A History of Hartlepool

By Tim Lambert

Medieval Hartlepool

About 640 AD a woman named Hieu founded a monastery on the site of Hartlepool. Soon a fishing village grew up nearby. The Danes destroyed the monastery in the 9th century but the village of Hartlepool continued through the centuries. The village was first mentioned in the year 1153. By that time Hartlepool had grown into a small but busy port.

In 1174 there was a rebellion In England. Some 40 knights and 500 infantry were brought from what is now Belgium to Hartlepool to help the rebel cause. However, no sooner had they landed than the Scots (who were allies of the rebels) were defeated in battle. The foreign soldiers in Hartlepool returned to Belgium.

However, during the Middle Ages Hartlepool grew in importance, and in the late 12th century the Church of St Hilda was built.

Then in 1201, King John gave Hartlepool its first charter. (A charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights). The merchants of Hartlepool were given the same privileges as the merchants of Newcastle.

Medieval Hartlepool had a weekly market. (In those days there were very few shops and if you wished to buy or sell anything normally you had to go to a market). Hartlepool also had an annual fair. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year for a period of a few days. Fairs attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area.

In the 13th century, Franciscan friars came to Hartlepool. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of the color of their costumes.

Medieval Hartlepool only had a population of several hundred. The town consisted of a few main streets (Southgate Street, St Marys Street, St Helens Street) with some small alleys leading off them. To us, Hartlepool would seem tiny but towns were very small in those days.

In the early 14th century walls were built around Hartlepool but in 1315, before they were completed, the Scots attacked and sacked the town. However, Hartlepool recovered and in the late 15th century a pier was built.

Hartlepool 1500-1800

In 1569 the North of England rose in rebellion. The rebels entered Hartlepool in December. However, they held Hartlepool for only a few days. As a royal army approached Hartlepool the rebels fled.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. In January 1644 a Scottish army (on parliament’s side) occupied Hartlepool. They remained in the town until the beginning of 1647 when they were replaced by English troops. In the 18th century, Hartlepool lost its former importance and the pier fell into a ruined state.

In those days part of the staple diet of the people was bread. In 1741 the price of corn rose to a very high level and there were riots in Hartlepool. A generous corn merchant who agreed to sell his corn at the old rate defused the situation.

Hartlepool in the 19th century

In 1810 part of the old pier was destroyed by a storm. However, the pier was rebuilt. After 1813 a toll was charged on ships using the port to maintain the pier. In 1808 the old harbor was enclosed and drained but after a court case in 1813, the owner was forced to let the sea submerge again.

Hartlepool was still a tiny town in the early 19th century. In 1831 it still had a population of only 1,300. Hartlepool was no longer a busy port. Instead, the people lived by fishing. Hartlepool was also a seaside resort for the well-off.

Hartlepool was transformed in the 1830s when new docks were built and a railway was laid to the town. The new docks opened in 1835. The railway was completed in 1839. The railway and the docks made it possible to export coal from the Durham coalfield through Hartlepool. As a result, Hartlepool boomed. By 1841 it had a population of 5,236 and by 1851 it had reached 9,227.

Furthermore, a new town called West Hartlepool was created. It began when the owners of the railway and the owners of the docks fell out. The owners of the railway decided to build their own docks southwest of the town. The new docks were ready in 1847. Almost immediately a new town sprang up nearby. It was known as West Hartlepool. By the 1880s West Hartlepool had overtaken the old town in size.

Like all 19th century towns, Hartlepool was dirty and unsanitary. As a result, Hartlepool suffered outbreaks of cholera in the 19th century. An outbreak of cholera in Hartlepool in 1832 killed 57 people. The second outbreak in 1849 killed 161 people.

However, there were some improvements in 19th century Hartlepool. The first bank in Hartlepool opened in 1833. From 1836 there was a gas supply (for gaslight). After 1849 Hartlepool had a piped water supply. Moreover, in the 19th century, the shipbuilding industry in Hartlepool boomed. There was also an iron and steel industry. However, fishing continued in Hartlepool as it had for centuries.

Meanwhile, Christ Church near the railway station was built in 1854. St Hilda’s Hospital opened in 1865 and a Borough Hall was built in 1866. From 1867 Hartlepool sent an MP to parliament. A hospital was built at Throston in 1877. In 1870 a breakwater was constructed to protect the north harbor. Ward Jackson Park opened in 1883. In 1889 a promenade was built along the seafront at Hartlepool.

Hartlepool in the 20th century

In 1901 Hartlepool had a population of about 14,000 but West Hartlepool was twice that size.

In December 1914 three German ships bombarded Hartlepool. The bombardment killed 112 people and injured over 200 others. West Hartlepool War Memorial was built in 1923. Hartlepool Borough Hall was built in 1926.

The last shipyard in Hartlepool closed in 1962. The town then tried to diversify its industry. In the late 20th century vacuum flasks were made in Hartlepool. So were anchor chains and parts for marine engines. Crankshafts and communications equipment were also made in the town. There was also a chemical industry.

In 1967 the two towns of Hartlepool and West Hartlepool were finally joined under one council. Middleton Grange shopping centre was opened in 1970 by Princess Anne. However, St Hilda’s Hospital closed in 1984.

In the last years of the 20th century, Hartlepool underwent something of a renaissance. Tourism became a major industry with the town making the most of its heritage. HMS Trincomalee, a frigate built in 1817 was bought to Hartlepool in 1987, and after refurbishment was opened to the public.

At the end of the 20th century, strenuous efforts were made to ‘re-invent’ Hartlepool. The Marina was redeveloped in the 1990s. Summerhill Conservation Area was also created.

Hartlepool Museum opened in 1995. Hartlepool Art Gallery opened in 1996. A Business Development Centre opened in Hartlepool in 1999.

Hartlepool Marina

In 2024 the population of Hartlepool was 92,000.