The Seaton Sluice Watch House Museum is open to the public, staffed by volunteers from the Seaton Sluice and Old Hartley Local History Society, every Sunday afternoon throughout the summer, from 2 pm to 4:30 pm, and on Heritage Open Days (8-10 & 15-17 September).
The story of The Watch House, and the Volunteer Life-Saving Company, started on the North East coast. At the end of the 18th century, by far the greatest number of wrecks occurred on this coast because of the sheer volume of shipping and the severity of on-shore gales in winter. This led to the first purpose designed lifeboat, the 'Original', being stationed at South Shields in 1789.
In 1822 HM Coastguard was formed to combat smuggling but also to be responsible for supervision of life-saving from shipwrecks. Because the efforts of the Coastguard were sometimes inadequate, the first corps of shore-based rescuers, Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, was set up in 1864. Thereafter, the Merchant Shipping Act regulations required the Coastguards to act as recruiting officers for the Volunteer Life-Saving Brigades, and here, in 1876, a small group of volunteers was enrolled to assist the local Coastguard, thus creating the Seaton Sluice Volunteer Life-Saving Company.
Soon afterwards, a Cart House, in which to keep the life-saving apparatus, was built behind the King's Arms, and on 14th January 1880 this Watch House was opened. It was built at the expense of Lord Hastings of nearby Seaton Delaval Hall and consists of a Watch Tower and a Muster Room, originally fitted with a cast‑iron range with fire grate & flanking hobs, "for the convenience of the men" and a Coal Store. The Watch House is now a Grade II Listed Building and belongs to Northumberland County Council.
The method of life-saving used by the Life-Saving Company hardly changed since the beginning of the 19th century. It entails securing a hawser taut between the shore and the shipwrecked vessel, along which the crew and any passengers can be pulled to safety, latterly by means of a breeches-buoy harness. To enable the hawser to be hauled out to a stricken vessel lying some distance from the shore, a lighter line attached to a rocket has first to be fired onto the wreck. The Company met twice a month to be trained by the Coastguard in the use of the double charge Boxer Rocket and the deployment of lines, hawsers, etc. Exercise drills were carried out in the Mortarfield close to the old Melton Constable Public House, on what is now the site of the sewage pumping station, on the south side of the harbour. The Company would fire rockets across the Seaton Burn onto the Ballast Hills before retiring to the pub for dinner and no doubt a drink or two. Rescue drill competitions between local Life-Saving Corps were a regular feature of life on the North East coast until the late 1960s, as were their annual dinners and frequent concerts or smokers.
The Board of Trade provided the Life-Saving Brigades & Companies with all the rockets, apparatus, lines and gear, paid the rent of the accommodation where the equipment was kept, and made an annual contribution to their funds.
When the Volunteers were called out by the firing of maroons at the Watch House, they would run from their cottages or workplaces to assemble at the Cart House where the life-saving apparatus was permanently stowed ready for use on the equipment cart. This heavy four-wheeled wooden cart had then to be dragged, via road or track, to the site closest to the vessel in distress. Brigades used horses to pull their carts, but at Seaton Sluice it is thought to have been pulled by the volunteers.
In October 1880, soon after the completion of the Watch house, the Company was involved in rescuing the crews of two sailing vessels, a Dutch cargo boat ‘Tre Gebroeders’ and the Littlehampton schooner ‘Mary Ann’ wrecked at Crag Point and Hartley Bay respectively. One particularly brave rescuer Thomas Langley was later awarded the Royal Humane Society Medal and a purse of gold coin.
There was a Coastguard presence here long before the Volunteer Life Saving-Company was formed. As early as 1827, a detachment of Coastguards from Blyth Haven was deployed at Hartley and it is recorded that in 1832 Coastguard Philip Foote was stationed with his family at Crag House, Crag Point at the south end of Collywell Bay. This cottage was rented from the Delaval Estate, as also were the flagstaffs used for signalling. By 1851 this station had been moved to two cottages in Sea Terrace, just south of the King's Arms, then known locally as 'The Flags' from its proximity to the Coastguard's flagstaffs. In 1888 the two Coastguard cottages next to the Watch House on Rocky Island were built.
The wrecking and subsequent rescue of crew members from the 2,500ton barque 'California' off St. Mary's Island in January 1913 was probably the highlight of the Company's efforts in the following century. For their bravery in this action, medals were awarded to Coastguard William Harmer and Company members James Ingram and Charles Major.
Between 1856 and 1909, 173,528 lives were saved from shipwrecks off the coasts of the British Isles and, of that total, 17,446 were saved by rocket apparatus and assistance with ropes from the shore. After World War 1 however the number of call-outs to wrecks steadily declined as sail gave way to steam, ships became bigger and more powerful, and navigational aids were greatly improved. HM Coastguard was forced to reduce the scale of its activities but the life-saving companies carried on with their training and drills.
In 1925 the white painted timber clad Look-out was built near to the cliff edge to afford a better view of the coast and especially into Collywell Bay. From then on the Watch Tower in the Watch House became redundant. Following an Enquiry in 1931, the Board of Trade formed the Coast Life-Saving Corps for watching and intelligence work and this absorbed many of the original life-saving companies.
Little is known of the activities of the Life-Saving Corps during either of the two World Wars. Many of the eligible members were called up for service with their Coastguard colleagues and the Watch House would have been taken over by the Army. During WW2, life-saving was made very difficult by the presence of mines and concrete and barbed wire defences along the beaches. There was also a ban on the firing of signal maroons.
After the end of WW2 the Seaton Sluice VLSC continued to play an active role in rescue and weather watch, but the number of ships running ashore continued to decline, leaving little demand for the services of both HM Coastguard and the independent network of life-saving companies. As a result, in 1966 the latter became the Coastguard Auxiliary Service and the Watch House was designated an Auxiliary Coastguard Station. The life-saving apparatus was mustered for the last time in June 1982, and in 1990 the remaining auxiliaries were transferred to Blyth and the Watch House was closed after 110 years of service.
In 2003, only three Volunteer Life Saving Brigades, i.e. declared facilities separate from HM Coastguard, remained, out of the original 40 formed at the end of the 19th century, and they were Tynemouth, South Shields, and Sunderland.
After the Watch House closed, the building and its contents were handed over to the then Blyth Valley Borough Council as a museum.