My recent holiday in Northumberland proved yet again that I can never totally switch off from research. I stayed in a Grade II Listed former fisherman’s cottage in the picturesque coastal village of Low Newton-by-the-Sea (historically known as Newton Seahouses). The cottage in which I stayed, according to Historic England, dates from the 18th century but was remodelled in the mid-19th century . It is one of the whitewashed cottages which border three sides of the village green, owned by the National Trust . The buildings on one side include the historic Ship Inn, parts of which are thought to date back to the 16th-17th century. The fourth side of the square leads directly to the beach and rocks of Newton, or St Mary’s, Haven.
It is a wonderfully relaxing location and the connection with the past is palpable. I felt compelled to delve into the history of the village and as a result discovered that the 19th century incarnation was a far cry from today’s holiday destination. It was a village very much shaped by the sea, and life for its inhabitants was decidedly tough.
Shipwrecks and death at sea were an occupational hazard, both for sailors transporting goods up and down the coast or across the North Sea to the continent, as well as for the locally-based fishermen. The predominant catches of these local fishermen were of turbot, lobster and herrings.
One early incident, reported in the local papers, occurred on 21 June 1833 . William Cuthbertson’s sons William (age 22) and Robert, along with Ralph Archbold (age 19), the son or William Archbold, set off in a boat from Newton Sea Houses to Dunstanburgh Castle to gather sink stones for the brat nets .
On the return journey a heavy squall caught the sail and capsized the boat which sunk immediately due to the weight of the stones. Robert, who could swim a little, grabbed two of the oars and kept afloat until saved by some fishermen. The other two young men drowned, their bodies found the following day. Their burials on 24 June 1833 are recorded in the parish register of Holy Trinity, Embleton.
Back to the 21st century and hopefully those present-day holidaymakers savouring a thirst-quenching pint of one of the Ship Inn’s microbrewery offerings, or enjoying a delicious locally-sourced meal in the pub (turbot was on the menu for our visit) will not be put off by some of the 19th century activities which took place there. It was a convenient place to hold inquests, including for those whose bodies washed ashore. Some were foreign seafarers.
One such Ship Inn inquest took place before George Watson, coroner for North Northumberland, on Wednesday 26 February 1879. The body of 40-year-old Trieste seaman Francesco Carbone was discovered by labourer Thomas Anderson on rocks at Newton that Monday. He was one of the sailors on board the 542 tons Italian barque Stefano Padre, which foundered on the rocks just off Newton-by-the-Sea .
The barque, accompanied by a tug, set off from Aberdeen to North Shields in ballast  on Saturday 23 February. That night the sea started to get rough, and in the early hours of the following morning the barque struck the rocks. Although the tug managed to get a heaving rope to the vessel, it was unable to pull it free and abandoned the rescue attempt.
An attempt was made to launch the ship’s boat by those on the stricken craft. This ended in failure with most being forced to return to the Stefano Padre, whilst the four men on the front ended up in the sea. One of these did manage to cling on to the ship’s boat. When waves threw it clean on the rocks men from the Volunteer Life Company, comprised of coastguard and fishermen of Newton, managed to drag him to safety.
It was dangerous work with the men continually being washed off their feet. Not only was there the immediate danger of working in treacherous conditions, but the effects of the cold and exposure to the elements in undertaking what could be prolonged rescue efforts wreaked havoc on health. One of the coastguard men, Joseph Whiles, was completely drenched and blinded by the surf. He only reluctantly left the rescue scene after being advised to do so by Dr Magill.
Repeated attempts were made by the Coastguard to employ rockets to get a line to the barque and eventually this was successful, resulting in the rescue of the captain and six men.
The inquest jury returned a verdict of ‘accidentally drowned’ on Stefano Carbone. The courageous manner in which the coastguard and fishermen of Newton had endeavoured to save the lives of the crew in the face of great personal danger was acknowledged. William Pringle, a fish-curer who represented the fishermen at the inquest, and Mr Williams, the chief coastguard, were asked to inform those involved. The latter stated:
…a better class of men could not be found than those he had under his charge…
William Pringle was subsequently presented with an illuminated testimonial in vellum by the Board of Trade .
It seems the Ship Inn did not always sport this name. Though by time of the 1899 publication of the OS six-inch map of the area it was clearly marked as the Ship Inn , an earlier edition which was surveyed in 1860 and published in 1866 , shows its name as Smack Inn. And curiously, some newspapers reporting a Newton-by-the-Sea inquest in 1861 stated it took place in the Keelboat Inn. This was into the death of 59-year old Claas Foelders from Emden, Captain of the Hanoverian schooner Hortensia.
In stormy weather, heavy seas and thick rain the schooner, which was bound for Newcastle from Hamburg, lost its way in the darkness and struck the North Steel Rocks off Boulmer at around 8pm on the evening of Wednesday 27 March 1861. It being low tide the crew of the Boulmer lifeboat were able to walk out to the Hortensia, boarding at about 8.30pm. However, Foelders, who was described as tipsy, refused to leave. His crew of four also remained – some reports indicated that Foelders forced them to stay. With the tide on the turn, the lifeboat crew left the vessel and returned to shore at 10.30pm. By this time the captain was ‘dead drunk’. The sea quickly rose, the ship was driven further onto the rocks and began filling with water.
