The Marsden Grotto is a pub and restaurant found within a cave on the South Shields coast and is probably only one of a few such ‘cave bars’ in Europe, if not the only one. Apart from its unique location, the Marsden Grotto is also famous for its many reputed ghosts.
Jack Bates, known as ‘Jack the Blaster’ is thought to have been one of the first people to live in the cave. A lead miner from Allendale, he moved into the cave with his wife Jessie in 1782 when he moved to South Shields, possibly to work in a nearby quarry, though it has been suggested he may have been 80 years old at this time. He enlarged his cave using explosives which he probably got from the quarry, hence the name ‘Jack the Blaster’.
His new home attracted visitors and Jack would sell them refreshments. It is thought that some of these customers were smugglers who were using other caves in the area to hide their contraband. Among his visitors was the radical Thomas Spence (Born 1750 – Died 8 September 1814), who wrote the song ‘The Rights Of Man for Me’ whilst in Newgate Prison charged with High Treason in 1794. Amongst his notes written at that time he refers to Marsden Grotto, Jack and his first usage of the phrase ‘Rights Of Man’.
‘The composer of the above song, was the first, who as far as he knows, made use of the phrase “RIGHTS OF MAN”, which was on the following remarkable occasion: A man who had been a farmer, and also a miner, and who had been ill-used by his landlords, dug a cave for himself by the seaside, at Marsdon Rocks, between Shields and Sunderland, about the year 1780, and the singularity of such a habitation, exciting the curiosity of many to pay him a visit; our author was one of that number. Exulting in the idea of a human being, who had bravely emancipated himself from the iron fangs of aristocracy, to live free from impost, he wrote extempore with chaulk above the fire place of this free man, the following lines:
‘Ye landlords vile, whose man’s peace mar,
Come levy rents here if you can;
Your stewards and lawyers I defy,
And live with all the RIGHTS OF MAN.’
Jack Bates died in 1792 and as his home fell into disrepair it was eventually abandoned by his family. Peter Allan (Born 6 September 1799 – Died 31 August 1849) moved in and excavated the cave much further, giving him a 15 room (with a ballroom and kitchen) two story dwelling linked to and including a tavern.
18 skeletons were discovered during his excavations.
Allan continued some of Jack’s illicit dealings with smugglers and for a while he was under investigation by the Customs Office and in 1848 he fell foul of the local land owner who tried to charge him rent in a legal case over the ownership of the cave. Peter Allan died the following year, though his family continued to run the business and live in the cave until 1874, though a cliff fall severely damaged the property in 1865 which required extensive repair work.
Following the Allan family the cave was used by other companies who each renovated it to suit their needs. These included the Harton Coal Company (late 19th century), Vaux Breweries (from 1898), Tavistock (restaurateurs) after 1999, London Inns & Restaurants (from 2003) and Oxford Hotels and Inns Management Ltd.
There is a legend concerning a smuggler known as John the ‘Jibber’ who is said to haunt the Grotto. John was a smuggler who was said to have sold information about his fellow tradesmen to HM Customs. The other smugglers murdered him. They left him to starve hung in a barrel dangling into one of the caves, possibly near the current lift shaft. Reported activity has reputedly included ashtrays inexplicably flying into and smashing against walls.
It is one of those sites which is attributed to having numerous ghosts, which include ‘Blaster Jack, two smugglers, a black-and-white cat, the daughter of another owner and a poltergeist who haunts the toilets.’*
*Shields Gazette, 22 April 2012