The pilot cutter “Protector”

Wendy Cummin has kindly granted permission for her research into the loss of the pilot cutter “Protector” to be placed on this website. The photographs have been supplied by retired Harwich pilot, Andy Adams.


The pilot cutter “Protector”

Although not as common as in WW2, there were many civilian deaths in WW1.

People died as a result of Zeppelin raids or naval bombardment; they died from explosions in munitions factories; and they also died serving the war effort in other ways, with the Red Cross, the YMCA, as chaplains, as civilian staff of the Admiralty and as pilots on the river, among others.

River pilots, aboard cutters, were employed to guide ships safely into harbour, and in this capacity they ran the gauntlet of mines laid by the enemy during WW1.

One such was the pilot cutter “Protector”.

“Protector” was built in 1907 by Rennoldson at South Shields on the Tyne.

On New Year’s Eve 1916, “Protector” left the Tyne to escort a vessel inwards; the crew, looking forward to a swift return to celebrate the New Year, never saw 1917.

“Protector” was devastated by a mine in the entrance to the Tyne and was sunk with the loss of all 19 men aboard. The oldest man lost was aged 70 and the youngest was just 16.

All of these men were from Tyneside.

It seems that only one body was recovered: Robert Phillips, Pilot 1st class, the oldest man on board at the age of 70, is buried in Tynemouth cemetery.

The other men were lost, and are all commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:

John Swinney BONE

John was a Pilot 1st class, and he was 36 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of Thomas and Ann [Alice?] of 155 Lawson Terrace, South Shields.

In 1901 the family lived in Henry Street. John’s father Thomas was also a pilot, as was his brother Thomas. His brother Robert was a fireman on a tugboat. All the family were born in South Shields.

John is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

Charles BURN

Charles was a Pilot 1st Class, and he was 53 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of Charles and Catherine of 21 The Lawe, South Shields. His father and four brothers all worked on the pilot vessels. All were born in South Shields.

Charles married Margaret Elliott Wright in 1893 and they lived in Roman Road in 1901 with children Catherine, Margaret, Charles, and Lancelot.

The family later lived at 41 Trajan Avenue in South Shields.

Charles is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

John Hart BURN

John was a Pilot 2nd class, and he was 39 when he died. He was born in North Shields, the son of Ralph and Annie of 13 Walker Place, North Shields.

John was one of at least 9 children, some born in North Shields and some in South Shields.

His father Ralph was also a pilot, born South Shields.

John married Charlotte Louise Garred in 1903 and their last known address is 15 Coburg Terrace, South Shields. A daughter Ellen was born in 1912.

John is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.


Robert was a Pilot 1st class, and he was 48 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of Robert and Ellen. His father was also a pilot, and in 1881, at the age of 13, young Robert was already a pilot assistant.

Robert married Margaret Ann Bell in 1892 and by 1901 they were living in Baring Street, South Shields with children Robert, Caroline, William and Joseph.

Robert is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

John Cawthorne CREE

John was a pilot assistant, and he was 19 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of John and Elizabeth. His father was also a pilot, born in Jarrow.

In 1901 the family lived at 43 Trajan Avenue in South Shields and John’s last known address was 60 Kensington Road.

John is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

William Robert FORSTER

William was 1st engineer, and he was 39 when he died. He was born in North Shields, the son of William and Margaret. His father was a publican in Middle Street, North Shields in 1881.

In 1901, William Robert was serving as an engineer aboard the vessel “T.W.Mould” and was unmarried.

He married Edith Annie Downie in 1908 and the last known address of his wife was 115 Howdon Road in North Shields.

William and Edith had three children: Edith, Kenneth, and Sidney.

William Robert Forster is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

Thomas HERON

Thomas was a Pilot 1st class, and he was 42 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of Benjamin and Esther. His father and two brothers were also pilots.

In 1901 the family lived in Edith Street in South Shields and the last known address is 114 Baring Street, South Shields.