Now, in tricky conditions, the lifeboat was forced to launch. Despite all entreaties from his crew and the lifeboatmen, the captain once more obstinately refused to leave the Hortensia, holding on to the rails. With the situation becoming increasingly perilous the lifeboat returned to shore at 12.30 am, this time with the four crew members. The ship broke up entirely in the early hours of the morning of 28 March.
Later that morning, whilst out fishing about two miles off shore, Newton-by-the-Sea fisherman William Carss, and his two sons James and William, found the body of the captain floating head upwards dressed in drawers, stockings and a jacket.
The inquest, held before the Coroner J. J. Hardy, on 30 March, returned a verdict that Foelders was found drowned. As mentioned some reports state it took place in Mr Jos Blair’s Keelboat Inn, Newton-by-the-Sea  and . Others state it was the home of Newton-by-the-Sea innkeeper Mr James Blair  and .
Looking for alternative local inns, there was the Joiner’s Arms in Newton village (High Newton). Also, according to another OS map  there was one other public house in the vicinity, the Fisherman’s Arms. This is now a National Trust holiday cottage called Risemoor. The 1858 Kelly’s Post Office Directory of Northumberland and Durham does not help, its only listing being George Geggie’s Joiner’s Arms. However, the 1861 census was taken only days after the inquest on 7 April, so I checked this out.
There is no Joseph Blair in Newton-by-the-Sea (both the village itself of High Newton and Low Newton/Newton Seahouses). However, at ‘Newton Sea Houses Pub[lic] Ho[use].’ is ‘Fish[erman] and Inn Keeper’ James Blair, wife Hannah and five-year-old son James . This seems to place him right in the square, where the Ship Inn is located. So it appears this was the inn in which the inquest of Claas Foelders took place. Perhaps the newspapers mistakenly called it the Keelboat Inn, or perhaps this briefly was its name. More work is needed to research this, probably more for archives than online, to enable a firm conclusion.
By 1871  James and Hannah had moved in to Newton village itself (High Newton), and his sole occupation was fisherman. Skip forward to 1881  and still in High Newton James now reverted to the dual occupation of fisherman and publican. But tragedy struck on 1 December 1883 when he too was claimed by the sea. He and John Patterson put out to Dunstanburgh haul in their lobster nets. A heavy wave hit their boat washing James and an oar overboard and knocking John over. With only one oar John could not control the boat and his attempts to reach James failed. John lost consciousness but fortunately his boat drifted to shore and he was found. James’ body was not discovered until 18 December on rocks near Dunstanburgh. His inquest the following day, ironically held at the Joiners Arms with which he knew well, returned a verdict of ‘accidentally drowned’ . His son James took over the running of this pub, and is shown here with his family and widowed mother Hannah in the 1891 census .
Back to Low Newton, there is a gem of a description of it from a survey conducted by the Alnwick Rural Sanitary Authority which featured in the Alnwick Mercury of 18 October 1873. It paints a wonderful picture of life there in the latter half of the 19th century. It is such an evocative piece I’ve reproduced it in full.
NEWTON SEA HOUSES
This busy little fishing village lies close to the sea in the centre of “St. Mary’s,” or the rocky “Newton Haven.” It consists of fishermen’s cottages, a public house, and stable, forming three sides of a square (the fourth side being open to the haven), a couple of fish curing houses, and a fish curer’s – Mr Pringle’s – old and very damp house, together with coastguardsmen’s houses planted on the hill high above the village. The period of my inspection happened to be just when the herring fishing was coming to a close, and I had good opportunity of observing the peculiar requirements of the inhabitants in their houses and of noting where they were deficient or good. It appears that every fisher has three men to keep, called “Yarmouth men.” With the exception of the houses which are new, all of them consist of one room and a loft formed out of the high tiled roofs. The sleeping accommodation in these in the fishing season is, as one says, “Ourselves and three men have to pig in there,” and another “have to have a bed or two in the garret for the people to lie in that we have.” The interiors are made the most the space admits of, but they nearly all resemble the forecastle on board ship, they are so low, so crowded, so deficient in light, so like cabins and berths, and every sanitary contrivance. They look, indeed, like buildings made out of the materials of wrecks. “The couples  of this house is nothing particler, one of them’s broke.” “This is all the comfort poor people have; many nights I have to rise to put dishes to keep the rain coming in.” “It was a kind o’ blockit up, but it’s in very bad repair.” “Little or no back places, not a drain about the place.” “Our coals are piled up at the back of our beds.” “Only one privy for the whole of us, and that at the back door of the public house.” Such is the condition of the houses where there is an addition in the hot season of “three Yarmouth men.” At the present time the dark windowless lofts are being crowded with masts and sails (one for want of room was poked through the tiles), creel nets, covered with fish scales, festoons of bladders highly coloured in stripes and looking like Egyptian necklaces, tarpaulins, blocks, ropes, lanterns, and “all things useable at sea”, for, say the fishermen, “our fishing work gear takes a large garret.” In these cases, however, “the couples being nothing particular,” it is surprising how the things get packed over their heads, and a wonder that the whole loft does not come down upon them with a crash. A much better state of things appears, however, in the provision of these seafarers at the three new houses mentioned. Every careful thought has been bestowed in their erection, especially as to the provision of a large well lighted loft, where “the three Yarmouth men” and “all things useable at sea” can be alternately lodged; but here, alas! there is a deficiency of coal and washing-up places. In one of “these nice new houses” I saw one poor woman “possing” in the pantry to keep, as she said, “the other places rid”; and in another they had secured a bargain of a winter’s supply of coals, and in the absence of a coal house have actually been obliged to pack them from floor to ceiling in the pantry. The central large and open place in front of the three-side square of houses is the common refuse heap, unwalled, and dependent upon the paternal care of Mr Dixon, the farmer tenant, to remove and keep it low. The owner of this property, Mr Mather, has a good opportunity to make this a model little fishing village, by rebuilding the older houses in the manner of the new. He should not, however, forget the provision of coal and washing-up places, and the usual sanitary conveniences. The well-to-do tenants would or should gladly pay a fair per centage on the outlay for the boon of good dwellings suitable to their occupation which they one and all sigh for. The coast guard houses are like all government buildings models of order. Smart with white and black wash, everything taut and in trim, they possess every sanitary contrivance, including the earth closet and commode. Water for all these places has to be brought a considerable distance from an arched cavern below some basalted rocks, which will require the care of your authority. 
