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War-Time on St Mary's Island

by Age Concern North Tyneside

Contributed by 
Age Concern North Tyneside
People in story: 
Alys Crisp; Jack Crisp
Location of story: 
St Mary's Island; Whitley Bay
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
16 November 2004

War Time on St Mary's Island

My name is Alys Crisp and I married my husband Jack on 6th September 1939. His family lived in Seaton Sluice ut during the summer moved to St Mary’s Island off Whitley Bay on the Northumberland coast wher his mother ran a café for visitors.

When the war started they decided to let their house in Seaton Sluice to a naval officer and his wife and moved permanently to their cottage on the island. This is where I began my married life.

One day when Jack and his father Charlie were walking to Seaton Sluice from the island they saw a torpedo moving through the sea towards a ship, the ‘Shieldfield’, that had just left Blyth harbour to join a convoy from the Tyne. The ship went down and all the crew were lost. We found out later that another ship should have sailed first but was held up with engine trouble. I was told this by a girl I worked with who was the daughter of the Captain of the ship that was delayed.

The facilities on the island were very basic. We only had candles and oil lamps and an oil stove for cooking. There was a big black range which had a copper tank on top. A coal fire would be set in the range to heat water. The water from the previous night’s hot water bottles were used for washing in the morning.

Bathing meant a visit to a relative or friend. Sometimes we used a zinc bath put in front of the fire with a clothes horse around it. Rainwater was used for washing.

Our fresh water came from a well. Lord Hastings, the owner of the island had had a pipe laid from a stream on the mainland across to a well at the bottom of the access road. With high tides and big seas seawater often got into the well. This would mean bailing out the water. If we had forgotten to fill our drinking water pail and needed some before we could bail it out we put a stick into the main pipe and let it drip into our container.

John Harris Crisp, Jack’s grandfather laid some stepping stones over to the mainland to give us a little more time to cross if the tide came in faster than we expected.

The island had a lighthouse and the two keepers had the same asic facilities. They collected water from the rainwater running from their roofs. My mother in law was given a box of rations to share with the lighthouse keepers and the families should the Germans invade! It contained baked beans, evaporated milk, tea and coffee.

Jack enlisted with the RAF on April 10th 1940 and was sent to Edinburgh Turnhouse for training. I went there with him but returned to the island when he was posted to Lincoln.

As she had the shop and the café on the island my mother in law was told that she must take her quota of cigarettes from Sinclairs, the cigarette makers in Newcastle. They were delivered every month. On the mainland just over from the island was an army camp so she had no difficulty in selling them. Mr Brown, who was the warden for the firing range came over and collected them, sold them immediately and brought the money back.

My aughter Valerie was born on July 1st 1942.

Having the army using the Butts for firing practice caused great problems for us and the lighthouse keepers. If we were leaving the island we always planned it so that we left together but could not always arrange to return at the same time. A few officers and sergeants were quite willing to stop firing but others were less cooperative. Sometimes we had to ring Mr Brown to ask them to stop firing so that we could leave.

Sometimes on returning and seeing the rocks on the beach covered by the sea I knew the road over to the island would be nearly covered but the firing was still continuing. At other times I would just get between the Butts when the firing would start. It was not pleasant hearing bullets missing their targets and whistling past. The lighthouse was peppered with bullet holes. The sentry on the corner of Trinity Road would ring the Warden and sometimes the firing was stopped. At other times the answer was NO and I was told to go behind the firing lines. This was very difficult when I was pushing a pram containing a child, shopping, the accumulator for the precious wireless and trying to get over the trenches.

Some days the wind would have risen and the tide come in more quickly and I had the choice of waiting for four hours on the beach or leaving the pram and shopping, taking off my shoes and paddling across with Valerie in my arms. This might be pleasant enough in summer but not in winter. But it had to be done. Quite often I had to come off the island and dress Valerie on the beach to avoid the high tide.

One foggy morning as I left the island not expecting the Army to be at the range. As I walked up the bank a young soldier sprang up from the long grass. We were both very shocked. “Where have you come from?” he asked. “From the cottage on the island”, I replied. “I’ve not walked over the sea from Germany pushing a pram!” He was obviously a new arrival and didn’t know that anyone lived on the island. I often wonder if that young man survived the war.

There were two lighthouse keepers. Mr Smith was the Principal keeper and Harold Hall his assistant. The lighthouse of course wasn’t operating but my father in law, Charles Crisp, Stan Gibbon from Seaton Sluice and another man from Monkseaton known as the ‘Major’ did a twenty-four hour rota of duties. One day my father in law thought he would play a joke on the Major. We had a number of cases of stuffed birds in the cottage, one holding a Great Auk. The bird was taken and placed on the pill box on the cliff. The Major arrived the next day excitedly saying he was sure he ha seen a Great Auk on the mainland. Unfortunately within twenty four hours the bird was destroyed by the army taking pot shots at it. It proved to be an expensive joke – the last such bird that went up for sale sold for £11,000!

My husband’s parents had to go back to Seaton Sluice leaving me on my own with Valerie. I decided to go and stay with an aunt in Harrow in North London but after a few weeks decided it was safer on the island. Another aunt in Chatham asked me to go there but when the V” rockets started coming over I decided to risk the unpleasantness of the range officers and the bullets and return to St Mary’s island. I felt safer there as we knew the Luftwaffe used the lighthouse as one of their landmarks and would not deliberately bomb it.

Towards the end of the war German prisoners were moved into the billets our soldiers had used. I would not speak to them. Silly, but I felt bitter.

We lived on the island until 1947.

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