On 24th November 1864, at Tynemouth, North East England, a gale at sea caught out many vessels, including a schooner called "Friendship" and a passenger steamer called "Stanley". These vessels tried to make it into the River Tyne for shelter, but were driven ashore onto the infamous Black Middens at the mouth of the Tyne.
At the time, the Coastguard at Tynemouth consisted of only four men, two of whom were pensioners. Despite their best effort to use the breeches buoy to rescue those on the vessels, the lines became tangled and could not be untangled. Lifeboats joined in the rescue effort but were unsuccessful.
At dawn the next morning, the rescue effort was resumed with the use of the breeches buoy from Cullercoats. There were some survivors, but 32 people had died in sight of hundreds of powerless spectators on the shoreline.
John Morrison, who was an officer in the military volunteers based in Tynemouth Castle, was one of those spectators. It was apparent to him that, had there been a body men trained and disciplined as were his volunteers to assist the Coastguards, the breeches buoy might whave saved all of the people from the ships. He approached John Foster Spence and his brother Joseph, who were both local civic dignitaries, and they readily took up the cause, calling a public meeting in North Shields Town Hall on 5th December 1864, to sound out opinion.
There was a huge response at the meeting and the result was the founding of the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade (TVLB) as a group of men who would be trained, ready and willing to assist HM Coastguard to save life from shipwreck, with over 100 men signing up on the spot. The Board of Trade, who were responsible for HM Coastguard Service, were highly impressed with the principle and the performance of the TVLB.
So impressed were they that they circulated the rules of the TVLB to all Coastguard stations around the coast of the United Kingdom with instructions that similar teams were to be formed at every station. In areas where there were sufficient enthusiastic people to take on the responsibility, Volunteer Life Brigades were to be formed, as at Tynemouth, these being run and administered by elected committees with training assisted by HM Coastguard. In other areas, the Coastguard would recruit teams which would be run and administered by the local Coastguards and would be known as Volunteer Life Saving Companies.
Over the years, many of these Volunteer Life Brigades have been replaced by the Auxiliary Coastguard service, who are groups of local volunteers, trained to high standards, who assist HM Coastguard when called upon. However, in a few areas of the country, including Tynemouth, Volunteer Life Brigades remain today.