By Jade Burnett.
The walk along the Hartlepool coast is one lined with the memories of Britain’s social and cultural history. As a historic seaside resort, and a former naval industrial center, the town’s coastline has a great deal to tell us about working class life in Britain, from leisure to war.
Hartlepool’s coastal route begins at Seaton Carew, a former seaside resort. The area began its recorded life as an industrial port, utilised by Henry I for salt extraction from the sea, but through its lifetime developed into an area for both industry and leisure. Seaton entered the 18th century as a fishing village, but as the popularity of seaside resorts developed throughout the century and the one succeeding it, it became a popular location for working class leisure holidays. Seaside resorts, like Seaton, emerged and grew in the 18th century due to the growing fashion of doctors prescribing immersion in the sea as a treatment for conditions such as hysteria and melancholia. Initially a fashionable pastime for the gentry and upper classes, the growth of the railways and development of rights for factory workers made travel cheaper and more accessible, making seaside resorts a staple of working class leisure time. This led to the general expansion of resorts, and the introduction of pleasure piers in the 19th century, allowing for boat trips and serving as entertainment venues. With the development of budget airlines and package holidays in the 1950s and 60s, holidays abroad uprooted seaside resorts, but towns like Hartlepool, with its confectionery shops, arcades and stretching promenade, still maintain the joys of 18th and 19th century leisure resorts.
Continuing upwards along the coast leads to the town’s local museum, The National Museum of the Royal Navy, looming over which is the HMS Trincomalee, a 204 year old frigate . The ship, built in 1817, in modern day Mumbai (then Bombay), was intended to fight in the Napoleonic Wars but never actually saw combat and was instead repurposed. By the time of her first commission in 1847, Trincomalee was sound and sturdy, but too old fashioned for fast developing modern naval warfare, and was therefore repurposed to patrol the West Indies to prevent the illegal continuation of the slave trade, whilst placing itself strategically to protect Britain’s geo-political and trading interests. From 1905 to 1980, Trincomalee, then renamed Foudroyant, was retired to the role of a training ship for young people. In 1990 the ship was brought to Hartlepool for restoration, which finished in 2005. Trincomalee has remained in the town as a tourist attraction and center for learning ever since, demonstrating a local legacy of historical preservation, whilst at the same time harkening back to the town’s long history as a shipbuilding industrial area.
At the end of the Hartlepool coastline is the Headland estate, which, through its Heugh Battery museum and war memorial, tell the story of the 1914 bombardment of the town by the German navy. As a shipbuilding town and a key part of the war effort, Hartlepool became a major military target, and on the 16th of December 1914 was hit with over 1,100 shells within 40 minutes. 130 were killed and many more were injured by shrapnel, with many houses and buildings being destroyed or damaged. The attack took place in the morning, whilst many were having their breakfast, heading to school or on their way to work. Following the attack, the people of Hartlepool raised a vast amount of money for the area’s reconstruction and war effort (£545m in modern currency), the most per head of anywhere in the British Empire during the war. The memorialisation of the event through local monuments and the battery museum, depicts how war touches and damages the lives of civilians, but also tells the story of how working class communities come together in times of struggle. The Headland’s history tells an empowering story of the power of communities and of collective action.
Small towns like Hartlepool can sometimes seem as though their histories have been lost, their structures and social narratives being damaged due to decades of deindustrialisation and socio-economic change, however they maintain a hidden local history which is deeply significant in telling crucial stories. Hartlepool’s story is a rich one of working class life, be that the changing relationship between workers and leisure, legacies of historical preservation or localised community responses to tragedy.