The following report was sent to me by Mrs. Dorothy Brownlee who graciously agreed to my request for a personal look at her grandad James 'Jim' Brownlee, the 2nd Coxswain for the Tynemouth motor lifeboat.
Born 27th September 1877 at the east end of North Shields, overlooking the river Tyne, Jim was the middle child of seven. His father was a labourer turned fisherman with his own coble, and Jim became a fisherman too. Early in life he worked for a time on the Shields Ferry, but left because it was too much like a shore job. In 1902, aged 25 he married Emily Janet Stemp  and they lived in Hudson Street, not far from his parents. People told Emily that she had got ‘the bonniest lad in Shields’.
His elder brother John Robert [Tagger] had been a lifeboatman but resigned with the rest of the crew in 1905 when the first motor lifeboat was brought on station. They had no confidence in a boat driven by an ‘injun’. What if a heavy swamped the boat and engine, leaving them helpless? What if a propeller was damaged by wreckage? Would there be a risk from fire? Yet Tagger and Jim must have been interested and watched the Lifeboat Superintendent, Lt. Burton (stationed at Clifford’s Fort by the riverside) doing lifeboat drills with his crew of sappers, because later, Lt Burton telling how he had eventually to find a crew from the local men, was reported as having said that “Associated with him were John Robert Brownlee, Thomas Cummins and James Brownlee (now 2nd coxswain). They had some difficulties in the appointments and were working against the feelings of the local boatmen. They were met with jeers and ironical cheers when they went forth and were dammed by faint praise both in the press and by the public generally."
Tagger became Bowman, and in 1914 Jim (33yrs) was appointed 2nd Coxswain - this was very young for that position then. The Tynemouth Lifeboat went on to make history (accounts of the services and rescues are told in other parts of this website) and in 1920, Coxswain Robert Smith retired. Jim being 2nd coxswain thought it likely he’d be the next coxswain, but he heard rumours to the contrary. He was a very proud man and, rather than suffer the indignity of being rejected, he too resigned - only to find afterwards that he WOULD have been promoted. Such is life - his wife always said that he ‘stood in his own light’. However, in later years he was a ‘scratch’ crewman and shore helper at the Lifeboat House and was Bowman from 1940 - 42.
Like his father, in time he bought his own fishing coble, and influenced by his experience in the motor lifeboat, saved up to buy a motor. The catch was salmon, lobsters and crabs. Jim and Emily had six daughters and one son, all of whom attributed their long lives to the fish they ate in childhood. Jim was a ‘home bird’, enjoying family life. As the family grew up, the small upstairs flat was always a busy place in the evenings, with teenagers and young adults playing card games around the table, or singing by the piano. There was smoking, but alcohol, though not banned, was not encouraged.
His eldest daughter recalled that he was known as ‘gentleman Jim’ - probably because, rarely for that era, he preferred to be clean shaven but he always went to the barber and never shaved himself (a graceful Jim pictured above). The children would rush to pull off his seaboots when he came home. Those same boots were the reason he never learned to swim - if he’d fallen overboard the weight would have pulled him under.
Like men with their cars in modern times, Jim kept changing his boats, but he transferred his favourite engine. His last boat was ‘Eileen’, named for his youngest daughter, and specially built for him at Amble. He’d had it for only 2 years when it was requisitioned in 1940 for the evacuation of Dunkirk during WW2. At 63, he spent the rest of his working life making crab pots, and mending nets for others. He died in December 1958, aged 81.
His medals and awards are spread around the UK among his surviving children and descendants. There's the RNLI Silver Medal with 2nd Service Clasp, the Tynemouth Trust Silver Medal, the Henry Vernon Crew Medal (Gold), a Gold Medal and Gold Watch awarded by the people of Blyth, a Silver Medal from the King of Norway and numerous Certificates, one of which is in Norwegian. The Bible seen here came from a Minister in Edinburgh, this link or the bible thumbnail can be clicked to open a new page with a larger image of the bible and its text. Jim’s grandson-in-law Ian was a herring buyer for Irvin’s in North Shields in the 1970s. The Norwegian Certificate was displayed in his office. A group of Norwegian fishermen came into his office, and were so impressed with the details of rescue from a Norwegian ship that they gave Ian their business.
James 'Jim' Brownlee is pictured aged 70 in the centre, with John Robert (Tagger) Brownlee aged 77 at the right of the photograph when they met the Duke of Northumberland in 1947.
The Duke was in North Shields to open the new lifeboat house, built to replace the one bombed in 1941.
Copyright © Mrs. Dorothy Brownlee 2010