Friends of St. Mary's Island


History of the Lighthouse

The lighthouse, early 1900's The lighthouse shortly after completionCoastal Lights

St. Mary’s Lighthouse was opened in 1898 as a replacement for the lighthouse on Tynemouth Priory headland. In the 12th century the monks of the Priory had kept a light burning in the chapel which they had built on St. Mary’s Island and one in the tower of their church at Tynemouth. The latter was replaced by Colonel Villiers, Governor of Tynemouth Castle in 1664, by a lighthouse which stood in the north east corner of the headland, built of stone from the ruined Priory. It stood over 79 ft (23m) high with a top which was roofed and enclosed on three sides.

The keeper lived in the base with his family, and it was his job to keep the coal fire at the top of the tower burning brightly on the incoming tide in all weathers. It was partly rebuilt in 1775, and in 1802 the coal light was replaced by a revolving oil lamp with reflectors.

By the 1890s there were great problems of visibility with the old lighthouse. It gave off a red light, and this was often obscured by the smoke from the steam ships and the industry on the River Tyne. Trinity House decided that the lighthouse should be brought up to date, but were opposed by the military, who wanted the site for an extra large gun, necessary for the defence of the headland. Eventually Trinity House agreed and St. Mary's island was chosen as the site for a new lighthouse. The old lighthouse was not demolished until after St. Mary’s had been opened.

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The Building

Weather VaneIn the autumn of 1896 work was started on the building of the new lighthouse. It cost someBuilding the lighthouse 1897-1898£8000, and the contract was given to Mr. J. Livingstone Miller of Tynemouth.

The two lighthouse keepers' houses were built of Heworth stone, and the lighthouse of brick covered in cement, with a novelty for that day and age - a covered passage for the keepers to pass from their cottages to the tower “in comfort and security however furiously the elements may rage outside”, to quote a newspaper from that time.

Three quarters of a million bricks were used in the construction of the tower, and it is 120ft (36.6 metres) from base to vane. The first lantern was lit by paraffin.

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The Opening

Rowing out to the islandOn 31 st August 1898 the lighthouse was illuminated for the first time. The inauguralVisitors rowing out to the islandceremony was carried out by two little girls, Miss Miller and Miss Wilson of Tynemouth, who had arrived at the island on the Trinity yacht 'Irene' with a large party of dignitaries, including the local M.P. and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. When the lamp had been lit. the party returned to the 'Irene' and sailed out to sea to view the light. On their return they partook of a cold collation in the cottage, and speeches were made praising the builder, saying that the work completed that day was part of a scheme to light the whole of the coastline of England and Wales, and would be the means of handing down to posterity the name of Mr. Miller.

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A Shipwreck

The California The California - driven onto rocks in 1913. Eight sailors were drowned, and the captain lay seriously ill in the island cottage for a week after his ordeal. The remains of the ship can still be seen at low tide.Unable to avert some shipwrecks the keepers, nevertheless, were there to help when tragedy struck. In January 1913 the Russian four-masted iron barque the “California” was driven onto the rocks on the south of the island in a sudden storm before she could set her sails.

Valiant efforts were made to get a rescue rocket aboard, but the ship broke up and the rescuers could only save the men who were washed ashore - the captain and seven crewmen.

Eight sailors were drowned, and were buried in St. Paul’s churchyard. The captain lay seriously ill in the island cottage for a week after his ordeal, and when he had recovered he gave Mr. and Mrs. Crisp the ship’s figurehead, a serious gentleman in evening dress, Walter Wilson, the ship’s architect. The remains of the ship’s keel can still be seen at low tide.

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Life in the lighthouse

Lighthouse keeper Lighthouse keeperLife for the lighthouse keepers was not easy in spite of being so close to the mainland – in 1951 the keepers got their first fresh water supply through water mains from the mainland. Until then water was collected on the flat roofs of the keepers’ cottages, or a trickle of spring water which ran through an old corroded pipe, and passed through large filters in the kitchens. The keepers continued to use Elsan toilets until 1954, when the privy conversions cost £58. 15.1d. There was no electricity on the island until 1957, heating and cooking was by coal or driftwood fires. The children of keepers went to school in Old Hartley and Seaton Sluice. They were rowed to the shore and then had to walk over the headland. The lamp was lit by paraffin until September 1977, the paraffin being delivered twice a year and stored in a huge tank under the tower.

