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Did Charles Dickens ever visit Marsden Bay?

ROLL OUT THE BARREL ... outside the Marsden Grotto in the 1870s-1880s.
ROLL OUT THE BARREL ... outside the Marsden Grotto in the 1870s-1880s.

The story of Marsden Bay, with its rock and caverns, is told most graphically by its dramatic geology.

A cast of colourful and eccentric characters associated with it is just the icing on the cake. Was it ever visited by Charles Dickens, for instance.

Before I come to that, an on-line reader took up the challenge of trying to identify the ship seen in the painting I featured recently on a brig aground in the bay in the early years of last century.

He suggests that it may have been a Norwegian schooner which stranded there in 1917 en route to the Tyne with pit props.

“She was a sailing vessel, but it is unclear whether she was constructed of wood or steel. She may have had an auxiliary motor engine fitted,” he says. One of her seven crew was lost.

I have to say that does conflict a bit with the (admittedly indistinct) date of the painting, but pit props would fit in with all the timber seen strewn around the beach in the picture.

I’ll have to come back to you on that one.

It’s also been interesting to hear from Brian Cauwood, of the Marsden Banner Group, who enjoyed the piece on a visit by Charles Dickens’ eldest son, also called Charles, to what is now South Shields Museum (then the library hall).

It transpires that Charles Dickens Snr was a friend of Sidney Milnes Hawkes, the journalist and barrister, who held the lease of the Marsden Inn and the Marsden Grotto.

Says Brian: “In 1849, they both were on the Italian Refugee Fund committee, and prior to Tavistock House, in London, becoming Dickens’ family home in 1851, Hawkes had lived there.”

Hawkes was living at Marsden prior to Dickens’ death in 1870, so one could speculate that on his visits to the North East – he is known to have visited Newcastle, for instance – that he might have called in on on his old pal at Marsden.

“We will never know!” says Brian.

Brian mentions both men’s involvement with the Italian Refugee Fund. This was a time when Italy was struggling with reunification. Hawkes was a friend of one of its supporters, Giuseppe Muzzini, to the extent there were rumours that he undertook gun smuggling for him.

Guns certainly featured in the goings-on at Marsden – there was a shooting range there at one point.

Look at this nice carte de visite from the 1870s-1880s from Kevin Blair, taken by a Gateshead photographer, Henry Piper, though the couple on it are unidentified.