Life on Rocky Island in Early 20th Century - Housing

Rocky Island (seen in the bottom right corner of this photograph (still to be added)) is virtually uninhabited. Two occupied houses (formerly Coastguard Houses built in 1888) remain on the island, along with the former Seaton Sluice Volunteer Life Saving Company Watch House (more about that later), and it is frequented mainly by locals and visitors walking their dogs and enjoying the scenery.

However, life on Rocky Island wasn’t always this quiet!

Until the early 1960s it was a thriving community, as Nancy Davison (nee Elder), who lived in the village all of her life, describes. Nancy was born in 1916, on Rocky Island, where she lived until her marriage on 24th August 1940, and for a year afterwards, with her husband Stan, and her mother, until she moved to Beresford Road, Seaton Sluice, in 1941.

Nancy’s Great Grandfather, William Elder, was born in 1793, in Suffolk, and came to Seaton Sluice as a river pilot. The 1841 census shows his family on Rocky Island. His son Samuel (Nancy’s Grandfather - pictured) who was born in 1827, lived and died on Rocky Island, having married twice and fathered 14 children!

Two of his sons, Stephen and Thomas, married and continued to live on Rocky Island, but two other sons, Matthew and George, obviously had itchy feet and moved to a house next to the Kings Arms, and a house on Sandy Island respectively! George’s wife Linda was an early tourist industry entrepreneur, setting up a small tea room, in her cottage on Sandy Island, catering for visitors to the village, many of whom would have come to Seaton Sluice by boat from the Tyne.

Nancy’s house, and the houses around hers, were built during the 18th century, and the 1901 Census, shown below (still to be added), indicates that there were 16 properties on the island at that time, with a total of 63 residents. The Census provides an interesting view of not only the number of people who lived there, but also gives some idea of family sizes and the occupations of the men on the island, which included “coal miner”, “hawker of fish”, “tailor”, “general cartman”, “teacher”, “shoe maker”, “blacksmith”, “stone mason”, & “coast guard”. Some of the women too had occupations listed, including “servant (domestic)”, “school cleaner (char), “teacher” (Mr. & Mrs. Pratt, at No. 6, were both listed as teachers).

However, not many women had the opportunity to pursue careers in those days – bringing up a family and looking after the household was a physically demanding and time-consuming job in its own right – for example, no fridges, no automatic washers, no microwaves, and only one tap for the whole island, shared by all the residents, including Barney the horse!

However it must have been a sight to behold to see all the island’s washing on the lines outside the Watch House (it was the windiest part of the island) on a Monday, which was always “washing day”. Much of the weekly washing was done in a boiler, with a fire underneath to heat the water, and then carried up the hill to the washing lines. When Nancy was born on Rocky Island, in 1916, she was following in the footsteps of her father Stephen, who was also born on the island, as were his 13 brothers and sisters. The house where she was brought up (pictured here), with her parents and sister, was one of thirteen on the island at the time.

There were two blocks of three, one block of six, and a cottage down on the harbour. All of the houses on the island were owned by Lord Hastings and the Delaval Estate, and rent was charged at 35/- a quarter (about 15p per week), which was collected by the rent collector for the Estate. Nancy’s house was typical of those on the island, with one living room, two bedrooms, and no bathroom. The living room also served as a kitchen and bathroom, with all of the cooking being done at a coal-fired range, and a rough partition set up to allow some privacy for washing or bathing. This was done in a large tin bath, filled with water drawn from the only tap on the island, and heated over a coal fire. Bathing, as can be imagined in those conditions, was not a daily event, but more likely weekly, with the water being used for more than one person – re-cycling’s nothing new!