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Snippets and Oddments

Newbiggin-by-the-Sea by Joseph Armstrong

When I was a child I spent a day at Newbiggin on the coast of Northumberland with two coachloads of families from our neighbourhood. It was a sunny day and I had a photograph taken with my mother, now lost. I never went there again until the 1960s when the two visits I made coincided with really heavy thunderstorms. It hadn't changed much.

Newbiggin next came to my attention when browsing through the John Sykes records of small events in the northern counties of England:- "Died at Newbiggin in Northumberland, Mr. John Armstrong, aged 104 years. Mr. Armstrong served in His Majesty's navy during the American rebellion." The item was dated 1842.

That snippet of information lingered in my memory for years and after I joined the Trust and began to do research on the census returns it came back to me when I reached Newbiggin. In 1861 there were twenty-one Armstrong families living there, all fishermen. Their ages ranged from young men with just a wife to middle aged ones with families and even some oldtimers in their seventies. Only one was put down as being retired.

On a visit to High Mill at Westgate in Weardale this year I was looking through the Trust parish records for Northumberland when I spotted an entry which showed three Arnstrongs buried on the same day, all drowned. Bells began clanging at the back of my mind and visions of gravestones in Newbiggin churchyard flashed into my memory, something to do with a shipwreck. Several long, tedious porings through old newspapers brought to light the details I was seeking.

In man's long battle with the sea, Kipling's 'Old grey widow maker', the coast of Northumberland had its share of the grief and glory. The first purpose- built lifeboat by William Wouldhave of South Shields was the result of a competition to find a craft that would stop the carnage on the Black Middens and the Herd Sands (Black Middens on the north shore and Herd Sands on south shore of Tyne estuary, now inside the piers, of course. ). In some accounts name the Anglia's Captain as Tellefson or Teffelson. The whole world knows of young Grace Darling who saved the crew of the S.S. Forfarshire in sight of our Patron's castle at Bamburgh, 1838. The fishermen of Newbiggin had played their parts in deeds of heroism many times but on December 19th, 1904 their luck ran out.

On that Ill fated Friday morning the steamer S.S. Anglia was feeling its way through a misty heavy swell en-route from Hamburg to Sunderland when it ran aground at Needle Point, Newbiggin, on the south side of the harbour. The fishermen put to sea immediately and a flotilla of cobles headed out before the lifeboat could be crewed and launched. The first one on the scene was that of George Armstrong and witnesses were later to say that Armstrong's coble went alongside the stricken vessel several times and an argument seemed to take place. In spite of the hideous danger to both his crew and their would-be rescuers, Captain Teffelson of the Anglia would not give up so that his ship could be claimed as salvage, they thought that the ship could be floated off at the next high tide. After putting in and sheering off several times the coble capsized and eight men were thrown into the sea. The old grey widow maker notched up six more husbands and a son. Only one man was picked up and he was unconscious. John Armstrong was the son of George who owned the coble, and on recovery he told the men who saved him that he was the only one of the eight who was able to swim, perhaps because of the old custom of seamen not wanting to learn, for fear of prolonging their deaths in the event of a ship sinking with no prospect of rescue.

By the time the other cobles drew near it was becoming apparent to all that the ship was in danger of breaking up -so when Captain Deldridge came an the scene with his men in the lifeboat, they rigged a line from shore to ship and by this means took off 15 of the crew of 17.

The two remaining men took to a ship's boat in their panic and turned the whole affair into a near farce, which could have ended in tragedy but for the shouted instructions from all quarters, which finally got them and the boat ashore.

On Monday the 12th the body of Edward Armstrong was recovered. He was also the son of George the owner whose body was pulled in on the day after the disaster. The body of William Brown Armstrong was seen but swept away by strong currents. Strangely, the 19 foot by 4 and a half foot coble was found undamaged at the other side of the bay at Needle's Eye. By this time the Anglia was turned around and parts of the hull were ripped away by heavy seas so that she was in danger of total loss.

Everything had gone wrong it seems as only a few weeks earlier the very same men had successfully helped a stricken vessel from the same rocks to safety. This rescue was much referred to of course with the usual apocryphal stories, two men (not named), one of whom was in the coble and changed his mind and one who was on his way to work in the local coal mine until he heard of the alarm and took his place.

So much for the fables, the facts speak for themselves, six women and ten children to be provided for from the fund.

The public had seen the best side of men, they were now to see a more sordid side.

On the day of the funeral thousands poured into the village on the excursion trains to satisfy their macabre curiosity, and there were ugly scenes in the tiny station as the staff tried to cope with the unexpected rush. When the time drew near for the funeral to start they all began climbing over fences to get out of the station and swarmed into the village to line the route the procession would take to the church on the very edge of the sea. (it's even nearer now due to erosion).

Sergeants Gray and Howie of Northumbria police were brought in with men to help control the crowds and the men of the Lifesaving Brigade roped off and manned the graveside area to make room for the families of the victims of the disaster.

The vicar in his eulogy said that, "John, who was saved, and those who died, were those who took part in the memorable launching to the 'Samuel & Ann' to save the crew in the storm of November 12th 1901, and were among the bravest and best an the coast".

A Wesleyan Minister conducted the service for John Dent and the Vicar of Newbiggin gave his service for the Armstrongs in the village square to accommodate the vast crowd.

John Dent, 60. George Armstrong, 60. James Armstrong, 53, John Armstrong, 48. James Armstrong, 29. Edward Armstrong. 29.

All buried together but for William Brown Armstrong.

The Newbiggin Armstrongs were not the first to lose a family to the sea as the following report in the John Sykes records indicates.

April 7th. 1810. "Tbe Cullercoats fishing fleet was caught in a storm off Hartley. The Blytb lifeboat was launched and took the crews from several vessels. The lifeboat struck a rock sideways and was broken into halves after being swamped. Only two men survived out of 27. The men saved were Thomas Lilly and an unknown Swede. A man named Armstrong and his four sons were lost".

Men are still going out there for our fish and the Armstrongs are still playing a major role in a tough adventurous job, out there where the action is.


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