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A short story by James Runciman

A Volunteer Life-Brigade

Title:     A Volunteer Life-Brigade
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

There is generally very heavy weather in winter time on the north-east coast. From North Sunderland the Farne Islands can hardly be seen, for the tumultuous waves in the narrow channels throw up clouds of spray. At the mouth of the Tyne the sea runs strongly, and the great piers have to meet endless charges of green masses that break on the stone-work and pour along the footway in foaming streams. As the evening comes, knots of men stroll toward the pier. They are all clothed in thick guernseys and business-like helmets, and on their breasts they have the letters V.L.B. They are the Volunteer Life Brigade. The brigade is very mixed in composition. There are carpenters, bankers, pilots, clerks, lawyers, tradesmen of all grades, and working men of all trades. At the middle of the pier stands a strong wooden house, in which there is one great room where the watchmen sit, and also numerous small boxes with berths where rescued men are laid. Hot-water bottles are constantly ready, and a mysterious array of restoratives rest handy on a side-table.

Since the great piers were run out to sea the water in the Tyne has been much deepened; but this advantage has its drawback in the fact that the sea pours through the deepened channel like the swirl of a millrace. As soon as the tiers of shipping begin to creak and moan with the lurching swell the people know that there may be bad work. The brigadesmen sit chatting in their warm shed. They know that they must go to work in the morning; they know that they may be drenched and aching in every limb before the dawn whitens: yet they take everything as it comes with cheerful stoicism. During the winter of 1880 scores of men travelled to business at Newcastle for a week at a stretch without having lain once in bed. They went out when their services were required; stood to their ropes, and were hustled about by the sea: they brought crew after crew ashore, and in the mornings they fared without grumbling to office or warehouse or shop. Snatches of sleep on the hard benches made their only rest, yet they stood it out.

The stormy nights are passed much in the same way. The men who are not looking out sit smoking and gossiping; the foam piles itself softly to the weather side of the house, and the spray falls with a keen lashing sound on the stones outside. Towards the end of the pier there is nothing to be seen but a vague trouble, as though a battle were going on in the dark, and to the north the Tynemouth light throws a long shaft of brightness through the mist. Presently a light is seen away southward or out to the east, and all the men are on the alert directly. If a ship from the south can only weather the end of the pier and escape the wash from the north, she soon gets into the fairway, but it is not easily done in stormy weather. The light makes long lunges and describes great arcs on the background of the darkness; then the brigadesmen know that the ship is in the stream that pours up the gulf made by the piers. If she keeps her red light open till she is nearly abreast of the House, there is only one more danger for her. She may strike on the Black Middens (a heap of snaggy rocks lying under Tynemouth), and in that case the south-side men have nothing to do with her. But sometimes the vessel shows all her lights and rushes upon the South Pier. Then the men wait for the last lurch and that wallowing crash that they know so well. The rocket is laid, and flies out over the rigging; the brigadesmen haul on their rope, and the basket comes rocking ashore along the line. It is not child's play to stand in the open and work the rocket apparatus; sometimes a whole row of men are struck by a single sea, and have to hang on wherever they can. Sometimes a careless man is carried along the pier like a cork, and sometimes one is washed clean over the side. A lucky young gentleman was taken into the sea one winter and buffeted smartly until a chance wave landed him again. The buffeting and drenching are taken as part of the day's work, and the young fellows joke about it just as soldiers will joke under fire. There is much curiosity as the basket is hauled in. On one occasion a cat and her kittens were the first rescued of a ship's company, and on another occasion a dog came ashore looking much surprised at his position. At various times all sorts and conditions of men have to slide along that friendly rope. Stolid Dutchmen, gesticulating Italians, cool north-country sailors are landed, and all are treated alike. A solemn man with a rum-bottle awaits them as they pass into the friendly light of the House: like some officiating priest he gravely pours out a glassful and silently hands it to the rescued seafarer; then the berth and the hot-water bottle are made ready, and the fortunate sailor is warmly wrapped up.

It sometimes happens that the rocket cannot be used--perhaps on account of the position of the vessel, perhaps through the stupidity of the crew. In that case other means must be employed. Last winter a ship came on the shore; the sea broke heavily over her, and her crew had to take to the rigging. A plucky brigadesman swam off through waves that might have stupefied a bulldog; he had to watch his chances, and breathe when the crest had rushed on so that he might make his next plunge through the combing crest; and he managed to make his rope fast and save the people. Southward of Shields a ship got into a still more awkward place than the one last mentioned. She was carried in by a terrific sea, and jammed on the stones at the foot of a cliff. The captain's wife and child were lashed to the mast, and the captain himself was made fast somewhere; all the other poor souls were washed overboard. No boat could live in the breakers; no rocket was handy. But a sailor called Matthews got some friends to lower him down the face of the scarp. The wind knocked him against jutting points; the rope twirled and spun him about; but he got foothold on the deck and managed to hang on. By working cautiously he dodged up to the mast and fastened the little child in a comfortable bight of the rope; then he sent the woman aloft; then he sent the captain, and was hauled up safely himself. Matthews had no reward for this piece of work, and is now a poor pitman.

There is no end to the bravery of these amateur life-savers. Only a very little while ago a ship came on shore. The sea was like a huge pouring cataract, and the wind pressed like a solid body. The dandy new lifeboats were beaten back; the men on board tugged and strained till they were exhausted. The oars were double-manned, but nothing would avail; and all the time the cry of the men on the wrecked vessel sounded through the storming of the gale. At last one man said, "Let's have the old 'Tyne.'" The "Tyne" is a superannuated lifeboat which is kept under lock and key. The key was refused, and the men who demanded it were implored not to tempt Providence. Thereupon they coolly formed themselves into a phalanx, rushed against the door, burst it in, hauled the old "Tyne" down, and saved eight lives.

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James Runciman's short story: Volunteer Life-Brigade