North Shields art students follow in footsteps of school’s namesake to honour life of escaped enslaved woman featured in exhibition at Fish Quay heritage centre

Artwork by around 45 students from John Spence Community High School – named after the philanthropist John Foster Spence a well-known local businessman and Quaker who played a role in the abolition of slavery movement in the 19th century – will be displayed this weekend (12-13 October) at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre on North Shields Fish Quay.

The pop up exhibition by the students will be part of a larger exhibition called Breaking Chains which tells the story of Mary Ann Macham, an enslaved woman who stowed away on a ship bound for the Netherlands in 1831. She then travelled by sea to Grimsby and then up the country by coach, eventually arriving in North Shields where she was met and looked after by the Spence family. She remained friends with the Spence family until her death in 1893, when she was buried in Preston Cemetery in a recorded but unmarked grave.

Breaking Chains also sets out the role prominent people in North Shields – including the Spence family – played in the abolition movement.

Old Low Light volunteer Nina Brown said: “The story of Mary Ann Macham is an important and very interesting part of our local history. In researching the exhibition we found out so much not only about the care shown to Mary Ann when she arrived in North Shields but about the part played by key local business people, such as the Spence family, in the abolition movement.

“Due to the Spence family connections, we contacted the school and were delighted when they said they wanted to support Breaking Chains.

The school’s head teacher Jonathan Heath said: “The importance of a strong community was recognised by John Foster Spence and this is reflected in the current ethos of John Spence Community High School as it is integral to our curriculum.

“The school is in itself a community and we work hard to ensure that everybody has a sense of belonging and receives the support they need to be successful. Beyond the school gates we recognise the importance of links with our local community and have a reputation for this around sport but we are now looking to extend this into the arts and community volunteering. We are delighted to be working with The Old Low Light Heritage Centre and it is wonderful to be part of the exhibition honouring the life of Mary Ann Macham.”

The school’s head of art, Claire Entwisle, said: “This project has been really good for the students. It has helped them to gain an understanding of the history of their local community and how this links to the name of their school.”

After hearing the story about Mary Ann’s life as a slave and her escape, students from Year 10 GSCE course were invited to produce artwork. Some of this focuses on Mary Ann’s story and some on slavery in general, including modern day slavery.

Breaking Chains, is running from October – which is Black History Month – through to 22 December, open every day from 10am to 4pm.

The John Spence Community High School pop-up exhibition will take place on the upper gallery floor at the Old Low Light on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 October from 10 am to 4pm.

Entry is to both exhibitions is £3 (free to Old Low Light members).

During the course of Breaking Chains there will be a further five associated events at the Old Low Light including two talks – one by a professor of American History and the other by an Old Low Light volunteer and local history enthusiast, two concerts by a local women’s choir and a quilting display and demonstration.

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