South Tyneside Meeting - June 2002

"Souter Lighthouse" by John Johnson

A Report by Margaret Stafford

Our meeting tonight was a talk about Souter lighthouse given by John Johnson, one of the National Trust guides.

The story starts in 1869 when there were 20 shipwrecks between South Shields and Sunderland, something had to be done. A lighthouse was to be built at Souter, midway between the 2 areas. In the event the building was about a mile away from Souter (now just where the firing range is for those of you who know the area) on higher ground but the name Souter was retained because the new site was actually called Lizard point - and that name had already been taken for the lighthouse in Cornwall!

James Douglas was the designer. A Cornishman, later knighted, his other claim to fame was that he built the version of the Eddystone Lighthouse which survived the battering of the sea where previous models had succumbed.

To set the scene, in 1874 work started on Whitburn Colliery and Marsden Village, the latter growing to 130 houses with over 700 inhabitants, a Methodist chapel, sports ground and allotments. You would never believe it today as the area was cleared after the colliery closed in 1968 and has reverted to grass but John assures us that when we have a dry spell (!) you can see the outlines of some of the buildings.

John also told the tale of the Marsden football team and their trick of getting the foghorn to go off when the team was losing! An unusual tactic but apparently true.

Back to the lighthouse and Souter was the first one to be lit successfully with electricity generated on site, now the shop, by steam engines which required fresh water which had to be rainwater so there were huge storage tanks in the foundations capable of holding 60,000 gallons (rain of course is something we have plenty of).

In 1871 the light was not from a bulb but from carbon arcs, the equivalent of 800,000 candles (apparently lighthouses are still measured in candle power). Not all the light was used, to keep friendly with the neighbours the back of the lighthouse was painted to stop the beam shining onto land, but the excess light was diverted to a window shining out across the dangerous rocks in Sunderland Bay so creating a navigation aid - red light, danger, white light proceed.

In 1914 the power was converted to paraffin and in 1919 a filter turned the light red. The turntable holding the light weighs 4.5 tons and can be turned with a flick of the finger as it floats on 1.5 tons of mercury. We had our by now customary excursion into health and safety as John came up with a new phrase - mad as a lighthouse keeper. The mercury fumes which so afflicted hat-makers as to give rise to the phrase "mad as a hatter " also affected the lighthouse keepers (and may also have something to do with the 2 ghosts said to have been seen on a regular basis in the lighthouse - one quite unromantically next to the gents toilet!).

The modern light was ultimately 1,380,000 candle power and could be seen for 26 miles going at 4 revs per minute with a red flash every 5 seconds. This was the unique Souter signature, not to be found anywhere else in the Trinity House area of England, Wales or the Channel Islands. There are 1,008 pieces of glass which had to be cleaned on both sides on Mondays with an odd date using water and meths.

Until 1983 weights still powered the mechanism like a giant grandfather clock taking 1 hour and a quarter to wind. Then an electric motor was introduced until the lighthouse went out of commission in 1988.

The engine room with its large tanks of compressed air, the colliery, the quarry and the Marsden Rattler thundering by made the area very noisy, never mind the foghorn, but locals always claimed you quickly adjusted and there were more sleepless nights when the lighthouse fell silent for the last time.

There were 6 houses on site, 1 for the engineer in charge, 4 assistant keepers and 1 for visiting officials from Trinity house. 2 up and 2 down, the bedrooms had interconnecting doors so those with large families "borrowed" bedrooms from the unmarried assistants. In 1881 for example the engineer in charge had a wife, 8 children, an unmarried sister and a live-in servant so must have borrowed a good number of bedrooms from his colleagues!

Each house had a back yard, a fuel store, a washhouse, a garden and a netty. There is now a show cottage set in the late 1800s, 2 have been knocked together to make the tea room and education block, 1 is occupied by the warden and the remaining 2 are available all year as holiday cottages.

On display in the show cottage is an early vacuum cleaner ( a carpet beater), a toaster (a toasting fork) and bathroom facilities en suite (under the bed actually!). John also told us Bassets liquorice allsorts were first sold in 1899 ("not a lot of people know that!). One of the beds is set up for top to toe sleeping .

Souter is jointly managed with Washington Old Hall and new projects are under development. There is now a sea-water tank in the shop with an ugly lobster (you'll have to make your own mind up!!) amongst other exhibits. There is also a dog called "welome", brought in to cover the embarrassment of not having proof-read the trust's leaflet properly where the "c" was left out of welcome in the sentence "a warm welome for all the family is assured".

Volunteers are always welcome eg to help with the gardens or lay the dolomite paths. The Trust apparently has 38,000 volunteers nationwide giving 2 million hours per annum.

Since the Trust took over, the lighthouse has been re-painted and is now white with an orange-red top and band. (One man could remember painting the lighthouse as part of his apprenticeship, being lowered bit by bit sitting on a plank - it couldn't happen now!). The out buildings have been re-roofed at a cost of £128,000 compared to the total cost of the original lighthouse and machinery of £15,000! The lighthouse is festooned with Xmas lights in December and January - definitely worth seeing, in this beautiful setting.

One final point, the foghorn, powered by compressed air, would give a 5 second burst of mournful noise every 30 seconds (giving the local residents a weather forecast as they lay in bed!), the keepers didn't mind as they received "noise money" of 2d per day. If you want to re-live those days, come along to Souter on the evening of 22 Oct 2002 when the light will be lit and the doleful horn will sound again and locals will be wondering which football team must be in trouble!!!

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