From boy whaler to Rainbow Warrior – a South Shields’ seafarer’s tale

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JOHN Burton’s life encompassed a maritime era that’s lost to us now.

In some aspects, his story mirrors that of thousands of other Shields lads who, over the years, have answered the call of the sea – running towards something or, as in his case, away from it.

But in other ways, his is an extraordinary narrative, taking in, not least, his conversion from whaling man to Greenpeace campaigner, an authoritative voice in the global debating chambers, on a polarising industry.

And now he’s written it all down. His memoir, Ta-ra Johnny Boy: Boy Whaler to Rainbow Warrior, is an absorbing, reflective and thought-provoking work.

He is candid, now, about what he confesses became his shame and disgust in having participated in the slaughter of thousands of beautiful and intelligent animals.

“Perhaps in the past, a lack of resources made it necessary to kill whales,” he says.

“Industry, particularly during the war, depended on their valuable oils, and their meat supplemented the nation’s diet at a time when all types of protein were scarce.

“But now there is no conceivable reason that can justify the killing of whales, on commercial, research or supplementary grounds.”

But the book isn’t all about soul-searching.

It is also deeply evocative of Shields and Tyneside itself, which John, now 82, grew up knowing on either side of the Second World War.

He now lives in Isleworth, in Middlesex, but was born in Palatine Street in Shields in 1932, to where he, his brother and their mother moved back to live, with his grandmother, after the break-up of his parents’ marriage in 1948.

Neither his mam nor his dad had had good starts in life, he learned from his ‘Gramma.’

“She would tell me how, when dad was on the dole, he would take his bike and ride to the Simonside slag heaps at the other side of Tyne Dock arches. He would pick over the waste shale, reclaiming any bits of coal that had been accidentally dumped.

“Having filled a bag, he would load it on to the crossbar and push it the three miles home.

“She told me how these bags, hot from the slag heap, would, over a number of journeys, buckle the crossbar and bend the frame.”

These pages on his early life are suffused with a vanished industrial landscape.

As a young teenager, the young John worked at Victor’s Products at Wallsend, which involved a six-mile journey by bicycle and ferry.

This is him on crossing the Tyne: “My senses were assailed in every direction: The smell of wet hemp from the hawser tethering the squat hull to the quay, the shrieking of seagulls, the chatter of dockers, stevedores, river men, young lads in boiler suits, middle-aged women, and factory workers, the too-toot of tugs maneouvering a giant tanker midstream, the rainbow slicks of diesel fumes and fuel oil on the jet-black surface of the water....and pervading all this, the smell of fish from North Shields fish quay through a curtain of industrial haze and smoke.”

His parents’ split eventually drove him to sea, in the tanker San Felix and subsequently in the whale factory, Southern Harvester. in which he completed three seasons of Antarctic whaling.

After National Service, he settled in London, working in various trades and singing with his semi-professional band, The Fourtunes. He married an Irish girl, Agnes.

It was more than 30 years after his last trip in the whalers that he began to take an interest in the anti-whaling movement.

“It wasn’t a ‘road to Damascus’ revelation,” says the father-of-three “but rather a steady drip-drip of knowledge and awareness. Above all, I became aware of the activities of Greenpeace and their relentless actions against the killing of whales for commercial purposes, particularly by Japan”.

In 2001, he addressed the International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference in London on the barbaric practices of whale killing, and two years later was invited by German television to take part in a five-week expedition to the South Pacific island of Lembata, the last place left in the world where whales are still killed by hand.

He subsequently took part in another IWC conference; then, in 2004, he was invited by Greenpeace to voyage on their ship, Rainbow Warrior, to Iceland, in an attempt to dissuade them from further whale hunting.

John, ‘Ahab’s apprentice,’ as he wryly calls himself, has written a volume that deserves our attention. It’s a story of personal conflict and also ecological loss, but also a well-penned illustration of how we and the denizens of the deep are fellow travellers.

n Ta-ra Johnny Boy: Boy Whaler to Rainbow Warrior is published as an eBook, available at