Sunderland man pays tribute to two brothers who drowned in the River Wear 80 years ago

Freddie Hackett stares out over the water and remembers two men he never got to know.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 08 July, 2019, 01:52
The huge turnout for the funeral of brothers James and Denis Hackett.

They are his brothers who drowned when he was only six months old.

It is 80 years ago on Wednesday, July 3, that Freddie’s brother Denis Hackett, 11, accidentally fell into the River Wear while he was playing in the area of Clatchy Rock, in the South Hylton area of Sunderland.

The Sunderland Echo report on the tragedy.

His big brother James, 13, bravely went in to try and save him. Sadly, James could not swim either and both brothers died that day.

Freddie was the youngest of all the family. He is now 80 but he was a baby of only six months old when tragedy struck.

All he has to remind him of the two boys are the photos, cuttings from the Sunderland Echo and the verbal snippets other family members shared with him.

And when he was old enough to understand, his family told him about the love that James and Denis used to show baby Freddie.

Freddie Hackett on the South Hylton riverbank where his brothers James and Denis drowned.

“We had a border collie and the boys loved putting me on the dog’s back,” said Freddie.

They are tales from a time long ago – from the happy days before tragedy struck.

But, on the 80th anniversary of the day both boys drowned, Freddie spoke to the Sunderland Echo to share the story.

“I am the last of the generation of 12 bothers and sisters,” said Freddie who still lives close to where the tragedy unfolded. “The family has all gone now but I wanted to speak up about Denis and James.”

Brothers James and Denis Hackett (R) who drowned 80 years while playing in the River Wear, South Hylton.

He has kept a Sunderland Echo report about the fateful day.

It told how both boys were playing in a boat moored near the edge of the river. Denis fell in first. James could not swim but he still went in to try and save his brother.

Playing nearby were some other boys who were friends of the brothers. They tried to pull their own boat alongside, so they could drag Denis and James back to safety, but they couldn’t.

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Amid all of this, Police Constable Dunn dashed across from the Sunderland Golf Club course on the opposite riverbank and immediately dived in to the water five or six times to find the boys.

Freddie Hackett on the South Hylton riverbank where his brothers James and Denis drowned.

He was a member of the Borough Police water polo team but even he could not come to the boys rescue. It was too late.

The funeral which followed had a huge crowd. It was a story which had made headline news in 1939.

Eighty years on, there will be no crowds, no official event to remember the tragic brothers.

But Freddie will think of them.

“They are always in my heart and my mind and those thoughts often come to me,” he said.

He will also remember another brother. Billy Hackett was in his 20s when he dived into the same river in 1950 to save a 12-year-old boy in trouble.

Despite what had happened to his own brothers, Billy still sprang into action.

Today, Freddie will remember them all.

He was 15 before he truly knew what had happened to his brothers.

His mum Dora Hackett understandably tried to protect Freddie from knowing what truly happened that day but the truth eventually emerged.

He said: “It was kept pretty much a secret from me after that. I knew something happened because people would say ‘he’s one of the Hacketts’ but I thought it was just because we were a big family.

“My mam didn’t want me to know, but it was a well-known thing in the area.”

Freddie has spent a life as an HGV driver and is now a dad himself.

And today, he will privately remember two boys who never grew up to have families of their own.