The basic definition of the word Trust is a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone Therefore, the role of a Trustee not only entails being able, reliable and truthful it also means having the power of ‘administration of property in trust’ and therefore comes with a legal obligation. So, given the responsibility of the role, how does it feel to be a volunteer as well as a trustee? What kind of people take on the challenge and what skills are required or gained from this unique experience?

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Sheila, a Trustee for the Charity running the Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Maritime Centre, about her experiences. But to understand the background to the creation of this new Centre Sheila first expanded on some of the dramatic changes experienced by the people and the town.

It appears that during the late Victorian era, Newbiggin was one of Northumberland’s favourite seaside towns, with bathing facilities and hotels, it attracted hundreds of visitors every year. Over the years however, and with the introduction of coal mining into the area, the beach gradually suffered from erosion and in the 1970s and 1980s the situation became critical. “You see the mine workings used to go under the beach and the sea but although the mines were capped, when the beams collapsed deep within the system, it created subsidence that led to the disappearance of the sand, exposing just the mud and rocks.” At around the same time the town was subjected to the same economic and social challenges faced by other derelict pit villages. In fact, the dramatic run-down in the coal mining industry in the 1980s and 1990s led to social deprivation and an air of neglect dominated the area.

Building centre

However, a subsequent government regeneration initiative and coastal protection scheme rebuilt the beach using half a million tonnes of sand imported from Skegness in Lincolnshire (of all places!) and became the catalyst for economic recovery. Subsequently in 2006 local organisations came together, The Mary Joicey Association, Heritage Association and the local History Group to create The Heritage Partnership.

The Mary Joicey was the last offshore, all weather RNLI lifeboat to be stationed at Newbiggin and was retired, after 23 years in 1989. Unfortunately, after many years as an outdoor exhibit it was found derelict in a Berkshire park and was in grave need of some TLC. Therefore, to save this irreplaceable piece of history, the haulage company Fergusons Transport stepped in to generously transport and store the lifeboat, free of charge for approximately 3 years until it was fully restored. However, there was a problem because the original Heritage Centre, which was basically a hut, was far too small to house the boat and needed to be demolished so a much larger Maritime Centre could be built. To this end, funding was received from a number of organisations, top of which was a huge government grant called “Sea Change” that amounted to £1million.

Sheila is a local girl, born and brought up in Pegswood and has many fond memories of visits to Newbiggin as a child. She has also been a resident of the town for much of her adult life and has a real passion for the place, the people and their history. When Sheila retired from teaching eleven years ago, she began volunteering “selling second hand books at the old Heritage centre or ‘hut’ as it was then!” to raise money. Becoming a trustee in 2012, Sheila is not only involved in the day to day running of the Centre, she has also taken on the roles of Vice Chairperson and Director of the Company, and is responsible for some of the finances, administration and advertising. Sheila however is unjustifiably humble about her own role and reports being “just a small part of a larger team” and went on to explain the make-up of the Board. “As an artist himself, the ‘Chairperson’ Peter is the Exhibition person, so is in charge of acquisitions and artefacts. Eleanor another Trustee organises the shop and the volunteer rota, and Barry is an archaeologist and ex-heritage officer at Wansbeck Council and he is an expert on anything old!!”

cheque presentation

Sheila’s initial interest in becoming a Trustee first developed when she “got roped into doing the minutes for the Board meetings” and “when I worked with the Treasurer to prepare spread sheets, my interest just developed really”. She reveals that she read books about being a Trustee and attended some ‘day courses’. But mainly remembers having lots of support from a previous trustee, now deceased, who “was my rock and my teacher. He was a great friend who was a mine of information”, especially with regard to Governance. Sheila acknowledges that she has a huge duty to the Board and her priorities as a trustee are to “save public money, and to set goals and reach them”. Although she admits that her background in teaching Maths helped with some of her duties, it isn’t necessary to have a specific ability, because as a trustee “it’s about common sense, basic budgeting and people skills”. She does feel however that “new blood” is required as too many trustees are “getting on” in years and she feels that on a practical level it is probably people in their 40’s who are a better fit, experience wise.

As a widow with a grown up son, Sheila freely admits to investing a lot of time and energy into preserving the culture and history of Newbiggin and her strong feelings about the project are self-evident when she talks about her colleagues and the Centre. Her “other and varied” duties include “giving talks to encourage people to treasure their heritage and to donate goods, as well as donating cash to the Centre”, she visits schools and educates the children about their local history. She also has a role as a more general volunteer and will turn her hand to anything needed “including sewing bags for the gift shop!” Sheila jokingly admits that she tries to have Saturday and Sunday off!

children in school

The charity runs the Maritime Centre and the Rocket House (which actually functioned until the late 1960’s) and relies on a mixture of employed staff and volunteers to provide the numerous facilities for the people of the area. There is the Breakwater Café, the Seashore Shop, a three gallery Museum and a large function room. They also organise regular events such as the annual Kite Festival, Music Gigs, Film Shows, Children's Activities and regular Art shows. A Giant Cactus Zone Show and a textile exhibition were put on recently and Northumberland Theatre Company performed The Princess & the Goblin there. They also hold regular beach cleans which are enjoyed by everyone.

maritime buskers

In fact, Sheila is always looking to improve facilities and is currently looking at beach accessibility issues and the possibility of making it easier for disabled people to access the whole beach area. She has even ‘borrowed’ a beach clean bill board from a national firm, so as to encourage the public to pick up rubbish whilst visiting the beach. This is particularly popular with children and encourages them to understand about wider environmental concerns and the impact of litter. In fact, Newbiggin Beach was voted number 1 in the Proctor and Gamble leader board to win a ‘Big Beach Clean’. Sheila revealed that winning this means the beach can have a “deep clean” to get rid of all existing litter and thus make it much easier to maintain in future. Not one to sit on her laurels, Sheila continues to help in the regeneration process and through her attempts to make Newbiggen a better place to live and visit, she recently decided to run for Newbiggin Town Council, and was thrilled to be successfully elected as a local councillor!!

tent bugs

In relation to ongoing challenges of her role, Sheila feels that although “any profits go back to the charity and we are slowly becoming more self-sufficient, there is no excess and we are constantly seeking funding for the services we provide, particularly those for older and younger members of the community.”

Sheila said her most memorable moment was when an elderly lady asked when the next party was, but then followed with ‘I hope it’s before I die!’ This had a deep impact on Sheila. “Here at the centre she could reminisce, talk about the past and stimulate her memories. Unfortunately, we are one of very few avenues to access a social life for many people, it’s as simple as that really”

When asked about her proudest moment as trustee Sheila nodded and smiled “that’s easy, giving a young man with lots of energy but a profound disability the opportunity to volunteer, to mix with other people, be accepted and have a useful role in the community!” “What’s more” she added “volunteering has kept me young. Every morning I get up and I’ve got something to do, I’m never bored and it is an extremely satisfying role!”

Sheila finished our chat by saying the Centre is nothing without its volunteers, who fulfil a variety of roles and ensure it stays open daily. Some of the roles volunteers fulfil are: Trustees. Reception Desk Assistants. Conservation and Collection Assistants. Gallery Guides. DIY Support. Bar Stewards at functions. IT & clerical support. The charity is always keen to hear from anyone who has time to give and would like to help out. If you are interested in a voluntary position at the Centre please telephone (01670 811951) or email (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

If Sheila’s story has inspired you to volunteer but you’re not sure how, please visit Northumberland CVA’s Volunteer Connect database to start exploring all other opportunities available. Alternatively, if you are a volunteer and want to share your own volunteering adventures then please leave a comment below or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and I’ll get in touch with you for a chat.