St Mary’s Island: A chequered past
St Mary’s Island at low tide. Image by Jim Blakeley.
Originally named Bates Island after Thomas Bates who owned it during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1, St Mary’s Island is a quaint and peaceful little island situated off the North East Coast of England, between Whitley Bay and Seaton Sluice. Neatly sitting opposite Curry’s point on the mainland, the island is accessible at low tide by causeway. Whilst a light has shone in some capacity on the island for centuries, the most prominent feature and tourist attraction is it’s lighthouse which was built in 1898, and decommissioned and turned into a visitor centre in 1984.
Back in the medieval days there was a chapel on the island, and right next to the chapel was a burial ground where the monks were buried. Unfortunately all traces of the chapel were destroyed when the lighthouse was built.
It’s difficult to imagine when you visit it now that such a small and tranquil little island could have such a dark and chequered history, however in it’s time the island has suffered from a plague of locusts, and is also the setting of a horrific and brutal murder; namely that of Anthony Mitchell, a local customs officer who was slain brutally by smugglers who in the year 1722 had been illegally hovering off the North East coast line, his body dumped in what became known as smugglers creek on the north of the island; the creek still being visible to visitors to the island today.
Smugglers by John Atkinson. Public domain via Wikimedia.
Then just a few years later in the year 1739, Michael Curry, a local glassworker, was found guilty of the murder of the landlord of the inn at Old Hartley. He was duly hanged for his crime in Newcastle, and as was customary in those days his body was hung on a gibbet in sight of his crime, at the spot which is now known as Curry’s point.
In 1799 a boat load of Russian Soldiers on their way to fight in the Napoleonic wars, were struck down with cholera and the island was used to quarantine them.
Then later, in the nineteenth century, a local couple obtained permission from the landlord Lord Hastings to open a public house on the island. The pub was known locally as the Square and Compass, and the family lived there peacefully doing a roaring trade for decades, until a dispute over their drunken customers brawling on neighbouring land, resulted in the somewhat ungainly eviction of the family and their pigs from the island that they loved.
St Mary’s island and it’s dark history features heavily in my novel Granny Irene’s Guide to the Afterlife, Revenge. You can find out further information at http://www.ingridhall.com
St Mary’s Island with tide coming in. Image by Jim Blakeley.