Today, we were lucky enough to get a guided tour around the South Shields Museum’s First World War exhibition, Home of Heroes.
Adam Bell, the curator, was very enthusiastic as he took us around an exhibition that took over a year of research to complete. For the first time, the museum is able to display its artefacts and objects that have been within the stores for a hundred years.
What is fascinating about this exhibition is that it takes inspiration from the local area, South Tyneside. Adam took the world event of war and brought is home to the people of the area by tapping into the tradition of the sea, through the Mercantile Marines as well as the coal mining industry.
This exhibition honours those three or four soldiers who received the Victoria Cross for their actions during the war, but also takes a broader view than the tradition sense of the term hero. What is presented is something beyond medals for bravery and gallantry of the front lines to acknowledge what many people, whole communities contributed to the war effort on the home front.
One such example of bravery was shown by the seamen who joined the war effort as civilians and crossed the seas. The sea became a major danger zone as there were mines, torpedoes and stockades as both sides took the strategy of starving out the enemy through destroying shipments of much needed food and goods.
Those seamen who were involved, over 2200 from South Tyneside, were awarded the Mercantile Marine Medal at the end of the war. The list of these seaman is available to look through as descriptions continue to be added as they become available. This resource is unique and insightful because photographs of the individuals are included too.
What was of interest to our research was the information and objects that the museum had included in relation to the Yemeni community. South Shields has been home to a Yemeni British community since the 1890s. The main reason for the Yemeni arrival was the supply of seamen, such as engine room firemen, to British merchant vessels.
In 1909, the first Arab Seamen’s Boarding House opened in the Holborn riverside district of the town. At the time of the First World War there was a shortage of crews due to the demands of the fighting and many Yemenis were recruited to serve on British ships at the port of Aden, then under British protection.
At the end of the war, the Yemeni population of South Shields had swelled to well over 3,000. 700 Arabs from South Shields lost their lives in the Great War. Yet despite their contribution, the Yemeni population faced hostilities after the war when the soldiers returned from war to little employment and protests. Too many people and too few jobs, things were bound to get heated as crowds waited around Mill Dam for jobs on the ships.
The locals attacked the Yemenis but it was the Yemenis who were arrested and sent to prison. This happened in February 1919. South Shields saw the first serious street violence and racial unrest in areas inhabited by foreign seamen, with attacks on Arab Boarding Houses and cafes. This was the first place to see a race riot in the UK.