Protector sea tragedy devastated Tynemouth community

THE hushed-up story of a tragedy which devastated a Tyne rivermouth community has been pieced together by local history volunteers.

The Tyne pilot cutter Protector
The Tyne pilot cutter Protector

THE hushed-up story of a tragedy which devastated a Tyne rivermouth community has been pieced together by local history volunteers.

They are working on a project which is building up details on 1,670 names that appear on a roll of honour of those lost as a result of the First World War in the old borough of Tynemouth.

On the list, researchers came across the names of three men lost when the Tyne pilot cutter Protector was sunk off the mouth of the river on New Year’s Eve in 1916.

Alan Fidler, co-ordinator of the Tynemouth World War I Commemoration project, decided to follow up the lead. He discovered a brass plaque in St Aidan and St Stephen’s Church in South Shields bearing the names of the 19 men killed when the Protector was destroyed by an explosion.

They included 10 Tyne pilots, four pilot assistants and five crew members. They left behind 33 children under the age of 16.

Of the 13 victims from South Shields, six were from Baring Street and four from the town’s Trajan Avenue. Five of those lost lived in North Shields.

“Wartime censorship meant that the tragedy was not widely known at the time,” said Alan.

It was not until December 1918 that local newspapers could give some information.

Details have been provided to the project by families which have come forward with photographs, letters and other documents.

John Hart Burn, a former pilot who lives in North Shields and lost his grandfather on the Protector, produced a memorial piece made from timber and other wreckage from the vessel.

The additional information has prompted the project to stage an exhibition on the loss of the Protector at the Low Lights Tavern on North Shields Fish Quay until Sunday.

“The Tyne pilots were an inter-linked rivermouth community, where sons and male relatives of pilots followed them into the job,” said Alan.

The cause of the explosion remains a mystery, although it is thought that the vessel could have struck a mine or been torpedoed.

Ralph Phillips, his son (also called Ralph) left and dad Robert (right)

Among those lost was pilot Robert Phillips (above centre), 70, and his grandson, Ralph Phillips, 20 (above left). Robert’s son, also Ralph (above right) – the father of 20-year-old Ralph – had not been on the boat that day. He lost a father and a son. He took turns with other pilots to patrol the beaches and three months later he spotted a body in King Edward’s Bay in Tynemouth.

He retrieved the body from the sea and it was only later in the day it was identified as his father, Robert, who was the only victim who was recovered.

One of the documents shown to the project reveals that in May, 1915, young Ralph Phillips applied to join the Army.

But the Tyne Pilotage Commission rejected the request on the grounds that Ralph’s pilot work was too important.

“Ironically, he was then killed probably by a mine or a torpedo,” said Alan.

Page 2: Behind every name an amazing story >>


Wreckage from the boat became a memorial

THE exhibition on the loss of the Protector is the first of a series of displays planned by the Tynemouth World War I Commemoration project.

The project’s main exhibition will be part of events in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war.

But so much information is being amassed by the project’s 60 volunteers from the 1923 Tynemouth roll of honour that lead-up displays are being lined up.

The Protector exhibition will move next week to the Queen Alexandra Sixth Form College in North Shields, which is part of Tyne Met College. The building was formerly Tynemouth High School.

Former pupil and project co-ordinator Alan Fidler has researched the school’s roll of honour.

It contains the names of more than 300 pupils who served during the war and the 69 who lost their lives.

The plan is for today’s students to become involved in the project.


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