North Seaton Hall stood in the hamlet of the same name, just inland from Newbiggin by the Sea on the Northumberland coast. The house and ancillary buildings were demolished in the 1960s, and the land developed for housing: only the road called ‘Summerhouse Lane’ gives a clue to a fascinating feature which once ornamented the grounds.
The hall, seat of the Watson family, was described as newly built in 1730. It is shown on Armstrong’s 1769 map of Northumberland, and alongside it stands what looks like a substantial tower or summerhouse. At that date the hall was home to Stephen and Dorothy Watson and their family. Little is known of the Summerhouse’s early history, but it was probably used as a banqueting house and belvedere to take advantage of the views to the coast.
The Summerhouse may have had a less frivolous purpose at a time when Britain feared invasion by the French. Stephen and Dorothy’s son, William Watson (1751-1830), supervised the ‘Beacon man’ at Newbiggin. His role was to keep a lookout and be ready to light a warning beacon should the French fleet be spotted. In November 1796, with invasion thought imminent, Watson charged him to be ‘more than usually attentive and give immediate notice if anything extraordinary appears at Sea’. Watson’s summerhouse would probably have been equipped with a telescope so that he too could survey the North Sea: the building was known locally as ‘the Lookout’.
It is not known who designed the mansion or the quirky Summerhouse with its pretty gothic glazing in the windows (varying on each storey), pierced battlements and curved roof giving just a nod to chinoiserie. Local architect John Dobson has been suggested, and his daughter Mary wrote a memoir of her father in which she states that the first house he designed was at ‘North Seaton’ for J. Nicholson Esq. in 1813. Many texts repeat this attribution, but in 1813 North Seaton Hall was the established seat of the Watsons, so it would seem that Nicholson’s new house was elsewhere. Dobson may however have worked at North Seaton at a later date: the drawing featured here was part of a collection that included many of Dobson’s houses in Northumberland, and so it may record recent remodelling of the house and/or summerhouse. Sadly few records from Dobson’s practice survive to provide answers.
By the middle of the 19th century the house was described as an ‘elegant mansion […] surrounded by pleasing scenery’. The 25″ Ordnance Survey map, surveyed in 1896, shows the tower with its curious, charming, meandering external staircase, as also seen in old photographs. Although sometimes described as a ‘lodge’, this map makes it clear that it was a garden feature and did not, at that date, sit on the drive.
The Watsons left the estate in the middle of the 19th century, and there were then a number of owners and tenants. In 1930 the hall was converted into a Migration Training Hostel where young men were given tuition for work they might do overseas. Almost immediately the demand for emigrants dried up, so the hall was then used as a holiday centre before the contents were sold in 1933. Local newspaper Blyth News was saddened at this ‘chequered history’ and was at a loss to know ‘what will transpire next’.
The hall was converted into council apartments after the Second World War, but in 1953 the families were rehoused as the house was badly infested with woodworm. In that same year the decision was taken to demolish the grade II listed hall, although no immediate action was taken. At that date it was thought that the summerhouse ‘could be retained as a historic building’, but with the house empty the thieves and vandals arrived. In 1954 the County Surveyor reported that the summerhouse was in a poor condition, and that the police were seeking the thieves who had stripped the roof of its lead. Despite it being a scheduled monument (grade II), it was decided that the summerhouse ‘should be demolished in the interests of health and safety’, and the stone retained for use ‘elsewhere’.
Nikolaus Pevsner visited around this date when researching for his Buildings of England volume on Northumberland, which would be published in 1957. His depressing summary was that the hall was ‘very neglected’ but he did note the summerhouse which described as ‘solid early 19C Gothic Revival’. In May 1961 the inevitable (for that period) demolition work began. It was thought too dangerous for the rotted interiors to be dismantled, so the structure was deliberately set on fire, with the local fire brigade tackling the blaze as a training exercise. The remains of the mansion were then pulled down, along with the Summerhouse, and the grounds developed for housing.
Today, the Summerhouse is remembered only in a street name.
Thanks to the team at Northumberland Archives for their help with this story.
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