For such a slim, sand tidal island, Spurn has witnessed some unique and dramatic developments over the past 200 years.
Forming part of the civil parish of Easington, it stretches over three miles to form the north bank of the mouth of the Humber estuary, and is only 50 yards wide in places.
The area’s southernmost tip is aptly named Spurn Head of Point. Apart from regular accounts of being at the mercy of severe storms, the entire area has grown in character by the establishment of a lifeboat station, by lighthouse construction, by military fortification and the establishment of a nature reserve.
The earliest reference to the existence of a lighthouse at Spurn Point is 1427. Later, in the 1770s, Leeds-born civil engineer, John Smeaton, was commissioned to build a pair of lighthouses – a high light and a low light – at Spurn Point. The brick-built houses were 90ft and 50ft high respectively and 280 yards apart, exhibiting coal fires from enclosed lanterns. The new lighthouses were supervised by Trinity House under the powers given to them under various Acts.
A need for a lifeboat at Spurn was met in 1810, the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette of October 13, 1810, announcing a vessel had been acquired with the aid of subscriptions. In time housing was built to accommodate the lifeboatmen and the lighthouse keepers.
In 1820, at the request of numerous merchants, owners and masters of ships, a vessel fitted as a floating light, belonging to Trinity House, was moored off Spurn Point. A light was to be constantly visible at night for the benefit of navigation while a flag was to be shown on board in the daytime, and a bell sounded in foggy weather.
In spite of lighthouses and floating light ships, newspaper reports abound of ships wrecked or running aground near Spurn Point. One story from October 17, 1823, said: “A loaded collier, with eight men on board, from Shields coming into the Humber on Saturday last when it was blowing a gale of wind, struck upon the Stony Binks, near the Spurn Point, and was dashed to pieces. Lamentable to add, all hands were lost.”
During a daring rescue in October 1850 a member of the Spurn lifeboat crew perished. The brig, Cumberland, was wrecked at the mouth of the Humber. The master was washed overboard and drowned; the remaining eight men took refuge in the rigging. The Spurn lifeboat went to their assistance, and four were rescued. On a second trip, the boat capsized, and one of the Spurn boatmen, John Branton, perished.
Spurn’s 1767 low lighthouse did not last very long and a replacement was erected in 1816 but was soon abandoned. In January 1852 gales caused a great amount of damage in the area. A replacement low light tower and a cottage were swept away. The relatively new lighting equipment was salvaged and transferred to another tower, a light being shown for the first time on June 24, 1852.
The Spurn lifeboat capsized whilst on active service on November 19, 1855, with loss of life. One newspaper report stated: “The schooner Zabuia Deverell, from Sunderland for Dunkirk, put in on the 19th, very leaky, having been on the Binks: she was assisted off and into the outer basin of the Royal Dock by the Spurn lifeboat crew, two of whom were drowned by the lifeboat capsizing.” The lifeboatmen lost were J Coombes and H Holmes.
On December 24, 1876, Edward Weldrake, one of the crew of the Hull Trinity lifeboat stationed at Spurn Point, jumped into the sea and saved the master of the sloop Grace Darling. It was wrecked on the middle banks off Spurn Point during a strong gale. Weldrake was later awarded a silver medal.
One of Spurn’s most celebrated Coxswain’s, Robert Cross, retired in 1943. His gallantry as a lifeboatman won him the George Medal and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s gold medal twice.
By 1892 it was necessary to rebuild the high lighthouse and designs were made by the engineer to the Trinity House, Thomas Matthews. Built about 120ft high of blue Staffordshire bricks, the new high lighthouse did not use an occulting light as before with an interval of three second darkness in every half-minute. Instead, the new light, oil-lit, was more powerful, displaying a flash of light once every 20 seconds and visible for 17 miles.
At the outbreak of the First World War the Spurn Point Military Railway, funded by the War Department, was established connecting Kilnsea with a jetty at Spurn Point. The War Department officially took over Spurn, naming it the Spurn Head Special Military Area from 1916, having quickly recognised the threat of German forces to the East Coast. One of the measures was to construct a new fortress at Spurn.
Opening in 1915, and extending some 3.75 miles, the Spurn Head railway line was built to supply the new military installations along Spurn’s coastline.
The Spurn Railway closed in 1951 and the War Department had abandoned the area by the end of the 1950s. In 1960, Spurn was sold to the Yorkshire Naturalist’s Trust (now the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust) for use as a nature reserve.
Improvements in navigation led to Spurn’s high lighthouse being decommissioned in 1985. In recent years several grants have allowed the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to restore the old high lighthouse, now a Grade II listed building, and open a visitor centre in 2018.
Meanwhile, the Humber Lifeboat Station, formerly the Spurn Lifeboat Station, continues to play an important role with a full-time crew in sea rescue.