Whitley Bay and Cullercoats

Sandcastle sculptures, Whitley Bay sea front.
Sandcastle sculpture by Richard Broiderick, Whitley Bay © David Simpson

Early Whitley

Whitley, as Whitley Bay was once known appears on an Ordnance Survey Map of the early 1860s as nothing more than a tiny village consisting of little more than a single short street. There wasn’t even a church at that time as Whitley Bay’s St Paul’s church was not built until 1864. Nevertheless the church is a good place to grasp the original extent of the old village. The church lies roughly at the west end of the original street (Whitley Road) and the old village street extended as far as what is now the junction with streets called North Parade and South Parade.

There was one small offshoot of houses on the north side of the main street at the midpoint (Park Avenue) which led north to a hall called Whitley Park. On the south side of the main street there was once a house called Whitley Hall, demolished in 1902, but that was just about it, Whitley was in the early 1860s as much a large hamlet as a small village.

On the 1860s map a country lane is shown north of Whitley Bay following what is now roughly North Parade, leading north east to a coastguard station. To the west of the village was the open country of the Shire Moor and a road to nearby Monkseaton, then a village larger than Whitley. To the south were roads to Cullercoats, only a tiny fishing village but also notably larger than Whitley. Further south still was Tynemouth, a town of much greater substance and then to the south west and much larger still, the thriving populous port of North Shields on the riverside.

Whitley Bay sea front.
Whitley Bay sea front © David Simpson

It would be hard to guess which part of Whitley Bay was the site of the original village of Whitley without the aid of an old map. However, St Paul’s church built at the west end of the old village street by the architect Anthony Salvin does help to pinpoint the location of the original settlement. The church, incidentally, was paid for by the Duke of Northumberland.

A description of Whitley in 1825 refers to two public houses but mentions that there were formerly five. Judging by the size of Whitley at that time the pubs must have made up a substantial portion of the village.

In fact there had been a colliery just south of Whitley village called Whitley Pit. It opened in 1817 and the pit was worked until 1848. There had also been a mine at Whitley in the 1600s. So Whitley’s population had already seen a rise and fall associated with the early nineteenth century colliery and this would account for the fall in the number of pubs. Whitley Pit was located at the point where Whitley Railway Station was later built – now the site of the Whitley Bay Metro Station.

The principal house in Whitley in 1825 was Whitley Hall on the south side of the village street. It was the property of the Duke of Northumberland and then the home to Sanderson Ilderton. Another hall, Whitley Park, was situated in what was then open countryside just to the north and nearer the coast. It was the home to a Thomas Wright of North Shields (died 1840). This hall was originally built around 1789 by an Edward Hall of Flatworth who was a noted fat ox breeder. When Hall died in 1792 his hall passed to a hostman called John Haigh and then to Thomas Wright about 1800. During the early twentieth century it served as a hotel. The adjoining grounds of this house were described in 1825 as having ‘a pleasing effect’. Today the grounds are still there and still called Whitley Park but are now a public park near The Spanish City.

Whitley Bay from St. Mary's Island.
Whitley Bay from St. Mary’s Island © David Simpson

The place-name Whitley means ‘white enclosure’ and the name is thought to have something to do with the fertility or lightness of the soil. It may have something to do with the creamy white outcrops of magnesian limestone known as dolomite. In the early 1100s Whitley and Monkseaton were part of the Lordship of Graffard that was based at Seghill but the two manors were given to the Priors of Tynemouth by Henry I sometime before 1116.

In these medieval times the owners of Whitley had to carry out certain agricultural duties for the Prior of Tynemouth. In addition to these duties they were also responsible for contributing to the repair of two mills at the priory and had to entertain the prior and his household on December 24th and December 25th every year, providing drink for the prior’s household and oats for the prior’s horses.

A family name arose at Whitley from the place and they were the tenants of the manor. The De Whitleys as they were called seem to have been very colourful characters. First mentioned around the reign of Richard I the family seem to have experienced ongoing disputes with the Priors of Tynemouth. A family member called Ralph De Whitley was sued by the Prior of Tynemouth for not paying customs and not providing the expected services. Another De Whitley, a John De Whitley inherited the lands at Whitley while still a minor but the Prior took him as a ward and then seemingly hindered his ability to fulfil his duties and even stole from De Whitley before charging him two years worth of the manor’s proceeds when he came of age in the 1280s.

