Who was Harry Watts?
You probably haven’t heard of him, unless you’re English — like he was — and you lived in the 19th century — like he did.
That’s because he was nobody special. He wasn’t a prince or a pope, he never invented a robot or discovered a mountain. Probably never even kicked a ball on television.
What did he do, then? He was born in Sunderland and lived poor. Poor as hell; no shoes poor, family-all-in-one-room poor. His father was a sailor. He had two sisters, and two brothers, one of whom drowned during a storm while Harry watched.
Starting work when he was young, Harry made his living first as a sailor, then as a rigger in the docks, and finally as a deep-water diver (the guys who wear big brass suits and suck air from a hose to the surface). He married and had two kids.
Oh, right. Also, all on his own, he saved the lives of 36 different people.
While apprenticing on his first ship, he watched his fellow apprentice take a fall overboard. Harry’s automatic response was to dive in after him, pluck him up, and pull him to safety upon some floating timber. That was number one.
On his second voyage, he was waiting to receive the captain who was paddling back to the ship in a small canoe. He suddenly capsized, however, and was floundering in the waves. Harry grabbed a rope, swam out to the captain, and towed him back to the ship’s ladder. That was number two.
Number three was on the same voyage, when a boy was thrown into the water during a major storm, and the waters were too rough to lower a boat after him. Harry went in, and somehow, they both came out.
He rescued four and five on his next cruise — at the same time. So at the age of 19, he’d saved the lives of five human beings.
“Did you get any reward for these doings, Harry?” he was asked.
“Rewaard ! Wey, sartinlees nut; nivver thowt o’ sich a thing. But we helped the two men wi’ dry claes an’ things.”
He got six more all together when an anchor line broke and dropped the anchor directly into a passing boat. There were six men aboard, and Harry went straight overboard while calling for help, landing directly on the wrecked boat in time to save them all.
Then one day at the dock, he saw a crowd gathering to watch a boy drowning in a rough sea. He leapt in, swam out to him, and brought the boy successfully back to shore on the verge of exhaustion.
At age 36, he made a career change from sailor to diver. At this point, he’d saved 17 people (plus one dog), most at risk to himself — sometimes grave. On one occasion he swallowed so much contaminated water from the Thames river (this during the cholera epidemic which had essentially turned it into a flowing sewer) that he was bed-bound for months and nearly died.
Many of those saved were sailors; many others were young children. And if you’ve never plunged twenty feet into rough water, wearing boots and heavy sailor’s clothing, and pulled out a panicked child (clinging like an octopus and trying hard to drown you)… well, you’re missing out. At this point, by the way, he had never received reward or recognition of any kind. As they say,
… There is a hackneyed platitude to the effect that virtue is its own reward, but it is safe to say that the average man does not find such a result sufficient. It might be so in an ideal world inhabited by ideal people, but in this work-a-day world, in addition to the approval of our conscience, we love to have the approval of our fellows and to know that our acts are appreciated, and especially is this the case when we are actuated by altruistic motives. This is, of course, a form of vanity, but then vanity is almost a universal failing. [source]
But if Harry wanted applause, he certainly wasn’t clamoring for it. Just chugging along and saving lives as they presented themselves.
People take notice
Not long after that, he swam out to save two boys from drowning — while wearing one of his lead diving boots. (Yep.)
About a year later, he saved a couple more, and finally, there came the very first mention anyone had made of his efforts, a brief story in the newspaper:
Yesterday afternoon, about half-past three o’clock, a lad named Smith, about 16 years of age, son of an engineer employed on one of the Commissioners’ dredgers, narrowly escaped drowning. He was on board a dredger in the new Graving Dock, which was full of water, when he accidentally fell overboard. Mr. Harry Watts, in the employ of the Commissioners, gallantly jumped into the water and rescued him. The lad was very much exhausted, but restoratives were promptly used, and he was soon brought round. This is the twenty-second time that Watts has so nobly exerted himself in saving persons who have been in imminent danger of being drowned.
For a while, eyes turned away again. Then he hit number 25, and another story ran in the news, mentioning the man with “a perfect penchant for rescuing lives.” After that, people finally began to notice, and most of his saves received at least a little local attention.
He had countless saves while diving, such as the man who became tangled in a chain and was whipped overboard by a sinking weight — Harry dove in after and managed to free him underwater before they both drowned. Between rescues, he had plenty of interesting adventures, diving at the time being a trade full of explosives, accidents, and rockslides (he even had one memorable fight with a giant angler, or “devil fish,” which he ended up dispatching with a boat hook).
If that was his job, however, his hobby was volunteering with the Sunderland Lifeboat service; there was hardly a wreck nearby that Harry didn’t attend, they would say, and he was involved in rescuing over 120 sailors in extremis during storms. (Those don’t count on his score, of course, since they were team efforts. Just icing on the cake.)