The water supply was a persistent problem; and the village green where visitors now spread out picnic blankets, soak up the sun and smell the tang of the sea was far from a fragrant outside space back in 1873. And the situation had not improved by the start of the following decade as a damning report to the Rural Sanitary Authority on 28 January 1882 by the Alnwick Medical Officer illustrated. It stated:
….a mild case of small pox had appeared at Newton-by-the-Sea, contracted probably from the girl’s father who had just returned from a neighbourhood where the disease existed. Also that a rapidly fatal case of diphtheria had since occurred to a member of the same family in the same house. The house is very unfavourably situated in regard to a large midden ashpit occupying the centre of the village, which is built to form three sides of a square, the end towards the sea being open. The pit is capable of holding about sixty loads, and large accumulations are allowed to take place from which noxious effluvia arises. It was recommended to be paved at [the] bottom and the contents removed weekly .
The Low Newton of today would be unrecognisable to those late 19th century inhabitants. So, as you sit by the green sipping your beer, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring sea view and the picturesque cottages (you may even be holidaying in one), remember it was not always thus. And do spare a thought for those men, women and children who lived, worked and died here in centuries past.
-  Historic England – Nos 1 and 2 and Garage adjacent to Ship Inn, Newton Seahouses Square: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1041750
-  Report No. 0058/6-09, Historic Environment Survey for the National Trust Properties on the Northumberland Coast, Newton – July 2009: https://www.aenvironment.co.uk/downloads/historic-landscape-characterisation/newton-coast-management-plan.pdf
-  Newcastle Courant – 6 July 1833 and Durham County Advertiser – 12 July 1833.
-  Brat-Nets was the name given in Northumberland for fixed drift-nets which hung in slack folds in order to entangle and strangle turbot. Brat was the local name for turbot
-  Alnwick Mercury – 1 March 1879, Newcastle Courant – 28 February 1879, Shields Daily News – 28 February 1879 and Shields Daily Gazette – 2 December 1904
-  Having no cargo, but carrying ballast for stability
-  The Berwick Advertiser – 5 November 1880
-  OS Six-Inch Map, Northumberland XXII.SE, Revised 1896, Published 1899
-  OS Six-Inch Map, Northumberland XXII, Surveyed 1860, Published 1866
-  Newcastle Journal – 3 April 1861
-  Morpeth Herald – 6 April 1861
-  Newcastle Daily Chronicle – 2 April 1861
-  Newcastle Courant – 5 April 1861
-  OS Six-Inch Map, Northumberland XXVII, Surveyed 1861, Published 1867
-  1861 Census England & Wales, Newton-by-the-Sea, RG09/13881/60/13
-  1871 Census England & Wales, Newton-by-the-Sea, RG10/5176/56/3
-  1881 Census England & Wales, Newton-by-the-Sea, RG11/5125/60/7
-  Alnwick Mercury – 8 and 22 December 1883
-  1891 Census England & Wales, Newton-by-the-Sea, RG12/4265/127/4
-  Rafters (pair of)
-  A northern term for washing clothes by agitating them with a long pole or rod. Pounding of washing.
-  Alnwick Mercury – 18 October 1873
-  Alnwick Mercury – 4 February 1882
- Aflalo, F. G. The Sea-Fishing Industry of England and Wales: A Popular Account of the Sea Fisheries and Fishing Ports of Those Countries. London, 1904.
- Post Office Directory of Northumberland and Durham: With Map Engraved Expressly for the Work, and Corrected to the Time of Publication. London: Kelly and, 1858.
I did find some 19th century images but due to copyright doubts I’ve not reproduced them.