South Shields Local History Group

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Visitors to Marsden

One of the many nineteenth century drinkers at the Marsden Grotto, and one of its greatest supporters, was ‘Jonathan Oldbuck’.

‘Oldbuck’ was the pseudonym adopted by a Monkwearmouth solicitor when he wrote about local history and legend for the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, which he did in the 1860s and 1870s, sporadically. His real name was William Wealands Robson, and he was well-known in the North-East for his letters and articles in local newspapers, correcting what he saw as persistent errors. One of these was the spelling of White Mare Pool, which he repeatedly reminded people had been ‘White Mere Pool’ and had nothing to do with horses. Robson (left, with his dog) was an expert on local footpaths and was known to demolish any illegal obstacle he found on his frequent and lengthy walks.

            His walking was prodigious, even by nineteenth century standards. Locals were used to seeing him setting off in the early morning with his dog, to go from Monkwearmouth to Marsden. But he also thought nothing of a day’s walk to Morpeth, going out by Chester-le-Street, and coming back by North and South Shields. It seems likely that he went to Morpeth for the races, which existed there from 1729 to 1883, but the mention in his divorce case of ‘Morpeth Nelly’ as one of three women with whom he had committed adultery, might suggest an ulterior motive for his trip.

            The source of Robson’s pseudonym ‘Jonathan Oldbuck’ would have been familiar to his nineteenth century audience – it was the name of the title character in Scott’s popular novel, The Antiquary (1816)– a character who was a mine of historical information. He also sometimes seems to appear in newspaper correspondence columns as ‘Andrew Fairservice’, using the name of the narrator’s faithful servant in Scott’s Rob Roy.

            Robson’s comments on Marsden were published in the Newcastle Chronicle on November 25th 1879, and in the Shields Daily News (slightly edited), the following day. In his piece, he argued that ‘Marsden Rock was most Marsden Rock in the winter’. He was careful to make clear that he would neither go in rain, nor in snow, but that his particular, favourite time to visit Marsden was on mild sunny days, ‘which we sometimes have in mid-winter, and which are doubly delicious by reason of coming at such a time.’ But he also liked Marsden at night, when there was a moon. Robson was often away at night-time, and his wife Sarah’s statements in the divorce case, which began in 1859, and only concluded in 1868, noted that he was frequently absent for days at a time, and that he frequently returned in a bad temper, and usually intoxicated.

            The seaside, argued Robson, is unchanging – elsewhere, the eye takes in ‘decayed and departed vegetation’ out of season. “The sea, the sands and the shores are the same at Martinmas as May-day,” he goes on, adding a mock-mournful note about ageing – “There are no leafless hedges or falling leaves to raise painful thoughts in the minds of men, themselves in the sere and yellow leaf.” But Marsden in January and February appealed to him for quite a different reason. “There is less of noise and bustle and crowd and crush. I confess that I do not much like the sound of the fiddle where nothing should be heard save the sea-mew, the jack-daw, or the rock-dove.” Marsden in the early 1870s, at the time of which he writes, was a busy spring-time and summer location, attracting visitors from Shields and Sunderland in equal measure. Since the 1840s and – especially – the 1850s, the Grotto, with its wooden ballroom floor, had been well-known for its dancing. A young Richard Thornton, long before he became a theatre impresario, had started out as a fiddler at the Grotto, playing for the raucous quadrilles.

            A testimony to the noise, bustle, crowd and crush came from Sydney Milnes Hawkes, who ran the Grotto from 1875 to 1882, and whose conversation Robson especially enjoyed. Hawkes told a magistrate’s court in 1882 that there had been eight thousand people at Marsden on Good Friday of that year. Hawkes, like Robson, was a lawyer by trade, although he never practised. Hawkes and Robson entertained each other, however, with their “literary and forensic chit-chat”. One witness to these conversations was a journalist on the Newcastle Chronicle, who wrote the ‘Local Gossip’ column under the by-line ‘Elfin’. This ‘Elfin’ had inherited his by-line pseudonym from Hawkes himself, Hawkes having written for the Chronicle from 1867 onwards. In 1870, he and his large family moved to Marsden, at about the time of the death of Lizzie Allan, wife of the original Grotto proprietor. One of her surviving sons, William, and then daughter, Mary Ann, took the Grotto on, but by 1875, Mary Ann admitted defeat. Hawkes, who had experience of brewing – his father had been a brewer in Bishop Stortford, and he had himself ‘run’ a brewery (he was quickly bankrupted) – stepped forward. He was to become the first tenant of new owners, Whitburn Coal Company, in 1879 – his first employers, however, were the executors of a South Shields shipbuilder, William Wright of Ogle Terrace. Hawkes also took on the Marsden Inn in Lizard Lane (the second inn of that name).