View of Tynemouth Priory and Castle from Cullercoats.
View of Tynemouth Priory and Castle from Cullercoats © David Simpson

De Whitley petitioned the king but in 1290 there was an accusation that De Whitley had perpetrated a burglary at Whitley. However, a hearing of his case at Norham on Tweed in front of King Edward I, found in De Whitley’s favour and the lands of Whitley were confiscated from the Priory. However, the prior later had his revenge. When the Scot, William Wallace, invaded Northumberland in 1297 De Whitley stored all his possessions along with deeds and legal documents relating to his rights in a house near Tynemouth Castle for safety. The Prior decided that the houses around the castle might provide a hiding place for the Scots and burned the neighbouring houses down without removing De Whitley’s valued items which were lost for all time.

Further incidents involving the De Whitleys are worth noting. In 1305 John De Whitley led others in an attack on a William Baret at Burradon and then imprisoned him at Whitley, robbing him of robes, gold and silver. De Whitley claimed he had the right to do this as a constable of the manor, claiming Baret had assaulted a Robert Otway on his land.

Later, in 1318, a Gilbert De Whitley broke into the house of a Ranulph Tailor at Tynemouth. Tailor took refuge in Tynemouth Castle where Whitley blockaded him. On another occasion this same Gilbert seized a Robert Brown of Tynemouth and placed him in the stocks where he was almost driven to starvation. The reason for the punishment is unknown.

Gilbert De Whitley built a tower house at Whitley, with royal permission in 1345, though its actual site is unknown. Although it doesn’t seem to have survived into the 1500s it was presumably of a high standard as Gilbert was a military architect and had supervised work on the castle at Newcastle.

Later in the 1300s the De Whitley family’s male line died out, ending a colourful chapter in Whitley’s early records. Subsequent landowners at Whitley included the Parkers, Symeons, Tytlingtons, Olyvers, Thornboroughs, Fymers and the Ash family but in 1404 the manor of Whitley was repurchased by Tynemouth Priory. It remained in the priory’s hands up until the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. The Duke of Northumberland then became the main land owner and continued to be so up until the 1950s. For some years the principal tenants of the Duke were a family called Dove.

Whitley Sands, the bay, Whitley Bay.
Whitley Sands, the bay, Whitley Bay © David Simpson

From the 1670s into the early decades of the eighteenth century a Henry Hudson, who had been a close supporter of Oliver Cromwell during the Civil War, developed coal mining in the Whitley area in association with one of the Doves.

Hudson also had mining interests at nearby Preston (near North Shields) and at Monkseaton. Hudson’s industrial interests across the region included salt pans, lead mines and the limestone quarries at Whitley. It was Hudson who built Whitley Hall about 1760 on the south side of the village street though this was later sold by a successor to the Duke of Northumberland in 1817 and subsequent occupants were the duke’s tenants. The hall was demolished in 1902. By that time Whitley Bay, as it was now called, was being redeveloped as a coastal resort.

Whitley Bay

In was in 1902 that Whitley was officially renamed Whitley Bay, perhaps to distinguish it from Whitby in Yorkshire, another coastal town further down the North East coast. By this time Whitley had already grown well beyond the bounds of the original village and was a popular coastal resort with the people of Tyneside and the North East.

The roots of Whitley Bay’s sudden growth started around 1862 when a railway passed through the area linking Blyth to Tynemouth. A station opened at Hillheads which after the North Eastern Railway arrived in 1882, was superseded by later stations in 1888 and 1910. Whitley’s new accessibility from the railway along with the golden Whitley Sands and the proximity to populous Tyneside soon attracted developers who saw its potential as a resort and as a place of residence. New land was soon laid out for building purposes from about 1866 with more land purchased in the 1870s as shops and large houses were rapidly built. The principal developers were a Richard Heckels Nesbitt and an Alfred Styan who laid out many of the roads in Whitley Bay.

Spanish City, Whitley Bay.
Spanish City, Whitley Bay © David Simpson

Station Road, Esplanade and Delaval Road were among early developments set out between the station and the shoreline with the old Whitley village still situated to their west. North Parade and South Parade soon followed.

