AMBLE: A VICTORIAN BOOM TOWN
Janet Rice
 

    
         Some members might be familiar with the small town of Amble in Northumberland. It is a coastal settlement perched between the industrial south east of the county and picturesque north Northumberland. The houses at its core are solid stone built terraces. It is edged with satellite small housing estates and a caravan park. It has an attractive harbour and beaches, a thriving marina and glorious views out to sea and up the River Coquet to its glamorous neighbour, Warkworth.


View of Warkworth from Amble Marina

       However, Amble suffers from post industrial decline and is struggling to create a new identity for itself. The harbour is no longer a centre for coal export and the staiths and railways that converged on it are long gone but it does continue as a fishing port. There is a small industrial estate on its southern edge that has lost its largest businesses.  The main shopping street, Queen Street, once a thriving and bustling centre for the area is reshaping and rebuilding itself, trying to fill the gaps left by a Cooperative Society that once dominated.

       In 1840 the picture was very different. As an example, take this advertisement from the Newcastle Courant of 1 May, offering building sites for sale:

 

   “The extensive improvements which are now in progress at Amble, the wide and valuable coal field by which it is surrounded, and the erection of a most convenient harbour, indicate the rapid rise of Amble into a large and flourishing seat of commerce, and insure for its purchaser an ample and safe investment for his capital.”

 

       In 1831, Amble Township had a population of less than 250 people. Ten years later the population had almost trebled to over 700. By 1851 there were in excess of 1000 inhabitants. There were no street names in the 1841 census, inhabitants lived in “Amble” or on one of the surrounding farms. The local church and shops were in nearby Warkworth, about a mile and a half away. In 1831 Amble’s inhabitants were mostly agricultural labourers and fishermen, with a small number of coal miners. Salt extraction had been going on for centuries. In the parish registers it was unusual to have more than a couple of baptisms a year from Amble. Yet by 1841 the speculators had moved in and there were disputes over rights of way, bankruptcies, Irish navvies, Scottish joiners and masons, beer shops, drinking and brawling. Save for the rule of law and order, Amble would not have looked out of place in the Wild West.

 

       The clue to Amble’s rapid change is found in the aforementioned Newcastle Courant advertisement; coal, railways and a deep water harbour.

        Coal had been extracted for generations in Amble and nearby Hauxley, it is mentioned as early as 1608. Most of the land surrounding Amble had been in the hands of the Radcliffe family (Earls of Derwentwater) but, following the Jacobite Rebellions and their attainder for treason, the land passed to the Crown. The land was eventually returned to a descendant of the family, the Countess of Newburgh. Over the years, sales of land in the district, primarily belonging to this family, had referred to the possibility of coal underground and the seller often retained the interest in that coal. As the speculators moved in and took leases on the land for coal extraction, from the Countess and others, they assumed the right to dig for it even on land not directly leased by them, on the basis of the wording of the original deeds. The newspapers started reporting court cases for compensation by landowners and farmers suffering from the speculators digging on, or running railway lines across, their land.
       
       The Industrial Revolution meant a big expansion in the extraction of coal to drive the new industries. The Amble area, with a potential for export by sea, represented an ideal opportunity. Some coal had already been exported from the district through a more modest Amble harbour, a staith having been built in 1826. However, it was not until the 1830s that commercial exploitation really took off.

        Two projects went forward in tandem, backed by two entrepreneurs, Robert Arthur F Kingscote of Gloucestershire and Thomas Browne, a solicitor of London. A bill was put before Parliament, enacted in 1837, as the Warkworth Harbour and Dock Act, the purpose of which was to improve the mouth of the River Coquet and to create a harbour. At the beginning of the same year the two gentlemen acquired a 42 year lease to extract coal from the Countess of Newburgh’s lands at Amble, Hauxley and Togston. The Radcliffe Coal Company was created, with full powers for working coal mines, rights of wayleave and erecting staiths. The intention was to offer 18 shares in the company each worth £4000, the two prime movers retaining 3 of the 18 shares between them. Miners’ cottages were built to house the pitmen near the pithead at Radcliffe. The pair also agreed to provide the money to the Warkworth Harbour Commissioners to complete the building of the harbour. (Kingscote and Browne were also Commissioners).

       The development of the harbour was a major undertaking. The aim was to construct two stone piers, or breakwaters, in order to confine the entrance to the harbour and to straighten and deepen the river. Prior to this containment of the River Coquet, it had gradually been moving south. Quays and shipping berths were also to be built. The clerk of the works built a substantial property overlooking the project, called Cliff House, which was also the Tommy Shop for the labourers. A sandstone quarry was being worked to the south of the house. Cliff House still stands today.

