History of Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade

    Founding of Volunteer Life Brigades

    Volunteer Life Brigades (VLBs) were set up to assist the Coastguard in saving life from ship wreck. They did this by using shore based rocket equipment that was used to fire a line to a ship in distress and then taking the crew and passengers off by breeches buoy; the Life Brigades never used boats.

    The first VLB was founded in Tynemouth in 1864 the wreck of the Stanley at the entrance to the river Tyne. The Stanley was carrying about 60 passengers and crew as well as livestock when it came to grief in a strong gale. Four local lifeboats put to sea but none could reach her due to the high seas. The Coastguards rigged up the shore based rocket apparatus and got a line on board but the crew secured it incorrectly and it could not be used. Eventually a line was properly secured and some of the people were taken off before the line snagged. In all four ships were wrecked at the mouth of the river Tyne that day with the loss of about 34 lives. One of the witnesses, John Morrison, was convinced that trained local men could have assisted the Coastguards and helped to prevent loss of life. He discussed this idea with the brothers John Foster and Joseph Spence who decided that this was a venture they wished to support.

    A public meeting was held on 5 December 1864 which resulted in over 140 volunteers putting themselves forward for training and on 9th December the Committee of the Borough of Tynemouth Life Saving Brigade met for the first time. John Foster Spence, by then the Honorary Secretary, wrote to the Board of Trade in December 1864 forwarding a copy of the proposed rules for the Tynemouth Brigade. He also expressed the hope that the setting up of the Tynemouth Brigade would see the start of a movement throughout the country. The Board replied in early January 1865 stating their acceptance of the services of a valuable means of assisting the Coastguard. Many Volunteer Life Brigades and Life Saving Companies were set up around the country with South Shields closely following its neighbour in establishing its VLB in 1866.

    Founding of Sunderland VLB

    The first record of the steps taken to set up a Life Brigade in Sunderland was on 20th February 1877. On this day a talk was given by Mr H C Spence, who was connected to the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, to a men’s meeting. This talk was reported in the local press and by 8th March 1877 130 people had signed a petition requesting that steps be taken to set up a Brigade in Sunderland. The petition was sent to the Mayor of Sunderland, Samuel Storey, who called a public meeting on 19th March 1877. Over 300 people attended this meeting and it is this date that the Brigade acknowledges as its founding.

    At a later meeting it was agreed that there should be two divisions to the Brigade, one for each side of the river. Next decisions had to be made on where the two divisions would be based. Within a year sites had been secured for both Watch Houses. The north division was based in a building near the north pier which was loaned by the River Wear Commissioners. The south side Watch House was near the south pier and the building of this one was funded by the Board of Trade. The first training was held on 10th July 1877 and it was done by the Coastguard who were responsible for this. The training went so well that a comment was made that the Sunderland Brigade were faster than others who had been practising for months. By the end of its first year the Brigade had 137 volunteers and four stations where apparatus was kept and that were used for practice. Drills were held at least every four weeks with the numbers attending being between 55 –70 men. The very first rescue took place on 14 October 1877when an iron barque, the Loch Cree, became a casualty of a gale and high seas when being towed in to Sunderland harbour. Using the breeches buoy equipment, the 18 crew members and a pilot were taken off and landed safely within an hour. ( see rescues page)

    Rocket apparatus and breeches buoy were used as a means of rescue until the 1980’s when they were declared obsolete. The last breeches buoy rescue by Sunderland VLB took place in 1963 at South Shields with the rescue of 23 men from Adelfotis II. (see rescues page).

    During this 100 year period of service Sunderland VLB attended over 100 ships in distress and helped to save 813 lives. The Brigade has undergone many developments in its 130 year history. Initially set up as one Brigade it was divided into two separate but complementary organisations in 1881 being know as Sunderland VLB (south of the river) and Roker VLB (north). It was not until 1958, when the then Sunderland Brigade closed, that all the operations were taken over by Roker who then were renamed Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade.

    The Watch Houses

    The Watch Houses were essential to the work of the Brigade and they were used for several purposes. They provided a base and a training venue, they were used to look out over the harbour to keep watch for ships in distress and they also provided accommodation for shipwrecked crews. The current Roker Watch House was built with a bunk room, which was lined with tiers of bunks to accommodate up to 23 people. There was a stove in the main hall to provide warm meals and hot drinks. Although some of the crews using the port were local, Sunderland was an international trading port and many shipwrecked sailors needed to be housed and fed until they could return to their home port or find another ship. Although there were several Missions to Seamen in the town that provided accommodation, it was to the Watch Houses that the rescued sailors would go for immediate care and comfort. Alongside the Watch Houses were the Cart Houses. These were built to house the rocket equipment and other gear used during the rescues as well as the carts used to carry them. As explosives were used to fire the rockets the Board of Trade set out strict guidelines for the construction and fitting out of the Cart Houses. Watch Houses had to be replaced from time to time and the current one was opened in 1906, it is the third purpose built Watch House for the north of the river.


    Brigadesmen were all volunteers and they came from all walks of life. One stipulation was that they needed to live near their Watch House so as to be near if the signals were set off to call out the Brigade. There is little detailed information about most of the men who served as it was usually only the officers who were named in reports of rescues but we do have a few records that give names. If you think that one of your ancestors may have served in Sunderland VLB and would like further information please contact the Brigade’s Museum Team (see contacts page).



    Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade:::The Watch House, Pier View, Roker, Sunderland. SR6 0PR

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