Sunderland man’s insights into history of lighthouses and lifeboats

Historian Mike Ennis, who will give the talk later this month.
Historian Mike Ennis, who will give the talk later this month.
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There’s a lot to look at when you delve into the history of lighthouses.

It is certainly true of Sunderland and the surrounding area, and Mike Ennis is the ideal man to explain more.

Souter Lighthouse.

Souter Lighthouse.

“There are so many of them and nearly all of them are ashore and on cliffs with not many out to sea,” said Mike.

His talk titled ‘The History of Lighthouses, Lifeboats and Trinity House’ starts at 2pm on Saturday, September 17.

Get along to Sunderland Museum to hear his fascinating topic.

In the meantime, Chris Cordner found out more from the man himself.

I used to restore mainline locomotives and moved on to do other things. I turned up at Souter and volunteered my services

Mike Ennis

A potted history of the North East’s lighthouses and lifeboats is an illuminating insight.

An hour-long talk on the subject has plenty to recommend it, especially when Mike Ennis gives it.

After all, for the last 15 years, he has volunteered his services at Souter Point.

“It is how it all came about,” he said as he described his love of talking about lighthouses.

“I served my time and went to sea as an engineer,” said Mike, now 75.

“I still help where I can.”

After his working time as an engineer, his later years saw him turning his attention to restoration.

At first his talents centred on locomotives, before he moved on.

“I moved on to other things,” said the Seaburn man. “I turned up at Souter Point one day and volunteered my services.”

As a Sunderland resident and former South Shields man, he admits to living in an area rich with lighthouses and their history.

And as his interest in them grew, so did his thirst to delve even deeper into history.

Now, he has 15 years of his own links to Souter behind him as well as a lovely insight which he wants to share.

It’s a mere taster on a topic which is vast.

For instance, did you know that the first mention of lighthouse was with the Lighthouse of Alexandria, sometimes called the Pharos of Alexandria.

That takes us back to around 247BC but, as Mike explains, lighting the coastline dates back much further and in more primitive fashion.

As far back as man had fire to illuminate his way in fact.

“If you stand on a cliff and you have a pole with a fire, with a background that is so dark, you can really see a long way.”

Or as he puts it, could this be described as the earliest lighthouses?

The talk also looks at the role of the lifeboat and Trinity House – the charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers.

An important aspect of it all, and of safety on the seas, was the boat pilot who would guide vessels through treachorous waters.

Yet in law in times gone by, theirs was a treacherous job in itself if it went disastrously wrong.

As Mike’s talk will explain in more detail, a law was passed on how a pilot should be treated if they should get it wrong and wreck the ship they were guiding.

“The crew may take him forward and behead him. The death had to be as slow and as long as possible,” said Mike.

There’s much more as well to Mike’s extensive knowledge and his talk. It is an insight into a fascinating topic stretching back “hundreds and hundreds of years”.

Eleanor of Aquitaine is relevant, as is King Henry VIII, the Phoenicians, the Roman Empire and the cobles which served all along the North East coast.

Find out why Amble and the Yangtse River are vying for a record dating back 400 years. Why treason and the king’s ships are just as appropriate.

He describes Fred Dibnah as his inspiration as a speaker.

“He made it interesting and I try to do it along those lines.”

In a topic as vast as lighthouses and lifeboats, Mike gives people a great introduction to it all.

FOSUMS – the Friends of Sunderland Museum – has organised the talk to be given by Mike on September 17.

It will be held from 2pm and visitors are welcome to attend. Use the Burdon Road entrance.

Admission is £2.