Life on Northumberland's forgotten Rocky Island off Seaton Sluice

Research has revealed a community which thrived on Rocky Island off Seaton Sluice in Northumberland

A view of Rocky Island
A view of Rocky Island

The islands of the North East coast are a celebrated part of the region’s rich stock of natural and historical assets.

From monastic heritage to lighthouses and wildlife, the Farne Islands, Coquet Island, Lindisfarne and St Mary’s Island are among the most photographed locations in the region.

But there is another island which does not share the high profiles of its offshore sisters and whose story has been largely overlooked.

Rocky Island was created between 1761 and 1764 when the Delaval family carved a channel through the headland at Seaton Sluice to fashion a new entrance to the harbour.

A footbridge was provided for the inhabitants of the new island, which continued as a thriving community until its demise in the 1960s.

But the story of life on Rocky Island has been rescued by Seaton Sluice villagers Hugh and Helen Lamont.

Helen is related to the Elder family, who lived on the island and whose number included Nancy Davison.

Nancy was born on the island in 1916 and lived there until after her marriage in 1940, when she moved to Beresford Road in Seaton Sluice.

Nancy Davison's house on Rocky Island
Nancy Davison's house on Rocky Island
 

Hugh and Helen talked to Nancy, who died in 2007, about her memories and have published her recollections in a booklet called Life on Rocky Island.

“Rocky Island is fascinating, and we wanted to get Nancy’s memories down on paper,” says Hugh, who is curator of the listed Watch House Museum on the island and vice-chairman of Seaton Sluice and Old Hartley Local History Society.

Nancy’s great grandfather, William Elder, was born in 1793 and came to Seaton Sluice as a river pilot.

The 1841 census shows his family on Rocky Island and his son Samuel – Nancy’s grandfather who was born in 1827 – lived and died on the island, having married twice and fathered 14 children.

Nancy’s house, like those of her neighbours, was built in the 18th century, and the 1901 Census shows that there were 16 properties on the island, with a population of 63.

There was only one tap, shared by all the residents, and Barney the horse.

“The horse would wait around the tap for someone passing to turn it on for him,” says Hugh.

The houses were owned by Lord Hastings of the Delaval Estate, and Nancy’s was typical with two bedrooms, and a living room which also served as a kitchen and bathroom.

Toilet facilities were outside and, with no mains drainage, had to be emptied each week with a wagon arriving at the end of the footbridge.

Light was by paraffin oil as there was no electricity on the island, and gas lighting was only introduced in the late 1930s.

English Heritage An aerial view of Rocky Island, on the left. Copyright English Heritage
An aerial view of Rocky Island, on the left. Copyright English Heritage

Most of the men on the island were miners, and were entitled to free coal. which was dumped near the bridge with the islanders using anything available to carry it to their homes.

The Watch House, built in 1876 for the Seaton Sluice Volunteer Life Saving Company, was also the focus of the island’s social life.

Nancy’s miner father Stephen was a self-taught pianist and would play at “socials” in the Watch House. But first his piano had to be manhandled up the hill to the building.

His medals were stolen from the Watch House Museum some years ago but were returned to Nancy after being found on a stall at Tynemouth Market in 2004.

By the early 1960s Whitley Bay Council was debating whether the houses were fit for human habitation.

There were moves to have them preserved as “ancient monuments” but when the Delaval Estate decided it could not afford the upgrading of the homes, their fate was sealed.

This resulted in a “last stand” by one of the residents, widow Mrs Jane Forster, who had lived on the island for all of her 72 years.

She defied the council and refused to move from her £5-a-year rented cottage. saying : “People call me the Robinson Crusoe widow but I will not be budged.”

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