Goodness gracious - there’s great balls of fire over Hartlepool!

A view of Hartlepool Fish Quay, with boxes of fish lined up waiting to be sold to the highest bidder in the 1950s. Some 250 years earlier, Hartlepool fishermen were among the first to witness the meteor shower of 1799.
A view of Hartlepool Fish Quay, with boxes of fish lined up waiting to be sold to the highest bidder in the 1950s. Some 250 years earlier, Hartlepool fishermen were among the first to witness the meteor shower of 1799.

Mysterious “exploding balls of fire” in the skies over Hartlepool made global headlines two centuries ago.

Townsfolk were “left awestruck” by the curious phenomena on November 12, 1799 - after the strange lights were spotted over Greatham at 5am.

“The meteors, or balls of fire, were first observed while it was still dark,” reported The Monthly Magazine just a few days later.

“They continued falling in succession until daybreak at around 8am. The atmosphere was very clear and the moon, which was full, shone with uncommon brilliancy.

“Although the lights were first seen over Greatham, near Hartlepool, they were also seen in other parts of that neighbourhood.”

Indeed, dozens of Hartlepool’s fishermen were treated to “a fantastic light display” as they fished just off the coast early that Tuesday morning.

And, back on dry land, residents flocked to the seafront for a better view - murmuring in wonder with each brilliant explosion of colour and fire.

“The meteors at first appeared like what are vulgarly called shooting or falling stars, which soon became stationary,” reported The Monthly Magazine.

“They then, as it were, burst - leaving behind them beautiful trains of floating fire in various shapes - some pointed, some irradiated, some in sparks.”

The fire balls continued falling for nearly two hours and were followed, until 8am, by flashes of lightening.

“The general appearance was sublimely awful (as in awe-inspiring), particularly to the Hartlepool fishermen then at sea,” added the magazine.

“To some spectators, the sky appeared to open, and to display a number of luminous serpents moving in a perpendicular direction.

“These were soon after broken into separate balls, and fell towards the earth in a shower of fire.”

Another report from the period, this time in The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle added: “The heavens exhibited an awfully grand appearance.

“In opposition to the setting Moon was seen a lunar rainbow of the most beautiful colours, after which the middle region of the air was illuminated by meteors.

“They left behind them long sparkling trains, which were visible for two or three minutes after these luminous bodies had disappeared.”

The strange lights were attributed to a meteor storm, which caused “great alarm” from “Scotland to the Forest of Dean” - and was even seen in South America.

But, it wasn’t until 34 years later, that the event finally sparked official interest.

Indeed, it has been claimed that meteor astronomy could have “been born” in 1799 - had “the right scientific people” observed the Hartlepool lights.