The keepers shifts were four hours during the day, and two hours at night, two keepers during the summer, and a third - a supernumerary keeper - during the winter. Throughout the day and night the weather was sampled from the balcony every three hours and a log was filled in As soon as the light was put out at dawn, curtains had to be drawn round the lamp room to prevent the sun’s rays from igniting the paraffin. Then the lamp and all its parts had to be cleaned and polished, even the parts that no-one saw. The lamp room and rest room were swept and dusted, the glass reflectors polished, the stairs washed down two or three times a week, and the brass hand rail on the stairs polished. Every three years a party of officials from Trinity house visited the lighthouse and inspected the station. Decisions were then made about painting and repairs, and keepers were told if they had to move.

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Holiday in Whitley Bay By the lighthouse. Just one of the attractions of Whitley Bay in it's heyday.The Seaside Resort of Whitley Bay

Until the railway line from Newcastle upon Tyne was opened in 1882 Whitley Bay was a small village called Whitley, home to genteel families and retired coal miners. The railway brought day trippers to sample the sea and fresh air, and started a surge of house building. St. Mary’s Island became a very popular attraction for the holiday makers, the keepers showed visitors round the new lighthouse, and Mr. Crisp opened a café in his temperance hotel. In 1902 ‘Bay’ was added to Whitley to prevent confusion with Whitby in Yorkshire. In 1910 the present large station was built to accommodate the increased holiday trains and a new attraction was built - the Spanish City Fairground.

The causeway to the island was built in 1929, and rebuilt in 1965/66. The first causeway had an area in the middle which was always under water, so there were stepping stones for the adventurous and regular boat trips from Briardene beach to the seaward side of the island.

In 1933 the Christmas Day Round-the-Empire programme included a broadcast from St. Mary’s Lighthouse. Mr. Le.Gallais, the principal Keeper, described the lighthouse, the weather and his 27 years in the Trinity House Lighthouse Service. Below is an extract from that broadcast...

Christmas Broadcast 1933 Click to play...


During the Second World War the light was not lit regularly. Occasionally, however, an order would come to light up for a certain length of time - either because an important convoy etc. was passing by, or to guide British planes for part of their flights over the coast. The area was fenced off, guarded by the army, and the public were not allowed in.

The resort’s heyday was in the post war years when it seemed that most of the population of Glasgow descended on the town for the Fairs Fortnight in July. St. Mary’s Island became the most photographed and painted beauty spot on the North East coast.

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The Lighthouse today

St. Mary's was one of the last of the British lighthouses to be modernised, it was electrified in 1977 and its original lamp is in the national lighthouse museum in Penzance. In 1982 the light was automated, and the attendant visited the island once a day to make sure that everything was in order. In 1984 the lighthouse was lit for the last time, taken out of service because modern navigational aids made this lighthouse obsolete.

The lighthouse todayNowadays visitors to St. Mary’s Island and lighthouse are able to enjoyNowadays visitors to St. Mary’s Island and lighthouse are able to enjoy the varied aspects of modern nature reserve and a beautiful tourist attraction. the Nature Reserve which surrounds the island. A variety of birds use the wetland and foreshore, rock pools are fascinating to young and old, and divers explore the marine life off the rocks.

On a clear day the views from the top of the tower stretch from the North Yorkshire coast to the Cheviot Hills, and for those who cannot manage the climb of 137 steps to the lantern room, a video camera relays the views from the balcony to a screen in the base of the tower.

The Visitors Centre has permanent and changing exhibitions about the lighthouse and its environment, and a shop has a wide range of gifts, cards and souvenirs, many exclusive to the island.

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All content © 2012 The Friends of St. Mary's Island