The Durham Lights #2: The Candidates December 19, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
In a previous post we set out, with some help from Charles Fort and David Clarke the history of the Durham Lights, shipwrecking lights that turned up on the jagged coast at Whitburn (North-East England) in the mid late 1860s and that were only banished with the opening of the Souter Lighthouse in January 1871. After having spent a few hours looking at this problem we offer here a series of possible explanations for what produced the mysterious lights. As noted at the close of the last post it would be foolish to assume that there are any easy answers given that men of vast experience and intelligence (and to judge by the records, integrity) were reluctant to finger any particular cause. However, for what it is worth…
Anomalous Lightforms: the lights were produced by mysterious ‘earth lights’. There are two overriding problems with this explanation: (i) where is the proof that earth lights exist; and (ii) the lights are often described as revolving (blinking?), something not typical of witness accounts of earth lights. There is also the claim made by David Clarke that the lights often disappeared as the boat came closer to the shore and then returned as the boat left the shore. We have found little evidence of this (note that David knows the sources better); and the disappearing could just be the result of the light being obscured by the cliff as the boat approached the dangerous shore?
Atmospheric Conditions: The sky around Whitburn produced several visibility issues. First, smog from Sunderland drifted down and reduced vision. Second, this was, in any case, a foggy coastline: and the lights were only seen in the fog (why?). Third, there were many lights on the shore and even in the distance these could have been distorted, perhaps even Tynemouth Lighthouse. That lighthouse was some ten miles away but it might, for a ship too close to land, have appeared over the Souter headland. As one report put it this would ‘not mislead a seaman of ordinary experience’. If you get the sniff of a solution here be warned: in another report a captain denies that it was even possible to see Tynemouth Lighthouse in this way.
Wreckers: Wrecking refers to the sport of gathering cargo from ships tempted onto rocks by false lights. There is one intriguing report that a ship captain heard a cheer from land when he ran ashore. This is an isolated report and even the captain in question admitted that the cheer could have been for something else: the launching of the lifeboat, say. The indications are, though, that there was not much in the way of useful cargo on these ships that would be washed ashore and there is something particularly shrill and angry in the way that the local community rejected the charge: they, at one point refused to take out the lifeboat until they were cleared! There is, it is also worth saying, not much of a wrecking tradition in the North-East, despite a particularly malicious shoreline and particularly poor coastal villages.
Salvagers: Another possibility is that the local community were not interested in the cargo of boats – few broke up – but they understood that there was money to be made from helping boats off the rocks. Vast sums were expended on refloating ships and this was given to salvage companies but also to the local fishermen. We have one report of local sailors being rewarded sixty pounds for saving a ship: a fortune in the mid-late nineteenth century. This would again presuppose, as with wrecking, though that a community could successfully carry out this kind of very serious crime, without any word leaking out, notwithstanding various official and officious inquiries.
Psycho wrecker: Wreckers and Salvagers presupposes an effort by the community or a group within the community. Another possibility is simply that there was one nasty son-of-a-bitch who got his or her kicks from bringing ships to woe. There is a much reported piece of evidence of a discovery of a stick with a tar mop on top, hidden up a chimney. Left burning and managed properly this would have been sufficient to confuse ships. It was later claimed that this was a boy’s trick to scare a local…* [See SM comment below] We’ll never know.
Gas: gas had arrived in Whitburn in the mid 1860s and presumably the quality of the light will have changed as a result: one report, at least, refers to the lights as being brighter. Locals were well aware of the dangers and tried to block their windows, but, perhaps some forgot. Gas might explain why the lights became a problem in the mid 1860s and why the problem then vanished as the Souter Lighthouse sent out a far stronger beam.
Looking back over this list it is striking that those who investigated were very keen to exonerate the local population: Admiral Cunningham, the head of the commission that sat, went so far as to write a letter to a regional newspaper. Beach, with no real proof, but just a half-diseased instinct would put his money on Atmospheric Conditions perhaps with Gas bringing up the rear. Any other notions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com It is also worth noting again that most ships that were wrecked in this period did not report seeing lights of any description!!!
