Sunderland shipwreck hero’s bravery to be marked 121 years after death

Rescue hero John Leviss, whose grave has just been restored by Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade. He was the only member of the brigade ever to die in action.

Rescue hero John Leviss, whose grave has just been restored by Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade. He was the only member of the brigade ever to die in action.

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The sacrifice of a Wearside man who lost his life saving others is to finally be marked - 121 years after the tragedy.

John Leviss was killed rescuing sailors from a shipwrecked Norweigan vessel in 1894 – the only member of Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade ever to die in action.

The restored grave stone of John Leviss, which will be officially unveiled at a rededication service on August 1.

The restored grave stone of John Leviss, which will be officially unveiled at a rededication service on August 1.

Now members have honoured John’s memory by restoring his weather-worn headstone, and a plaque dedicated to him will be on show at Roker Watch House this weekend.

“John Leviss is one of Sunderland’s unsung heroes. There is no memorial to him, and his sacrifice is virtually unknown,” said spokeswoman Katy Gill.

“We feel it is very important his bravery is not forgotten. He, along with many others, risked their lives to save people from the horrors of being shipwrecked.

“John unfortunately paid the highest price; giving his life to save others. Restoring his grave was our way of paying tribute to him.”

John Leviss is one of Sunderland’s unsung heroes. There is no memorial to him, and his sacrifice is virtually unknown.

Katy Gill, of Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade.

John, son of pit labourer John Leviss and his wife Jane, was born in Monkwearmouth in 1857. By the age of 14 he worked at an iron works and in 1883 he married Jane Ann Gray.

The census of 1891 reveals the Leviss family were living at Wear Street, with John employed as a miller’s rolleyman at Bowmakers.

“He joined Sunderland VLB two years later, on August 14, 1893,” said Katy. “Tragically, just 14 months on, he lost his life helping others.”

The date of October 21, 1894, saw a sailor on the Norwegian ship Jaenaes struck down by illness – prompting his captain to make for Sunderland to seek medical help.

But attempts to get down the River Wear at low water failed, and the ship was driven ashore at Hendon beach. Within minutes, distress signals were spotted.

“The sea was running very high when around 30 VLB members arrived,” said Katy. “A boat was launched from Jaenaes, but only four sailors risked the journey.

“Waves threw the vessel onto the shore – to the cheers of sightseers. But this still left five men on the Jaenaes, and the crowd hindered all attempts at rescue.”

Indeed, as the VLB tried to fire a rocket from the south breakwater, sightseers got in the way. When rescuers then moved sites, so people followed - despite appeals to keep back.

Finally, the Brigadesmen managed to secure a line aboard Jaenaes, and started taking off the crew by breeches bouy. All went well until a huge wave struck the ship.

“The rescuers were working in a very confined space and, when the wave jerked the line tight, they couldn’t jump clear due to the crowd. Three were hit,” said Katy.

“Two saved themselves by clinging to the breakwater but the third, John Leviss, became entangled in the rope and was swept into the sea. His death was a tragedy.”

An inquest into John’s death was held at the Wear Hotel two days later. The jury’s verdict was death from drowning, with the main cause deemed to be interference by the crowd.

“In light of the verdict, it was suggested that the police should attend whenever a wreck occurred, to keep control of the crowds. Sadly, it would be too late for John,” said Katy.

The brave Wearsider’s funeral on October 24 saw thousands line the route from his home in Woodbine Street to Bishopwearmouth Cemetery – despite torrential rain.

But, 120 years on, Katy discovered John’s headstone was damaged and almost unreadable - prompting the brigade to join forces with the Leviss family to restore the memorial.

Work on the £820 project was undertaken by Scott Memorials and, this weekend, a rededication service will be held at the cemetery.

John’s great-grandson Howard Glansfield said: “The story of his bravery and untimely end has passed on through the family. Now he will not be forgotten, due to the great work and kindness of Katy and the VLB.”

l The Watch House, at Pier View, Roker, will be open on August 2, from noon to 4pm, when the plaque dedicated to John Leviss will be on show. All welcome.