Thomas is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

Alexander LESLIE

Alexander was a pilot assistant, and he was 21 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the 5th of 6 children of Alexander and Mary Ellen nee Waugh. His father was also a pilot.

In 1901 the family lived in Pearson Street in South Shields.

His mother died in 1900 and his father re-married to Elizabeth Jane Robson. His father died in 1912. The last known address for Alexander junior is 10 Keppell Street in South Shields.

Alexander is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

William LESLIE

William was a pilot assistant, and he was 19 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of Robert and Mary [probably nee Layden].

In 1901 the family lived at Lawe Cottages and his father Robert was also a pilot.

The last known address for William is 42 Collingwood Terrace in South Shields.

William is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

[Alexander and William Leslie do not seem to be brothers, but they may have been cousins.]


James was a fireman, and he was 36 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of John and Jane Isabella. His father was a coal miner from Scotland, and in 1901 James was also working in the mines, living in Commercial Road in South Shields.

He married Sarah W. Dixon in 1913 and a son James was born in 1914.

Their last known address is 77 Eldon Street, South Shields.

James is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.


Thomas was a Pilot 1st class, and he was 36 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of John and Elizabeth Ann. His father was also a pilot, and in 1901 the family lived in Baring Street, young Thomas employed as a pilot assistant.

He married Elizabeth Ann Miller in 1902 in Tynemouth and they had a son John born 1912 and a daughter Elizabeth born 1915. There were probably other children born earlier.

His widow Elizabeth Ann re-married in 1921 to Arthur Smith, and her last known address is 45 Fairless Street in South Shields.

Thomas is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.


James was a steward, and he was 45 when he died. He was born in North Shields, the son of John and Ann. His father John was originally a sail maker, but later worked in a factory, probably due to unemployment.

In 1901, James was also a factory worker living in Union Road in North Shields.

He married Elizabeth Ann Thompson in 1893 and they had a son James and daughters Ann and Isabella.

His last known address is 27 Stormont Street, North Shields.

James is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.


Robert was a Pilot 1st class, and he was 70 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of Robert and Catherine. This family produced a long line of pilots; Robert senior, born about 1817, was a pilot, as was his brother Ralph.

Robert junior, born about 1846, married Elizabeth Scott in 1867 and they had at least 8 children including John, William, and Ralph who all became pilots.

By 1891, Robert was living in North Shields with Isabella Henderson described as his housekeeper, but there is no wife Elizabeth, and in 1901 he was living in Vespasian Avenue in South Shields with his “wife” Isabella.

No marriage has been found. Several more children were born.

His last known address is 53 Trajan Avenue, South Shields.

As Robert is buried in Tynemouth [Preston] Cemetery, his appears to have been the only body to be recovered.

Sadly his grandson Ralph was with him on the “Protector”.


Ralph was a pilot assistant, and he was 20 when he died. He was born in North Shields, the son of Ralph and Jane, and the grandson of Robert.

His father Ralph was, of course, a pilot.

In 1891, Ralph senior was a pilot apprentice lodging with the family of Sidney Smith in North Shields. He married Jane Ellen Smith in 1893.

The family were living in Walker Place, North Shields in 1901, and Ralph’s last known address is 14 East George Street, North Shields.

Ralph is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

Thomas REED

Thomas was the master of the vessel. No age or place of birth is given for Thomas but he was probably born in about 1844 in North Shields.

There is a Thomas Reed, pilot, aged 37 living in Adamson’s Broadway in North Shields in 1881 with a wife Mary and 6 children including Thomas aged 15 [pilot apprentice] and Matthew aged 14.

In 1891 they are at the same address, and in 1901 his son Matthew C. Reed, a pilot, is living in Beacon Street in North Shields.

As Thomas gives his next of kin as M.C.Reed, this is likely to be his family. However we cannot be completely sure; the last known address for M.C.Reed is 19 Toll Square, North Shields.

Thomas is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.