Walk along Whitley Road in what was once the old village from the church as far as the junction with North Parade and Victoria Terrace and you have no real sense that you have walked the extent of the original village of Whitley that predated the railway age. Instead you get the sense of Whitley Bay’s early twentieth century development as a coastal town. There’s a building with the date ‘1899’ and another called ‘Belvedere’ with the date ‘1926’ .

We also see the prominent façade of the ‘New Coliseum’ with no date on show but built in 1910 as a variety hall theatre. It was adapted nine years later as a cinema. Now occupied by shops it was still showing films as late as 1971 but there then followed the inevitable stint as a bingo hall that was the fate of so many old cinemas but the present shops look quite at home in this notable building. The old street also has a prominent pub called The Townhouse (as it is called in 2018) but this was originally an inn called The Ship and dates to 1931.

The Spanish City, Whitley Bay.
The Spanish City, Whitley Bay © David Simpson

During the first three decades of the twentieth century Whitley Bay expanded rapidly. Promenades and bathing machines were developed and Whitley Bay was thriving. Soon the neighbouring village of Monkseaton was absorbed as was Cullercoats and by the post war years there was continuous housing overlooking the lovely coastal scenery all the way from Tynemouth through Cullercoats and up to Whitley Bay almost as far north as the valley of the Briar Dene Burn with the beautiful St Mary’s Island and lighthouse a little beyond to the north.

In 1910 the striking domed building officially known as the ‘Spanish City and Whitley Bay Pleasure Gardens’ was opened near the shore at Whitley Park along with a funfair. Today the domed Spanish City is still Whitley Bay’s most famous landmark. Its name originated from the Spanish style decorations of the large tents of Charles Elderton’s earlier open air ‘Torreador’ theatre of concert performances which started around 1907. Locals nicknamed this ‘The Spanish City’ and the name was kept when Elderton built the permanent building on its site. Later in 1920, the Empress Ballroom was added.

In addition to the dome this bright white building has two towers topped with Greek-style lead figures of females. Over the years the Spanish City and its fairground rides became a place fondly recalled in many a Tyneside teenage memory, even immortalised (along with Cullercoats and Whitley Bay itself) in a 1980s Dire Straits song ‘The Tunnel of Love’ recalling the fairground rides at this popular place of teenage escape.

The Spanish City, Whitley Bay.
The Spanish City, Whitley Bay © David Simpson

Throughout the post war years Whitley Bay had provided a holiday break for workers away from the heavy industry of Tyneside though in fact not just from Tyneside. The locally famed ‘Glasgow fortnight’ saw masses of holidaying Glaswegians heading south from Scotland to Whitley Bay for their annual holiday in a tradition that continued through into the 1970s. From around that time Whitley Bay was beginning to face competition from the popularity of inexpensive foreign package holidays and fell on quieter times. Fortunately, it mostly managed to avoid the ‘run down’ problems of less genteel coastal resorts and has retained much charm. It is still thriving, especially on sunny days along with neighbouring Tynemouth. The beautiful beaches of both places are a particular draw.

In 2018 the Spanish City reopened after a major redevelopment and restoration of many of its original features. Now a fine dining, restaurant and leisure venue the Spanish City includes wedding and conference suites, cafes, a number of restaurants and an ice cream parlour. The interior of the spectacular dome itself offers a beautiful internal setting and the reopening of the Spanish City is an exciting new chapter in Whitley Bay’s story.


The name Cullercoats comes from an Old English word ‘culver’ meaning dove or pigeon (originally a wood pigeon) and combined with the word coate (cote – a shelter) it simply means dovecots. Cullercoats was first mentioned in the early 1600s when it was called ‘Culvercoats’. Coincidentally a principal family associated with Cullercoats in times past were called Dove. Cullercoats was originally part of Tynemouth rather than Whitley and the boundary between the two townships was a tiny stream called the Marden Burn. In fact Marden means ‘boundary-dene’ (dene being a wooded valley) and Marden was the main settlement of the area before Cullercoats came into existence.

Cullercoats Bay.
Cullercoats Bay © David Simpson

The hamlet of Marden was just west of Cullercoats and some older cottages associated with Marden can still be seen in Cullercoats’ Marden Park. The lake in this park was incidentally once a reservoir for North Shields Water Works.

