Twin towns united by loss

The pilot cutter on the Tyne.
The pilot cutter on the Tyne.

THE towns of North and South Shields had a relationship of mutual interdependence 90 years ago that can be hard to imagine today.

The disappearance of the frequent 24-hour ferry connections in 1967, on the opening of the Tyne Tunnel, all but severed the commercial and social links, which in the years before the First World War were at the heart of the lives of the majority of their residents.

The vital strategic and commercial significance of the river in 1914-18, particularly the shipbuilding and repairing facilities, provided an obvious target for enemy action.

Disruption of shipping approaching or leaving the Tyne was a constant theme in the unrestricted submarine warfare and mining of shipping lanes off the North east coast.

That action was to lead to a tragic loss of life amongst the close knit families of the river Tyne pilots when on December 31, 1916, the pilot cutter Protector was sunk by a mine just outside the river mouth.

The Tyne pilots can be traced back to Roman times, when boatmen from the river Tigris were employed to bring supplies to support the Roman Empire along Hadrian’s Wall.

In the years from the end of the 18th century to the First World War the pilots were a significant group of families in the local community in both North and South Shields.

The loss of the Protector was doubly sad as those men were not engaged in their long-established voluntary role providing the crews for the Tyne Lifeboat Service – the first established in the world – but merely awaiting approaching ships seeking their services to enter the river.

Six of the pilots and crew lived in North Shields.

Only one body was recovered, that of the oldest man lost that day, first class pilot Robert Phillips, aged 70, which was brought ashore over two months later in King Edward’s Bay at Tynemouth.

Although then resident in South Shields, he was buried in Preston Cemetery.

His grandson Ralph was lost with him. At 20 he was a pilot’s assistant, just beginning the long period of training and waiting for a vacancy in the exclusive community of licensed pilots.

Ralph had lived with his mother and father (also Ralph) at East George Street, North Shields.

The youngest casualty was Bertram Rumney aged 16, of Burdon Main Row, He was cabin boy on the Protector and came from another family with river connections.

His grandfather William was a boat-builder and his father a coppersmith.

The details of the disaster were not published widely at the time for reasons of wartime censorship, and with no bodies recovered immediately there was nothing to mark the tragedy by way of a significant number of funerals.

A plaque was installed later on the wall of the Church of St Aidan and St Stephen – known then as the ‘Pilots’ Church’, in Mile End Road, South Shields, and can be viewed today.

It records the names of all of the victims from the Protector and two other trainee pilots lost at sea on merchant navy service during the war.

THIS week’s casualty list gives details of 19 men from North and South Shields who were killed when the Tyne Pilotage Authority’s Cutter Protector was blown up by a mine outside the river’s piers on New Year’s Eve 1916.

Only one man was buried after recovery from the sea, in March, 1917. All the others are commemorated on Tower Hill Memorial.

Resident in North Shields:

Burn, John Hart, age 39, pilot second class, son of the late Ralph and Anne, husband of Charlotte Louise (nee Garred), 15 Coburg Terrace.

Forster, William Robert, age 39, 1st engineer, husband of Mrs E Forster, 115 Howdon Road.

Nicholson, James, age 45, steward, 27 Stormont Street.

Phillips, Ralph, age 20, pilot’s assistant, son of Ralph and Mrs Phillips, 14 East George Street.

Reed, Thomas, age 39, master of the Protector, living with his brother, a pilot, at 19 Toll Square.

Rumney, Bertram, age 16, cabin boy, son of William and

Isabella, of 27 Burdon Main Row.

Resident in South Shields:

Pilots – first class.

Bone, John Swinney Young, age 36, son of the late Thomas and Alice, 155 Lawson Terrace.

Burn, Charles, age 53, son of Charles and Catherine, husband of Margaret, 41 Trajan Avenue.

Chambers, Robert, age 48, son of Robert and Ellen, husband of Margaret Ann (Bell), 91 Baring Street.

Heron, Thomas, age 42, son of Benjamin and Esther, 114 Baring Street.

Marshall, Thomas Haw, age 36, son of John and Elizabeth, husband of Elizabeth Ann Smith, (formerly Marshall), 45 Fairless Street.

Phillips, Robert, aged 70, 53 Trajan Avenue, grandfather and father (see Ralph Phillips above), buried in Preston Cemetery.

Tinmouth, William Hopper, age 41, son of the late Thomas Young Tinmouth and Sarah M, husband of Mary (nee Elliott), 152 Fort Street.

Young, Matthew, age 42, son of Matthew and Margaret, husband of Jane Taylor (nee Dranie), 77 Baring Street.

Young, William, age 47, son of the late Thomas and Isabel, husband of Priscilla, 58 Julian Avenue.

Pilot’s assistants (apprentices) and crew.

Cree, John Cawthorne, age 19, son of John and Elizabeth, 60 Kensington Road.

Leslie, Alexander, age 21, son of Alexander and Mary, husband of Elizabeth Jane Robson, 10 Keppell Street.

Leslie, William, age 19, son of late Robert and Mary, next-of-kin Mrs R Leslie, 42 Collingwood Terrace.

Macconachie, James Matthew, age 31, fireman, son of John and Jane, husband of Sarah W Dunn, 77 Eldon Street.

n Anyone with information on this week’s list or who wants to find out more about the project, should visit, e-mail or write to Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project, c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.