New Sunderland school to be named after 'superman' sailor and diver Harry Watts

A new school is set to be named after a Sunderland ‘superman’ sailor and diver who helped rescue more than 100 people.

Thursday, 5th September 2019, 2:48 pm
The new Sunderland special school will be named after hero Harry Watts

Councillors have given the green light to plans for land on the former Bishop Harland Primary School site, off Ramillies Road, which has been vacant since 2013.

New proposals include erecting a 96-place school for children with special educational needs – a project expected to create more than 50 jobs.

At a council meeting to decide the application on September 3, it was revealed the school could be named after the legendary Harry Watts.

Artist impression of planned special needs school. Pictures provided by Sunderland City Council

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Watts was born in 1826, signed up as an apprentice sailor at the age of 14 and by 19, had saved five people from drowning.

During a career as a rigger in Sunderland’s shipyards he saved a further five people from the River Wear before signing up as a diver with the River Wear Commissioners from 1861 to 1896.

He also worked for the Sunderland Lifeboat and Life Brigade services where he assisted in saving around 120 people.

A small exhibition to the Sunderland hero is held at Sunderland Museum including a collection of his medals.

Harry Watts with medals and in diving suit. Pictures provided by Sunderland City Council

Prosper Learning Trust, who will run the new school, chose to pay tribute to the Sunderland stalwart for his local links and “inspirational life.”

Special school plans

The Harry Watts Academy will cater for children with autism, complex social and emotional needs and learning difficulties.

Sunderland City Council gave the green light to early proposals for the school in June 2017 after applying through the government’s Free Schools programme.

Site of Bishop Harland Primary School, Ramillies Road, planned for new special needs school

The plans were put forward in response to a growing demand for special needs school places in the city and a limited supply to offer families.

At the Sunderland Civic Centre meeting, councillors were told school places would be offered on a first basis to Sunderland pupils.

Despite concerns around parking, the council’s area Development Control Sub-Committee voted unanimously to approve the plans.

Councillor Paul Stewart told the meeting: “The community has been waiting for a long time for this and they’re looking forward to having a school again in the area.

Artist impression of planned special needs school. Pictures provided by Sunderland City Council

“It’s a real positive.”

Sub-committee chairman, Coun Julia Jackson, added: “It’s excellent to see a brand new facility for children and their families.

“I think it’s great for this committee when things like this come through, it’s very rewarding.”

Coun Denny Wilson also welcomed the move to name the school after Watts describing the Sunderland diver as a “superman”.

Work is expected to start later this year with the school potentially taking on its first pupils as early as 2021.

Sunderland City Council’s cabinet member for children, learning and skills, Coun Louise Farthing welcomed the decision.

Harry Watts with medals and in diving suit. Pictures provided by Sunderland City Council

“Harry Watts is one of Sunderland’s greatest heroes,” she said after the meeting.

“I understand that in 1909 Andrew Carnegie, the famous and controversial industrialist and philanthropist, said to the then Mayor of Sunderland ‘you should never let the memory of this Sunderland man die.’

“Mr Watts’ duty, bravery and service stand as examples to all and it’s only correct and proper that his memory and achievements continue to be honoured with this new school name.”

‘Harry left a big mark on Sunderland’

For future operator, Prosper Learning Trust, it is not the first time schools have been named after inspirational figures from history.

This included a recent move to rebrand a school in tribute to Newcastle-born writer and women’s rights activist, Mary Astell.

Chief executive of the trust, Mark Jones, added it was important to shine a spotlight on local figures.

“I’m aware that Sunderland, like many cities, is changing in terms of its industries,” he said.

“I think one of the likely reasons behind Harry Watts was the link back to the city of Sunderland and its links with the water and the sea.

“Harry left a big mark on Sunderland, like Mary Astell did in Newcastle, but they’re names that people might not know.

“It’s nice to bring someone from the past back into people’s thoughts as they might ask questions and find out more.

“I’m pleased Prosper Learning Trust can, in some way, highlight how fantastic Harry was and the things he did for the people of Sunderland and on his travels.”

Harry Watts Fact File

Born on 15 June 1826 as the youngest of five children to parents William and Elizabeth Watts in the East End of Sunderland. Signed up as an apprentice sailor at 14, saving lives of crew on his first voyages to Quebec and Miramichi in Canada. Rescued six foreign seamen from a sinking ship in Rotterdam in 1847. Returned to Sunderland to work as a rigger in the shipyards where he saved five people from the River Wear between 1852 and 1853. Served as a diver with River Wear Commissioners between 1861 and 1896. Joined the Sunderland Lifeboat and Life Brigade services where he assisted in saving around 120 people. Part of the rescue party dealing with the Tay Bridge Disaster in 1879 which killed an estimated 60 people. Awarded with several medals in 1860s which were stolen from an exhibition in 1878 and later replaced through donations from Sunderland residents. Admitted to the ‘hero fund’ of Scottish-born American businessman and philathropist Andrew Carnegie. Died on April 23, 1913 at the age of 86 with his son and grandson, also named Harry Watts, carrying on his diving tradition. Blue plaque erected on Sunderland RNLI Lifeboat Station in his memory in 2013. The plaque states he rescued more than 40 people from drowning and assisted in the rescue of a further 120.

Site of Bishop Harland Primary School, Ramillies Road, planned for new special needs school