The Chilling History of Marsden Grotto - Don’t Drink the Ghost’s Tankard cover

The Chilling History of Marsden Grotto – Don’t Drink the Ghost’s Tankard

Whatever you do, don't drink from the ghost’s tankard at the Marsden Grotto bar. A curse is said to befall anyone who dares.

Packed with maritime history, lore and many spine-tingling tales from days of old, Marsden, South Shields is a beautiful coastal town in North East England. Nestled between Newcastle and Sunderland, it's hard to believe that this picturesque, vibrant tourist haunt was once rife with smugglers and other shady characters and dealt its fair share of violence, debacles and destruction. Of all the ghostly tales that have been conveyed to audiences galore for centuries, one harrowing story chills the marrow a little more than most: the tale of Marsden Grotto.

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From Catastrophe to Conjuring Marsden Grotto

In 1782, a curious fellow named ‘Jack Bates’ arrived at a drab lodging house in South Shields. He had traveled from Allendale, a town in South West Northumberland, about fifty miles north of South Shields. Bates, a lead miner, became aware of a prosperous new quarry in the area. Like many of his struggling contemporaries, he sought to overcome financial hardships. Although the future looked bright, other problems materialized as a result of the miner rush. Landlords and tenants drastically raised rental prices and grasped any opportunity to take advantage of the migrating workmen. Bates, an astute and eccentric character, had no intention of succumbing to the sickening inflation. He was going to live and work in South Shields at minimal cost and reap the full benefits that a skilled quarryman deserved.

Tragedy, Hardships and an Unexpected Opportunity

After a treacherous and exhausting shift at the quarry, Bates took a stroll along Marsden Beach. The beach lay adjacent to the quarry, a short walk from the dire and expensive lodgings he had reluctantly taken. The beach was the perfect place for Bates to fill his lungs with fresh air after spending hours inhaling dust and sweating in the dangerous conditions of his new work environment. Despite the relaxing walk, Bate’s morale stubbornly remained at rock bottom. Earlier, he had watched in horror as a man drowned. The unfortunate quarryman had tripped over a boulder and stumbled into a deep, murky pool of rainwater, clay, and filth, his arm wedged between two awkwardly laid girders. After a minute or so, his thrashing body lay lifeless.

Jack Bates had become hardened to tragedy through his mining career but the catastrophe that day really affected him. Although he didn’t know the man well, they had talked and joked during breaks and he was devastated by his passing. He was also irritated by the financial situation in which he found himself. It was time to consider other work opportunities. Moments after this thought passed through his mind, Bates looked up at the smooth cliff face in front of him. He was no geologist but couldn’t help noticing the cliff face's soft yet durable makeup and the beautiful cove-like surroundings. His eyes began to twinkle with hope and excitement. Could this idyllic place be the answer to all his problems?

Dreaming of Freedom

Bates’s heart raced as he pondered the new possibilities. He envisaged a beautiful home nestled safely between the colossal cliffs. The sea views were magnificent. The center of the cliff was far enough from the coast-ravaging tide that clawed and scratched the sand. He would be safe from prying neighbors. Best of all, it was all free. His days of paying unreasonable rent prices would be over. Bates would finally have the peace and tranquility that he had longed for. Or so he hoped…

Bates was a superb quarryman but also possessed other skills. He often dabbled in explosives, which earned him the nickname ‘Jack the Blaster’. His services would sometimes be called upon to strategically make and set up dynamite to shift buildings and bridges. He could blow colossal holes in the side of quarry cliffs that were unusually neat and almost ‘artistic’ in nature. This ‘unique art form’ would also be the catalyst for ‘blasting’ Bate’s name into a horrifying story that still stands the test of time to this very day.

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How Marsden Grotto was Born

One dry summer evening, Bates scattered dynamite around his newfound cliff face. Within minutes, a colossal hole had gouged its way through the rock and mud. Once the dust had settled, Bates walked triumphantly around his cavernous creation. Then, another encouraging thought entered his mind. The sheer size of the cave offered the potential for an inn as well as a home. His days of sweating in desolate and dangerous quarries would be over. The thought of serving ales to happy locals whilst breathing in the fresh sea air satisfied him. Immediately, the conversion began.