Note from Retired Tyne Pilot: John Hart Burn:

The Master-Thomas Reed: It was the practice at the time for those Pilot Assistants (Apprentices) who had obtained the required qualifications to be eligible to be examined for a first licence would be held close to the job so that they might be readily available for examination for that licence should a vacancy become available. They would be offered the job of Master of the steam cutter. Thomas Reed was one such. At a later date such candidates would be examined for the first licence and then if successful be offered the job as Master until a vacancy arose.

Bertram RUMNEY

Bertram was a cabin boy and he was only 16 when he died. He was born in 1901, registered as Bertram Thompson Rumney, in North Shields.

He was the son of William Rumney and Isabella Thompson who married in 1897. William was a coppersmith and the family lived in Dawson Street, North Shields in 1901.

However, in 1891 William was with his parents William and Mary at 27 Burdon Main Row, the last known address for Bertram. William senior was a boat builder.

Bertram is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.


William was a Pilot 1st class and he was 41 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of Thomas Young Tinmouth and his wife Sarah. His father Thomas was also a pilot, born in South Shields.

William Hopper Tinmouth married Mary Chambers Elliott in 1901 and they were living at 76 Edith Street in the 1901 census. Their last known address is 152 Fort Street in South Shields.

William is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

Matthew YOUNG

Matthew was a Pilot 1st class and he was 42 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of Matthew and Margaret Young. His father Matthew was also a pilot, born in South Shields.

Matthew [junior] married Jane Taylor Downie in 1896 and by 1901 they were living in Henry Street, South Shields with children Jane and Matthew.

Their last known address is 77 Baring Street.

Matthew is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.

William YOUNG

William was a Pilot 1st class and he was 47 when he died. He was born in South Shields, the son of Thomas and Isabella nee Robson. Thomas was also a pilot, born in South Shields.

William married Priscilla McKenzie in 1887 in South Shields, and by 1901 they were living at 117 Baring Street in South Shields with six young daughters.

Their last known address is 58 Julian Avenue.

William is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial.


It is tempting to think that William Young and Matthew Young are related, especially as the families lived so close to each other, but the censuses give no suggestion that this is the case, and “Young” is a very common name in the area.


“British vessels lost at sea 1914-18”

CWGC website




Other pictures of the Protector




28 Responses to “The pilot cutter “Protector””

David Burn
March 9th, 2009 at 21:39

Dear Wendy,
This is an excellent article that reminds me of the other poor souls that shared the tragic day with my great grandfather. This was an awful event that shook the town and the close knit pilot community in particular. I remember the commemorative plaque in the pilot’s church, St Stephens.
I was particularly interested by your finding that the Protector was lost to a mine. This was also the consensus of my forefathers but I have a cutting from the local Shields Gazette that reports comments from William Young, son of the Matthew Young lost on the cutter, that stated his mother had heard from another pilot who had met a captain of a German ship that had been the commander of a submarine that had torpedoed the cutter. He had been following a convoy up to the Tyne and spotted the cutter because it had been allowed to carry the pilot lights on her mast.
Thank you for your article; the results of your research has been of great interest.


Dorothy Jones
May 3rd, 2009 at 15:55

We have a puzzle money box made from the wood of the protector.Presumably sold to help relatives of those who died


Nick Blackett
June 15th, 2009 at 09:46

My father (1916-2008) was brought up on the Tyne. In the 1920’s as a boy, living in Walker, he and his friends used to got down the river to Shields on a tugboat called the Protector. I have wondered if she was named after the pilot cutter as she was probably built just after the cutter was lost. I wonder if you have ever heard of this, other vessel of the same name?

Regards Nick


Stephanie Thomas
July 24th, 2009 at 01:16

Hi Wendy
James Matthew McConnachie was my great grandmother Nelly Dixon’s brother in law and I have several papers belonging to James:-

Baptism paper
x2 certificates of discharge
Army reserve certificate of exemption (dated 20th July 1916)
Ship log book which gives a personal description of James (last dated 1916)
Along with several official letters to Sarah his widow (Nelly’s sister).. regarding Seaman’s compensation etc..
A painted portrait of him in a football strip. If my memory serves me correctly my Aunt Peggy (his daughter Margaret) used to talk about him playing for either South Shields or Sunderland football club?

