From a little to the north of Hartlepool to a little to the north of Sunderland, the East Coast of Durham is broken or indented by deep ravines locally called “denes,” or, when they are small, “gills.” Castle Eden Dene is famous all over the North of England; but Roker Gill, in the parish of Monkwearmouth, three-quarters of a mile to the north of Sunderland Harbour, has not attained more than a parochial celebrity, and that much only in connection with a now somewhat dubious and almost mythical personage called Spotty.
But, first of all, who was Spotty? Incredulous people are to be found who daringly say with Betsy Prig that “there never was no such person.” Sir Cuthbert Sharp observes in a note to the song called “Spottee” in his “Bishoprick Garland”: “Spottee was a poor lunatic, who lived in a cave between Whitburn and Sunderland,’ which still retains the name of Spottee’s Hole.” Garbutt, in his “History of Sunderland,” says: “The name of Spotty’s Hole, by which this place is now generally distinguished, is derived from a foreigner who, some years ago, having probably left some vessel in the harbour, took up his residence in this dreary abode. Being unable to speak the English language, his daily subsistence was gained among the farm-houses in the neighbourhood, where he endeavoured to make himself understood by means of signs, and was known by the name of Spotty, on account of the variegated spots on his upper garment. “Tradition and probability, according to the late Mr. W. Weallands Robson, are on the side of Garbutt, who, so far, is right, and Sir Cuthbert wrong.
Spotty was, in fact, a vagabond of the Lascar genus. But Garbutt is as far wrong himself as Sir Cuthbert when he goes on to add : “Having lived for some time in this subterraneous habitation, he suddenly disappeared, and was supposed either to have died suddenly, or, by advancing too far into the cavern, to have fallen a prey to foul air.” That Spotty suddenly disappeared is beyond doubt, but whether he died suddenly and prematurely, or whether he died a lingering death at the close of the ordinary span of life, nobody ever pretended to be able to say. One thing is very certain, that he did not die in his hole, where his body might and would have been found, and it is now quite clear that, for the very best of all possible reasons, he could not have advanced so far into the cavern as to have fallen a prey to foul air. The truth was that Spotty kindled a fire at the mouth of his hole to keep himself warm. Wood was then and long afterwards plentiful enough on the beach just above high-water mark, and the glare of Spotty’s fire, being mistaken for the light of the town, lured a small ship to its destruction, upon which Spotty prudently disappeared.
On the principle of omne ignotum pro magnifico, the most absurd and exaggerated ideas were formed of the extent of Spotty’s Hole. Nobody knew exactly how far it did, or rather did not, go, and therefore everybody felt free to make it go as far as he pleased. Some had it that it was a subterranean passage to the ancient monastery of Monkwearmouth; others would have it that it went as far as Hylton Castle; and probably, if the notion had been suggested, we would soon have had it going all the way to Jarrow, or to Finchale, or to Durham Abbey. It actually went nowhere at all! Garbutt gravely says: “This secret way, which most probably has been wrought by the monks, with a view of eluding their enemies in times of invasion or civil commotion, was some time ago partially explored by three of the inhabitants of Monkwearmouth. After they had advanced a little way from the entrance, they found the passage perfectly good, in general allowing them to walk upright, and entirely hewn out of the limestone rock, with which this place is surrounded. Having proceeded a considerable distance in the direction of the site of the monastery, without meeting with any considerable impediment, they thought it prudent to return, on account of the danger of coming in contact with foul air, to which they might have been exposed by a further progress.” Alas for the credit of veracious history! In all human probability, the three faint-hearted or vain-glorious inhabitants of Monkwearmouth thought it most prudent never to go in at all. Their whole story was a fib, or a fiction, or a fancy, as much so as Don Quixote’s account of the Cave of Montesinos.
When the present Sir Hedworth Williamson succeeded to his patrimonial estate, he unfortunately resolved to test the truth of the stories he had heard in the nursery: so the worthy baronet employed some men to explore the cavern. They “howked” a little marl out to facilitate their entrance, and soon brought their labours to an end with the end of the cavern! The romance of the place was destroyed directly. The unfathomable aperture, the secret way wrought by the monks, turned out to be nothing else than an ordinary natural fissure in the rock, not very much more than would have fitted it for the burrow of a badger or the earth of a fox!