After what seemed like an eternity, the Marsden Grotto was born. The locals, docked sailors, and tired quarrymen were drawn in by the unique position of the inn. Business boomed and Bates’ dream surpassed his expectations by a long margin. Before long, he had so much money and local fame that it felt almost impossible to manage. He was like a rabbit caught in headlights. With more friends than he had ever had in his entire life, Jack couldn’t walk down the street without an unfamiliar face knowing his name. Life was great but little did he know that everything was about to collapse in a screaming heap.

Contraband, Coercion and Corruption

Bates came across many unsavory characters in his grotto. Many of them were smugglers who spied on the grotto’s potential for hiding illegal contraband. Its position was perfect for moving items to and from boats, undetected in the dead of night. Before long, Bates found himself coerced into letting the smugglers use his grotto as a base. Blinded by his own success and power, he did not hesitate to grasp the financial opportunity that smuggling brought. Before long, every spare corner of the grotto was packed with weaponry and alcohol. Shady characters moved by candlelight into the early hours of every day, smuggling barrels and boxes filled with goods. Money began to flow and Bates’ financial status grew even further.

Before long, the authorities predictably discovered the corruption and paid Bates a visit. He was given two choices. Either give the names and whereabouts of the smuggling syndicate or suffer all consequences alone. Reluctant to destroy his newfound lifestyle and local popularity, Bates informed the authorities of his comrade’s details. Immediately, they were arrested and charged. Long jail sentences were handed out to the syndicate and Bates continued his business.

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A Smugglers’ Revenge at Marsden Grotto

It wasn’t long before family members and friends of the smugglers plotted their revenge. In the middle of the night, the assailants broke into the Marsden Grotto and hauled Bates from his bed. They forced him into a beer barrel, fastened the lid, attached a rope and hoisted Bates up the lift shaft, leaving him suspended. Gasping for breath through a hole in the side of the barrel, the torment had only just begun. The plan was to starve Bates to death over a period of weeks. A small cup of water was hoisted up to him twice a day. His suffering was to be long, drawn, and painful.

Bates’ horrific screams bellowed from the barrel for days but lessened over time. He slowly began to waste away. His tormentors watched on with satisfaction as they helped themselves to food and beer. Anybody who approached the grotto during that time was told that Bates was unwell and that the bar would remain closed until further notice. Eventually, the barrel stopped moving. Bate’s desperate thrashings ceased and his groans became silent. Justice had been served. Bates’ executioners ransacked the Grotto and took everything they could. It is widely rumored that Bate’s body was removed from the barrel and buried under the floor of the bar lounge.

Who Murdered ‘John The Jibber’ Bates?

When authorities arrived several weeks later, the empty barrel was found. The town was shocked by the tragedy but nobody was surprised. Whispers and rumors circulated around the town for several weeks about who had been responsible. There were also talks about other atrocities that may have taken place. Reluctant to meet the same fate, the locals tightened up their lips. After all, the people who killed Jack Bates silently walked among them. It wouldn’t be a good idea to upset anybody who was capable of torturing a man for weeks on end. Jack Bates soon became a distant memory. After his death, he became widely known as ‘John the Jibber’, which colloquially means, ‘John- the man who turns people and their private business over to the law’.

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One Catastrophe After Another

Years later, in 1838, a man named Peter Allen took charge of Marsden Grotto. Aware of the tragedy involving Jack Bates, he decided to give the grotto a new lease on life. Before long, new ideas and energy were injected into the cave bar and punters began to return. Allan became famous for his extra additions to the grotto- a ballroom and fifteen bedrooms. The grotto became a serving hotel and a bar and the business went well until tragedy struck again. A young smuggler sat at the bar one evening. He was overheard boasting of his trade to an older man whom he had just met. Witnesses watched as the older man plowed the young smuggler with alcohol. As tankards flowed and speech became slurred, the young smuggler began to reveal more about himself and his unscrupulous profession.

