Bamburgh “Ghosts”-Tales from the Eighteenth Century- The Fear of Invasion

A further installment of Carol’s archive research, with thanks to the Woodhorn Archive:


Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of working as a volunteer at Woodhorn County Archive, on the Lord Crewe papers. These are a fabulous collection reflecting life in the 18C in Bamburgh, and in the Castle; I would like to share some of the stories I have found with you



During the time of Dr Sharp being the foremost Trustee at Bamburgh Castle during the mid to late 1700s-till his death in 1791-life on our North Northumberland coast was dominated by fear of invasion, or harassing by enemy privateers. A committee was established for the Safety of the Coast (the Coast Committee), and a series of signals was agreed that were passed from stations at Berwick, to Holy Island, to Bamburgh, to Dunstanburgh and down to Hauxley, using guns and flags. I have wondered how flags at that distance could be recognized without perfect eyesight, until I realized from contemporary etchings and drawings that the flagpoles on, say Lindisfarne and Bamburgh Castles were huge! Who were the enemy? There are accounts of privateer ships (pirates but authorized by their respective governments) from France and Holland…



The Following document NRO452/c/3/2/11/67 is a formal Memorandum drawn up at the house of Mr. Adams, the Trustees’ hard working Solicitor, based at Alnwick on 11 September 1779 between Holy Island and Bamburgh Castles-



“At a meeting of the Coast Committee held in Alnwick on…


Resolved as Major Cathcart the commanding officer of the Garrison of Berwick upon Tweed has fixed certain signals at Holy Island Castle-that the Signal Men at Bam rough Castle Station shall be bound to attend to the same and regulate themselves accordingly and that a copy of the Signals at Bambrough Castle shall be sent to the said Commanding Officer for the Signal man at holy Island Castle-


Resolved the following Signals shall be observed at the said several stations-



Large Red Ensign


  1. An Enemies Fleet on the Coast, the flag to be kept flying at all stations-+ 3 guns fired

  2. Preparing for A Landing from any number of vessels under that of a Fleet-+ 1 gun fired

  3. Landing made good-+2 guns fired

  4. Preparing for Landing from an Enemy Fleet-+4 guns fired

  5. Landing made good-Minute Guns[?]


Large St George Jack


  1. A Fleet in sight-signal man to keep sharp lookout and when made that of an enemy this Signal hauled down and No 1 [above] hoisted-+I gun fired

  2. a Vessel taken by the enemy-+ 2 guns fired

  3. Two or more taken by the Enemy-+3 guns fired

  4. one or more Vessels run ashore by the enemy-+ 4 guns fired


Red Broad Pendant


1. An Enemy Vessel in Sight-+1 gun fired


NB 5 or more square rigged Vessels a Fleet”


The Memorandum goes on to instruct use of Messengers by the Signal man to acquaint his “director” of the situation, warnings to be given to [local] ships seemingly ignorant of the rules, + instructions to be followed if invasion is by land


It concludes-perhaps confusingly!-


“NB The Union Flag and small Jacks are hoisted at Balmbrough Castle on Various Occasions [such as His Majesty’s Birth Night] and therefore not to be regarded as Alarm signals”



Many letters were written to Dr Sharp when he was away from the Castle at his Parish of Hartburn, or attending Diocesan business in Durham, by George Hall his Foreman at the Castle, referring to the threat from enemy privateers. But the following written on Sept 24 1779, author unknown but clearly a resident at the Castle-possibly Rev Elliott? – clearly illustrates the panic that such a sighting could cause





“What I now suffer that you and [George] Hall sh’d be from Home together


A Fleet is now passing what they are God knows they came from the southwards Bowlt [Curate at Bamburgh Church] tells me the Great Flag sh’d be hoisted and one Gun fired-


Which is done. I tremble to think whether to have done right or wrong- I was very unwilling to give my consent afraid of alarming the Country, but he Assured me it was the order upon the Castle Doors. The Fleet are now in the Open. We hope they are Scotch, but are far from being certain they are 15 in number+ two of them are very Large Ships. Mr Moneypenny [local Trustee tenant and maybe JP?] was sent to + it was with his Approbation that the Great Flag was hoisted the Day happens to be very windy and the Flag is Fore. I sat upon the Hill till the Gun fired, the Flag looked very Grand. Bowlt, Todd+ Richard conducted it very properly. My fear was it should have took fire from the Gun-but all was safe from that respect


The Fleet went North + Sir Harry Herron joined them as did another Large Ship which came from the South about 3 O’clock


George Hall return’d, approves of all we have done, He saw the Flag from Hefferly Tower (letter incomplete)”



What a vivid account of the panic an unidentified Fleet could cause, especially when both Dr Sharp and his Foreman absent from the Castle. It is a poignant thought that we know the very point on the old A1 road passing Heiferlaw Tower-still there today-when George Hall must have recognized the Flag hoisted at the Castle, and galloped back, heart in mouth, wondering what he would find…But seemingly, to doubtless great relief, this seems to have been a false alarm



Carol Griffiths



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s