It is needless to remind those who, twenty-five years ago, witnessed scenes of shipwreck and death at the mouth of the Tyne, of the motives and feelings that induced a party of compassionate gentlemen to band themselves together just after the lamentable wreck of the steamship Stanley, to obtain a knowledge of the use of the rocket apparatus, and thus be enabled to render efficient assistance to the coastguard in their praiseworthy, but often powerless, efforts to save life. Of the original members one hundred and forty only fifteen yet remain who are able and willing to work and muster for duty in stormy weather. It is gratifying to find, however, that, as from various causes the original members have fallen away, their places have been filled by young and active men, and the work which the brigade seek to accomplish seems likely to go on so long as gallant ships nail the seas and men’s lives are in jeopardy. The philanthropic work is one of the most popular institutions in the borough of Tynemouth. All along the coast similar brigades have been established, but Tynemouth was the first to unfurl the flag of humanity to our seafarers. The loss of life previously had been appalling, as may readily be conceived when it is placed on record that at one time no fewer than thirty vessels were to be seen ashore at the mouth of the Tyne as the result of a single gale.
Mr. John Morrison would appear to have been the first, through the medium of the press, to put suggestions for the benefit of our seafaring community into tangible form. He at once found willing coadjutors in Mr. John Foster Spence and the late Mr. Joseph Spence. two most estimable Quaker gentlemen, who took kindly to the scheme, expressing the opinion that “this was a sort of volunteering which even they might encourage.” Public meetings followed, and in the end, as the result of the agitation, Mr. J. F. Spence, under date November 30, 1864, intimated in the local newspapers that names of intending volunteer life-brigadesmen would be received by Mr. Kilgour, Custom House; Mr. Greenhow, Shipping Office; Mr. Messent, Tyne Piers Office; Mr. John Morrison, 54, Front Street, Tynemouth; and Mr. George Hewitt, police superintendent. North Shields. Mr. Joseph Spence was appointed treasurer (a position which he filled with indefatigable energy and much credit up to the time of his regrettable death, which occurred at Tynemouth on December 17, 1889, after an honoured and active public life extending over seventy years); Mr. J. F. Spence was appointed secretary, and the first committee consisted of Messrs. James Gilbert, James Blackburn, Edward Fry, John Morrison, James Hindmarsh, H. A. Adamson, Joseph Menzies, Stanley Kewney, Michael Detchon, Thomas Taylor, and the Rev. H. S. Hicks. A code of rules was drawn up, and submitted to the Board of Trade by Mr. John Morrison, and that authority instructed Captain Robertson, R.N., inspecting commander of the district, to take the matter up. From this time Alderman John Foster Spence conducted all the correspondence with the Board of Trade, whilst Mr. John Morrison carried on an active and successful canvass for members. The code of rules was soon after-wards approved by the Board of Trade, who, indeed, thought them so admirable that even to the present day they are annually printed and circulated in all the Life Saving Apparatus Reports of the Board as a guide to similar bodies.
For long the members of the brigade experienced much difficulty in successfully carrying on their work, owing to the want of knowledge regarding the apparatus among the crews of stranded vessels; but this difficulty has since been met by the “instruction boards” which are now placed on all vessels by the Board of Trade.
Our portrait of Mr. J. F. Spence is copied from an oil painting by Mr. F. S. Ogilvie, of North Shields, while that of Mr. John Morrison is reproduced from a photograph by Messrs. Auty and Ruddock, of Tynemouth. The other sketches which accompany this article show how the rocket apparatus is worked. When the apparatus which is transported in a waggon specially provided for the purpose has arrived at the scene of action and is got into position, a rocket, with a thin line attached, is fired over the wreck. This line is secured by the crew on board, who, at a given signal, make fast a block to the highest secure part of the wreck. Another signal is then made, and the coastguard, by means of an endless line, haul off a hawser, which is made fast on board about eighteen inches above the block. If the wreck is stationary, and circumstances permit, the shore end of the hawser is passed over a crutch, and set taut with a tackle, which is generally hooked into an anchor buried in the beach for the purpose. A breeches-buoy, which travels suspended from the hawser, is then hauled backwards and forwards between the vessel and the shore until all the passengers and crew are landed, the persons to be saved sitting in the buoy with legs thrust through the breeches.