The exploits of celebrated Wearside lifesavers such as diver Harry Watts, Joseph Ray Hodgson (the Stormy Petrel) and keelman Martin Douglas are well documented by local historians.
But the brave acts of some citizens are long forgotten, as in the case of East End hero Edward Brown, who by the time of his death in 1939, was accredited with saving many individuals from drowning in no fewer than 48 rescue attempts.
Born around 1874 near Monkwearmouth Shore’s ferryboat landing, Brown spent the majority of his life living near Sunderland’s East End waterfront, where most of his rescues took place.
Some were undertaken by diving below the surface, a skill learnt by diving for pennies in the public baths.
His first rescue came at the age of 16 when a boy named John Wilkinson fell overboard near Hardcastle’s slipway. Running from his home at Dean’s Yard, Brown dived into the river still wearing his sea boots. Unusually, the water was clear with good visibility allowing him to find and recover Wilkinson from the river bed.
About 1901, Monkwearmouth man John Hutchinson fell into the Wear, resulting in Brown swimming 300 yards to reach him.
In doing so, he became exhausted and was almost forced to give up just as Hutchinson was sinking.
Fortunately, he regained sufficient strength and managed to drag the unconscious casualty to the riverside.
On July 13, 1914, Brown recovered the lifeless body of a six-year-old boy using grappling irons after the child had struck his head and fallen into the river while jumping from the quayside onto the paddle box of the tug Marsden.
At 14, Brown had gone to sea in sailing ships, then served 14 and a half years as a stoker with the Royal Naval Reserve. He was called up for war service in 1914 but discharged in 1917 after injuring his back.
Afterwards, he acted as ships’ watchman in the docks and on the river.
On June 6, 1918, 17-year-old Henry Baker of Havelock Street overbalanced on the Low Quay steps and fell into the water. 18-year-old Alfred Rodenby jumped in to save him but the panicking Baker almost dragged his rescuer under. Despite the danger and his injured back, Brown leapt into the river and brought both youths ashore, where a river policeman resuscitated Baker. This was the thirty-second occasion on which Brown had saved life.
A girl called Lizzie Lebihan was the subject of rescue number 37, which came in 1919. After falling from Low Quay and having gone down for a third time, the youngster was brought nine feet to the surface.
Next time, we’ll recount more rescues carried out by Brown and tell how his gallantry was eventually rewarded.