On the afternoon of 24th November, 1864, a south-easterly gale blew up on the north east coast of England. The schooner, ‘Friendship’, carrying a cargo of coal, sailed into the mouth of the Tyne to take shelter, but ran aground on the notorious black midden rocks. As darkness began to fall, the steamship ‘Stanley’, on its way from Aberdeen to London, with 60 passengers and crew, and cattle and sheep on the deck, tried for shelter too but was also swept onto the rocks. The lifeboats from North and South Shields couldn’t get close due to the storm, so the only hope was the breeches buoy, a kind of harness attached to a buoy and hauled via ropes up the cliff. But only 3 people were rescued before the lines tangled and the rising tide meant that the rescue had to be called off until daylight. The Friendship broke up, losing all its crew and the Stanley tore in half.
As daylight came, thousands of local people had gathered on the cliff tops to watch the disaster. It became known that 32 crew, passengers and lifeboat men were killed in the wrecks. One of the people watching was a man called John Morrison, who believed that if local men were to volunteer to help the HM coastguard, many more lives could have been saved. A public meeting was held, with free tobacco given out to encourage attendance, and over 120 men signed up. The Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade was born. Soon, nearly every village had an organisation like it, all based on the TVLB rules. The TVLB is 150 years old this year and still running. The volunteers (22 men and 1 woman) are on call 24 hours a day every day of the year and all have day jobs as well. They still attend around 120 rescues every year.
This week, local people again lined the cliff tops to witness a rescue, but this time it was only a drill, to celebrate the TVLB’s birthday. As in the past, maroon rockets were fired to begin the drill, calling the volunteers to action. The bangs echoed around the cliffs and through the small village, creating cloudy puffs in the air. ‘Casualties’ waited nervously on a boat in the harbour, next to the pier. Even on this calm day, waves plumed over the pier, reminding us that in the days the TVLB was formed there was no pier to halt the waves. The drill was carried out in a sheltered bay named ‘the Haven’, but the black middens were just visible around the cliffs, licked by the high tide.
On the beach, the uniformed volunteers began to prepare the breeches buoy. In these days of helicopters, it’s now rarely used, but TVLB members are one of few organisations around the country still trained to use it. A rocket is fired to the ship in distress, attached to ropes and a buoy. The survivors on the ship secure the ropes to the vessel, ready for the breeches buoy to be ferried across. The breeches buoy is a life saving ring with a harness attached – like a pair of fluorescent breeches. The survivor steps into it and is hauled in to shore. No dramatic hoist up the cliffs on this rescue, but the ‘casualties’ were pulled through the water onto the beach. This isn’t a quick way to effect a rescue. Each passage takes around ten minutes, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to wait, on a stricken ship, for your turn to come. But without it, there would often have been no hope at all.
TVLB are based in the ‘watch house’ an wonderfully characterful building that is now a museum, filled to the brim with maritime memorabilia. Quirky, old-fashioned, a little eerie. The watch house is on the promontory above the mouth of the river and looks down on the black middens below. Keepsakes from the wrecks that prompted the start of the TVLB are among the items on show there. This celebration was a well-oiled drill, carried out on a calm day, with a ship that wasn’t in any danger. But if you were to walk around the watch house and study the things that are preserved there, you could easily imagine being on one of those ships, broken on rocks in the stormy dark, with no radios and no helicopters to aid you. I’m proud that it was here that this organisation began and I know that should I ever need them, they’ll be there to come to my rescue.
For those of you who receive the BBC’s ‘Coast’ TV programme, the drill was filmed by them on the day, with one of their presenters being ‘rescued’. The Watch House Museum has received lottery funding for refurbishment and is currently closed while it has a facelift.