Some triumphant and tragic tales of the sea

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Morpeth Antiquarian Society

MORE than 60 members and visitors at Morpeth Antiquarian Society welcomed a very popular Dr Tony Barrow to their February meeting.

We heard about the maritime economy of Northumberland, from the Iron Age and Roman period through cobles and colliers to naval press gangs, whalers, warships, luxury liners and Whitley Bay holidays.

Cobles have been a familiar sight along the coast from Berwick to Spurn Head from the medieval period. Parts of these boats are described by Norse words.

Sea fishing led to a processing industry on land, and with families living in fishing square and women preparing and preserving fish.

Safety provided by close communities ranged from operating lifeboats to a keelman’s hospital and warning lights. Blyth High Light began in 1788, only to end service in 1985.

George Delaval’s experience against pirates gave way to great men such as Cook and Collingwood.

Less famous are the skilled harpooners of the whaling days. Morpeth’s Whalebone Inn sign is in our museum collection and a whalebone arch can be seen on High Stanners.

Trade saw Berwick salmon, lime from Seahouses and Holy Island, bottles from Seaton Delaval and grain from Alnmouth carried south to London and north to Scotland.

We saw early photographs of a schooner beached for loading at Alnmouth and the same schooner in London Docks in the 1850s to 1890s.

North East coal fuelled the British Empire via the sea.

We heard stories from both World Wars, the bombardment of Hartlepool and the development of Blyth Battery.

Tales of tragedy and triumph were told.

On December 26, 1939, HMS Seahorse, a submarine, sailed from Blyth for patrol off the east coast of Denmark. She did not return on her due date of January 9, 1940.

On Christmas Day one of the crew had won a bottle of whisky in the Astley Arms pub raffle.

Unable to take the bottle on board, the landlady agreed to keep the bottle behind the bar for his return.

It remained in the Astley Arms untouched until landlady Lydia Jackson retired in 1971.

The bottle, still with the original label showing the prize-winner’s name, is now displayed in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport.

Joe Baker-Cresswell was captain of HMS Bulldog, which captured an Enigma cipher machine and code book from a German 110 U-boat in May 1941, providing a major break-through in intelligence.

Now the coast has a popular holiday industry, but evidence can still be found of Northumberland’s proud maritime history.