Souter Lighthouse

Souter Lighthouse

The Foghorn

The Foghorn


Souter Lighthouse is a lighthouse located in the village of Marsden in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, England. Souter was the first lighthouse in the world to be actually designed and built specifically to use alternating electric current, the most advanced lighthouse technology of its day. First lit in the 1870s, Souter was described at the time as 'without doubt one of the most powerful lights in the world'.

The lighthouse is located on Lizard Point, but takes its name from Souter Point, which is located a mile to the south. This was the intended site for the lighthouse, but it was felt that Lizard Point offered better visibility, as the cliffs there are higher, so the lighthouse was built there instead. The Souter Lighthouse name was retained in order to avoid confusion with the then recently-built Lizard Lighthouse in Cornwall.

Souter Lighthouse is approximately three miles south of the mouth of the River Tyne. Some four miles or so to the north of the mouth of the Tyne is a sister Victorian lighthouse, St Mary's Lighthouse, on St Mary's Island. This has now been decommissioned, but is open to visitors. St Mary's Lighthouse can be seen with the naked eye from the top of Souter Lighthouse.

The lighthouse was a much-needed aid to navigation due to the number of wrecks on the dangerous reefs of Whitburn Steel which lay directly under the water in the surrounding area. In one year alone – 1860 – there were 20 shipwrecks. This contributed to making this coastline the most dangerous in the country, with an average of around 44 shipwrecks per every mile of coastline.

Designed by James Douglass it was opened in 1871, with construction supervised by civil engineer Henry Norris for Trinity House. The contract for building the lighthouse and keeper's cottage was reported in March 1869 as being £8,000 and was awarded to the local firm of James Todd, after complaints that local builders had not had the opportunity to reply to tender as it had not been advertised locally. The foundation stone was ceremonially laid by Admiral Collinson's sister on 9 June 1869. After completing this project Douglass and Norris moved on to the building of Hartland Point Lighthouse in Devon.

Trinity House had carried out an extensive testing and selection process over five years and included comparison with oil lights and examination of equipment in Britain and France.

The 800,000 candle power light was generated using carbon arcs and not an incandescent light bulb, and could be seen for up to 26 miles. The optics were designed and built by James Chance in 1870. The main lens array consisted of a third-order fixed catadioptric optic surrounded by a revolving assembly of eight vertical condensing-prisms which produced one flash every minute.

In addition to the main light a red/white sector light shone from a window in the tower below the lantern, to highlight hazardous rocks to the south; it was powered using light diverted (through a set of mirrors and lenses) from the landward side of the main arc lamp.

Carbon arc lights for lighthouses were pioneered by Professor Frederick Hale Holmes with experiments in 1857 at Blackwell and South Foreland off the Kent coast, in 1860 at North Foreland (described in a lecture by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution) and a test installation at Dungeness in 1862 and complete installation at Souter in 1870. Electricity was provided by two of Holmes' own magneto electric generators for which he took out a series of patents during those years. One of the Holmes generators built in 1867 and used at Souter is now on display at the Science Museum, London. The generators were driven by one of a pair of 3 hp steam engines, located in the engine-house, which also drove an air-pump to feed the pressure tank of a foghorn. (The engines were worked alternately: one week on, one week off.)

In 1914 the pioneering electric light at Souter was replaced with more conventional oil lamps. At the same time Chance Brothers provided a new, much larger bi-form first-order catadioptric revolving optic, which remains in situ in the tower; as a bi-form lens it is double-height, containing two lamps, one above the other. (A separate lamp was used for the sector light, lower down in the tower).

In 1952 the lighthouse was again converted to run on (mains) electric power. The mechanism which caused the optic (lens array) to revolve was driven by clockwork until 1983. Souter Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1988, but continued to serve as a radio navigation beacon up until 1999 when it was finally closed.

As Souter was never automated, it remains much in its original operational state except for updates during its lifespan to its lantern and electrical apparatus.

Today the decommissioned Souter lighthouse is owned by the National Trust and open to the public; the engine room, light tower and keeper's living quarters are all on view. There is also an outdoor play area, Trusty Club and indoor activities to accommodate young visitors. Two of the former lighthouse keepers' cottages are used as National Trust holiday cottages. The lighthouse is said to be haunted, and has even featured on British TV's Most Haunted ghost-hunting programme.

The original fog signal at Souter was a Holmes-designed reed, housed in a foghorn house to the east of the lighthouse tower and sounded from a single upright horn facing straight out to sea. Compressed air was piped to the foghorn from the engine room alongside the lighthouse, where the air compressor was driven by a common drive shaft from the engines powering the magnetos. In 1873 a pair of twin horns replaced the single horn; they were of the same design but oriented north-east and south-east in order to give better sound projection. They in turn were superseded by twin Rayleigh trumpets in 1919, when a siren replaced the reed; the foghorn house was remodelled at the seaward corners to accommodate them. The siren signal was a 5-second sound of 480 Hz every 5 minutes.

