Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Allan, Peter (1798-1849)

ALLAN, PETER (1798–1849), remarkable for the excavations he made in the solid rock on the sea-coast near Sunderland, was born of Scottish peasants in 1798, either at Selkirk or at Tranent in Haddingtonshire. In early life he was in domestic service as a valet. Afterwards he became gamekeeper to the Marquis of Londonderry, and was reputed to be an unerring shot, and to possess unparalleled physical strength. At a later date he opened a tavern at Whitburn, a village on the coast of Durham. The acquisition of some small property near his inn drew his attention to the quarries in the neighbourhood; and he exhibited so much practical skill in works of excavation that several quarries were placed under his superintendence. About 1827 he formed an eccentric plan for colonising the wild rocks round the bay of Marsden, five miles to the south of Sunderland. After many months spent in carrying out his project, he removed thither in July 1828, with his wife, children, and parents, and resided there for the remainder of his life.

The Marsden rocks had already been known as a rendezvous of smugglers, and a passage had been perforated through them from the high land to the beach, but to all appearance the place was uninhabitable. The cliff, of hard magnesian limestone, rose perpendicularly from the shore to a height of 100 feet, and the surface it presented to the sea was only broken by two caverns at its base, which the sea filled at high tide. Nevertheless, Allan's superhuman energy and industry transformed the rock into a large dwelling-house. Having hollowed a wide ledge on the face of the rock, and connected it with the land above, he built upon it a large timber hut, part of which formed a tavern entitled ‘The Grotto,’ and part a farmhouse. Within the adjoining rock, on the same level, Allan dug out fifteen large rooms in succession, most of which were lighted by windows hewn in the cliff overlooking the sea. The total length of the excavated chambers, each of which received a name, such as the ‘gaol room,’ the ‘devil's chamber,’ the ‘circular room,’ and so forth, was 120 feet, their greatest height 20 feet, and their greatest breadth 30 feet. On the waste ground above the excavations Allan planted rabbits for shooting, and the farmhouse and ledge he stocked with domestic animals.

During the twenty-one years that Allan lived with his family in the rock he paid rare visits to the neighbouring towns, and was on one occasion snowed up for six weeks together. He rescued several vessels in distress off the coast, and in 1844 he saved from drowning some lads who had wandered into the caves below his dwelling; an act which was commemorated by the vicar of Newcastle in a poem entitled ‘The Mercy at Marsden Rock.’ Allan was nevertheless regarded by his neighbours with many misgivings, and the excise officers, suspecting him to be a smuggler, frequently molested him. In 1848 the lord of the manor claimed rent from him as the owner of the surface ground, and on his denial of his liability served him with a process of ejectment. Allan refused to quit, and brought a suit against the landlord, by which his right of habitation was upheld, but each side was condemned to pay its own costs. Amid these anxieties Allan's health gave way, and he died 31 Aug. 1849, in his fifty-first year. He was buried in the presence of his parents, who had lived with him and who survived him, in Whitburn churchyard, and his tombstone bore the inscription, ‘The Lord is my rock and my salvation.’

His family continued to dwell for some years at Marsden after Allan's death. One of his sons inherited his passion for excavation, and his daughter, from the readiness with which she aided distressed ships, was compared to Grace Darling. The singular edifice was for many years ‘one of the principal curiosities of the north of England,’ and many descriptions of it have been published by local writers. It endured till February 1865, when it was destroyed by a fall of the cliff (Murray's Guide to Northumberland and Durham, p. 136).

[Notes and Queries (1st series), viii. 539, 630, 647; Gent. Mag. (new series), xxxii. 440; Latimer's Local Records of Northumberland and Durham, p. 265; Marsden Rock, or the Story of Peter Allan and the Marsden Marine Grotto, reprinted from the ‘Sunderland and Durham County Herald’ (1848); Shirley Hibberd, in the People's Illustrated Joumal.]

S. L. L.