Volunteering Adventures in Northumberland
By our Anonymous Blogger
My second Blog adventure with a nautical theme is actually the result of two separate interviews and again I’d like to thank Clive Gray, the Chief Executive of Blyth Tall Ship Project, for his help in linking me up with these wonderful volunteers: Maureen, Julie, Janice and Astrid, who all give their time to the Blyth Tall ship project. Maureen and Julie work on a part of the project that is preserving and archiving a huge store of old maritime documents, while Janice and Astrid are working on creating traditionally-inspired ‘ganseys’ for the crew of an upcoming Antarctic voyage.
I met first with Maureen and Julie on a very warm July afternoon at the Centre, where they meet every Tuesday between 9.30 and 4pm. Both Maureen and Julie have a background in administration and are in the process of archiving and digitising written materials found during the redevelopment of Blyth Port. Julie is a retired Accounts Clerk, and Maureen previously worked for Lloyds Register and the NHS. However, despite this wealth of past experience, both feel that the key to their continued work as volunteers with this project has not been so much about possessing the relevant existing skills needed by the project, but far more about their own keen shared interest in history.
The project to archive this treasure trove of maritime documents is currently funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and is affiliated with the Woodhorn Archives: home to 800 years of Northumberland's history. Maureen is the project lead and has been a volunteer for approximately 6 years. She initially found out about the project when her husband mentioned there was an archiving volunteer opportunity within the Ports stores. Maureen was then approached by Clive to be the Archive Team Leader and currently has a full complement of volunteers working for her. Maureen also completed a Timeline exhibition which is now on show in the Heritage Centre and has done talks to the WI on conservation materials and the History of ‘The Port of Blyth’.
The work the team do entails cataloguing, cleaning and digitising all documents from the Port of Blyth stores. The completed documents are then stored in the Port Archives. They deal with Rolled Plans, Flat Plans, Minute Books, Ledgers, Photographs and Photograph Albums, Correspondence and Posters. As it happens, the heritage work is now very popular indeed and the project currently has a waiting list of 8 people awaiting voluntary vacancies.
Maureen offers her team regular supervision and is always at hand to support and advise them. The Archive Team are required to complete a 6 months’ course learning archival skills, e.g. Cataloguing and Conservation and are now studying with Woodhorn Museum to achieve Museum Accreditation.
Both Maureen and Julie say they love their work, although Maureen did add that initially it was a huge challenge to develop the necessary procedures and systems to tackle the work in the first place. When asked what THE most positive thing about their experience has been, Maureen said it was the opportunity to develop friendship, and Julie described feeling a sense of achievement and of being part of a community. Both also felt that in safeguarding this body of knowledge for the future, they are doing very important work.
Maureen says that the aim of the Blyth Tall Ship project as a whole is essentially to “inspire future generations to use their own adventurous spirit to play a part in the future of Blyth”, and asks that “if anybody has any shipping or maritime memorabilia they wish to donate” she would love to hear from them via the Heritage Centre.
My second meeting at the Heritage Centre was with Janice who, along with her friend Astrid, has set about designing and knitting ‘Ganseys’ for another aspect of the Blyth Tall Ship project: a forthcoming historical voyage that will recreate William Smith’s voyage of 1819.
A sea captain born in Seaton Sluice, Smith discovered Antarctica in a ship built in Blyth but he was never recognised for his discovery. Instead, he died a pauper and history has forgotten him – until now. In 2019, to celebrate the 200th anniversary year of Smith’s voyage, a ship of a similar size and style, named the Williams II, is being refitted and will set sail to Antarctica. A crew of around 150 will be trained by the Blyth Tall Ship Project and some 70-80 of them will have the opportunity to sail the Williams II on various legs of the expedition.
Janice is a very passionate designer, creator and advocate of the traditional, water resistant fishermen’s jumper called the ‘Gansey’, which are not only practical because they keep sailors warm and dry, but they’re also specific to the fishing area where they are made, with many small fishing villages developing their own design and patterns through history. Although no evidence has come to light of a specific Blyth Gansey design, a serendipitous idea for the crew of the Williams II to have their own 'uniform' Gansey has taken off.
Janice laughs when describing her initial offer of help for the project, saying “Well I just talked myself into it really” when, during a chance meeting with Clive, she and Astrid found themselves ‘volunteering’ their services.
At the beginning Janice, who’d never had any experience of such a large project nor anything to do with sailing, felt that her only real qualification for this project was that she was a keen knitter who happened to live in the area. Nevertheless, in February 2016 she and Astrid began designing and knitting the prototype Ganseys for the planned Antarctica voyage.
They designed the Gansey in 5 sizes for the approximate 150 crew members (yet to be recruited) who will be taking part in the project. Each Gansey takes 100-200 hours work so knitting 150 of them was obviously going to be a huge undertaking for anyone. However, once the project received publicity, Janice and Astrid were shocked to find themselves inundated with over 550 offers of help from all over the world!
“For the prestige of the project”, several of the overseas offers to volunteer have been taken, with preference given to those with connections to Blyth or the Antarctic, although for some it was purely a matter of chance. There are currently over 100 people from all over Britain, Europe, USA, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and India making Ganseys for the venture, and more will be recruited when they know the actual sizes of the crew. Kits started to be sent out only in April 2017 and yet several completed Ganseys have already been returned.
Janice describes the design process as a very creative and interesting activity. Initially they created prototypes, using funding from the Blyth Croft Masons that allowed them to buy needles and yarn to get started. They then acquired funding from the Northumberland County Council Community Chest to continue the work.
The design itself incorporates the three sail logo of the Blyth Tall Ship Project as the focal point along with an anchor, the Northumberland flag on the sleeves, cable to signify rope, ladders for rigging, criss crosses to signify Blyth staithes, waves for the sea and diamonds to represent ALL volunteers on the Tall Ship Project.
Traditionally, wives and girlfriends sometimes included the initials of the wearer and this tradition is now being continued with Blyth Tall Ship Ganseys that will have a label added just above the welt of the gansey, with space for both the name of the knitter and the wearer.
Janice says she feels she has really developed to become much more outgoing since becoming involved in the project. She and Astrid have been invited to give talks about the project - the most challenging of which was probably talking to a group of 5 to 7 year olds at a school near Hexham. Right from creating the gansey in the first place to talking publicly about the project, her work has given Janice a sense of achievement and given her experiences way beyond anything she imagined at the start. “It’s just mushroomed really,” she said. “It’s our little bit: not just the knitting, but the whole international side of things I mean. Astrid and I have really enjoyed doing all of that”. Indeed, the friends have also been managed to develop whole new skillsets too, with Astrid dealing with all the correspondence, and Janice mastering the spreadsheets!
When asked what has been THE most positive thing about her volunteering experience, Janice replied “Oh, definitely meeting such interesting people”. Not only does she feel that her knowledge and confidence have increased, but she also says “my life is therefore much richer because of my involvement!”
It has been a real pleasure finding out about the wealth of volunteering activities offered by the Blyth Tall Ship project and, when reflecting back upon all my blogging experiences and interviews with volunteers, I can see running through them all that there are some abiding themes. All have wanted to do something different from their day to day life, all have felt challenged by their volunteering experience, but overall every individual has expressed positive effects from their involvement.