18 December: here are some thoughts a day before the post is published from two contributors replying to the post #1: though their comments are best suited to this piece. First, Chris S (a person worth listening to) writes: ‘If you haven’t already written the next pieces in your Durham Lights series, I’d like to recommend looking at mirages/temperature inversions/fata morgana as one possible explanation for the phenomenon.’ Then Southern Man sends here the reports about the false light on the mop marked with an asterisk above. I’m particularly grateful for these as I wasn’t able to track them down. ‘Here’ writes SM ‘is an article from a local paper January 1868. ‘A great deal of angry feeling has been excited in Durham with regards to the alleged false lights being exhibited on the coast near Whitburn. Masters of vessels bound for the Tyne, who found their vessels suddenly cast upon the rocks of that iron-bound coast, maintained that they had been decoyed there by lights which they mistook for Tynemouth, and the inhabitants angrily denied that anything of the sort could have happened. Three or four vessels having been stranded on Whitbum rocks this winter, instead of reaching Shields harbour, to which their masters thought they were being guided by the lights, and the masters have alleged, as the others had done, that they were decoyed there by lights which they mistook for Tynemouth, Captain Kirby, of London, being on visit to his friends in the north, determined to explore the coast, and try to solve the mystery of the lights. the course of his wanderings came upon a solitary hut in Freshwater Bay, near Souter Point, and though then uninhabited, he discovered traces that it had recently been occupied by some one, and upon looking the chimney he found piece of wrecked timber about two aad a half feet in length, but evidently broken off a piece much greater length. On one end of it was mass of rope yarn, pitch and tar, similar to pitch mop used on board ship, but it had no appearance having been in the water. He took it to shields and gave it to the secretary of the Tyne Pilotage Commission. The subject was brought before Board at its meeting Friday last, when was unanimously resolved ‘that the attention of the Commander of the Coastguard, and the county police, be drawn the discovery of torch of a suspicions character round hut near Souter Point, and to the fact that vessels have been misled by certain lights that neighbourhood, and that a vigilant watch be maintained the locality.’ The local community was incensed. A later article included these details. ‘The [question of the false lights] was set at rest when investigated by Admiral Collinson and others, but is again stirred up from a discovery made by Captain Kirby. The fact is, the discovery made by Captain Kirby was put into the chimney of the hut, which is uninhabited, by some boys two years ago to tease an old man who was then watching the wrecked stores. The boys have come forward to prove the same. The report has had a painful effect on the fishermen. They have had a meeting on the subject and passed the following resolutions: 1. That this meeting, considering the unfounded charges which are publicly made against the Whitburn fishermen as a body of men with regard to what are called false lights, hereby pass a resolution to petition the Board of Trade to inquire into the matter on the spot, by sending a commissioner for the purpose; and 2. that until some inquiry is made the fishermen. will refuse to give any assistance to ship-wrecked sailors, either by lifeboat or any other way. I do think it will be well if you can promote the object of an inquiry, as the natter, if fairly investigated, will, I am sure, free the fishermen and all parties from such a charge. A better body of men for exerting themselves to save life at the risk of their own cannot be found. It is a fact that nearly all the vessels which come on shore here are worn-out old colliers, which to the owners are better lost than otherwise, and the false lights, so called, an excuse for the captains.’ Thanks Chris and thanks SM!
19 Dec 2013: Nemo writes in with this thought: ’19 cent newspapers do include references, under various names to earth lights. It is interesting that no newspaper and that we know of, no contemporary, interpreted the lights in (forgive the pun) this light’. Thanks Nemo!
20 Dec 2013: Alan writes in with this. ‘You ask (i) where is the proof that earth lights exist; and you state that; (ii) the lights are often described as revolving (blinking?), something not typical of witness accounts of earth lights. The proof exists in the Hessdalen Project run by Ostfold University College, Norway. In collaboration with French scientists, the university has been observing and measuring these phenomena in the Hessdalen valley since the 1980s (spectrographs, etc., using an automatic station), when their activity seems to have peaked. At present, observations have declined to about 20 a week. The phenomena are divided into four sub-types, two of which involve the rotating “lighthouse” effect mentioned in your post. Such flashing has also been observed at non-optical frequencies. As yet, no single hypothesis has been able to explain these phenomena. For more information, go to the Hessdalen site.’ Thanks Alan!