When I was seven my father put me in the breeches buoy, put his jacket over me in case I was splashed, and they pulled me ashore.
Father was the caretaker of Eastern Board School and we lived in the schoolhouse in East Percy Street. He had been a drill instructor who went round all the schools and there was what was called a ‘ragged school’ – they were all the little toughies of the East End. The school was one of these places that went down from Harbour View to the Fish Quay. Because he could discipline them – if father said something, you obeyed – and he was really good with boys like that, they asked him if he would take the caretaker’s job at the new Eastern Board School when it opened in 1876. He was looking for a bigger house than he had for his growing family, so he undertook that and gave up his going round the schools teaching drill.
At playtime he sat on what we called the retaining wall against the school and a lot of the boys gathered round him and he told them stories of England’s battles on land and sea and kept them out of mischief. But if he saw there was a boy climbing up the railings – well, there were spikes on top – “BOY!” – and boy obeyed – they were little toughies you know, the East End lads.
Father was a Quartermaster Sergeant in the Tynemouth Volunteer Artillery and served for 40 years after joining in 1869. He was also Captain of the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade. He was one of the very early members, joining in 1883 and made an Honorary Captain on his retirement in 1927.
The Life Brigade used to have a drill using the pier for a wreck and every Saturday they fired a rocket with a line attached over the pier and the pier was the wreck and the Spanish Battery was the land. They had someone on the pier who got put into a breeches buoy – which is still there in the Life Brigade House at Tynemouth -–and hauled them ashore.
When I was seven my father put me in the breeches buoy, put his jacket over me in case I was splashed, and they pulled me ashore. If they had an adult they gave them artificial respiration but they wouldn’t do it to me – I was only a bairn! But, one of my sisters, her boyfriend felt sorry for me and gave me a box of chocolates, I can remember that plainly.
When he died in 1930, sixteen men of the Tynemouth Life brigade pulled his coffin on the rocket carrier, which usually held the lifesaving equipment, from Newcastle Street to Preston Cemetery.