It’s 1950s Ireland. There’s a class of 13-year-old boys sitting in a lesson that is suddenly interrupted by the local Catholic priest who has an announcement: the fishing fleet has come in and it’s short of crew. ‘I want you, you, and you,’ he commands, and a group of bewildered boys pack up their books.
One of those boys was Henry Howard, a 70-something retired fisherman, who was pulled out of class that day and put on a boat – never to return to school. At 14 he was washed overboard when a hook from the boat’s gear picked him up by his duffle coat and flung him over the side until the crew were able to pull him back on board. Once he had regained his breath, the sympathetic skipper leaned out of his window and told him to dry off and get back to work.
Commercial fishing is the UK’s toughest and most dangerous peacetime occupation. Henry, who moved to the North East 50 years ago, knows all too well about the unforgiving nature of the sea. While sharing some of his many tales with his granddaughter, Courtney, he explained that although North Shields is home to the biggest prawn landing port in the country it’s one of the few places without a memorial dedicated to the fishermen who died while providing for it. Appalled, she told Henry he needed to do something about it – and that’s exactly what he did.
Henry raised the idea to build a fitting memorial on the seafront with a small team of seven and a plan sprung into action: the North Shields Fishermen’s Heritage Project was born. After countless meetings, conflicting opinions and a lot of careful planning, a new website with a fundraising page and social media accounts were set up and the design process started.
‘Once we got all those things in place we put an artist’s brief together,’ explains volunteer fundraiser and project leader Keith Spedding. Keith, a retiree born and bred in North Shields, felt strongly about the memorial, having seen his whole family work on the Fish Quay at some point in their lives (Keith’s career as an apprentice marine engineer ended abruptly after a bout of sea sickness).
The brief for the memorial invited three local artists, and one from Scotland, to submit three designs each. They were after something fairly traditional and as big as they could get, so they asked for a man, a woman and a wildcard. The 12 designs were condensed to eight with the help of North Tyneside Council and on 18 July last year they launched the fundraising drive for the £75,000 needed, with a preview of the designs (that would be up for public vote) at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre. ‘Our thinking was, if we’re going to ask the community to fund this project, they should have a vote on what they’re going to see at the end of it,’ explains Keith.
What followed was a series of ‘vote and donate days’, where the volunteers showcased the designs at more than 20 venues across the region including shopping centres and public parks. They received an overwhelming response and floods of donations. After the three month voting period there was a clear winner: ‘The image by Ray Lonsdale was streets ahead of the rest – it won with 47 percent of the public vote,’ says Keith. ‘It was good that there was such a majority. If we’d been split across the board it would have been a nightmare.’
Sculptor Ray Lonsdale is already underway with creating the two-and-a-quarter times life-size memorial, made out of the same material as the Angel of the North. Inspired by an image taken in 1959 by local photographer Harry Hann, the sculpture will depict a man leaning on his thigh, flat cap on his head and cigarette in his mouth. It will be called Fiddler’s Green, which Keith tells us refers to ‘a mythical afterlife where there’s lots of dancing and lots of drinking.’
After announcing the winner the fundraising began in earnest. ‘Once the message got out it started to take on a life of its own,’ says Keith, whose wife, Alison, has been in charge of promoting the project across social media. It attracted support from the whole community: from small charities and businesses donating generously, to members of the public organising events throughout the year to raise funds. Alison’s efforts spreading the word meant they had support as far afield as Canada, where someone ordered a limited edition of a painting donated to an auction. Before they knew it, less than a year after launching the project, they had reached the £75,000 target.
‘Optimistically we thought we’d maybe have the money by December and have the piece in place by spring or summer of 2018,’ says Keith. ‘Clearly, the project struck a chord with the people in North Shields. North Shields was built on the fishing industry: many who live there have had a fisherman in their family or someone working in the industry.’
The memorial means a lot to the whole community, but it’s especially important to Julie Myhill who tragically lost her partner, James, two and a half years ago. James was the last fisherman to sail from North Shields and lose his life doing his job, and for Julie the prospect of a memorial has been overwhelming. ‘There are memorials all over, but there’s nothing in North Shields,’ she says. ‘I’m over the moon there’s somewhere to go. James has got a plaque in the Fish Quay but it would be lovely to go to the sea front.’
The seven volunteers have coined the expression ‘destination art’ about the memorial, which is what they hope Fiddler’s Green will become. Since building Seaham Tommy, the First World War soldier in Seaham, tourism in the area has increased, with local businesses reporting increases of up to 30 percent. ‘People from outside the area are coming down to see him and getting their photograph taken,’ explains Keith, who hopes the same will happen for North Shields.
Preparations are well underway for the grand unveiling of the memorial on 24 September and thousands are expected to attend the event. The North Shields Fishermen’s Heritage Project will still continue afterwards but Henry, Keith, Alison and the other volunteers will enjoy a well-deserved break: ‘Our final post will say: “the memorial is up, and so are our feet!”’
There will be a Q&A session with Ray Lonsdale on 12 August The Old Low Light Heritage Centre and tickets can be bought in advance. For more information about the project head to www.nsfhp.org.uk