I also have his wife’s (my great Aunt Sarah) copy birth cert she was born in 1884 but the cert. is dated 1917. I also have her original death certificate.. along with Sarah’s mothers birth cert.
Original birth and death certificates of James and Sarah’s 2 children James Matthew McConnachie born March 1914
Margaret Dixon McConnachie born November 1916 (8wks old when her father was killed).

I grew up being very close to his daughter whom I called Auntie Peggy as I never really knew my own grandparents she was my everything..

Im sorry for the mish mash of info.. I do hope you can understand it I would be very pleased if you could include my Aunt Peggy (Margaret) in your tribute..

Kind Regards :)


Stephanie Thomas
July 24th, 2009 at 01:18

Ooops I forgot I also have the death penny that was presented to his widow Sarah..


David Thompson
July 26th, 2009 at 13:41

Hi Wendy,

Have just come across your piece & the subsequent contributions from others, all of which makes for fascinating reading & is exactly what I’ve been looking for.

To explain, I undertake research for & on behalf of Trinity House, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. One of the projects recently embarked upon is to identify people, events & organisations suitable for recollection at the annual House Remembrance Day services.

As you may know, seventy ships were lost by enemy action off the North East coast during the First World War. We have already identified the loss of the ‘Protector’ as, perhaps, being suitable for commemoration at this year’s service. I have been tasked to find out more & compile a short piece to be read out during the service.

I should very much like to draw upon your research & the pictures now attached to the piece, & should appreciate your permission to do so. Of course, suitable credit will be given to you & to other contributors.

I look forward to hearing from you, shortly.
Best regards,

David Thompson

July 27th, 2009 at 04:52

I am restoring an old pilot cutter that was replaced by a steam vessel named the ‘Protector’ in the Cumberland area. Perhaps the same vessel?
Please email me for further details –



Syd Reed
August 7th, 2009 at 08:51

My grandfather was Thomas Reed the Master of the Pilot Cutter “Protector”.He was born in 1891 and was the eldest son to Matthew Clarison Reed (M.C. Reed)who was also a Pilot.They lived for a period of time at 19 Toll Square, North Shields.
Sid Reed


Stephanie Thomas
September 23rd, 2009 at 02:06

Whilst doing some family research in my local history library I came across an article from the South Shields gazette dated 1993 I think you might be interested in this if you haven’t already come across it.. It is a photo of of 16 men (not 19) titled “When pilots used to rule the waves” one of these men I know for definite is my great great uncle James Matthew McConnachie.. also I found another article from when my Aunt Peggy (James’ daughter) was interviewed by the gazette.. she goes on to say “I do not remember my father as i was only 8 weeks old at the time. My father was to have been relieved early to attend his own fathers funeral” Mrs Clark poignantly recounts.
I know that James’ 2 younger brothers Christopher Arthur & John also were killed around this same time as James but they were away at war.

Times were hard and very trying back then which only makes me have so much more respect and admiration for my ancestors.

September 29th, 2009 at 17:00

Message for David Thompson:
I received a very belated e-mail from John forwarding your reply. I tried unsuccessfully to contact you by e-mail.

I am delighted you enjoyed the article and am quite happy for you to use it for your project.

I can’t leave my e-mail here but if you go to my local history website shown, there is an alternative e-mail there which you can use.
Good luck. I do hope my reply is not too late, but I had not returned to this site and have only just heard from John!!!


September 29th, 2009 at 17:03

Hello David
Apparently I can’t leave my website either! How are we supposed to communicate?

Can the administrator please pass my contact details to David Thompson?


Penelope Chambers Bohnenberger
November 8th, 2009 at 06:55

Dear Wendy,

Good article. I heard the story about ‘The Protector’, when I was a young girl from my grandfather William Chambers a Pilot himself. His father was Robert Chambers. My grandfather was only 16 years old at the time. They heard the explosion from their house and my great grandmother knew he was gone. There was one more brother, Alfred Chambers, Uncle Alf. they were all Pilots on the Tyne.

