Saturday, 14 August 2010

Britain's first X-File?

The September issue of Fortean Times reveals my discovery of what may be the very first British Government inquiry into 'UFO' sightings - in 1865.

'The False Lights' were mysterious revolving lights seen above a rocky headland at Whitburn, county Durham, by mariners negotiating a hazardous stretch of the northeast coast.

During a ten year period from 1860 more than 150 ships were wrecked on the rocks near Whitburn after following a light or lights in the sky which they wrongly believed were from a lighthouse at the mouth of the Tyne.

Accusations were made against local fishermen who, some believed, were deliberately luring ships onto the rocks to steal their cargoes.

The Government stepped in after Durham MP Sir Hedworth Williamson tabled questions in the House of Commons.

And in December 1865, a commission of inquiry led by Rear Admiral Sir Richard Collinson travelled to Sunderland to investigate. Although the mystery was mentioned by Charles Fort in The Book of the Damned (1919), as far as I am aware this is the first time anyone has obtained access to government files compiled at the time.

By a stroke of luck, I discovered the complete proceedings of the inquiry have survived in a file at The National Archives. This contains summaries of the evidence taken at Sunderland, transcribed in longhand, alongside original copies of witness statements and petitions handed in by the fishermen.

The inquiry chaired by Admiral Collinson was followed by further investigations by the Tyne Pilotage Board and South Shields Police Court in 1866.

The files suggest the Board of Trade was unable to explain the cause of the 'false lights', which one official described as 'very mysterious'.

But the most amazing discovery I made was this:

A direct result of the inquiry was the government decision to pay for the construction of a lighthouse at Souter Point, in response to demands from local people to provide a fixed beacon for shipping.

The lighthouse was opened in January 1871 and was the first in Britain powered by electrical alternators (today the building and grounds are in the care of The National Trust and contain a small museum).

As far as I am aware the Souter Point light (above right) is the only lighthouse in the world originally constructed to warn seafarers of a hazard caused by 'unexplained aerial phenomena.'

A full account of my investigation and extracts from the files can be found in my Fortean Times article, now available online here.

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