Back in the 1980s, the Guardian‘s Matthew Engel wrote a series of articles on “Fourth Division England”. He argued that the Football League’s lowest division was full of teams from run-down northern cities that had suffered the most from the recent recession. Amongst these was Hartlepool – whose team had, until then, spent every season bar one in the lowest division. (The exception was when some geezer called Brian Clough had his first experience of managment with them). Hence I had a strange feeling of anticipation when I first ventured into the town.
The motivation for the journey was a bird quest, to Jackson’s Landing in the marina. From it one could see birds such as red-breasted mergansers and a great northern diver. Jackson’s Landing was part of a recent re-development to help regenerate the town and was, variously, a factory shopping centre and a discount department store. It now stands empty, having closed in 2004.
Last weekend I visited the nearby Museum of Hartlepool and began to learn more of the story of the town. The Headland, ‘Old Hartlepool’, has some claim to continuous occupation since the early Iron Age. It was mentioned in Bede’s history of the English Church and people, where he records that in 649AD an abbess called Hilda was appointed. Ten years later she was transferred to Whitby, where she effected the reconciliation of the Celtic and Roman churches, and later became canonised as St. Hilda.
The town has had two periods in which it has flourished, the first being in the mediaeval era when it was strategically located in the ongoing conflict between the English and Scottish. Around 1100 Robert de Brus arrived from France, one of the many Norman landowners to benefit from the conquest of 1066, to become Lord of Hartness and therefore of Hartlepool. If the name sounds familiar, it is because his descendant, Robert de Brus VII, became the famous Scottish king known as Robert the Bruce.
The town declined from the Tudor era onwards. Its unexpected regeneration occurred when the railway arrived in the 1830s. Hartlepool is a sea-port, so for a few brief decades it boomed, as a fast and efficient route for shipping coal from the West Durham mines. It was developed by one Ralph Ward Jackson, who in the process set up the adjacent new town of West Hartlepool. (The two towns have since merged). For a while it was the fourth largest port in the country.
Since then, Hartlepool has struggled, as have so many towns in the area. The mines have closed, as have the shipyards, which were unable to build the colossal ships that are now necessary. Attempts at renovation have included the Hartlepool marina, at best a partial success.
Fourth division England? Maybe – but this is just the kind of place where revival might ignite.