Penny Chambers Bohnenberger
South Carolina, USA


Richard Spicer
December 17th, 2009 at 18:24

Thomas Haw Marshall was my late mother-in-law’s uncle.

Here is an account of the loss of the pilot cutter ‘Protector’.

‘The Tyne Pilot Cutter ‘Protector’
Built 1907, started piloting November 1907.

December 31st 1916
The Pilot Cutter ‘Protector’ ended her career in a most tragic manner on the morning of the 31st December at 7.00 a.m. The Cutter had been in at 6.00 a.m to get a relay of Pilots on board after which she proceeded to board several steamers which were lying near the harbour mouth awaiting daylight.
The Cutter lying about a quarter of a mile from the piers awaiting the ‘S.S. Mile End’, which was stopped ready to take her Pilot on board.
Those onboard the ‘Mile End’ suddenly felt the shock of a violent explosion practically alongside of them and to their surprise saw a cloud of smoke like a volcanic eruption rise up from the water and the ‘Protector’was no more, and those of her crew, Pilots and assistants, every soul was blown to atoms such a catastropic and such a nature is beyond the power of man to realise. The cause of it is presumed to be a mine laid to destroy the ‘H.M.S. Resolution’ of which left the port the morning previous. The news spread quickly that the Pilot Cutter and her complement had been lost.
The ‘Protector went down with every soul on board, ten pilots, four assistant pilots and five of a crew.

John H Burn, Charles Burn, Robert Chambers, John Y Bone, Thomas Heron, Thomas H Marshall, Robert Phillips, William H Tinmouth, Matthew Young, William Young.

Ralph Phillips, Alexander Leslie, William Leslie, John C Cree.

Thomas Reed (Master), William R Forster (Chief Engineer), James W Nicholson (Steward), Benjamin Rumney (Cabin Boy), James MacConnachie (Fireman)

It is believed that the mine that sunk the ‘Protector’ was laid by the German U boat SM UC31, under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Otto von Schrader.
SM UC 31 left Flanders on Dec 28th 1916 and returned on January 5th 1917. The mines off Sunderland were laid the evening of the 30th Dec, the ‘Protector’ detonated one of them the following day. The 1,294-ton steamship ‘Lonclara’ was lost on the same minefield on January 4th 1917.


December 19th, 2009 at 17:16

Dear richard,
Thank you for this interesting information that I have added to the comment stream.
This horrific disaster must have had a devastating effect on the close knit pilotage community.
Kindest regards


Syd Reed
March 23rd, 2010 at 11:32

Hi Wedy

As mentioned earlier I am the grandson of Thomas Reed on the protector.I have a picture of the crew of the Protector but have no idea who is who on it. It would be wonderful to put a face to a name.

Can you please help.If you do not have this picture ,taken on board the protector please let me know.

Regards Syd


Alan Bays
March 23rd, 2010 at 22:40

Dear Wendy,
I recently saw something about the Protector in South Shields Library and decided to look on the internet for more information and came across your site. The reason for my curiosity was that my father Robert Bone Bays, who would have been twelve years old at the time of the loss of the cutter, many times told me that a relative of his was killed on it. This relative was either a cousin or an uncle of my father’s, I can’t remember which now. I was also told that this relative was young in age and that I put my father “very much in mind of him”.
Although my father’s middle name is the same as one of surnames of one of the men who was killed I don’t think he is the relative but I can’t be sure.
My father became a Tyne Foyboatman although his mother was from a family of Tyne pilots, the Sloans.

