Smugglers and Shipwrecks
St Mary’s Island’s’ history is rich and diverse. The monks of Tynemouth Priory, established in the 7th century, once used the island as a burial ground. After the Norman invasion of 1066, around 1090, the Priory built and maintained a chapel, dedicated to St. Helen. In an additional storey of the tower in the chapel a light was burned to warn sailors of the rocks. These lights were often called St. Mary’s Lights, hence possibly the islands name. The island was also previously known as Bates Island after its owner, Thomas Bates, a local mine owner and surveyor of Northumberland for Queen Elizabeth I. Murphy’s Column stands on the island and acted as an orientation point as well as a calibration point for the coastal gun batteries down at Tynemouth.
In 1722, Anthony Mitchell, a Customs surveyor was found dead near the island. Smugglers who ran brandy using the deep smugglers creek on the north side of the island may have murdered him. It is said they hid their booty in haystacks along the links.In 1799 a troop of Russian soldiers on their way to fight in the Napoleonic wars contracted cholera and were quarantined on the island. Few survived and those that died were buried alongside the monk’s grave stones. The Square and Compass George Ewen, a salmon fisherman from Aberdeen, built a small cottage on the island in 1855 to use as a base during the salmon run. In 1860 the salmon fishing laws became more restrictive and Ewen had to supplement his income. By 1862 he had opened an inn called The Freemasons Arms, known locally as The Square and Compass. Only a few years after opening Ewen fell out with Joseph Patterson a nearby farmer. A feud broke out until Lord Hastings, the owner of the island, stepped in to settle the matter and had Ewen evicted. When they refused to move they had to be forced out by bailiffs. The new tenant, John Crisp, moved in on 10th December 1895 with a licence to run a temperance hotel. The Crisp family has lived there ever since. The bailiffs sent to evict Ewen tried to evict a pig from the house but it stubbornly resisted running them amuck for six hours. It took the whole force to get him in a cart and take him to the mainland. Hence the expression ‘Making a Pig’s Ear of It’
The Last Building St. Mary’s island was a prime point for a lighthouse with over 300 shipwrecks happening between Tynemouth and Blyth over many decades. The light was to replace a 200 year old one at Tynemouth Priory after it was realised that the headland at Tynemouth needed to be used as a gun emplacement to protect the River Tyne. Work began in 1896 and on 31st August 1898 the lighthouse was first lit by Miss Miller, the builder’s daughter. The lighthouse became electrified in 1977 and automated in 1982. It was one of the last to be modernised. In 1984 it was decommissioned, no longer being needed due to modern navigational techniques. North Tyneside Council bought the lighthouse on behalf of the local community.
Did you know that? During the Second World War, Mr. Crisp, the tenant of the cottage was employed by the War Office as a coastguard and had to live on the island all year round. The lighthouse was also camouflaged as it was so conspicuous.