Exhibition tribute to inspirational South Shields teacher

South Shields natuarlist and teacher Fred Grey is honoured in tribute exhibition

Fred Grey observing and recording birdlife
Fred Grey observing and recording birdlife

The lesson to be learned from a new Tyneside exhibition is that gifted teachers can have a lasting and sometimes life-changing influence on their students.

The fact that the late Fred Grey, who taught in South Shields for 43 years, has an exhibition devoted to his life puts him squarely in that category.

Fred fired hundreds, if not thousands, of those he taught with an abiding enthusiasm for the natural world.

Now some of his former pupils have helped put together the exhibition as a tribute to Fred, who lived all of his life in South Shields.

The exhibition, titled Following Fred: A Life Inspired, is at South Shields Customs House until May 24.

It describes Fred as an inspirational teacher and scholar who “connected people with wildlife in the most profound of ways.”

Fred was head of English at South Shields Grammar Technical School, where he taught for 38 years. He was passionate about Shakespeare and Wordsworth and wildlife - especially birds, setting up the school bird club in 1940 during wartime evacuation to Cumbria.

He was also the first president of Durham Bird Club, a founding member of the Northumberland and Durham Naturalists’ Trust, which led to the formation of the two county wildlife trusts, and was secretary of the ornithology section of the Natural History Society of Northumbria.

Never having learned to drive, he caught a series of buses or cycled to reach his birding spots, and led his pupils on expeditions to bird-rich areas like the mudflats of Jarrow Slake or the Farne Islands.

He also spread the word through his adult classes at the Workers Educational Association.

One of his South Shields pupils was Jim Edwardson, now Newcastle University Emeritus Professor of Neuroendocrinology, which is concerned with the links between the brain, nervous and hormonal systems.

For 30 years his research field has been the study of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

In 1979 Prof Edwardson became director of the Medical Research Council’s unit based at Newcastle General Hospital, leading a team which made international contributions to the understanding of Alzheimers and other brain disorders.

He went on to become the founding director of the Institute for Ageing and Health - the university’s first research institute.

A building is named after him at the Campus for Ageing and Vitality on the former general hospital site.

“Fred Grey was one of the most influential people in my life,” says Prof Edwardson, who lives in Gosforth in Newcastle.

“I didn’t flourish at school in my teenage years and have vivid memories of the headmaster telling my father that I had no academic potential and was suited to a job in mining or the shipyards.” Fred had other ideas.

“He heard that I collected birds’ eggs and in the kindest way invited me to join his bird watching club,” says Prof Edwardson. “Within weeks I was hooked for life. I became minutes secretary – my first experience of administrative responsibility.”

Fred encouraged the young Jim to submit an entry to the 1959 Hancock essay competition with an effort on the birds of Jarrow Slake. It won, and the £15 prize paid for a first pair of decent binoculars.

More encouragement from Fred persuaded his young student to go to university to study biology - the start of what would be 50 years of biomedical research.

Looking back over his career, Prof Edwardson says: “I know that none of this would have happened without Fred’s early inspiration and encouragement.

“Bird watching and wildlife generally still provide a cornerstone of my life,” says Prof Edwardson, a member of council for the Natural History Society. “He was, truly, a remarkable man.”

The exhibition is the conclusion of a project to gather material on Fred’s life which has been backed by a £9,500 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It has been co-ordinated by ornithologist Keith Bowey, another pupil of the South Shields school.

He recalls, as a youngster, nervously approaching Fred in the school corridor to tell him about an unusual bird he had seen.

Part of the apprehension was due to the fact that Fred’s nickname was Basher, as he had been a boxer in his younger days as well as a keen rugby player for the Westoe team.

“This imposing guardsman of a man suddenly changed at the mention of the bird. He listened carefully and then asked questions and told me what I had seen,” says Keith. “He just wanted to inspire people about wildlife.”

Fred, who started keeping field journals from 1934, spent his boyhood enjoying nature in and around Marsden Bay.

He died in 1997, aged 86.

“He was not only a great teacher. He also inspired a lot of people to do things with their lives,” says Prof Edwardson. “He showed how one single man can make such a difference.”


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