The tale of a brave hero who put others first

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: Harry Watts in his diving gear.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: Harry Watts in his diving gear.
Have your say

AN exhibition dedicated to the memory of a ‘forgotten’ life-saver is to be unveiled this month.

WEARSIDERS are being urged to dig deep into their family roots and unearth links to an unsung hero.

Silver Street Houses  April 1953  old ref number 22-2412

Silver Street Houses April 1953 old ref number 22-2412

Author Terry Deary launched a campaign to raise the profile of Harry Watts, an East End sailor who rescued dozens of people from drowning, late last year.

Now the 100th anniversary of Harry’s death is to be marked with a host of events, including the publication of a new biography as well as a talk and plaque presentation.

Two descendents of the Watts family, Margaret Thynne and Derek Watts, have joined forces to organise a historical display in the City Library foyer, which opens on April 15.

“We are planning to display the family trees of Harry and his brothers and sisters, so people can see where they fit in. I’m descended from his older brother William,” said Margaret.

“When I was little my parents used to take me to the museum to show me Harry’s medals. They told me I was related to him and, once I had grown up, I started researching his life.”

Harry was born into a life of poverty in 1826. His parents, William and Elizabeth, had five children – Harry being the youngest – and made their home in Silver Street.

All seven family members shared one cramped room, which often flooded in wet weather. His father, a mariner, was bed-bound for years, while his mother died when Harry was just seven.

Two years later, at the age of nine, Harry took a job at the Garrison Pottery. A move to a weaving factory in Fitter’s Row followed, but constant hunger eventually drove him to sea.

His first voyage, at 14, took Harry to Quebec aboard the brig Lena. Just a few weeks later he made his first rescue, when a fellow apprentice fell overboard and nearly drowned.

Dozens more rescues were to follow over the years, although his efforts were not always appreciated. Indeed, he was threatened with a shovel after saving one boy from the River Wear.

“In the 19th century, when Harry was fishing them out like trout, little value seemed to be placed on human life,” said Terry, who is writing the foreword for the new Watts biography.

“Once, after he rescued a boy from near the south pier, his mother said “Ahh, that’s nowt. He’s bin owerboard many a time!” And then slammed the door in Harry’s face!”

Harry is believed to have saved 44 lives over the decades, as well as helping Sunderland Lifeboat and Life Brigade rescue a further 120 from shipwrecks along the coast.

His bravery was finally recognised in the 1860s with a clutch of medals. Sadly, just a decade later, they were stolen while on display at James Williams Street Christian Lay Church. Kind-hearted Wearsiders rallied to replace the trinkets, but it was left to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to financially reward Harry – in the form of a small pension in his old age.

The pair met when Carnegie opened Monkwearmouth Library in 1909, prompting the American millionaire to say: “You should never let the memory of this Sunderland man die.”

Four years later, after a life packed with heroism, Harry passed away on April 23, 1913, at the age of 86. Sunderland Cemetery in Grangetown is his final resting place.

“I started researching Harry’s life in 1996, and I’m still coming across new and fascinating stories about him. He truly deserves to be remembered for his bravery,” said Margaret.

n Margaret, a member of Monkwearmouth Local History Group, will give a talk about Harry at the City Library, Fawcett Street, on April 18 from 1.30pm. Admission £2.50.

Dramatic rescue at Seaham

HARRY Watts was working as a diver in Sunderland when an official from Dalton-le-Dale Waterworks called on him for help in 1877.

The job on offer involved the removal and replacement of a plug deep in a 150ft pilot shaft. Harry, by then 51, refused on age grounds – but recommended several other experts.

“If any man’s life was in danger I’d go down, I’d willingly go down and try to save him, but I’ll not go for pay,” he added.

South Shields diver Mr Littleboy, who weighed 18 stone, was chosen. All went well until he failed to respond to signals. Attempts to pull him out then failed.

“Harry had a visit from Mr Wake, the River Wear Commissioners’ engineer, who asked if he was prepared to keep his promise about the Dalton shaft,” said Margaret.

“‘Certainly, I’ll go!’ he said and, after being granted permission to leave, he went at once to Dalton-le-Dale. There he had to work in absolute darkness.”

Harry’s only guide in his mission to find Mr Littleboy was the other man’s air pipe. Sadly, when Harry eventually reached the diver, he was lying face down in 120ft of water and dead.

“Harry had to return to the surface to tell the news of Mr Littleboy’s death. He came up to get his breath and, because with the pressure, thought his ribs were broken,” said Margaret. “But, after allowing for decompression, Harry went back into the water and brought up the body of the diver.”

Are you related to Harry Watts?

HARRY Watts married three times – and had three living children by two of his wives. Martha Watts, Harry’s eldest daughter, was born to Sarah Ann Thompson in 1869. Lydia Watts, whose mother was Dorothy Jane Hunter, was born in 1878.

Thomas Thompson Watts, Harry’s only son, was born to Sarah Ann Thompson in 1860. He wed Jane Weir, of Houghton, in 1881 and the marriage produced seven children.

The first, Sarah Annie Watts, was born in 1882. The others – Florence, Henrietta, Thomas William, Henry, Alfred and Thomas Thompson Watts – were born between 1887-96.

“There will be many, many people in Sunderland related to Harry Watts, if not through his children and grandchildren, then through his sisters and brothers,” said Margaret.

“It would be wonderful if people could come along to the exhibition and tell us where they are on the family tree. It all helps to build up the bigger picture about Harry.”