Coal was mined at Marden from around 1315 but the pit was destroyed during a Scottish raid. A water mill was mentioned on the Marden Burn and also dated back to medieval times. Situated on land the lands of Tynemouth priory, the mill was occupied by Robert and John Dove in 1538.

The dovecot from which Cullercoats takes its name was originally part of Marden and probably connected to the Marden mill. It was mentioned as ‘Culvercoats’ in 1600 and situated on a portion of land called Marden Close also called Culler Corners and belonged to the Delavals of Tynemouth. It was sold to Thomas Wrangham in 1618 and subsequently sold to Thomas Dove of Whitley. Thomas Dove’s son, a John Dove, was imprisoned at Tynemouth Castle for a time in 1661, for attending a Quaker meeting – dissenters were heavily discouraged in those times.

In 1676 Dove went into partnership with Henry Hudson developing coal mines at Whitley and Cullercoats and they developed Cullercoats as a small port in 1677 for exporting the coal. Cullercoats was officially recognised as a port by Newcastle following a petition from Lady Percy who had a financial interest in the venture.

Associated with the coal industry were the salt pans in which sea water was heated with the coal for the extraction of salt. Often noted for their unpleasant fumes, there were nineteen salt pans at Cullercoats Bay.

A Thomas Dove who was the son of the John Dove, who helped develop the collieries and the port at Cullercoats, built a house at Cullercoats in 1682 called Sparrow Hall (also sometimes known as Dove Hall). The remains of this hall can still be seen near the coast. It was later sold to a Dove relative with the spectacular name of Zephaniah Haddock, in 1706. Meanwhile the Dove line at Cullercoats came to an end in the 1740s when a female heir married a man called Huddleston.

The remains of Sparrow Hall in the old part of Cullercoats.
The remains of Sparrow Hall in the old part of Cullercoats © David Simpson

Cullercoats had been separated from the township of Tynemouth in 1690 but its time as a coal and salt port was relatively short lived. Cullercoats Colliery and the first Whitley Colliery were fully worked respectively in 1723 and 1724 and the destruction of the Cullercoats pier in a storm of 1710 didn’t help either. Without the coal the salt industry also ceased to operate at Cullercoats and the salt pans were transferred to Blyth.

The little coastal village of Cullercoats then reinvented itself as a fishing port and soon gained a great reputation for its herring, being described as the ‘best fish market in the North’ in 1749. By 1825 Cullercoats was home to around 536 people and 92 houses. It was then inhabited mostly by fishermen and mention is also made of an old disused wagonway for coals and the ruined pier which was eventually rebuilt in 1848.

Cullercoats was, however, best-known for its busy community of fishing village women called ‘the Cullercoats fishwives’. The women were active in sorting and selling the fish. William Tomlinson’s Guide to Northumberland of 1888 records:

“Very familiar indeed is the figure of the Cullercoats fish-wife, as, clad in blue serge jacket, short petticoats with ample skirts, large apron and black straw bonnet she trudges along with a heavy creel of fish on her shoulders calling in, shrill and not unmusical tones of voice, ‘Buy fee-s-ch’”

The women of Cullercoats were also seemingly a brave bunch. In 1861 a ship from Seaham called ‘The Lovely Nelly’ was driven onto the rocks at Briardene to the north of Whitley during a blizzard on New Year’s Day, 1861. There were no horses available so the women hauled the Cullercoats lifeboat over the headland to the rescue all of the ship’s crew except for the cabin boy, a lad named Tommy, who was too frightened to jump. His body was washed ashore the next day.

There is a tiny bay at Cullercoats – Cullercoats Bay – with a small beach and piers either side. Overlooking the beach is an RNLI Cullercoats lifeboat station and the Dove Marine Laboratory. The laboratory is part of Newcastle University’s School of Marine Science and Technology and was founded in 1897. Originally a wooden hut it burned down shortly after it was established but was re-founded with the generous support of a local landowner and geologist called Wilfred Huddleston who asked that it be named in honour of one of his ancestors, an Eleanor Dove.

Cullercoats Bay is bounded to the north by the rocks of the Browns Point peninsula (with the Brownside Bay to its north) and the bay is bounded on the south side by the Saddle Rocks at Tynemouth Point where features include a ‘Smuggler’s Cave’.

