Remembering Sunderland’s brave rescuers

EXHIBTION TIME: Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade Museum - opening for the season with an art display from February 27 to March 1.
EXHIBTION TIME: Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade Museum - opening for the season with an art display from February 27 to March 1.
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A MUSEUM dedicated to a brave band of Wearside rescuers is drawing on the talents of one arty member to reopen for the summer with a flourish.

Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade Watch House will mark the new season with an exhibition called Land and Sea Scapes, painted by brigadesman Larry Hetherington.

“The VLB holds a unique place in Sunderland’s maritime history, so we thought it would be nice to mark our re-opening in a special way.”

Katy Gill from the Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade Watch House

The display will run from February 27 to March 1 at the museum on Pier View, next to the Bungalow Cafe at Roker, between noon and 4pm.

Admission is free.

“The VLB holds a unique place in Sunderland’s maritime history, so we thought it would be nice to mark our re-opening in a special way,” said spokeswoman Katy Gill.

“We are also recruiting members for all our teams – museum, Coastwatch and Search and Rescue – and potential volunteers are welcome to come along and talk to us as well.”

The men and women of Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade have been saving those in peril on the sea since 1877 - with dozens of people owing their lives to the volunteers.

The first rescue – the saving of 19 sailors from the ship Loch Cree – took place on October 14, 1877. Rescue then followed rescue, including that of The Gwendoline in 1888.

“The Gwendoline was a Middlesbrough steamer which, on February 20, 1888, was bound from Erith, on the banks of the Thames, to Sunderland in ballast,” said Katy.

“The sea at this time was breaking heavily on the bar and, as the vessel approached the entrance, it was seen to be steering somewhat dangerously near the North Pier. The tide was just beginning to ebb, and a strong current had set in to the north, which carried the steamer almost stem on to the North Pier.

“The stem was broken off and the vessel was immediately carried round the end of the pier, where it came in contact with the glacis, an artificial slope near the pier.”

As the sailors struggled to steer Gwendoline clear, however, so she was “washed round” and became grounded almost midway between the old pier and Roker pier.

There she became stuck in the sand and shingle for several hours – while members of SVLB mustered a strong band of rescuers and risked their lives to help save the crew.

“Within a very short time the brigade had fired a rocket over to the steamer, and had begun to land the sailors by means of the breeches buoy and a safety line,” said Katy.

“Ten seamen and firemen were landed, but the master – Captain Leader – his mate and the chief engineer all stayed on the vessel for some time longer, according to reports.

“Those brought ashore received “every attention” at the Brigade house. Apparently they also described the weather at sea that last night as being ‘simply terrific’.”

Hundreds of Wearsiders flocked to view the “scene of the casualty” and Gwendoline – a 328-ton ship owned by Messrs J.F. Swan and Bros – became an overnight celebrity.

But, once the storms died down, she was finally refloated on March 5. The steamer was reported as “not seriously damaged” and returned to Middlesbrough for repairs.

Following the rescue, Captain Leader wrote to the local press thanking the VLB for their ‘prompt attention with their life saving apparatus and their great kindness’.

“He testified to their work in keeping watch during the gale, and always being ready to provide assistance when necessary – and that is what we still do today,” said Katy.