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The history of Seaton Delaval Hall

View of North Front (entrance) of Seaton Delaval Hall by Arthur Pond
View of North Front (entrance) of Seaton Delaval Hall by Arthur Pond | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Discover the families and individuals who have shaped Seaton Delaval Hall throughout its 1,000 year history. From its origins as a Norman settlement to the construction of the baroque manor house we see today, the Hall has seen joy and tragedy. Learn about famous architect Sir John Vanbrugh, why being a guest could be a risky business, and how the effects of a devastating fire in 1822 are still seen today.

Seaton Delaval Hall through the centuries

11th century

Norman origins

The Delavals were loyal supporters of William the Conqueror. They were gifted land by the Normans in Northumbria in the 1080s as a reward for their help at the Battle of Hastings. 


View of the hall across the fields at Seaton Delaval, Northumberland
View of the hall across the fields at Seaton Delaval | © National Trust Images/Tom Carr

The architect of Seaton Delaval Hall

During his life, Sir John Vanbrugh was a businessman, soldier, playwright and herald. He was also the architect of some of the most important country houses of his era, including Seaton Delaval Hall.

An innate talent

Descended from Anglo-Flemish merchants, Vanbrugh was born in London in 1664. He changed careers many times and it’s believed that he had no formal training in architecture. But what he lacked in experience he made up for in talent – he had an unerring eye for perspective and detail.

Vanbrugh’s influence

Vanbrugh designed buildings in the Baroque style, which had been spreading across Europe during the 17th century. He is credited with transforming European Baroque style into the subtle, almost understated version that became known as English Baroque.

Three of Vanbrugh's designs show the evolution of this process: Castle Howard (commissioned in 1699), Blenheim Palace (commissioned in 1704) and Seaton Delaval Hall (begun in 1718).

Unfortunately, Vanbrugh would not live to see the completion of Seaton Delaval Hall. He died from an asthma attack in 1726, two years before the work was finished.

‘The Gay Delavals’

In the early 18th century Seaton Delaval Hall would become known as a place of fun, flamboyance and drama.

Captain Francis Blake Delaval and his wife Rhoda moved into the newly built Hall in 1728. Over the next 20 years they had 12 children. It was during this period that the Delavals gained a reputation for outrageous behaviour.

Their wild, undisciplined children encouraged travelling players and entertainers to call at the Hall. They also instigated the practical jokes for which the Delavals became notorious.

Jokes and high jinks

Going to bed could be an unnerving experience at Seaton Delaval Hall. Guests would retire to their bedrooms and, while they were undressing, mechanical hoists would suddenly raise the bedroom walls, exposing them to public view.

In one bedroom, there was a four-poster bed which could be lowered, complete with occupants, into a tank of cold water by winding a handle in the room next door.

In another room, drunken guests would be put to bed in the dark and awaken in the morning to find themselves lying on the ceiling. The room was completely inverted, the chairs and tables were stuck to the ceiling, and the chandelier was in the middle of the floor.

Salt, coal and glass

There were at least some members of the Delaval family who were industrious. These family members exploited the estate's natural resources and were involved in salt production, coal mining and glass production.

In 1764 brothers John and Thomas Hussey Delaval made improvements to the local harbour and created a sluice to form a dock where ships could be loaded. The area is now called Seaton Sluice.

Inside the central block at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland
Inside the central block at Seaton Delaval Hall | © National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Sir Francis Blake Delaval

The most notorious of the 18th-century Delavals was Sir Francis Blake Delaval, the eldest son of Captain Blake Delaval. Francis moved to London where he fell in with a group of dissolute actors led by Samuel Foote. Francis was at ease with everyone and he soon became friends with Prince Edward, the younger brother of George III.

Marriage of convenience

Francis spent his money on socialising, gambling and mistresses and was always in debt. Foote dreamt up an elaborate charade to 'persuade' Lady Isabella Paulet, a rich elderly widow, to marry Francis.

Francis soon spent his new fortune, including £1,500 on hiring the Drury Lane Theatre in London to stage Othello. He cast his family in all the leading parts. Isabella faded out of his life and died in obscurity.

Becoming a knight

At one stage (possibly to avoid his debtors) Francis became a soldier and took part in a raid on the French coast. Tipped from the first boat to reach the shore, he led the charge up the beach and took part in the burning of St Malo.

He returned to England a hero and was honoured as a Knight of the Bath by King George III. The lack of any serious opposition to the raid was tactfully overlooked.

A lonely ending

In 1767, Prince Edward died suddenly. Deeply affected by his friend's death, Francis turned to alcohol and became grossly overweight.

In August 1771, after a huge meal, he collapsed and died, alone except for his servant. He left at least five illegitimate children and a pile of unpaid debts.

The Tapestry Room at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland
The Tapestry Room at Seaton Delaval Hall | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

The fire at Seaton Delaval Hall

At dusk on 3 January 1822, sailors off the Whitley Bay coast noticed that the sunset seemed unusually brilliant. Seaton Delaval Hall was on fire.

The disastrous fire in the central block became one of the biggest milestones in the history of the Hall, resulting in great damage.

Making news

Local newspaper the Newcastle Chronicle reported, 'Every endeavour to preserve the body of the building was unavailing nothing but the bare walls being left standing. The fire is generally supposed to have originated in a chimney which had been rendered foul by birds having built their nests in it, and that hence the fire was communicated to a rafter fixed to the chimney.’

‘The roof was speedily in flames and the fire burnt with such fury as to bid defiance to all human efforts. The glass in the windows, by the intense heat, was reduced to a liquid state and the lead in the roof poured down like water.'

Although the Hall’s central block was gutted, the local people who rushed to the scene managed to save the kitchen and stable wings, together with family portraits, furniture and archives.

Restoration efforts

The central block remained a roofless ruin until about 1859–60 when John Dobson was called upon by the 16th Lord Hastings to produce a comprehensive restoration scheme. Wall tops were rebuilt to support a new roof, and cast-iron columns were used to strengthen internal walls. But the scheme faltered and ultimately it remains an unheated and unfurnished shell to this day.

Lord Hastings and the revival of Seaton Delaval Hall

Undoubtedly the most significant figure in the revival of Seaton Delaval Hall was the 22nd Lord Hastings (1912–2007). Under his direction, the fabric was restored and the collections reassembled. The garden was given new life and he opened the Hall to the public for the first time in 1950.

A vision for the future

Lord Hastings recorded his intentions in his guidebook to Seaton Delaval Hall, written in 1966:

'In partially restoring Seaton Delaval and in opening it to the public in 1950 I had three objectives in mind: in the first place, the maintenance and improvement of the fabric, not only for the present day but for the future; secondly, the preservation of a monument, architecturally and historically priceless, for the benefit of students of art through the ages; and thirdly, the pleasure and edification I hoped it would afford many thousands of holiday-makers.'

– Lord Hastings (1912–2007)

Lord Hastings’s legacy

Lord Hastings had a busy career, from farming in Africa to parliamentary duties including a spell as a government Chief Whip. He finally settled at Seaton Delaval Hall in 1990.

When Lord Hastings died in 2007, the house and grounds had been opened each summer season for 57 years with only one break for major stone repairs. The vision and drive he shared with his wife (who died later in the same year), breathed new life into the estate and indeed the wider area.

Lord and Lady Hastings set an example worth following and their part in the history of Seaton Delaval Hall was as important as any that preceded it.

The Tapestry Room at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland

Seaton Delaval's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Seaton Delaval Hall on the National Trust Collections website.

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