The Sunderland heroes who have saved lives for 140 years

The South Life Brigade pictured with a launcher.
The South Life Brigade pictured with a launcher.
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One hundred and forty years ago, a service which saves lives began its vital work in Sunderland.

To celebrate a very special anniversary, Katy Gill of the Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade took a look back at some of the astonishing highlights of this organisation.

The Efos stranded in 1927.

The Efos stranded in 1927.

And she explained how people can find out more.

The Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade was founded in March 1877 to help save lives from shipwreck.

But, unlike the lifeboat men, the Brigade used shore-based rocket apparatus. A large rocket, fired from a launcher, would carry a line to a ship in distress.

The crew would attach it and a breeches buoy would be hauled over the cable, before people were taken off the ship one by one.

It was ordinary working men who gave their time to volunteer for the often strenuous and dangerous work of life saving. Most rescues took place in winter and during a storm making their task much harder.

Katy Gill

Ordinary working men volunteered for the strenuous and dangerous work. Most rescues were in winter and during a storm - but the men were highly trained.

They wore distinctive ganseys bearing the name of the Brigade. Then, as now, the Brigade was fully staffed by volunteers and relied on fundraising and donations to provide vital equipment and the upkeep of the Watch Houses.

There were two divisions to cover both sides of the river, Sunderland VLB in the south and Roker VLB in the north which is now the base for the whole area.

More than 800 people were rescued using the rocket apparatus and the original board detailing rescues still hangs today.

William Burton gets his BEM.

William Burton gets his BEM.

During the Great Storm in October 1880, many ships were lost such as the brigantine Amelia which was grounded on rocks near Hendon.

Within 20 minutes, her crew of five had been rescued using the apparatus, including Captain Dawson and his son, who was the mate. A survivor, Henry Broomfield, wrote to the Echo in March 1927, on the Brigade’s 50th anniversary.

He described the wreck saying how relieved the crew were to see the Brigade mustering with the rocket apparatus on shore.

In November 1897, another huge storm lashed the coast and the schooner Resolue drifted towards shore. The Brigadesmen were at times working up to their waists in the sea.

The master was ill and was the first to be rescued. But, while he was in transit, a line on the apparatus failed.

Ultra-brave coastguardsman Hodge and Brigadesman Payne went into the sea without hesitation. One fixed the line while the other supported the master in the breeches buoy and helped him to land. All of the crew was saved and as the last man was landed the Resolue turned over and broke into pieces. Hodge and Payne were both awarded medals for their gallantry.

There were some rescues during the Second World War including a record 272 people who were rescued from HMS Fame and HMS Ashanti.

A short time later, the SS Cairnglen ran straight on to a reef near Marsden. Her plates were ripped for almost all of her 401 ft length.

The South Shields, Roker and Sunderland VLBs were called to the rescue.

A rocket was fired. As this was happening the Brigadesmen spotted a boat being lowered from the stern. Seven men were detailed to assist them while others managed the apparatus. They had to go through barbed wire and scramble down the cliffs, risking land mines. The boat overturned as it reached the shore but the 16 crew men were helped up the cliff face.

Meanwhile the apparatus was used bringing 35 men ashore.

A sick man remained on board and a volunteer was needed to go to the ship to assist. All offered but Brigadesman William Burton was selected and he later received the British Empire Medal for his services.

In all 51 people were rescued from the Cairnglen. The Brigade was in attendance for 22 hours and were very wet and cold but thankful that no one had been lost.

l Although it is a key part of the city’s maritime history, the work of the Brigade is relatively unknown.

But the Brigade’s museum team open the Watch House every Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays to visitors.

To mark the 140th anniversary there will be open days on Saturday from 1pm to 4pm, and Sunday from 12 to 4pm. Admission is free and all are welcome.

A series of events is planned over the coming year and to find out more, visit www.sunderlandvlb.com.