Despite being a thriving port of some importance for many centuries,
Hartlepool was in general
decline during the eighteenth century.
Before its dramatic recovery during the Victorian era, its population
numbered no more than a thousand or so, all of whom were crammed into what we
now know as The Headland. During the
sleepy 1700s, the town tried, not altogether successfully, to tempt folk to its
bracing climes by way of medicinal springs, particularly the iron-salt spa
near the Westgate. For some reason, Thomas Gray, the famous poet, visited
in July 1765 to take the waters, and wrote to his friend Dr Wharton:
I have been for two days to taste the water, and do assure you that nothing could be salter (sic) and bitterer and nastier and better for you... I am delighted with the place; there are the finest walks and rocks and caverns.
Some weeks later, he wrote again:
The rocks, the sea and the weather there more than made up to me the want of bread and the want of water, two capital defects, but of which I learned from the inhabitants not to be sensible. They live on the refuse of their own fish-market, with a few potatoes, and a reasonable quantity of Geneva [gin] six days in the week, and I have nowhere seen a taller, more robust or healthy race: every house full of ruddy broad-faced children. Nobody dies but of drowning or old-age: nobody poor but from drunkenness or mere laziness.
He wasn’t the only one impressed with the locals. Isambard Kingdom Brunel remarked in 1831, on the eve of the settlement’s industrialisation:
A curiously isolated old fishing town – a remarkably fine race of men. Went to the top of the church tower for a view.
If only he were able to climb the steps of St.Hilda’s tower now and see the difference.