Exhibition marks centenary of Tyne ship blaze

Exactly a century ago, the fledgling Pathe News, pioneers of the cinema newsreel, hot-footed it to Tyneside to record a drama on the river

The training ship Wellesley on fire in the Tyne in 1914
The training ship Wellesley on fire in the Tyne in 1914

Exactly a century ago, the fledgling Pathe News, pioneers of the cinema newsreel, hot-footed it to Tyneside to record a drama on the river.

Fire was engulfing the training ship Wellesley, a converted wooden warship that had been HMS Boscawen, and which was moored off North Shields.

As rowing boats and a variety of other craft circled the ship, more than 200 boys and staff were taken off the vessel.

Pathe captured the scene for the cinemas which were opening everywhere, and it will all be remembered afresh in an exhibition on the Wellesley which opens tomorrow at Segedunum Roman Fort and Museum in Wallsend.

Visitors will hear the voice of Captain EJ Hatfield giving a first-hand account of the blaze and life aboard the ship. He was one of the evacuated boys, who were rescued by the tug Vigilant.

In 1977, Capt Hatfield recorded three hours of memories about his time on the Wellesley and his passage through life, which is now part of the audio collection of Tyne Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM).

He went on to become a master mariner.

It was in 1866 that Parliament gave magistrates the power to send destitute youngsters under 14 to a certified industrial school.

In 1868, Tynemouth ship owner James Hall proposed that such a school should be established on a ship moored in the Tyne.

The 74-gun HMS Cornwall was acquired and was renamed Wellesley. In 1873, it was replaced by HMS Boscawen, which had been built in 1844, and continued the Wellesley name.

Hall saw the ship as a way of rescuing neglected boys and preparing them for an industrious life, especially in the Royal and merchant navies.

Capt Hatfield says in his recording: “The boys were tough. You wouldn’t survive there if you were a mother’s darling.

“You had to be tough and you had to hold your own with these boys.”

Ian Whitehead, keeper of maritime history at TWAM, has curated the exhibition, which will run until July 13 and features items from the Wellesley sold by auction in Newcastle four years ago.

Ian says: “Capt Hatfield is not critical of the regime, but you get the idea that it was very harsh.

“It was very closely organised and most of the boys had had a rough life. It gave them some order and structure in their lives and at least they were fed.”

A register from 1898 reveals that boys had been admitted after being found begging for food, lacking in proper guardianship and, in the case of three youngsters, living in a brothel. As the Wellesley could take 300 boys at a time, thousands passed through the ship. They were given an education comparable to that of a school, training in skills such as tailoring, shoe making, plumbing, sail making and cookery, and also picked up seamanship.

They could also join the ship’s band, which played at Newcastle United home matches in 1905.

The Wellesley advertised the band for “parks, flower shows, garden fetes, sports, Band of Hope demonstrations, ship launches, concerts, picnics etc”.

Capt Hatfield says: “The bandmaster used to look at your teeth, like a horse dealer.” After the blaze, the school was transferred to the Tynemouth Plaza, which itself was destroyed by fire in 1996.

In 1920, the Wellesley school moved to Blyth, where it stayed for 86 years.

Manager of North Tyneside Museums Geoff Woodward said: “We are very lucky to be able to use the personal perspective of a boy who experienced life aboard the Wellesley and the subsequent fire.

“Capt Hatfield is really the voice of the exhibition.”

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