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Who was Harry Watts?


Harry Watts was born on 15 June 1826 as the youngest of five children to parents William and Elizabeth Watts in the East End of Sunderland. The family lived in one room at Silver Street in the East End which would often be flooded from a nearby well whenever there was heavy rain. Harry’s father, a mariner, was bed-bound for much of Harry’s childhood, while his mother died when he was just seven. At nine, Harry became the main breadwinner for the family. His first job was at the Garrison Pottery, opposite the old Quaker Meeting House, where he received a wage of one shilling and sixpence a week. He later moved to a weaving factory in Fitter’s Row, but his constant hunger eventually drove him to seek work at sea, as food was plentiful for sailors. Harry signed up as an apprentice sailor at 14.

Harry’s life at sea:

Harry’s first voyage was to Quebec and within only a few weeks he had made his first rescue, after a fellow apprentice fell overboard. On his second voyage to the Miramichi in Canada, he saved the life of his captain after his canoe capsized - his second rescue. In a book detailing Harry’s life published in 1911, “Harry Watts – Sailor and Diver” by Alfred Spencer, this second rescue is described: “Harry picked up the end of a rope and jumped overboard. He swam to the captain, fastened the rope round him and helped him to the ladder which was hanging over the ship’s side.” By the age of just 19, Harry Watts had saved five people from drowning. Harry married his first wife, Rebecca Smith, in 1846 while on shore-leave. The following year, he rescued six foreign seamen from a sinking ship in Rotterdam. He then returned to Sunderland to work as a rigger in the shipyards, rescuing a further five people from the River Wear between 1852 and 1853.