Immediately south of these rocks is a much larger and longer beach: the Tynemouth Long Sands, stretching all the way down to the rocks of Sharpness Point which separate them from the Short Sands of King Edward’s Bay beneath Tynemouth Castle and Priory. The castle and priory at Tynemouth to the south along with St Mary’s Island to the north are very much part of the coastal view at Cullercoats. The principal landmark in Cullercoats itself is the church of St George with its tall spire. The church dates from 1884.

St Mary’s Island

St Mary’s Island with its beautiful lighthouse is Whitley Bay’s most serene attraction and a perfect picture postcard view. Like a miniature version of Lindisfarne, the island is linked to the mainland by a short causeway at low tide for about 16 hours a day. In Norman times a monastic chapel associated with Tynemouth Priory and dedicated to St Helen was built on the island and included a tower of some kind in which there was a candle-lit light presumably to warn ships of the dangerous rocks. The monks kept a burial ground on the island and this continued in use – in later times by local people until around 1800.

St. Mary's Island
St. Mary’s Island © David Simpson

Somehow in popular memory the island came to be associated with St Mary rather than St Helen, although St Mary seems to have been the name of the bay. The island was also alternatively known by the name Bait Island from a onetime inhabitant who was actually called Thomas Bates rather than Bait. Records at Earsdon church in the 1600s mention burials within the chapel walls of Bates Hill (presumably Bait island) and the chapel of Bates Island is mentioned in 1778. However, all traces of the chapel on the island had disappeared by the 1860s.

Thomas Bates, from whom the island received its alternative name, came into possession of the island in the 1580s. He was a surveyor working for Elizabeth I, which is ironic as some centuries later it was the Ordnance Survey who misspelled his name referring to it as Bait Island – perhaps assuming it to be connected with the digging of fishermen’s ‘bait’. The island was also sometimes referred to as ‘Hartley Bates’ from its proximity to the village of Hartley just to the north.

One curious and unexplained incident occurred at the island in 1763 when a woodcock was shot here and found to contain a diamond in its stomach.

The small headland which is linked to the island by a causeway across the rocks at low tide is known as Curry’s Point. It is named from a Michael Curry who worked at a glass works in Seaton Sluice. He was executed in September 1739 for the murder of Robert Shevill, landlord of the Three Horseshoes Inn at Hartley to the north. It was common practice to hang, and leave to rot, the tarred bodies of executed murderers in full site of the place at which their evil deed took place.

Curry's Point.
Curry’s Point © David Simpson

This was a practice known as gibbeting and the headland here came to be called Currys Point in recollection of Curry’s gibbet that once stood here. It is not the only murder associated with the island and its vicinity. In 1722 a customs official called Anthony Mitchell was found dead on the island close to a recess called Smugglers Creek where a band of brandy smugglers once hid their ware. They were presumably the perpetrators and were perhaps caught in the act of smuggling.

In 1862 a Mr Ewen opened an inn in a cottage (dating to 1799) on the island and the inn was named the Freemasons Arms. It was popularly known as The Square and Compass. It became increasingly noted for rowdy behaviour and its licensing hours were difficult for the police to regulate due to the tidal nature of the island. Eventually the landowner, Lord Hastings, decided he’d had enough, evicting Ewen, his family and his pig from the island in November 1895. Ewen and his family left with little resistance but it took six hours to catch the pig.

The following month a John Crisp moved into the cottage to operate it as a temperance hotel and one of his first lodgers was a surveyor who surveyed the island for the building of the light house with Crisp’s assistance. The lighthouse was commenced the following year and completed in 1898. It was later electrified in 1977 and was the last in England to be so.

The island was a particularly hazardous point and a lighthouse had long been needed. One notable wreck had occurred in June 1891 when a ship from Montreal called The Gothenberg had hit the rocks in heavy fog with 44 crew and 476 cattle on board. The crew and cattle were all saved with the aid of ferry boats from the Tyne, but the ship and its cargo could not be saved.

Lighthouse keepers resided on the island with their families and in 1900 the island was home to sixteen children, a remarkable squash on a tiny island, but presumably they had a taste for sardines.

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