In the mid nineteenth century the North Sea was a treacherous place. Heavy industry and a rising population saw coastal traffic expand rapidly as ships delivered goods all over the world. Getting in and out of ports was particularly dangerous and the stretch of coastline between Whitburn and
Marsden was noted for being one of the most perilous. In 1869 alone there were no less than 20 shipwrecks reported between South Shields and Sunderland. The sea claimed many lives as their ships were torn apart by the rocks. With an average of 44 shipwrecks per mile of coastline, it’s hardly surprising it was considered one of the most dangerous in the country.
Something had to be done to warn sailors of the dangerous reefs that lay beneath the water and so in 1871 Souter Lighthouse was built. The lighthouse was designed by James Douglass, Chief Engineer to Trinity House, the National Lighthouse Authority. When first designed Douglas had intended Souter Point, located about a mile south of the lighthouse to be the perfect location. However, he soon realised that higher cliffs at Lizard Point offered better visibility, meaning he could build a shorter and cheaper lighthouse and so the location was changed. The lighthouse took its name from the original site to avoid any confusion with the recently built Lizard Point lighthouse in Cornwall.
The first lighthouses had been lit by wood or coal fires or tallow candles but accidents were common. Gas and oil lamps were introduced as an alternative in the early nineteenth century but they still did not prove very reliable. A superior solution was needed and electricity was the answer.
Souter Lighthouse was the first in the world to be lit by Prof Holmes alternating electric magneto generator, based on an original discovery by Michael Faraday. This made Souter the most advanced of its time and when lit the light itself was equivalent to 700,000 candles and could be seen for up to 26 miles. A backup oil lamp was available in case of an emergency but in the first eight years this was only used twice.
The tower which stands over 75ft high was constructed by Robert Allison of nearby Whitburn. The other buildings including the engine and boiler house, coke store, workshop, storeroom and dwellings for staff were built within a courtyard with a covered inner corridor to protect against the elements. In the early years the first residents of the lighthouse were Henry Millet a qualified engineer who was in overall charge and 4 assistant light keepers.
By 1881 life at Souter was very different and the population was much larger. A census of that year recorded that Millets household included his wife, eight children, an unmarried sister and a servant.
To the east of the lighthouse a separate building houses the foghorn. When first built a single white painted foghorn shaped like a clay pipe faced straight out to sea. This was later replaced by twin foghorns of similar shape, angled to project noise up and down the coast. Rayleigh trumpets superseded these by WW2 and in 1960 saw the final change to the present diaphone foghorn. The horns would sound when visibility fell below 2 miles, or the lights of the Tyne could not be seen at night, emitting an ear shattering four second blast every 45 seconds. It was so loud that the keepers were paid 2d (two old pennies) an hour ‘noise money’ to endure the shriek.
There have been a number of reports of paranormal activity which is not surprising in a building of this age. Many claim they have felt strange happenings such as cold spots, the feeling of being grabbed as well as a strong odour of tobacco smoke in the kitchen corridor. It is also believed that Isabella Darling the famous niece of Grace Darling, a maritime heroine, who in 1838 rescued many survivors from the wreck of the Forfarshire is still making her presence felt today. Who knows whether there is any truth in this but this family have definite links with the lighthouse as Grace’s nephew Robert Darling served as a lighthouse keeper at Souter for 24 years.
Trinity House closed the lighthouse in 1988 due to the decline in coastal shipping and it was soon bought by the National Trust who had previously acquired the surrounding land from South Tyneside Council. The lighthouse was opened to visitors in 1990 although it still served as a navigation beacon up to 1999 when it was finally closed. There is plenty to do and see at Souter for young and old as the engine house and living quarters are all open to the public. It is immaculately kept and if you climb the 76 steps to the top of the tower you can take advantage of the panoramic views and wildlife which makes it hard to imagine the lighthouse being anywhere else.