Family research reveals North Tyneside sea tragedy

Family research has uncovered a sea tragedy which shook the fishing village of Cullercoats in North Tyneside as Tony Henderson reports

Kelvin Wilson with the portrait of George Lisle
Kelvin Wilson with the portrait of George Lisle

Reconstructing history is part of Kelvin Wilson’s professional life as an archaeological illustrator.

In addition to his work for museums and publishers, he has delved into his own family’s past.

Around 25 years of research have led him to Cullercoats in North Tyneside – and uncovered a tragedy which shook the fishing village.

Now Kelvin is to give a talk on his discoveries in the village when he visits the North East from his home in Holland.

He has lived in the Netherlands since his family left Newcastle when he was four years old.

They moved with another 40 Tyneside families to jobs in Dutch shipyards, and all settled in the same village.

“I have always been very conscious of my Geordie roots,” says Kelvin, now 44.

It was the unusual Christian name of his father and grandfather – Lisle – which sparked his interest in his family’s history.

Lisle is a well-known Cullercoats surname, and Kelvin traced his great great grandfather, John Lisle, to the village, where he was choirmaster and one of the founders of the fishermen’s mission.

John Lisle was just six months old when his father, George Lisle, drowned in February, 1848, along with six other men from the village.

The men, who were fisherman and pilots, died when their coble was hit by a wave as they left Cullercoats Bay in a heavy sea.

Also lost was George Lisle’s brother, Robert, their father George senior, and his brother, also Robert.

The other three victims were Robert Clark, James Stocks and Charles Pearson.

It appears that they had set off to pilot boats waiting to enter the Tyne.

An account of the time reads: “A melancholy occurrence happened this morning off Cullercoats. As a coble was proceeding from Cullercoats to the several vessels lying in the offing, the boat was struck by a heavy sea, and the unfortunate men were thrown overboard and drowned in the sight of their relatives and friends.

“The most lamentable fate was that of Stocks. He was a bold swimmer, and though he was washed off the coble bottom several times always got back to it.

“The last time he was on the coble he stripped off his jacket and waistcoat and prepared to swim ashore, as the coble had then approached the rocks.

“He was so near that his brother shouted to him ‘Jim, swim ashore.’

“Stocks answered ‘I’m done, I’m done’ and after combating awhile with the sea, he hung his head and sunk.

“Much commiseration was felt in the district for the sufferers, who were well known and respected by everybody.

“A subscription was afterwards set on foot for the relief of the families of the deceased men and a very handsome sum was speedily collected and distributed according to the separate wants of each.”

Kelvin is to visit York to deliver a presentation on his work, and decided to take in Cullercoats, where he will give his talk at the village’s community centre at 7pm on Sunday, February 23.

It will centre on life in the village from the mid-18th century to the first half of the 20th century, including the tragedy of 1848.

“I have been building up a social history of Cullercoats,” says Kelvin, who has amassed a database of around 10,000 names of people with links to the village.

His interest in Cullercoats extends to collecting images of the village, which for many years was a favourite subject for artists.

But one of Kelvin’s paintings is extra special.

In 1991, a local woman he was interviewing drew his attention to a print of a painting of a man she said was George Lisle. Because of his work, Kelvin has a good memory for images and, in 2012, he came across the original portrait on a Durham art dealer’s website.

Kelvin found that the painting of George Lisle was dated 1847 and bought it.

The portrait is by artist John Henry Mole, who was born in Alnwick in Northumberland and worked as a clerk in a Newcastle solictor’s office.

Kelvin also owns a view of Cullercoats by John Henry Mole, who must also have painted George Lisle on one of his visits to the village.

He later moved to London and exhibited his work at the Royal Academy.

“He painted the portrait of George Lisle, not knowing that George would be dead within six months,” says Kelvin.

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