlepool and West Hartlepool harbours and docks came under the same ownership, there was a local recession and uncertainty, as the management did not disclose their plans for the two ports. By 1870, the NER had gained five seats on the Port and Harbour Commission, including the chairmanship, giving them a say in how the two ports should be run. The situation was the same ten years later, according to printed lists in the Robert Wood Collection of Ephemera.

Hartlepool and West Hartlepool Docks are united

It was the NER that completed the large task of joining up the two sets of docks, those at Hartlepool and the ones at West Hartlepool. The work was started in 1875, and completed in 1880. Ships could enter Hartlepool harbour and from there would move through a newly built North Basin, Central Dock and Union Dock to gain entry into the Swainson, Jackson and Coal Docks. The Basin had a lock at each end, so larger ships had a much easier entrance into the docks than through Ward Jackson’s harbour and locks, which were built to provide for the smaller ships that were built forty years previously

Trade in the Hartlepools in the 20th century

The large sum of money that NER invested in the Hartlepool dock system was justified by the company’s use of the docks. Merchants were enticed to bring their cargo to the Hartlepools by competitive rates and other encouragements. This resulted in the development of a large local timber trade, supplying the Durham collieries with pit props, as well as the Yorkshire mines, inland.

There was also a thriving trade in steamers, and a regular route from the Hartlepools to the ports surrounding the Baltic Sea during the months when the Baltic was free of ice.

The Hartlepools’ main trades in the first half of the 20th century were iron ore coming into the port, and coal going out, and pit props and sawn wood. There was a little liner business and some other trade including scrap for steel making. The ship building firms added income to the ports’ coffers, and needed the help of support industries, such as local Lloyd’s register staff, a compass adjustor and offices related to ship owning.

The fate of the NER and LNER

NER continued to amalgamate with smaller railways and later owned Middlesbrough dock. In 1923 a further amalgamation with Hull, Immingham and Grimsby was part of the formation of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), which posed a threat to Hartlepool through increased competition.

From 1st January, 1923, the LNER was made up of the North Eastern Railway, the Great Northern Railway, the Great Central Railway, the Great Eastern Railway and two Scottish Railways, the Great North of Scotland Railway and the North British Railway. The LNER ceased to exist when the railway companies were nationalised.

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