 


Cliff House

     The harbour was certified complete in 1849, at a cost of £120,000 for the two stone piers. The north pier alone had cost £100,000, in part due to storm damage during construction. Unfortunately, the north pier had been built of sandstone and was unable to bear the battering from the North Sea. The sandstone was ultimately replaced with granite.
      1849 was a landmark year for the harbour in more ways than one. A branch of the Newcastle to Berwick Railway was opened which ran right to the harbour via Broomhill and Radcliffe collieries. The Warkworth Harbour Dock Company Act was passed in 1851 allowing staiths to be built at the harbour and, by 1854, most of the Radcliffe and Broomhill coal was being transported direct from pithead to ship.

 


Amble Quay and Staiths

       The infrastructure of Amble in the late 1830s and early 1840s was incapable of coping with the influx of workmen employed on the harbour works. Amble had sustained a small, mainly agricultural based, community and although some labourers managed to find lodgings in the village, others had to make do with a much more basic existence. The Northern Catholic Calendar noted that, in 1840, the work beginning on the harbour had attracted a considerable number of Irish labourers, most of who were lodged in temporary wooden huts.

       Throughout the 1840s there were numerous advertisements offering building land for sale in Amble. The sellers were targeting building societies, joiners and masons, encouraging block purchases at discount rates. Existing buildings with gardens were also being offered up for auction. Everybody was out to make their fortune.

        The 1851 census of Amble produced a very different picture of the Township to that of 1841. There were actual street names and although the population still consisted in part of agricultural labourers, it was now principally made up of tradesmen, shopkeepers, quarrymen, platelayers, mariners, ship builders, ship wrights and ship carpenters. 
     
       1861 provided an insight into the growth of coal exports from the harbour, with coal trimmers and coal teamers making an appearance. The growth of the port was also reflected in the appointment of Customs officers and coastguards.  In the 1881 census there were 24 vessels listed at Amble, with ships and crews from Scotland, Kent, Denmark, Holland and Germany.

       Amble continued to thrive, relying on its coal. The Postmaster General had been pleased to agree to the establishment of a post office in 1843. The Newcastle Journal noted in an article on 22 February 1845 that “the towns of Amble and Warkworth, which are rapidly rising in importance, are now lighted with gas from coal obtained in the neighbourhood.” By 1870, the Church of England had built a parish church, although the non conformists had been active in Amble for a long time. In 1874 the North Eastern Banking Company acquired a freehold site in order to erect substantial bank buildings. 1876 was another landmark year with the adoption of a scheme to provide mains sewerage and drainage for the town. The same year saw an announcement from the North Eastern Railway Company that they would open a branch railway for passenger and goods traffic.

       The Newcastle Courant of 26 December 1876 captured all this development in an article entitled “Progress at Amble.” It first of all describes the historical highlights of the town, going back to 1188, and suggests that, historically, there was little evidence for Amble ever becoming an important place. It then goes on to say:

     
“There is reason to believe, however, that it will now continue to grow. Not only have the directors of the North Eastern Railway yielded to the request of the inhabitants and conceded them a branch for passengers, but the station for it is already in course of erection. The foundations of a large hotel are also now laid. The namers of the rapidly forming streets having loyally called the first Queen Street, and decorously termed the next Church Street and Cross Street, have now turned their attention to the poets, and have named the last one Byron Street. The system of sewerage undertaken by the Rural Sanitary Authority has also been rapidly carried on and is now nearly completed. A cemetery is also proposed. At the present time burials are made at Warkworth. The road between Amble and Warkworth lies along the edge of the River Coquet, and at high tides is overflowed in some places, and a cemetery will, therefore, be another improvement.”

 
An Amble street with a vacant building lot on the right

      So what brought about the decline of Amble in the 20th Century? The very same things that had made it boom in the 19th. Coal exports from the harbour reached their peak in 1930 and thereafter started to decline. The collieries producing the coal became uneconomic and closed; Radcliffe in 1896, Broomhill in 1961 and Hauxley in 1966. The miners moved to other local pits at Shilbottle and Ellington, or migrated to the South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire coalfields.
     
      Attempts were made to find alternative exports for the harbour but in reality the river was never deep enough, despite dredging, to take boats of sufficient size. The railway station closed to passengers in 1930. The final demise for the railway came in 1969 with the cessation of the transportation of goods and coal by rail. The railway tracks and staiths were dismantled. The harbour contracted to, primarily, a fishing port.

      Coal extraction continued with the expansion of opencast mining which rolled across the purpose built pit villages. Radcliffe residents and their war memorial were moved into a new housing estate on the edge of Amble. The national pit strike in 1972 saw the miners form their blockade among the ruins of Radcliffe’s streets to prevent the movement of the opencast lorries. At least the partially demolished houses provided shelter, and plenty of timber to keep the pickets’ fires roaring in the cold January that saw the start of the first national strike since 1926.    

     Thanks to the Victorian pioneers and the building of their substantial and solid town, opencast mining has not been able to obliterate Amble in order to extract the coal that still lies underneath.

 

 

©  Janet Rice 2012, all rights reserved.
(Originally published in the Autumn 2012 edition of the NDFHS Journal)
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