March 25th, 2010 at 01:00

Hi Wendy

Since starting my family tree I found that Im just a little piece of the Burn Family. My great great grandfather was Mathew Foster Burn a Pilot , and his father my great great great grandfather was Lancelot Burn and his father was William Burn who was also a Pilot, I feel so proud
that I am just a very small piece of this huge and wonderful family all
heros and of course all the other Pilots that give there service are heros also, remembering what i have read up to now the family names of
Marshall Bone Purvis Young and Donkin to name but a few were so brave

Why hasnt a film been done or book been written about these heros,I still have alot of work to do on my Family Tree but I would be greatfull if anyone has any info or photo’s to forward them please and likewise I will pass on what I have .

The above articals are excellant.Lets keep these Pilots alive,remember them whenever we walk along the coast,and looking out towards the piers
they give there lives to save others.

Regards Gail


Mr Young
August 1st, 2010 at 01:16

William and Matthew Young were brothers. Matthew’s son (also Matthew) actually witnessed the explosion which killed his father.
Matthew Jnr had a son of his own, also Matthew, who lived until 2002 and told of the tragic story passed on from his father which I am now passing on to my own kids.
From what I’ve heard, I believe the event deserves more of memorial than the one currently standing.

December 10th, 2010 at 17:50

I admire the useful details you provide inside your articles. I will bookmark your weblog and have my children check up here generally. I’m really certain they will understand plenty of new stuff here than anybody else!


Ralph Phillips Watson
March 16th, 2011 at 19:52

Good evening, Wendy. I have just read some of the comments on your article
about the pilots and the Protector.Robert Phillips was my Great Grandfather and the young Ralph Phillips was my uncle My Grandfather was Ralph Phillips, the young Ralph’s father and he was probably the pilot referred to who said he had spoken to the U-boat captain who said he had torpedoed the Protector. My grandfather told this story without any deviations through repetition,also that he threw the proffered whiskey in the man’s face, Robert Phillips’ body was brought out of the water in March 1917 in king Edward’s Bay by my Grandfather who waded out up to his neck,being a nonswimmer, he only found out later it was his father.


August 28th, 2011 at 14:46

Im trying to find information on a BBC programme about the tyne pilots, involving jack tinmouth, my great grandfather. He died in 1977, so the programme was possibily in the 70’s. Any information appreciated, thanks.


Mr Young
October 2nd, 2011 at 13:48

Lucy, the programme you are seeking is right here on Youtube:

Copy and paste it into your address bar.


Mr Young
October 2nd, 2011 at 13:49

Or just click the link, ha.


Lynsey Carr - Phillips
January 28th, 2012 at 23:04

After delving into my family tree I have discovered that Robert Phillips was my Great (x4) grandfather. I always knew we had links to the sea and still live near the fish quay now. My grandfather has found this whole thing amazing as he knew ‘a story’ but never the full details. Such a tragedy.


Tina Crossland
October 4th, 2012 at 11:23

I had been trying to track information on Charles Chambers, a relative for whom I have a newspaper obituary. It states that he was “the doyen of Tyne pilots, who piloted more vessels out to sea than any other pilot. With a little detective work, I believe he died in 1920. Do you know if he was related to the Chambers mentioned on your site.
Kind regards.


Laura Reed
March 6th, 2015 at 22:40

Hello to anyone who monitors and visits this page. The Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project has researched information on this particular incident and I attach the link to their online database.

They are planning to expand their project in 2015 and welcome any new information regarding anyone on the database.

Kind regards, Laura


Libby Burn
July 30th, 2017 at 16:43

This is a message for Gail Miles – I noticed your comment and wanted to connect with you. My father (his grandfather, great-grandfather etc.etc.) are called John Hart Burn – they were all Tyne Pilots. The John Hart Burn that died on the Protector is my Dad/s grandfather. Dad has the whole family tree for Lancelot Burn and Matthew Foster Burn etc. He would really like to connect and share information. You can mail me at bizzyburn@ Looking forward to it! Elizabeth Burn

NB I’ve inserted a space in the email address to prevent spammers & scammers hijacking it! Ed


Pamela Armstrong
February 23rd, 2018 at 21:53

As has been mentioned, Protector was not torpedoed, she was mined. If anyone seeks further details of the German UC minelay operations off the NE coast, I have the Arno Spindler history volumes


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