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

The talk – John Foster Spence and the Quakers of North Shields – by Mike Coates will take place at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre on Saturday 23 November at 11am. Entry is £3 (free for Old Low Light members).

Mike will outline the key achievements of philanthropist John Foster Spence (1818-1901), who 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.

His efforts, and those of his family with other leading local Quakers in the slavery abolition movement, also have a place in history.

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 also 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 played a key role 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.”

The talk is one of a series of events linked to the Breaking Chains exhibition that has been running at the heritage centre over the Autumn about the story of Mary Ann Macham, an escaped enslaved woman from America who became part of the local community in the 19th century and the role that North Shields played in the abolition movement.

It was two of John Foster Spence’s daughters who met Mary Ann when she eventually arrived in North Shields after stowing away in the hold of a ship from America to the Netherlands and then to Grimsby before travelling north by coach.
Mary Ann later worked for the Spence family and remained friends with them until her death.

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