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The Tyne is no longer one of the great shipbuilding rivers of the world, but Steve Newman meets an enthusiastic group of seafaring craftsmen who are keeping alive the traditional skills of the yards and slipways
The North East owes much of its character and growth to its rivers. For thousands of years they have been used as highways for commerce and, as a result, each developed a separate character of its own.
The busiest of these rivers in recent years has been the Tyne and, as with other rivers, specific wooden-built craft were developed to serve the needs of the ships visiting the port.
A group of volunteers on the South Shields riverbank are working hard to preserve this fascinating aspect of our history by repairing and renovating our traditional boats using time-honoured methods.
The North East Maritime Trust was formed in 2005 to make a positive contribution to the renewal of interest in the region, says workshop manager Dave Parker. We all have a pride and a passion in what we do here. The lads are a magnificent team of volunteers who give freely of their time and we are indebted to those who join us and point us in the direction of grant aid and experience. If anyone is reading this article and they have any old North East maritime bits and pieces, books, photographs and memories, we would be delighted to talk to them.
Perhaps the most evocative of the boats was the Tyne foy boat. These small boats were privately owned by foy boatmen, who worked along the river to provide services for visiting ships by helping with mooring, transporting crew and supplies. Sadly, these and other wooden-built boats that are examples of our regions maritime heritage are now sadly few and far between. The cobles, fishing boats and lifeboats are slowly disappearing along with the skills to rebuild them.
The links with the past can literally walk up to you in South Shields and gently stare you in the face when you least expect it. In the small boatyard next door to the North East Maritime Trust I found Harry Chamberlain, who worked on the foy boats as a young man, following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather, who were also foy boatmen.
Harry owned the Trusts Royal Diadem II and was working on another coble the New Venture, built at Harrisons of Amble in 1972, when I chatted to him. A member of the Coble and Keelboat Society, Harry served an apprenticeship on the tugs of the Tyne and can remember as a youngster all his friends being able to scull as young as six years old.
The interior of the workshop is dominated by the hull of the former Tynemouth lifeboat, the Henry Frederick Swan. Built in 1917, the vessel has chalk numbers and statements scrawled all over her and I wondered why. We had a detailed survey undertaken by wooden boat builder Fred Crowell next door, said Trust member Peter Weightman, who owns keeps a sailing coble. Hence the marks. Fred prepared a work schedule for us and marked it out in chalk. Traditional boat building skills are much alive in the yard next door to us where Fred runs his business.
Fred has been involved helping restore vessels for many years and I found him standing in the single-man coble, Sandra Marie, built in Amble in 1974, which he was repairing. He had also built the cradle she was sitting on. The Sandra Marie still has her original pot hauler on board.
Fred is an outstanding repairer of wooden boats; he used to build them when working for Robsons of Shields, prior to setting up in his own workshop.
You should also remember that none of us are boat builders, said Dave. I was a chief engineer in the Merchant Navy, Peter was in building and the rest of us are ex master mariners, platers and welders. The main emphasis of our work is on the maintenance, restoration and reconstruction of wooden vessels. Its a privilege to learn how to use the tools as we progress to repair these boats and really get under the skin and into the lives of the men who built them. Indeed, reviving traditional wooden boatbuilding skills through training programmes is something were very keen on.
Membership of the North East Maritime Trust is 10 a year.
Cheques should be made out to NEMT Friends and can be sent to: North East Maritime Trust, 2-3 Wapping Street, South Shields NE33 1LQ. For more information, telephone 0191 529 5381 or go to www.nemaritimetrust.co.uk.
Lifeline for former lifeboat
Currently undergoing restoration at the North East Maritime Trust, is the Henry Frederick Swan, the former Tynemouth lifeboat, built in 1917. She was on duty from 1918 to 1939, after which she was in the reserve fleet.
The restoration of the lifeboat started with its transportation from Tyne Dock to its present location in the NEMT's premises at Wapping Street, South Shields. The first job was to lift the lifeboat up to a suitable height and insert chocks so that any work on the underside of the hull could be carried out safely.
The vessel was subsequently stripped down and a detailed survey undertaken by boat builder Fred Crowell who prepared a work schedule. The project is on hold until other restoration projects are completed and funds are raised.
What are your memories of the North East rivers in the heyday of shipbuilding? Did you work in the yards? Did you or your forebears own a foy boat? We would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below