Talk about sculpture to honour life of Mary Ann Macham

Artist, Keith Barrett, who has lived and worked in North Shields for the past 35 years, is to talk about his commission to create a sculpture of escaped enslaved woman Mary Ann Macham, who became part of the North Shields community in the 19th century.

The 10ft high sculpture will stand, facing out to sea, at the top of the new walkway linking North Shields Fish Quay with the town centre, and is scheduled for installation in 2024.

Keith responded to an invitation from North Tyneside Council to tender for some public art commissions as part of the major improvements currently taking place on the fish quay and town centre.

“Mary Ann was among the suggestions of heritage subjects listed within the tender, and I was inspired by her story. She is a lesser known person in the history of North Shields, and I believe that it is important to celebrate her life, and ensure that future generations are reminded of her bravery in escaping a life of slavery, and of how she was welcomed into the local community,” said Keith, who does work across the UK and sometimes internationally.

The sculpture of Mary Ann is being made using traditional carving methods at Keith’s studio in North Shields. He will then commission its transfer into bronze.

Keith will be joined by Nina Brown, a trustee and volunteer at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre who in 2019 coordinated an exhibition ‘Breaking Chains’ which highlighted the story of Mary Ann. Nina and other Old Low Light volunteers have also shared research used for the exhibition with Keith to help inform how Mary Ann is to be portrayed.

The exhibition set out how Mary Ann escaped from a plantation in Virginia, stowed away on a ship bound for the Netherlands. After a treacherous sea journey, she travelled by road, eventually arriving in North Shields on Christmas Day 1831. On arrival she was met and cared for by members of the Spence family, who were Quakers and local businesspeople. After more than 60 years of freedom she died in 1893, aged 91.

Nina said: “We were delighted to hear that Mary Ann’s place in the history of North Shields was being recognised in this way.

“Before we closed our exhibition in 2020, we raised money for a memorial stone for her unmarked grave in Preston Cemetery which we hoped would be a lasting memorial to a courageous woman. This sculpture, in such a prominent position, is more than we could have ever hoped for, as everyday people using that walkway will be reminded of her amazing story.”

Breaking Chains, which also told the story of local people who were involved in campaigns to abolish slavery, won the prestigious North East regional Marsh Trust Award for Volunteers in Museum Learning 2019. The British Museum and the Marsh Christian Trust run the award.

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