Author and historian Terry Deary is on a mission to make Sunderland hero Harry Watts famous – but he needs your help. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner finds out more.
HARRY Watts was threatened with a shovel after rescuing one young boy from the River Wear, and had a door slammed in his face after pulling another from the stormy North Sea.
The Sunderland diver refused, however, to give up on his passion for life-saving – prompting American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to call him a hero who should never be forgotten.
“Sadly, that’s exactly what has happened,” said author and historian Terry Deary.
“Harry risked his life dozens of times to save people from drowning, but very few know his name today.
“I want to change all that. People of ‘military glory’ have statues erected to them, while Harry has nothing. But we would all benefit from remembering Harry’s courage.”
Harry was born into a life of poverty in Sunderland’s East End in 1826. His parents, William and Elizabeth, had five children – Harry the youngest – and made their home in Silver Street.
The one cramped room they all shared was often flooded, Harry was later to recall. A nearby well regularly overflowed during heavy rain, leaving the family to bail out their lodgings.
Each day brought a new struggle for survival. His father, a mariner, was bed-bound for years, while his mother died when Harry was just seven. Basic food and clothes became luxuries.
“His childhood ceased at the age of nine, for at that age he went to work. Thenceforth all thoughts of play or frolic had to be put aside,” a 1911 biography of Harry recorded.
“He had to think, to devise, and to act, for he had become a breadwinner, and a great part of the responsibility of the household rested on him.”
Harry’s first job was at the Garrison Pottery, earning just over a shilling a week. 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.
On his second voyage, to Miramichi in Canada aboard the ship Cowen, he made a second save. This time it was his boss, Captain Luckley, who was plucked to safety from the sea. “Harry picked up the end of a rope and jumped overboard, swam to the captain, fastened the rope round him, and helped him to the ladder’,” the biography reveals.
Further rescues followed and, by the time Harry was 19, he had saved five people. He received little thanks for his bravery, however, and certainly no financial rewards.
The year 1846 saw Harry marry his first wife, Rebecca Smith, and still the life-saving dramas continued. Just the next year, he pulled six foreign sailors from a sinking ship in Rotterdam.
Even a change of career, swapping sailing for job as a rigger, didn’t end the rescues. Indeed, he saved five people from 1852 to 1853 – although his efforts weren’t always appreciated.
“In the 19th century, when Harry was fishing them out like trout, little value seemed to be placed on human life,” said Terry, who presented a BBC programme on Harry last week.
“Once, he rescued a boy from the sea 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.”
It was around this time that Harry was also threatened with a shovel, after diving into the murky depths of the River Wear to rescue a drowning boy in 1852.
When he finally surfaced, gasping for breath, there were no words of thanks. Instead, an angry old woman who had been sailing past waved a shovel in his face for splashing her.
“Ye, Harry Watts! For two pins aw’d split thee skull wi’ this shool! Thoo’s fair drooned beyth me an’ oor Mattie,” she yelled. The brave rescuer, however, just shrugged off her anger.
“Harry didn’t stop at saving 18 lives,” said Terry. “From 1861 he worked as a diver on the Wear and in the next three decades he saved another 26 lives.
“He was also a Sunderland Lifeboat and Life Brigade volunteer and assisted in saving another 120 people. That makes 44 lives saved by Harry and another 120 he helped save.”
Harry did not confine himself to rescuing the living. Indeed, in 1879 he dived for bodies following the Tay Bridge disaster and in 1883 he pulled crushed children from a stampede at the Victoria Hall.
Finally, his bravery was recognised in the 1860s with a clutch of medals. A decade later they were stolen, however, while on display at James Williams Street Christian Lay Church.
The thief, according to Echo reports, gave them to his daughter to play with, who threw them in the fire after growing bored. Saddened by the theft, Wearsiders rallied to replace them.
But it was left to an American, the philanthropist millionaire Andrew Carnegie, to finally offer Harry a financial reward for his bravery – in the form of a small pension in his old age.
The pair met when Carnegie opened Monkwearmouth Library in 1909, prompting Carnegie to say afterwards: “You should never let the memory of this Sunderland man die.
“Compared with his acts, military glory sinks into nothing. The hero who kills men is the hero of barbarism: the hero of civilisation saves the lives of his fellows.”
Four years later, after a life packed with heroism, Harry passed away. Sunderland Cemetery in Grangetown was his final resting place – where a weathered stone still marks the spot.
“Carnegie told us we should never let Harry’s memory die, yet that has happened. We pinched his medals, then slammed the door in his face. It’s a scandal,” said Terry.
“Harry was was one of the greatest lifesavers this country has ever known. His name should be at least as familiar to us as Grace Darling or Admiral Lord Collingwood. He was a hero.”
Terry is now appealing to Wearsiders to mark next April’s centenary of Harry’s death with tributes to the life-saver – and he is hoping Echo readers will back his campaign.
“In these times of austerity, when wonderful charities are struggling to survive, it would NOT be sensible to try and raise tens of thousands of pounds for a statue,” he said.
“Still, there are many ways in which his name can be brought to the attention of people, such as ‘naming’ a street, room or vehicle after him, or launching an award in his name.
“If these simple memorials could be unveiled next April – the 100th anniversary of his death at 86 – it would give a focus for us all to remember his courage and celebrate his life.”
Several organisations have already given their backing to Terry’s campaign, including staff at Sunderland Museum – who are planning to name a room after Harry and hold an exhibition.
A seat plaque featuring Harry could be on the cards at the Empire Theatre, while Sunderland Antiquarian Society has thrown its support behind a blue heritage plaque in his honour.
“It is a good idea, and about time. He saved a lot of lives,” said Harry’s great-nephew Jim Watts, of Chester-le-Street.
“People joked he used to push people in and then got them out!”
Terry is hoping people will write to the Echo’s Letters Page to discuss tribute ideas and added: “We stole his medals, we threatened him with a shovel, we forgot him.
“But, on the centenary of his death, Harry will have a proper museum exhibition and a blue plaque. And I’m going to get him a gravestone you can read. An injustice has been righted.
“Harry Watts. Life-saver. Inspiration. Hero. Harry, if you’re listening, Sunderland remembers you.”
Send your ideas for a memorial to Harry to: Echo Letters Page, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER.