The Delavals

The story begins with Hubert de Laval, nephew by marriage to William the Conqueror, who in the year 1100 celebrated his newly acquired Northumbrian estates by building a church at the heart of what was then the ancient Manor of Hartley. Consecrated in 1102, the Church of Our Lady is a remarkable monument. Practically unchanged in any significant respect for almost 900 years, this pure Norman building contains many memorials of this strange family whose history during their first 550 years in Northumberland was quite unremarkable.

When Sir Ralph Delaval succeeded to the estates in 1607. there was little reason to suspect the flashes of eccentricity and occasional genius that would soon begin to illuminate the family tree. He was succeeded in 1628 by his grandson, also Ralph, who was quickly to reveal that streak of inventive genius which, from time to time, was to surface amid the extreme eccentricity of the family.

Since the early 13th century Hartley Pans, as Seaton Sluice was then known, had been an important centre for salt production where seawater was evaporated in huge pans heated by coal fires and the output shipped to southern ports for use in fish curing.
In this dawning of the Industrial Age, with Delaval owned coal mines and the salt market becoming increasingly profitable, one factor prevented any significant expansion of trade.

The north-facing entrance to be negotiated before reaching the natural anchorage at the mouth of the Seaton Burn was treacherous for mariners. Becoming tides swept in silt and sand that blocked the narrow entrance, and at low tide the harbour was left high and dry.
So in 1660, the year he was knighted by Charles II. Sir Ralph commenced the building of a Stone pier to create a man made harbour. Hartley Haven, and 10 years later he received a royal grant to carry out further improvements.

Then in 1690 Sir Ralph made his most inspired decision. He had sluice gates built which closed as the incoming tide hued the harbour to dam the flow of water in the burn. At low water, after horse drawn ploughs had loosened the mud and silt, the gates were opened and a surge of water flushed the harbour clean. Thanks to this ingenious engineering solution, the little port became known as Seaton Sluice.

Following in Sir Ralph's footsteps, John Delaval continued to build up trade but in 1718, saddled with debts incurred by other members of the family, he was forced to sell the 6,500-acre Delaval estate to his kinsman, Admiral George Delaval.

From a less wealthy branch of the family, this self-made man had the good fortune to be appointed British Envoy to Portugal and Morocco with responsibility for buying materials and supplies for the British Army, and as a result had amassed a considerable personal fortune.
Immediately he arrived on the scene, the Admiral took one look at the crumbling old Delaval manor house in Seaton Burn Dene and decided to build a family seat on a much grander scale.

The man he turned to was Sir John Vanbrugh, architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, who was instructed to design a great mansion a short distance inland just far enough away from the dirt and smells of the moneymaking harbour!

Sadly, before the palatial Palladian mansion was completed the Admiral met his death after falling from his horse. Today the base of an obelisk to be found just off the tree-fringed avenue to the west of the hall marks the place where he was unseated. Legend has it that with one foot trapped in a stirrup, the Admiral was dragged across fields and died at the very spot marked by the tall obelisk standing in a field due south of the hall.

And, so in 1723, the Delaval estates were inherited by the Admiral's nephew - Francis Blake Delaval. a young naval captain, who must have been alarmed to discover that he would have to pick up the £10000 bill when building work on the hall was completed.

He solved his immediate cash flow problems by marrying Rhoda Apreece, a rich heiress from Huntingdonshire and further income was to flow in when he inherited his father's Northumberland estate at Dissington and - from his mother's side of the family- Ford Castle and estate. Now well set up and with the future looking rosy, Francis and Rhoda produced a total of 11 children - three girls and eight boys who were, unbeknown to their parents, to live their lives under a strange curse!

As long as the estate of Ford was united with that of Seaton Delaval no male of the family would die in his bed and so uncannily it proved to be. Seven of the Captain's sons and his only legitimate grandson all died unnatural deaths. The only exception was his son Edward who survived beyond 1808, the year in which the two estates were restored to separate ownership.

In his excellent book "Those Delavals." Roger Burgess remarks - ''as youngsters they had everything that wealth could offer but between them and their children they burnt up the family fortunes in a way which was spectacular even for the 18th century.

The first victim of the curse was the Captain himself who, in December 1752, fell down the steps of the hall's south portico broke a leg and died soon afterwards. that accident brought to centre stage his eldest son Frank, who unquenchable thirst for pleasure and scandalous behaviour soon led to him being labelled a scoundrel and an unprincipled jackanapes.