Unfortunately for him, the older man was an undercover policeman. He had been planted to catch smugglers in the act. Satisfied with the young smuggler’s disclosure, he drew his pistol and persisted in arresting him. The startled young man turned and bolted out of the grotto with the policeman hot on his tail. The chase spilled onto the beach. The young man darted as fast as he could. Unable to catch him, the policeman took aim and shot the smuggler between the shoulders. The young smuggler immediately crumpled to the ground and lay dying in the wet sand. Punters charged outside to watch the commotion. The policeman walked slowly up to the smuggler and looked down at his gasping and blood-drenched body. Aiming his pistol at the back of the smuggler’s head, he fired his final shot. Blood gushed onto the sand while the policeman grinned triumphantly.

Reported Phenomena – the Spirit of Jack Bates?

Strange sightings and sounds have been reported over the years. Dark shadows have been seen gliding down corridors and strange moans have been heard by guests in the dead of night. Many guests have reported hearing the sound of a rope creaking above their heads. Guests who heard this were always sat below the shaft where Bates had met his untimely death. Amidst the creaking, guests have also sworn that they heard the echoing moans of a man in pain and erratic thumping sounds like a hand on wood. Could this be the spirit of Jack Bates reliving his final days of torment?

Other guests have reported major drops in temperature while sitting at the bar. Even in the height of summer, a person’s breath can heavily condense, leaving punters shaking with cold. It isn’t long before guests feel a presence, feeling the hairs on their necks standing straight. The unknown presence is felt to be very angry and hate-filled. Could this be the anguished spirit of the young smuggler seeking revenge for his merciless execution?

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A Ghostly Tradition

After Peter Allan’s death in 1849, a new landlord arrived. He became concerned by the negative view people had of the grotto. Its grizzly past always seemed to rear its ugly head. He was afraid the ghostly stories would destroy business. A superstitious man, he concocted a wonderful idea. Deciding to leave a tankard of beer on the bar overnight, he hoped that whatever lurked in the grotto would accept the beer as a peace offering and the activity would cease. When the landlord came downstairs the following morning, he was shocked to see the tankard was empty. Many people believe that the ghost of Jack Bates or the young smuggler had quaffed the beer.

The landlord was then met with another surprise. The gloomy and oppressive atmosphere that had filled the grotto for so long, had lifted slightly. From that moment on, a tankard of beer was left out each night, a tradition still carried out to this very day. Most mornings, the tankard remains full but once in a blue moon, it is found empty.

Personal Experience

One autumn evening, my friend and I sat at the Marsden Grotto bar talking. It was near closing time and many guests had left. Sitting alone and listening to the waves outside while the barman cleaned glasses, we suddenly heard a sliding noise. We looked to our left and watched in horror as the ‘ghost’s tankard’ slowly slid across the bar. It stopped directly in front of the barman, whose face was as white as a sheet. It had traveled about two feet. He cautiously took the tankard and filled it with beer before placing it at the end of the bar. After checking the bar’s surface and the tankard itself, no rational explanation for the movement could be found.

The barman claimed that the phenomenon had happened to him once before. Previously, the tankard moved ever so slightly, making him wonder if the movement was a result of the bar being wet. This time, it had moved too far for that to be a possibility. We were all left shaken by the event.

The Marsden Grotto is a wonderful bar and hotel with an unnerving but friendly atmosphere. Steeped in history, you can absorb the remnants of the past whilst enjoying it’s modern character. And who knows…you may bump into the spirits of Jack Bates and the young smuggler. But whatever you do…do NOT take a sip from the ‘ghost’s tankard’. A curse is said to befall anybody who tries. You have been warned…

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Modern Day Marsden Grotto. Image courtesy Mark Fisher

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Mark Fisher

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