His job as a diver was a dangerous one. Not only did he save several more people from drowning, he also helped blast away the rocks from below Lambton Drops, to make the entrance to the river easier to navigate, provided vital aid when the mines of County Durham flooded and was part of the rescue party dealing with the Tay Bridge Disaster in 1879. The bravery Harry Watts had shown throughout his life was finally recognised in the late 1860s, when several medals were bestowed on him. However, these were stolen in 1878, after Watts lent the collection to the James Williams Street Christian Lay Church for an exhibition at its annual bazaar. It was later discovered the thief had given them to his daughter to play with, who threw them into the fire after growing bored. The people of Sunderland rallied round to pay for replacements, and Watts was able to wear them with pride once again, before presenting them to Sunderland Museum. Today Watts’ memory – and bravery – lives on at the museum, where the collection is still on show. 

Harry Watts – his final years:

Harry Watts never asked for, and rarely received, any reward for his life-saving activities, and in his old age he was not well off. Scottish-born American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie heard of him and, after being told of Watts’ bravery, the millionaire insisted on meeting him. Carnegie admitted Watts to his Hero Fund after learning of his circumstances, which provided Harry with a “sizeable” income of 25 shillings a week. Carnegie met with Harry Watts while in Sunderland to open Monkwearmouth Branch Library on October 21, 1909. He said afterwards: “I have today been introduced to a man who has, I think, the most ideal character of any man living on the face of the earth. Compared with his acts, military glory sinks into nothing. You should never let the memory of this Sunderland man die.” Harry Watts died on April 23, 1913, at the age of 86. His diving activities were carried on by his son, and then his grandson, who were also named Harry Watts. 

© Sunderland Maritime Heritage, registered charity in England and Wales (1089465)