Answering the call in 1866

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In December 1865 a group of men met in the Mechanics’ Institute at South Shields to discuss the establishment of a Volunteer Life Brigade similar to that formed at Tynemouth some 12 months earlier.

A preliminary meeting on Saturday 16th December 1866 agreed that a Brigade should be formed and the Town Clerk Mr T. Salmon led a deputation to meet the Tyne pilots who enthusiastically agreed to apply to the Board of Trade. The Mayor of South Shields Alderman Thomas Moffett called a public meeting in the Old Town Hall in the Market Place on Monday 15th January 1866 and 140 men were enrolled. A copy of the Meeting Notice still hangs in the Watch House. Archibald Stevenson and Samuel Malcolm were appointed Honorary Secretaries. The Board of Trade accepted the services of South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade on Tuesday 30th January 1866. The rest is history.

The first shipwreck

South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade was the first to save life from a shipwreck using the breeches buoy. On 2nd April 1866 the schooner Tenterden of Sunderland was wrecked on the South Pier which was still under construction at the time. Seven people including a woman and child were rescued from the stricken vessel. This epic rescue inspired this famous picture “Saved”
by T. Watson. In about 1946 an old lady visiting the Watch House was reported to have looked at the image and simply said, “I was that child”.

Famous shipwrecks and rescues

South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade has been involved with dozens of shipwrecks and rescues around the Tyne Harbour, South Pier and along the coast to Whitburn. The historic Watch House itself provides a living link spanning the years and intertwining the present and future.
As a result of careful restoration the Watch House commemorates the achievements of the past and today the Grade Two listed building continues to serve as the operational headquarters. Watch House is home to a unique collection of figureheads, name boards and other artefacts
from numerous shipwrecks as well as displays of rescue equipment, including the breeches
buoy, as well as a fascinating collection of photographs from the earliest years to today. It also
features one of the biggest known collections of bends, knots, splices and decorative ropework,
and bell ropes. The Watch House is the very heart and soul of the Volunteer Life Brigade.

Not quite the last shipwreck

Although the work of the Volunteer Life Brigade nowadays is more involved with cliff rescue and coastal searches, there are still times when ships get into difficulties and the Brigade is called to help. In recent years there have been several vessels stranded or run aground help. In recent yeast there have been several vessels stranded or run aground in the South
Shields area and Brigade members are called to assist with rescue coordination and any oil pollution problems.

Learn more about the Brigade’s history at: