Historian remembers those in peril at sea

Fishermen have a hazardous way of life, says local historian Dorothy Ramser, in the foreword of her latest article charting the life and times of people in our part of the world.

Lizard Point at The Leas Souter Lighthouse
Lizard Point at The Leas Souter Lighthouse

Not only are they at the mercy of nature on the high seas, she adds, but are victims of accident on board ship, and in war, becoming the prey of the enemy.

“So spare a thought for the men who have lost their lives in this industry, providing us with the fresh ingredient for our national dish of fish and chips,” she says.

“Here I have highlighted the stories of two local trawlers from times gone by, the Sheldrake and Tyne Wave, and their crews.”

On Sunday, February 18, 1894, James Kenny, a fisherman on board the steam fishing boat Sheldrake, left home to join his vessel – but he never made it aboard.

Almost a fortnight later his body was recovered from the sea, near North Shields quayside.

“What happened to him on the way to work was never discovered but the mystery deepened when it was found that despite being known to the trawler’s owners, Messrs. Kinnear & Co, as James Kenny, in the census of 1891, he was actually known as James McGinty.

“It’s a mystery why he would be working under a different name, as both names are listed on the official report recording his death.”

The Sheldrake was again at the centre of an unfortunate incident on a January morning in 1899 when the trawler was in sight of Souter Point.

The crew was hauling in their fishing gear when a steamer, called the Louise of Tonsberg, on its way to Shields harbour, crashed into their boat with such force that it did “considerable damage” to the fishing boat. Thankfully nobody was hurt.

However, a month later, tragedy struck when the Sheldrake left the Tyne but uncharacteristically returned home the same night.

“She bore the sad news that Captain George Robert Thompson had been drowned whilst the trawler was about 42 miles north east by east from Tynemouth castle,” explained Dorothy.

“The skipper had gone to relieve one of the crew at the wheel but when he didn’t arrive, the alarm was raised and they cruised about for a long, long time to try to locate him, but no trace of the unfortunate man could be found.

“Capt Thompson was 42 and a widower, his wife Emma having died in 1897. He had three daughters who, from that moment, were made orphans.

“That week, an advertisement was placed in the local newspaper alerting readers to a fund that had been set up to raise money for the three girls, Maria, Elizabeth and Emma.

“It seems they all went on to have successful lives.”

In August 1900, the Sheldrake arrived in the port of Stornoway, where its then skipper, Captain Frederick Chase, reported that one of the fishermen on board, Joseph Howard, had fallen overboard and drowned in the inky darkness.

Capt Chase, was no stranger to the perils of taking to the sea. For just four months earlier, his trawler, Tyne Wave, collided with a large iron barque, the Lady Wolsey, near the Groynes Lighthouse, and sank.

“When the crew of the Lady Wolseley saw the stricken trawler, they at once set about throwing ropes over the bows and six of the trawler’s crew scrambled up them to safety.

“Capt Chase and two other crew members just managed to leave the Tyne Wave in the nick of time, making their escape from the sinking ship on a pilot boat which had come to the rescue.

“Chase, aged 36, was the last man, as captain, to leave his vessel.

“Just before the stricken fishing trawler plunged to the depths her topmasts broke off and from point of impact she sank in under 10 minutes.”

Accidents at sea, points out Dorothy, were frequent, with the Tyne Wave suffering its own share.

Prior to her loss, the trawler had seen one crewman suffer a broken leg and another the loss of his foot.

Although the Tyne Wave was salvaged and sailed again, she was lost for good when attacked by a German U-boat in 1918. Her crew survived .