He was 27, and up to 23 lives, when he received his first parchment award from the Royal Humane Society. A little while later when he ticked off number 25, they gave him their bronze medal as well, and when the local “Diamond Swimming Club and Humane Society” heard about that, they thought it just wasn’t cutting it, so they awarded him a gold medal of their own. The RHS gave him another parchment at number 26, and he continued to accumulate medals for his diving and rescue work — even one from the local temperance society for his good-natured efforts against the evil drink.
In fact, when he reached number 32, the local sailors (“gentlemen,” noted the newspaper, “because what constituted a gentleman was the performance of gentlemanly acts”) personally chipped in to cast him a silver medal in recognition of everything he’d done for them, despite the many years since Harry had personally sailed. Later, by widespread acclaim, his mayor wrote to the Queen to recommend Harry for the Albert Medal. Due to bureaucracy or who knows why, nothing came of the request.
An unfortunate turn came when Harry loaned his medals to the local church for an exhibition, and as night rolled around, the entire set was stolen by an unknown burglar. Harry was crushed, and the town of Sunderland felt it a slur on their name; the burglar was caught before long, but the medals were melted and gone. A popular movement arose, and within weeks they had struck replacements for the lot, and they returned them with dignity at a town ceremony. There, the thief himself expressed remorse, saying he wished he were drowned; Harry replied, “Mister, if ye were droonin’ aw’d pull ye oot bi th’ neck!”, and refused to press charges against the man.
He was 51 when he was approached to dive 150 deep to effect a mechanical repair. He was a little past such stunts for pay, he said, although of course he’d do so to save a fellow man, and he recommended some others who were younger and more willing. Their diver went down, and contact was soon lost; they returned to Harry and asked him to live up to his words, as nobody else was willing to go down to attempt a rescue.
He suited up and dived. The working depth was perhaps 120 feet, but it was upon a tiny platform across a bored-out shaft which continued another 300 feet past that; anybody who slipped was going a long way down until they looked like a recycled soda can. Feeling around, he located the other diver, who was dead (fainted, probably, then asphyxiated). He resurfaced, reported the news, then dived again to retrieve the body.
At the ripe age of 52, Harry was one of the divers who volunteered to recover bodies after the Tay Bridge disaster. He offered his services for no charge; when the diving commission attempted to pay him afterwards anyway (maybe because he was a million years old and a living legend), he politely refused and asked it be passed to a charity of their choice. (The man got around; somehow he was on hand at the Victoria Hall disaster as well, and widely applauded for his assistance in the aftermath.)
But never mind all that. His last life was saved at age 66. He and his wife were walking along the docks toward their home when he heard the cries of a drowning boy. His wife begged him not to, but he went; relenting, she cried, “Be quick, Harry!” and in he dove. Grab hold, haul over to a rope, out they came.
Thirty six lives. Not bad for a poor old seaman.
Harry finally rests
When he was 70, Harry retired at last. And although many people didn’t realize it, his wallet was thin; the diving commission didn’t offer a pension, and he’d quietly turned down others from grateful benefactors. That’s how things were when Andrew Carnegie passed through Sunderland to open a library.
Visiting the local museum, Carnegie saw an exhibit of Harry’s medals and asked after the man, now 84 and still full of vim. Surely he must be a war hero of some kind?
Nope. Just a life saver. When he learned who he was dealing with, and had the pleasure of shaking his hand, Carnegie inducted him into his Hero Fund on the spot.
At long last, Harry Watts no longer had to worry.
In Carnegie’s words,
I have to-day been introduced to a man who has, I think, the most ideal character of any man living on the face of the earth. I have shaken hands with a man who has saved thirty-six lives. Among the distinguished men whose names the Mayor has recited, you should never let the memory of this Sunderland man die. Compared with his acts, military glory sinks into nothing. The hero who kills men is the hero of barbarism; the hero of civilisation saves the lives of his fellows.
At the age of 85, Harry’s town of Sunderland was worried that after his death, such a remarkable, yet humble man might be forgotten in the distance and darkness of history. In response, the mayor and several of the town’s luminaries commissioned a biography to be written about his life. You can read it here, and much of this story came from it.
Not a bad goal. Live your life so that when you’re old, someone will insist on writing a book in your honor.
In their words,
The modest merits of this good citizen may, so far as the public are concerned, be summed up in the simple statement that he has saved upwards of 30 lives from drowning. When we consider what are the awards usually apportioned by mankind to the destroyers of their species, the presentation of a gold watch and chain, accompanied by a framed parchment from the Royal Humane Society, in the precincts of a disused School Room, must appear an inadequate acknowledgment of services so signal. But we are new at the business and shall improve as we go forward.