Talk about ‘Grand Old Man of Shields’ at Fish Quay Heritage Centre

Talk about ‘Grand Old Man of Shields’ at Fish Quay Heritage Centre

A local historian is to give a talk later this month about a prominent local businessman John Foster Spence, who became known as the ‘Grand Old Man of Shields’.

The talk by Mike Coates will take place at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre on Saturday 28 May at 11am. Entry is £4 (free for Old Low Light members).

It is part of a programme of events linked to the centre’s current exhibition, ‘Folk who Shaped Shields’ which focuses on the contributions of four inspirational people – John Dobson, John Foster Spence, Richard Irvin and Sir James Knott – who helped to shape North Shields.

Mike, who was among a small team of Old Low Light volunteers who researched and curated the exhibition, will outline the key achievements of philanthropist Spence (1818-1901), member of a leading Quaker family. He will describe how Spence spent six decades serving the community as a councillor, Mayor, alderman, magistrate and active member of many local committees and societies for which he was honoured in 1894 when he was given Freedom of the Borough of Tynemouth.

As a young man, in 1840, he was prominent in a campaign to build a Customs House in North Shields to free the port from Newcastle’s control and played an important role in the River Tyne Commission.

He was the driving force behind the establishment of the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade in 1864 following a tragedy when a steamship was grounded on rocks resulting in the deaths of 25 people. He remained an active member of the Brigade until his death.

Twenty years later he was instrumental in the development of Northumberland Park, seeing this as an opportunity to provide much needed employment for local people.

For almost 50 years he was on the board of the Tynemouth Poor Law Guardians and was a familiar figure at the workhouse on Christmas Day having his dinner with people much less fortunate than himself.

He took a deep interest in the work of the Royal Humane Society and was their local representative.

More than a century after his death he is still remembered today, with the John Spence Community High School named after him.

Mike, a volunteer at the Old Low Light, said: “Several years ago I did some research on Northumberland Park and began to realise the significant role that John Foster Spence had had in the history of North Shields. He was involved in so many different committees and causes, always working for the good of local people and his legacy is still bringing benefits to the town today.

“He was a remarkable character. As well as being a family man and running a successful drapery business until two years before his death, he dedicated his life selflessly to public service.”

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