The present appearance of Spotty’s Hole may be gathered from the accompanying sketches of it. Our artist was informed that the cavern is used as a sort of store-house for something or other. But the whole character of the neighbourhood has lately been changed. Roker Gill now forma part of Roker Park, while a substantial new bridge across the ravine has been constructed to afford an easier mode of communication between Whitburn and Sunderland than formerly existed.
We subjoin the song which Sir Cuthbert Sharp printed in the “Bishoprick Garland.” The Jacob Spenceley mentioned in it was an ancestor of the late Captain Burne of Bishopwearmouth, who married one of the Allans of Blackwell Grange. He was a man of considerable property in Sunderland, some of which descended to, and was sold by,
Captain Burne. The name of Spenceley is still preserved in Spenceley’s Lane, otherwise called Bet Cass’s Entry. Laird Forster we take or conjecture to have been either Alderman Forster, the owner of a good deal of land at Whitburn which was inherited by his nephew, Mr. Thomas Barnes, or some predecessor in name and estate of Alderman Forster. “Floater’s flood” is the local name of a great flood which carried away Floater’s Mill, near Houghton. The “carcasses” spoken of were the wood-work of which the North Pier of Sunderland Harbour was built, and which was replaced by stone some forty or fifty years ago. Sir Cuthbert Sharp, Knight, the preserver of the song, was Collector of Customs at Sunderland, and afterwards at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he died in 1849.
The following note prefaces the song in the “Bishoprick Garland”: “This curious ditty is printed from a copy found in the papers of the late Thomas Clerke, Esq., of Sunderland (and possibly written by him). He was a gentleman of powerful convivial talents, and the author of several spirited and anacreontic songs which are now attributed to others. He was a cheerful member of society, and his poetical contributions were remarkable for their ready wit and sparkling humour. His ‘Sons of the Wear’ is bold and enlivening, his ‘Musical Club’ is full of good-natured point and playful fancy, and his ‘Ode to Silver Street’ is a pungent and lively portrait.”
And now for the song itself:
Come all ye good people and listen to me,
And a comical tale I will tell unto ye,
Belanging yon Spottee that lived on the Law Quay,
That had nowther house nor harbour he.
The poor auld wives o’ the north side disn’t knaw what
for te de,
For they dare not come to see their husbands when they
come to the Quay;
They’re feared o’ their sel’s, and their infants, tee,
For this roguish fellow they call Spottee.
But now he’s gane away unto the sea-side,
Where mony a ane wishes he may be weshed away wi’ the
For if Floutter’s flood come, as it us’d for te de,
It will drive his heart out then where will his midred be?
The poor auld wives o’ Whitburn disn’t knaw what for te
For they dar not come alang the sands, wi’ their lang tail
skates in their hands, to Jacob Spenceley’s landing,
as they us’d for te de.
They dare not come alang the sands, wi’ their swills in
But they’re forced to take a coble, and come in by the sea.
As Laird Forster was riding alang the sands,
As he or any other gentleman might de,
Spottee cam’ out, his tanter-wallups did flee,
His horse teuk the boggle, and off flew he.
He gathers coals in the day-time, as he’s well knawn for
And mak’s a fire on i’ the neet, which kests a leet into the
Which gar’d the poor Sloopy cry, “Helem a-lee,”
And a back o’ the carcasses com poor she.
“Alack and a well-a-day,” said the maister, “what shall
“Trust to Providence,” said the mate, ” and we re sure to
There was a poor lad that had come a trial vaige to sea,
His heart went like a pair o’ bellows, and he didn’t knaw,
what for te de.
Johnny Usher, the maister, wad ha’ carried him away,
But the ship’s company swore deel be their feet if they
wad with him stay;
“We’ll first forfeit our wages, for ganging to sea,
Before we’ll gan wi’ that roguish fellow they call Spottee.