St.Mary’s Lighthouse has adorned the coast of Northumberland for over a century. Brilliant white against an azure sky, it presents one of the county’s finest summer sights.
The rocky, tidal outcrop 2½ miles north of Whitley Bay, known as St.Mary’s, or Bates, Island, has been home to a light of sorts for the past 400 years. It was not until 1898, however, that what may be called a proper lighthouse was erected. Its light burned for 86 years, being decommissioned by Trinity House in 1984. It was then bought jointly by the local council and others for the benefit of the community, and soon reopened as a tourist attraction.
The island is linked to the mainland by a concrete causeway which is covered at high tide, leaving the island itself separated from the shore by a short strait. The island has been extensively used over the years. It is thought to have been home to hermits prior to the construction of a chapel dedicated to St.Helen in the late eleventh century. Mention is made even at this early time of the maintenance of ‘a light’ in the tower. A burial ground existed next to the chapel for 700 years, but by 1860 all remains of the building had disappeared. The occasional mention of the name ‘Bates’ Island is a reference to one Thomas Bates, who owned the small patch of ground in the 1580s as Surveyor for Northumberland under Elizabeth I.
In ‘Smugglers’ Creek’ on the north of the island was found, in 1722, the body of Anthony Mitchell, a customs man – he was presumably killed by smugglers. A few years later, in 1739, Michael Curry, a local glassworker, was hanged in Newcastle for the murder of Robert Shevil, the landlord of the inn at Old Hartley – and his body was hung in shame from a gibbet at what became known as ‘Curry’s Point’, where the causeway meets the mainland. A plaque now marks the spot.
The island has seen a good deal of action over the years. Shipwrecks a plenty, for one thing; and in 1799 the island was used to isolate cholera-stricken Russian soldiers on their way to fight Napoleon. In 1855 George McEwan and family built the present-day cottage, and even opened a pub on the island. However, following a dispute with neighbouring landowners on the mainland, the McEwans were unceremoniously evicted in 1895.
Soon after this Trinity House decided to site a new lighthouse on the island and, nearly three years later, on 31st August 1898, the famous 137-step beacon was officially opened. Its lights ran on paraffin (kerosene) – and continued to do so until 1977 – the fuel being delivered every six months to the storage tanks under the tower. The oil lamp was replaced by an electric equivalent in the late 1970s, and the lighthouse became fully automated in 1979. Upon decommissioning in 1984 most of the lighthouse’s internal workings were removed. However, the building – and island as a whole – continues to serve the local community as an important tourist attraction. And you can still climb to the top!
The Lighthouse was given a facelift during 2008, and now looks better than ever.
P.S. To learn more about the island – and for some nice pics – see here.
Note: This article, and many others besides, can be found in the author’s collection of local history material here (and scroll down to Aspects of North-East History, Vol.1).