The current pair of exponential horns dates from 1953, when a Stone Chance diaphone signal was installed. This produced a five-second blast every 30 seconds in poor weather, up until 1988 when Souter Lighthouse was decommissioned by Trinity House. The diaphone remains in working order and is sounded regularly for visitors throughout the year.

Victorian Marsden

Victorian Marsden


** – The Souter Saunter – **

Take the Souter Saunter and discover much more than a lighthouse standing alone on the coast. Classified as Easy, the walk is 2 and a half miles long and can take between one and two hours. It is descibed as dog friendly.

Start: Foghorn Field.

  • 1. Start your journey from the Foghorn House. Make your way through the gate and continue to the coastal footpath.
  • 2. Turn left and follow the coastal path along to the fence.
  • The Lost Village. Now you see it, now you don’t! This green space by Souter Lighthouse is all that remains of Marsden Village, built for local miners and their families. Home to 700 people, the village had 135 houses, a church, Co-op store, post office and school.
  • 3. Follow the fence line until you reach the public footpath.
  • Returned to nature. This is the site of an old car park which has been made unsafe by coastal erosion. The car park has been broken up to different stages and our Ranger team is recording the plants that colonise it and the rate that nature takes over.
  • 4. Turn left again and follow the public footpath past the lighthouse and through to the entrance to the car park - about 550yd (500m).
  • Lime Kilns. Limestone has been quarried at Marsden for hundreds of years and was burnt in the great lime kilns. Stone was tipped into the top of the kiln, burnt at very high temperatures to produce lime which was raked out from the bottom. The lime kilns closed in 1968.
  • 5. Turn right this time follow the road down to the car park. It's signposted Whitburn Coastal Park so it's difficult to get lost.
  • Whitburn Coastal Park. Whitburn Coastal Park used to be the site of Whitburn Colliery. Opened in the late 1870s, it closed in 1968 and at its height produced 2,600 tons of coal a day. Boys as young as 13 worked down the pit which stretched out for many miles under the North Sea.
  • 6. Take the path around the Nature Reserve and stop off at the viewing screens for a spot of bird watching.
  • Whitburn Nature Reserve. Whitburn Nature Reserve is reclaimed colliery land and includes tree planting, a bird observatory, viewing screens and wetland habitats. It was designated a Local Nature Reserve in 2003 and a lottery funded project in 2011 saw the installation of new ponds by local charity - the Coastal Conservation Group.
  • 7. Pick up the coastal path again at the bird hide, take a left and start to make your way back towards the lighthouse.
  • Rock stacks and seabirds. Magnesian limestone rocks form stacks, arches, headlands, bays and caves. Look out for nesting seabirds like cormorants, shags, kittiwakes, fulmar and herring gulls.
  • 8. Continue along the coastal path.
  • The Wherry. This beautiful bay was originally split in two by an island of rock. It was a favourite place for having fun, the north side for the Lads and the south for the Lassies.
  • 9. You're nearly there - continue along the coastal path to the fence line.
  • Lizard Point. Souter lighthouse actually stands on Lizard Point. Souter Point lies further to the south and was the original site for the lighthouse. The cliffs at Lizard Point are higher and a shorter tower could be built so it was later decided that the lighthouse would be here. They kept the name Souter Lighthouse because there was already a Lizard Lighthouse in Cornwall.
  • 10. Take a left back towards the Foghorn House. We hope you've enjoyed your walk and discovered some interesting things on the way.
  • Odd one out. Can you see the rock that looks different to all others? It’s man made and was used as a ranging marker for the nearby Tyneside batteries during times of conflict. The marker was used so that when aiming south, as long as the artillery was pointed seawards of the marker the shells would not hit friendly or civilian targets along the coastline.
  • End: Foghorn Field. You made it!!

  • ** – Facilities – **


  • • Seasonal menu uses homegrown and local produce.
  • • Car park, 100 yards.
  • • Dogs on leads in grounds only.
  • Family:-

  • • Baby changing facilities.
  • • For safety reasons back-carriers are not permitted inside.
  • • Children's play area.
  • Access:-

  • • Level access from main car park.
  • • Drop-off point outside the main lighthouse entrance.
  • • Mobility toilet on ground floor, accessible from outside.
  • • In the event of adverse weather conditions e.g. snow and ice, please take extra care. Footpaths close to the lighthouse will be gritted, but areas of the wider site may remain untreated.
  • • To read the National Trust full access statement (PDF) click here.


    Location : Souter Lighthouse, Coast Road, Whitburn, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, SR6 7NH

    Transport: Sunderland (National Rail) then bus. Metro: East Boldon OR South Shields (Tyne and Wear Metro) then 3 miles. Bus: E1 and S825 services from Sunderland to South Shields (passes Sunderland train station and South Shields) stop close by.

    Opening Times: Daily, 11:00 to 16:00 (17:00 spring and summer).

    Tickets: Adults £7.60;   Children £3.80.

    Parking: The car park is open 8am - 10pm daily. Charges 9am - 8pm. £1 = 1 hour, £2 = 2 hours, £3 = 4 hours, £4 all day. National Trust members free.

    Tel: 01915 293 161