Bringing boat back to former glory

The saving of the Lifeboat Henry Frederick Swan

WOODEN vessels, from collier brigs to pilot cobles, used to be the work horses of the Tyne. But over the years they have dwindled to almost nothing on the river.
But now a new South Tyneside-based group has committed itself to restoring what it believes is the neglected maritime heritage of this region, beginning with an historic lifeboat. JANIS BLOWER has been looking at the hopes and vision of the North East Maritime Trust. THESE days the Henry Frederick Swan looks as battered a survivor as the Tyne’s maritime traditions.
It could even be said to have fared better.
The new North East Maritime Trust (NEMT) makes no bones of its belief that preservation and promotion of this area’s marine heritage needs a serious boost.
Boat-building skills have almost disappeared, rare vessels are being scrapped, and there is insufficient educational support for passing on the record of our seafaring greatness to generations now coming along.
Even tourism doesn’t tap the wealth of our seagoing legacy effectively enough, they say.
Plus there is a shortage of vessels, local and traditional to the area, on the water, with no guarantee that those that are will still be there for future generations.
What kind of vessels
Well, think of cobles, fishing boats, lifeboats, the double-ended fishing coble known as a mule, to mention just a few: all those largely wooden-built workaday craft that used to fill rivers like the Tyne in profusion but which, somehow, we let slide away unnoticed.
Which is where the Henry Frederick Swan, recorded by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) as being the longest-serving lifeboat in the UK, comes in.
Nearly 90 years after she first came to the river, she has returned to the Tyne to be restored here at South Shields by the newly-formed trust, which hopes she will be only the first of many projects that will redress years of neglect of a great nautical tradition.
With the support of South Tyneside Council and the Barbour Trust, the NEMT has taken premises in Wapping Street on the riverside where the lifeboat will be restored to her former glory.
“I think that the basing of a restoration of a lifeboat in South Shields is particularly apt, given the history of William Wouldhave and Henry Greathead, and the fact that she was a Tynemouth lifeboat originally” said retired naval architect Robert Hunter.
Directors include such influential figures as Peter Weightman, chairman of the Tyne-Tweed Coble and Keelboat Society, and Alec Renwick, founder, chairman and director of Sunderland Maritime Heritage.
Individually, some of the trustees have already themselves acquired and renewed traditional fishing craft for display on the water.
But the trust’s work isn’t just about the end result: that is, a fully-restored vessel.
They also want to offer training opportunities to young people with an interest in wooden boat construction, care and restoration.
“We want to hear from people who are keen to get involved, and to participate as helpers,”
It won over other locations on the north-east coast because of its established maritime roots, say the trust, who were looking for a location where vessels could be maintained by people with traditional skills, and where those skills could be passed on to the next generation.
The trust also wants to build on the success, during the Mouth of the Tyne festival last year, of a Small Ships’ Regatta which was organised by the NEMT’s honorary secretary Alec Renwick and which brought more than 20 traditional sailing boats into the Tyne.
The NEMT is also interested in establishing a maritime centre on the river at South Shields, perhaps even with the construction of a replica collier brigantine.
Plus, a link has been established with the Roman fort of Arbeia which, one day, could lead to the construction of a replica Roman ship of the kind that served the fort when it was an important supply base for Hadrian’s Wall.
n If you are interested in becoming a Friend of the North East Maritime Trust, registration for annual membership costs 10, payable to NEMT Friends. Write to Robert Hunter, 2 Westoe Hall, Westoe Village, South Shields NE33 3EG.
* THE Henry Frederick Swan was built during the First World War at the Cowes yard of S E Saunders on the Isle of Wight.
She cost 6,901 to construct, and was a gift from the widow of Henry Frederick Swan who had been prominent in Tyne shipbuilding circles and was also chairman of the Tynemouth branch of the RNLI for many years.
She replaced the previous Tynemouth lifeboat Henry Vernon, which had been transferred to Sunderland where it remained in service until 1935.
The Henry Frederick Swan’s first recorded rescue was in the winter of 1920 when she went to the assistance of a steam trawler, the Current, that had run aground on the Black Middens.
In subsequent years the lifeboat, housed at Clifford’s Fort at North Shields, was called out many times, but it was her last call-out of that era on the Tyne station that was also the most tragic.
This was shortly before the Second World War when the Cullercoats lifeboat Richard Silver Oliver capsized while on exercise. Six of the 10 lifeboatmen aboard were lost.
The Henry Frederick Swan eventually passed into the reserve fleet in 1939, being replaced by the John Pyemont.
In 1941, however, an air raid destroyed both the RNLI and Tyne Lifeboat Society boathouses at North Shields, together with the boats John Pyemont and James Young that were inside them.
The Henry Frederick Swan consequently returned to service and during the war assisted several vessels, including the submarine Tuna when she ran aground south of St Mary’s Island in 1943.
Eventually the old lifeboat was replaced with a new one, the Tynesider, and was subsequently acquired by local Sea Scouts, passing into private ownership.

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