Spottee’s Cave and the legacy of the Wearside legend who lived on the Roker coast

Enter Roker Park through the sea front ravine and second cave on the left is Spottee’s; home to a Wearside legend claimed by some to have been a pirate or smuggler that has been doing the rounds for centuries.

Sunday, 13th June 2021, 4:55 am

Some misguided cynics insist that Spottee, so-called because of the spotted shirt he permanently wore, never existed. But pay no heed. That’s what they said about the Lambton Worm, whose story is also based on indisputable, historical fact.

But who was this unfortunate fellow and what was his story? Well, like all good stories, it gets better every time it’s told. Gather round.

The cave

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Spottee's Cave in Roker has been the subject of centuries of intrigue.
Spottee's Cave in Roker has been the subject of centuries of intrigue.

There has been much speculation as to the physical extent of Spottee’s Cave, a beautiful limestone-magnesium gift from nature. They said it extended to Hylton Castle, others claimed it led to (at various times) abbeys at Monkwearmouth, Jarrow, Durham and Finchale.

Sadly “they” were talking complete rot. Still, they had their fun; dismissing out of hand wholly reliable information from those who had actually bothered to look inside the cave.

Today the cave is property of Sunderland City Council and it is used to store plastic barriers, wheelie bins and other necessary, but somewhat unromantic items.

As yet no treasure-laden Spanish galleon has been discovered in there. In fact, there has never even been a rumour to that effect. So feel free to start one. Almost every other rumour has been associated with Spottee’s Cave, both conceivable and inconceivable.

The cave is just behind the beach entrance to Roker Park.

Spottee – poor unfortunate or rogue?

Among other things, Spottee was accused of being French, which had always been considered a serious misdemeanour in itself. He was a vagabond who lived in his cave in the 18th Century having been shipwrecked there.

The fishwives of Whitburn began to make their journeys to the fish market by boat, rather than along the beach on foot, to avoid him. Aw. So why did he stay in England?

There was no EasyJet in those days. Yet geologists confirm that France is still pretty much where it was, and that it would still have been relatively easy for him to return there. But that would ruin the story.

Other versions of the myth say that he was not French at all, but from some unspecified place on the Indian subcontinent, which would have made a return home considerably more problematic.

The most famous story involving Spottee is that he would light fires at his cave to trick passing sailors into believing they were heading towards harbour lights, then loot the stricken ships for goodies.

This doesn’t sound too plausible either. For a start it would entail him being allowed to do so by presumably hardy sailors (they surely can’t have all drowned) and anyone else nearby. However, the practice of blaming the nearest foreigner for any piece of skulduggery pre-dates poor Spottee by millennia.

Some dismissed him as a lunatic and an alternative story is that before living in his cave he slept rough and earned his living by begging and providing casual labour on local farms, making his requirements known with a series of bizarre, self-invented hand gestures.

By the 1970s English folklore experts had decided this was less bizarre, when they found themselves doing exactly the same thing during the onset of the package holiday.

What became of Spottee?

The eventual fate of Spottee was, like everything in this tale, a matter of conjecture. He may have simply disappeared.

Later in the 18th Century some explorers allegedly followed a passageway from his cave, but had to turn back due to “foul air”. Was this due to a decomposing Spottee whose body was never found?

The year 1870 provided a shock, as it saw the only part of this story we know is definitely true. Hedworth Williamson, the local moneybags who in 1880 donated the land on which Roker Park now stands, had the cave explored again. A few bones were found, but no passageway and the cave was then blocked up.

And of course, there are ghost stories concerning Spottee. In Britain, every cave that may at some point have been inhabited by humans is haunted. The same applies to any pub over 100 years old. It’s just how it is.

Research shows that Spottee’s ghost can be sighted either on stormy nights warning ships to stay away from the rocks (he may be unfamiliar with satnav); or alternatively that he still tries to lure ships onto the rocks. He needs to make his mind up.

The song

In 1834 Cuthbert Sharp, the noted antiquary, compiled his Bishoprick Garland; a book giving details of historical events from the Bishopric of Durham and including the lyrics to songs from local folklore such as I’ll Be No More a Nun, Lamentation On the Death of Sir Robert Neville and other foot-tappers.

A ditty devoted to our man, simply entitled Spottee, is included. It was composed anonymously and it’s easy to see why. The ballad is ruddy awful. Not until the heyday of Duran Duran would we hear such wretched lyrics. It ends with the excruciating couplet:

“We’ll first forfeit our wages, for ganging to sea;

"Before we’ll gan wi’ that roguish fellow they call Spottee.”

That is actually the highlight. Nevertheless, the song helped to cement Spottee’s ongoing legacy and, whatever the actual truth of his story, it’s just too much fun to ignore. Allegedly. So they say. Purportedly. According to legend. It says on Facebook.

Good old Spottee is as entertaining as ever.

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