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The History of St. Mary's Island 

Monks, smugglers, feuds, evictions and shipwrecks


The Monks

The island was probably the home of hermits in the early days of Christianity on these shores, but the Viking invasion in 800 would have put paid to any settlement until after 1066. In 1090 the priory of Tynemouth was restored as a cell of the Abbey of St. Albans by Robert de Mowbray, the Norman earl of Northumbria, and it is likely that soon after that a chapel, which was dedicated to St Helen, was built on the island. It was said to have been on the north side of the island and had a tower where a candle was kept burning to warn sailors of the dangerous rocks. Such a light was known as a St. Mary’s Light, giving its name to the bay, and later the island.  Next to the chapel was a burial ground used by the monks.  After the Reformation the chapel became part of the chapelry of St. Albans at Earsdon and people of the parish were also buried there. Services were held there until 1800.

In a list of churches in the arch deaconry of Northumberland dated 1778 appears:- Bates Island... St. Mary, and entries in the 17th century parish register in Earsdon Church record that James Haren of Hartley and Thomas Airey were buried within the walls of the chapel of Bates Hill.

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Bates Island

After the dissolution of the monasteries the island was known as Bates Hill, Hartley Bates or Bates Island as it was at one time owned by Thomas Bates, surveyor for Northumberland under Queen Elizabeth I in the 1580s. The present spelling of Bait Island on the Ordnance Survey Map is due to a misunderstanding - the original surveyors thought that the name referred to the bait dug up by the fishermen on the island. By the 19 th century the island was being called St. Mary’s Island from the name of the bay.

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Smugglers

The deep winding channel in the rocks on the north side of the island is known as 'Smugglers' Creek'. In 1722 Anthony Mitchell, Surveyor of Customs, was found dead near the creek, thought by many "to have been murdered by two villains who used to run brandy".

The coastline would have been the haunt of smugglers - it was said that they hid their booty in haystacks along the links.

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Murder

In 1739 one Michael Curry, an employee of the Royal Sovereign Glass Works in Seaton Sluice, was executed for murdering Robert Shevil, landlord of the inn at Old Hartley. It was the custom to hang the body of murderers within sight of their crimes, so Curry's body was strung from a gibbet on what is known today as Curry's Point - the mainland end of the causeway.

There is a tale about two men drinking in the tavern at New Hartley not long after this - one man challenged his friend half a gallon of beer that he would not go up to the corpse and say “How are you, Curry?”. Full of Dutch courage, the friend set off across the fields to the point, but unknown to him his challenger had taken a short cut and got there before him. He climbed up and hid behind the body, so that when his friend called out “How are you, Curry?”, a deep hollow voice replied “Very well”. Sober with fright, the poor man took to his heels across the fields, and may well have signed the pledge!

In 1989 a plaque was unveiled on the point to commemorate Curry's execution exactly 250 years previously.

In 1799 the island was used to isolate Russian soldiers who had developed cholera on a voyage south to fight Napoleon. Those who eventually died were buried on the island.

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The Cottage

A report in a newspaper of 1867 said that there were no traces of the chapel left on the island. When in 1855 a cottage was built by a fisherman called George Ewen, from Aberdeen, with the agreement of his landlord, Lord Hastings, who assisted with some of the building materials, it seems probable that the stones from the chapel ruin were also used.

Mr. Ewen and his son were the licensees of the old Astley Arms on the Blyth road north of Seaton Sluice. In 1852 they rented the salmon fishing rights on the island, and a hut in which to keep the nets. Salmon fishing in those days was done with bag and stake-net, and there were many fisheries round the coast, rented in the same way as farms.

Mr. Ewen built a cottage to shelter the fishermen - a bothie with two rooms, thatched with bents (grass) gathered on the headland. Ten years later he turned his cottage into an inn called 'The Freemason's Arms', known locally as 'The Square and Compass', licensed to retail foreign and British wines, ales and porter.

Two extensions had been added to the north end of the cottage in 1861, a barrel room and a washing room, and during the building human remains were found, probably those of the Russian cholera victims. It was said that one of the skeletons was kept in the cellar and shown to customers for a small sum. The pipes through which fresh water was pumped from a stream on the headland to a cistern near the washing room are still to be seen.

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Shipwrecks

Before the lighthouse was built there were many wrecks, often small fishing boats, but the saddest wreck on Whitley sands occurred on New Years Day 1861 when the “Lovely Nelly” from Seaham was driven onto rocks at Briardene in a blizzard. The women of Cullercoats pulled the lifeboat over the headland and all the crew were saved except for the little cabin boy, Tommy, who was too frightened to jump from the rigging. An oil painting by John Charlton called “The Women” commemorating the courage of the people of Cullercoats hangs in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.

In intense fog on a June day in 1891, the ‘Gothenburg’ City, from Montreal, struck the rocks to the north of the island. She carried a crew of 44 men, 476 head of cattle, and a cargo of pit-props and phosphates. Luckily no lives were lost, but the ship could not be refloated in spite of throwing most of the cargo overboard. The cattle were taken off by the Tyne penny ferries, and the wood and coal washed up on the shore kept the local residents warm for months!

In intense fog on a June day in 1891, the ‘Gothenburg’ City, from Montreal, struck the rocks to the north of the island. She carried a crew of 44 men, 476 head of cattle, and a cargo of pit-props and a phosphate fertiliser called apatite. Luckily no lives were lost, but the ship could not be refloated in spite of throwing most of the cargo overboard. The cattle were taken off by the Tyne penny ferries, and the wood and coal washed up on the shore kept the local residents warm for months!  Small nuggets of apatite can still be found in the rock pools, its crystalline form can be made into jewellery.  It is said that this shipwreck, above all others, was the reason why the island was chosen for the site of the lighthouse. 

Although fog had caused this shipwreck, St. Mary’s Lighthouse was never equipped with a fog horn!

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The Feud

In 1894 a farmer, Joseph Patterson, of Hartley East Farm, let a field on the mainland to the army for use as a rifle range. A row broke out between him and Ewen about the right of way used by visitors to the inn, and the danger of bullets flying over the island. Patterson accused Ewen and his friends of damaging his property, and of opening the inn on a Sunday.

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Eviction of the Ewan family in 1895On 13th & 14th November the Ewen family were evicted. The bailiffs took all the family's possessions and furniture over the rocks to the headland and left them there.The Eviction

On 13th & 14th November 1895 the Ewen family were evicted. The bailiffs took all the family's possessions and furniture over the rocks to the headland and left them there. The last of Ewen's possessions was a pig, which for six hours evaded capture, but was eventually bundled into a cart and taken to the mainland.

The family were left to spend several nights under the comfortless shelter of a tarpaulin which they had rigged up. Lodgings were found in Whitley Bay, and Mr. .Ewen opened a butchers shop, although history does not record if use was made of the pig! Ewen's descendants still have a butcher’s shop in Monkseaton.

On 16th November Lord Hastings made a statement explaining the eviction, his reason being, he said, that Ewen was disputing the ownership of the house. On 10th December John Harris Crisp became the tenant of the cottage, licensed to run it as a temperance hotel. On 18th December a surveyor for Trinity House took up lodgings with him, and stayed for a week, paying him £1.2.6d for his board and £1.7.6d for his assistance and in the autumn of the following year work was started on the building of the lighthouse.

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