With a town house in Downing Street and no job to occupy his time, Frank's desperate need for money to support his extravagant lifestyle had led him into a contrived loveless marriage in 1750. He and his unfortunate spouse, lady Isabella Paulet never lived together and long before the marriage was dissolved five years later he was blatantly spending Isabella's money on his mistress Betty Roach. Never one to worry about paying bill, Frank spent 1500 pounds to hire Drury Lane Theatre for ONE night to stage a version of Othello with parts by himself, his family and friends.

Such was Frank's reputation that London society including royalty, flocked to see the one night performance and in an unprecedented move, the House of Commons rose two hours early to allow the politicians to attend the play.

Any hopes members of his family may have held that 25-year-old Frank, on inheriting the Delaval estates would settle down to a more industrious life were quickly dashed.

Two months after his father's death Frank held a banquet at Seaton Delaval Hall which according to press reports was attended by "upwards of 4000 ladies and gentlemen."

Leaving his eldest brother John to run the business interests which supported his lavish lifestyle, Frank plumped for a career in the totally corrupt world of 18th century politics.

Standing for election at Andover in 1754 he employed a highly unsubtle method of buying votes - ending his election address by firing from a cannon 500 golden guineas over the assembled crowd. Needless to say he won the election. But in the following year, with his personal debts amounting to £45,000, it was agreed at a family crisis meeting that in return for settling all his IOUs, Frank would no longer have any say in the running of the Delaval business interests.

His next headline-making escapade was of the military kind. In 1758 Frank joined the Grenadiers and made sure he was the first man in the 13,000-strong British expeditionary force to wade ashore at St.Malo in Brittany. Not a single French soldier was in sight but nevertheless he was hailed as a hero and two years later installed as Knight Companion of the most Honourable Military Order of the Bath.

Fighting once more in the political arena, in the 1761 Parliamentary election, Sir Frank sold off the family silver to once again successfully bribe the voters.

Still strapped for cash he then instructed his lawyer. William Kelynge, to organise a lavish dinner for the Mayor and Corporation to which officers of the local regiment were also invited.

All went well until Kelynge revealed the candidate had no intention of paying the bill and he was promptly thrown out of the hotel window, sustaining a broken leg.

Family correspondence reveals that whenever Frank ventured north his elder sister Rhoda, who lived in Seaton Delaval Hall's west wing with her husband, Sir Edward Astley, viewed his arrival with some trepidation.

Frank's parties at the hall were lively affairs. There were competitions involving biting the heads off live sparrows, horses were ridden up the grand staircases, and unwary guests who stayed overnight were subjected to all manner of practical jokes. False walls would fall down as they undressed and once they got into bed they might find a duck hidden between the sheets or realise with horror the whole bed was slowly sinking into tank of cold water.

Gambling was yet another of Frank's weaknesses. Having wagered a large sum of money that he could build a castle in a day, he is said to have won the bet by having sections of a tower prefabricated and teams on men working through the night to erect was became aptly know as Starlight Castle.

Using ingenuity coupled with downright dishonesty, Frank and his friends rigged up a signal apparatus so that the results of horse races at Epsom were transmitted to Hampstead Heath. Then on to an observer positioned on a rooftop in Bloomsbury where an accomplice in a nearby Gentlemen's Club placed their bets on certain winners. But soon Frank's luck began to change. His already tarnished reputation was further damaged in a scandalous court case revolving around 18-year-old singer, Ann Catley, made pregnant by Frank after he had bought her indentures from her music teacher to set her up as his latest mistress. Ann. However, thrived on the notoriety and was soon to become a famous actress and the mistress of Edward. Duke of York.

Significantly Frank's last extravagant scheme was "back home" at Seaton Delaval Hall in 1768. Despite his soaring debts, he ordered the building of a grandiose stable wing. No expense was spared. Top stonemasons were employed to create accommodation for Sir Frank's horses far superior to anything provided for his tenants or estate workers - and naturally he threw a grand opening banquet in the stables. Three years later, in July 1771 at the age of 44, he wrote his will and one month later, after tucking into an enormous meal of venison washed down by a large quantity of whisky. Sir Francis Delaval collapsed and died.