                        Hawkes and Robson were in two minds about the colliery. Both accepted that it was necessary to local prosperity; both also realised the damage it would have upon the local fauna and flora. ‘The world must be warmed,’ wrote Hawkes. Robson may have been a traditionalist about access to land, but he also recognised the need for progress. He was an ardent supporter of the area he also referred to by its ‘ancient’ name, ‘Werewickshire’, an antiquarian title for all the land between the Wear and the Tyne (it seems to have vanished at the outset of the twentieth century). Brockie, who included Robson in his Sunderland Notables – Robson was the youngest of those described – noted his habit of stopping in farmhouses, and topping up his stock of local history, and knowledge of crops. On the way to Marsden, one of his favourite spots was a point in Lizard Lane, then the only road from Whitburn to Marsden, where there was a point at which you could see Huntcliff Foot (at Saltburn-on-Sea) and Newbiggin Point at one and the same time.

            Robson was especially well-disposed to South Shields:

            “I know of no town in the North which has made more improvement of late years. All is safe, steady, stable and sound. There is no show upon tick; no rushing blindly into schemes at the whim of a dictator; no reckless borrowing to spend foolishly; and no forestalling of future resources for present popularity. I imagine that few towns are less in debt than South Shields. I am sure that no town has a brighter prospect. There it is, smoky it may be, with Tyne Dock within the municipal boundary. It has nothing to dread. Half a century hence, and South Shields will be another Hull.”

One suspects the ‘dictator’ he had in mind was Samuel Storey, Mayor and later M.P. for Sunderland – although Robson was employed by Storey in a land dispute, because of his courtroom acumen.

            This kind of opinion must have been among those batted to and fro at the Marsden Grotto and the Marsden Inn, with Hawkes behind the bar at one or the other. Robson called Hawkes ‘the Hermit Hoar’ – a reference to Hawkes’ hoary white beard, and a glance back to Peter Allan, the Grotto’s inventor, who was jocularly called ‘the Hermit’, because he lived in a rock – a less hermit-like figure it would otherwise be hard to find. ‘Hermit hoar’ is also a phrase in a poem improvised by Samuel Johnson in 1777, on his own 68th birthday, and written down by his friend James Boswell (it was intended to illustrate how bad was the poetry of the long-forgotten Thomas Warton the Younger, but Boswell insisted he liked it):

Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray,
Smite thy bosom, Sage, and tell,
What is bliss? And which the way?

Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh’d;
Scarce repress’d the starting tear;
When the hoary sage reply’d:
“Come, my lad, and drink some beer.”

Robson however was no beer-drinker. When he went to Marsden, it was to drink a bottle of claret with Hawkes – even though he admitted that this didn’t quite fit with his ideal mid-winter idyll. Hawkes was virtually teetotal, so Robson would have had the bottle, chilled or not, to himself.


Another regular customer at the Grotto, whose drinking jags were even more notorious than Robson’s, was the Reverend Benjamin Centum Kennicott, the (first) vicar of All Saints, Monkwearmouth. He was well-known for the divorce case his wife had instituted against him in 1866, during which his children gave evidence against him. He had known the Grotto since the Allans’ day and had officiated at the marriage of the Allans second daughter, Elizabeth Marsden Allan, who had been born at the Grotto. The same age as Hawkes, Kennicott (seen here as a young man) was a noted conversationalist, with ‘a stock of racy anecdotes’ but the bane of his parishioners, who disapproved of his ‘rollicking’. Because of his fondness for the bottle, the Church suspended him in the 1870s for three years, and then again later for four years. He died, dead drunk, in 1886.

Hawkes (left) had plenty to tell Robson, Kennicott and anyone else who was listening – and there were some who went to the Grotto to be spectators of the craic. He had known Dickens, Thackeray, Cobden, and a generation of mid-century London radicals (to the daughter of one of whom, William Henry Ashurst, Hawkes had been married). One of the major causes espoused by Radicals was that of Italian revolution. As his friend Aaron Watson, himself an influential Northern newspaper editor, noted of Hawkes, “he had carried out some really desperate crimes in the cause of Italian liberty. He carried out to Paris the dagger and pistol with which Giovanni Pianori was to attempt assassinate the French emperor; he forged passports for Italian refugees; frequently at the risk of his life, he conveyed financial aid to both Mazzini and Garibaldi… there is no doubt that if he had been caught on some of his expeditions, he would have been hanged or shot”.

                        The man behind Marsden’s bar in the late 1870s was therefore a force to be reckoned with, and a magnet for visitors to the area, whom he received ‘like a king’. Hawkes was also very popular with the new customers, the miners, for whom he would settle disputes, and by whom he was held in very high esteem.

