Hartlepool is arguably Teesside’s oldest community of a decent size. The town began as an Anglian settlement,and a town developed in the 7th century sited around Hartlepool Abbey, founded in 640 A.D. by the Irish Christian priest Saint Aidan upon a headland overlooking the natural harbour and the North Sea. It is possible that settlement was predated by other small communities nearby. In the news recently there were rumours that an expensive new road link around Hart Village will be now long delayed following the discovery of possibly even earlier proto- Saxon remains.
But for this second excursion into a lost community, I want to fast forward into Hartlepool’s high Victorian noon when the demands of industry were building a whole new town. However, no town ever survives being a wholly planned organism – unplanned anarchic life always flourishes on the fringes, and I will tell here of one such rough hewed community – the brilliantly named Seaton Snook.
A year or so ago I started off a discussion on this enigmatic and now vanished place with veteran NE Journalist Mike Amos, and with his permission, I’m reproducing parts of that blogged exchange. I’m also drawing on the website of one Peter Falconer, another journalist born nearby in Seaton Carew.
The place they called Seaton Snook was just to the north of the Tees estuary, south of Seaton Carew and, as the crow flies, no more than three or four miles from Billingham. Birds may not have been all that did fly around there – Seaton Snook was also the site of a WW1 Naval Air Service airfield. ‘Snooks’ may originally just have meant marshes or dunes, though Chambers has none of it. A fish maybe, maybe a verb meaning to lurk or prowl about, maybe “the act of putting the thumb to the nose to express disdain.” As in cocking a snook, of course. That was almost today’s header, too.
A site for salt extraction and production in the early 19th century, Seaton Snook appears to have been in every sense a backwater – a place where men went to live in seen-better-days houseboats, and to lie low, as well as a base for illicit bare knuckle prize fights and unlicensed dog racing.
Among the residents in the 1860s was John Wills, a hermit apparently known as the Timon of the Tees, and Jacob Cox, who in 1868 made headlines everywhere from the Bedfordshire Mercury to the Lincolnshire Chronicle (and possibly the Hartlepool Mail as well.) Cox was a fish dealer who’d tethered his horse and cart while cockling at Seaton Snook. Unfortunately the horse broke loose, cart still following, and was found by a fishing boat crew 12 miles away, horse still before the cart. The horse died, alas, before it could be returned to the shore. In an age of shipwrecks, seeking to save their souls, it was reported, skippers on the Tees would hear the ghostly whinnying of a horse above the storm. Didn’t something similar happen to Ernie, who drove the fastest milk cart in the west?
A whole encampment was now springing up along the Tees Bay foreshore. Most were living in old fishing smacks and cobles, converted into houseboats. Others had turned their boats completely over, and by knocking out a few keel planks and gouging a hole on the stem fashioned rudimentary doors and windows and an outlet for a stovepipe.
Fortunes in late Victorian times had declined yet further, not helped by a devastating hurricane and by a typhoid outbreak.
“People in Seaton Snook were very much outsiders, to be shunned and avoided wherever possible,” writes Falconer:
“To people in Hartlepool and Teesside it was little more than a joke, Seaton Snook languished, all but forgotten.”
In defence of that, he adduced a report meeting of Hartlepool’s Schools Board looking for possible sites for a new grammar school for the town. One worthy, The Reverend Shaw, castigated the Hartlepool Town Mayor for his suggestion of locations:
“They might as well go the park in West Hartlepool or even…Sneaton Snook (Laughter)”
Hartlepool Mail 3rd January 1875
Then in 1906 a zinc works opened – run by a company from Broken Hill, Australia – so successfully that it had its own brass band, its workers housed in proper terraced houses – basic but brick built unlike the homes of the boat people over the road. The zinc works seems to have brought what little prosperity there was for the community. There was even an indoor market, a school – closed in 1938 – and, presumably after the war judging by the photographs from Hartlepool Museums and captured by Peter Falconer on his site, a funfair called the Happidrome which seemed to be out to rival Seaton Carew, its neighbour.
As well as the characters: “A community of fishermen, blacksmiths, teachers, preachers, seacoalers, murderers, lovers and musicians’ as Peter Falconer put it, there were people of talent. One such was local composer Gaynor Leigh, born into the community in the zinc workers cottages. At an early age she was seen as possessed of a keen intelligence and a keen ear for music, and so – probably the only Snook person to do so – went to grammar school and then to Durham University to study musical composition. Sadly, her father Archibald passed away suddenly in 1911, and her mother Alma found herself overwhelmed with grief. Gaynor suspended her studies at Durham to return to Seaton Snook, and worked at the newly established Seaton Snook school as an ‘uncertificated assistant’ until its closure in 1938. In that time she wrote and published a number of piano and choral pieces, some of which are still recorded today.
Sadly, the school closure marked the beginning of the end for Sneaton Snook. The zinc workers and their families were rehoused in new estates in Hartlepool and their terraced homes demolished in the years after 1945. The real end for the original community came at the same time, as recalled on an oral history tape from a local housewife, one Mrs Anna Wren. She recalled the residents being ordered by the Tees Conservancy Commission to remove their houseboats from the beach, or else to incinerate them where they stood:
“It was sad when the boats had to go. So that’s what we did with ours. Well, me dad didn’t – he couldn’t do it, he was broken hearted, as all of us were. So they were burnt. My husband, he did them and one of his mates went and did our boats. Cos none of us could do it, it was too hard. We’d had such a wonderful childhood there, and me dad had been going down the Snook since he was a young lad, so it was hard for all of us, it was really hard for every one of us, it was terrible.”
It seems almost Viking in its imagery.
By the end of the 50’s the Happidrome finally decamped and the land was left to grazing horses and the slow march of industry. Able UK now operates a huge landfill site on part of Seaton Snook, and the zinc works site is now part of the estate of the Hartlepool nuclear power station there. The foreshore and part of the land that once witnessed bare knuckle prize fighting and unlicensed greyhound and whippet racing is still open for walkers. Even the once ubiquitous Tees Bay foghorn, which Gaynor Leigh incorporated into one of her piano pieces, was stilled. Now, all you are likely to hear is the sound of the wind off the sea and the sea birds and geese reclaiming again what was originally theirs.