IF, as expected, the Vanbrugh-designed Seaton Delaval Hall is acquired by the National Trust, visitors to this imposing 18th century mansion will be intrigued to know more about the family who lived there, and this well researched book has all the information they could possibly require.
The De La Vals came to England to fight alongside William the Conqueror, and as a reward these newly-arrived Normans were given land in Northumberland at Black Callerton, Dissington, Hartley and also at Seaton, which they made their principal home for more than 700 years.
By the 15th century they lived in a stone tower house at the centre of their 600-acre estate and by 1610 Sir Ralph Delaval, one of the seven wealthiest men in the county with an income of over £1,000 a year, had an Elizabethan manor house built.
He was succeeded by his grandson, another Ralph, who set about expanding the port at Seaton to handle increased shipments of coal from his collieries. A pier was built and, to prevent the shallow harbour silting up, he devised an ingenious system using gates which were closed at high tide to dam the flow of water flowing down the Seaton Burn. As the tide receded the muddy harbour bottom was broken up by horse-drawn ploughs, the gates were then opened and the silt was ‘sluiced’ out to sea and the harbour became known as Seaton Sluice.
From this point onwards, the family’s fortunes regularly ebbed and flowed. By 1699 Ralph’s successor, Sir John Delaval, was facing bankruptcy and only the intervention of Admiral George Delaval from the Dissington branch of the family, who had amassed a considerable fortune through a diplomatic and naval career, saved the Delaval estates by settling all the family’s outstanding debts.
Dissatisfied with the comfort of the old mansion house, he commissioned Sir John Vanbrugh to build a splendid new hall on the site and work started in 1718, but sadly both the Admiral and Vanbrugh died before the new grand residence was completed in 1728, when it became the home of Captain Francis Blake Delaval and his wife Rhoda. They had eleven ‘wild, noisy and undisciplined’ children and it was around the two eldest, named Francis and Rhoda after their parents, that the tradition of the fun-loving ‘Gay Delavals’ grew.
This generation of pleasure-seekers staged lavish theatrical productions attended by royalty, threw hugely expensive banquets for their friends and invited their estate workers and local farmers to spectacular entertainments involving wire-walkers, conjurors, dancing bears and bull-baiting.
The wildest and most debauched was Francis, a reckless gambler, serial adulterer and practical joker who became an accidental war hero. Part of an expeditionary force ordered to attack Brittany, the impetuous young Grenadier captain was too impatient to wait for an organised troop landing, leapt off his ship and invaded France alone. His reward was a knighthood.
Fortunately for the Delavals, while Francis squandered the family money, his hard-working brother John rebuilt the family’s fortunes. He and his engineer brother, Thomas, further enlarged the harbour at Seaton Sluice, making a new entrance and dock with a 900-foot cut through solid rock that also created Rocky Island. Within a few years coal shipments from the enlarged port trebled alongside yearly shipments of one million bottles made for the London market by the enterprising Thomas at the Royal Northumberland Glassworks.
John, who was rewarded with a baronetcy, also found time to greatly improve his 7,000-acre estate at Ford and restore its dilapidated castle. But he was tormented by his troublesome children — particularly his favourite daughter, Sarah, who married an earl, had an open affair with Frederick, Duke of York, and then became the mistress of John, Lord Strathmore of Gibside.
It is no surprise that this previously obscure landed family from what was considered the remote North of England was, for a time, one of the most talked about families in England.