Exhibition: Merchant Navy – Tyneside Stories

The exhibition, which focuses on the 20th and 21st centuries, tells a powerful story of local shipping lines, ship repair yards, the service during two world wars, the varied community support and training offered over the years to seamen of all nations who visited the Tyne, a boarding school in Berkshire for children who had lost a parent while serving in the Merchant Navy, right up to the modern Merchant Navy and the challenges it faces. There are also many stories from local families and individuals about their experiences of the Merchant Navy.

Volunteer and trustee Nina Brown who coordinated the exhibition said: “This is the first time that we have had a full exhibition on the Merchant Navy which played and still plays a very big part in life on Tyneside. We have been overwhelmed at the response received from many individuals with seafaring connections who were keen to share their stories and those of their family members, as well as loaning us precious memorabilia.

“We have learnt so much about the involvement of local people in the service, past and present. We look forward to welcoming visitors to the exhibition in the coming weeks and months and hope that they enjoy this story.”

In the entrance to the gallery there is a colourful display of images, mounted on ropes, of some of the people and ships that feature in the exhibition.

The main display boards cover the following:

  • The Merchant Navy at War – the national and international context, including that Britain’s merchant fleet was the largest in both world wars. In WW1 there were 3,000 British flagged ships and 17,000 merchant seafarers lost their lives. In WW2 there were 5,000 British flagged ships and 32,000 merchant seafarers lost their lives. The display also includes stories of ‘local heroes’.
  • Seafarers of all Nations – Tyneside has welcomed seafarers from many nations for many centuries, some spending a few hours or days in a port, others here to study, some settling and making the area their home. The display includes information about the support provided by the Scandinavian Lutheran Church, the Colonial House, Angas House, the Yemeni community, The Sailors’ Society, Mission to Seafarers and Stella Maris.
  • Merchant Navy ships past and present – showing the variety of vessels that currently use the river and ships from the past.
  • Local shipping lines – with information about the Prince Line, established by shipping magnate, entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir James Knott, who was born and grew up in North Shields and the Stag Line, one of Tyneside’s oldest family-owned shipping companies, whose headquarters is now the registry office in North Shields.
  • Smith’s Dock – the yard on North Shields Fish Quay and its yards on the Tees made the company the largest drydock owners and ship repairers in the world. The company, which employed thousands of local people, repaired all types of vessels, and carried out conversions and extensions.
  • Royal Merchant Navy School – a former stately home in Berkshire which provided education and boarding for children whose fathers had either died or had been killed during Merchant Navy service. Many children from Tyneside went there including two women who, 70 years later, still meet regularly at the Old Low Light café.
  • Modern Merchant Navy – there are 1.89m seafarers across the world operating on 74,000 ships. The UK merchant fleet is around 4% of the world trading fleet. This display shows changes in merchant vessels, including large carriers that can transport 24,000 containers and cruise ships carrying 8,000 passengers and crew. The display also includes environmental challenges facing merchant shipping and steps to address them.
  • Back home – a map showing local shops selling goods associated with the Merchant Navy and items that a seafarer might have in his case to remind him of home.

In addition to the display boards, there are books with additional information about Smith’s Dock, the Royal Merchant Navy School, the convoys, people whose Merchant Navy experience was a springboard to other maritime careers, one local man’s 50-year career and individual families’ memories. Each of the books also has a QR code so it can be scanned and read at home.

There are also QR codes for further information including about the modern Merchant Navy and local heroes.

Memorabilia from families and individuals, including uniform items, is displayed in cabinets around the gallery.

The exhibition has been researched, curated, and designed by Old Low Light volunteers and paid for with the proceeds of plant sales at the heritage centre and a very generous donation from friends of the centre.

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