            Conversation at the Grotto would also turn to the Grotto’s origins.

Robson (left) had been just six years old when Peter Allan first blasted rooms out of the cliff, with the assistance of local quarrymen. But from a young age, he had made it a place of pilgrimage. Three boys were saved from drowning in 1844, by Allan and his two eldest sons, William and Thomas. One of the boys was Robson’s younger brother Charles, and the alarm had been raised by another brother, Matthew. This gave rise to the composition and publication (just in time for Christmas!) of a truly terrible poem, The Mercy at Marsden Rocks, by the Vicar of Newcastle, the Rev. Richard Coxe – it includes this lurid verse:

The Lobster, and the craving Crab,
Right underneath prepare
Their rending claws, and crunching mouth
That delicate flesh to tear.

Robson knew the tales of ‘Jack the Blaster’, who had occupied a cave in 1782, about a hundred yards south of the Grotto. Jack – sometimes noted as having a wife, Jessie – was looking for free accommodation, and it would seem he wasn’t the only person evading rent on the coast of what was then The German Ocean. Robson had a theory that there had been two Jacks – the Blaster, and also Jack and Jessie – the latter is not mentioned by the most reliable witness, Thomas Spence. Spence was a Newcastle radical at the end of the eighteenth century, and he claimed to have coined, or at any rate popularised the phrase ‘The Rights of Man’, when he chalked it in a poem on the wall of Jack’s cave, delighted that Jack had evaded the need to pay a landlord.

            Robson also understood, from his constant conversation with local farmers, that Marsden Rock was a relatively recent phenomenon. He had it that the Rock had only separated from the land in the early eighteenth century, when its transformation from a promontory to a sea-stack began. Remarkably, he had been told that a rough wooden bridge had been laid across the gap, to allow lambs to be weaned on the Rock, while the ewes remained on the cliffs, the bridge being withdrawn. ‘Elfin’ had the same story from a Whitburn fisherman who said he had been born in 1810 – “This old salt used to tell me that he had heard his father tell how the shore folk used to lay a pair of cart limbers and a few planks from the mainland to the top of the [Marsden] Rock.” This story appeared elsewhere, throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, as the bridge having consisted of ‘a plank’.  Robson and ‘Elfin’ plainly make more sense. There is a map in the late sixteenth century which seems to indicate that the Rock had not then been formed; there are paintings from 1770 onwards which show it in existence, aperture and all. It seems likely that the land started crumbling in the seventeenth century. It is worth also noting that a substantial portion was said to have fallen from Marsden Rock in the 1770s – its collapse in the 1990s was predictable.

The Rock, incidentally, was owned as part of a copyhold estate – it had even formed part of a dowry in 1768. The assertion of this ownership by two very suspect land speculators – John Clay, South Shields’ first mayor, and Andrew Stoddart, the Dean and Chapter agent in Westoe – was what brought Peter Allan’s downfall in 1849 after he had been in the Grotto for nearly 20 years. Clay and Stoddart’s legal machinations were designed to free the land for a ‘new Roker’. Seaside villas were envisaged; large profits were anticipated. In the end, Clay went bust and sold his interest to Stoddart; and Stoddart retired, and sold the land on to William Wright.

Allom 1832

And then came the coal company.

            This article can only give a flavour of the many accounts of Marsden – reams of poetry, memoir and fiction exist. Elfin, whose identity it is impossible to verify (but who could perhaps be Aaron Watson) loved the area, and loved to listen to the chat in Hawkes’ day, as many had enjoyed the Grotto under the Allans (shown in 1832 in an image by Thomas Allom. Note the ramshackle ‘cottage’ built against the cliff, and the steps disappearing upwards). It reminded him of “the alehouse scene in the poem Tam o’ Shanter… more especially so when one of the party happened—as it often did—to be a neighbouring farmer from Roker, a veritable type of the English yeoman, and such a man as Tam himself might have been” – as here from the Robert Burns original:

The night drave on wi’ sangs and clatter
And ay the ale was growing better:
The landlady and Tam grew gracious,
Wi’ favours secret, sweet and precious
The Souter tauld his queerest stories;
The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus.

Bill Greenwell, 2023

Bill Greenwell is the writer of a fully-illustrated and highly detailed History of Marsden Rock and Marsden Grotto (400+ pages)of which the above is only a taster. It’s available for sale at The Word; Clay’s Garden Centre; Marsden Grotto; South Shields Local History Group; Sunderland Antiquarian Society; Sunderland Museum & Art Gallery; the National Glass Centre;

or direct from the writer (contact

With thanks to Allison Scardino Belzer, Brian Cauwood, and James Goldsborough Bigwood.

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