Local News from North & South Tyneside

North Shields Town Square named in honour of boy WWII hero Thomas Brown

The name of North Shields’ new Town Square has been revealed at a special unveiling ceremony.

It has been named in honour of WWII hero Thomas Brown, the George Medal recipient who retrieved the Enigma codes at sea.

In 2023 North Tyneside Council invited people to be part of history by voting on a new name for the square from a shortlist of four significant local figures.

They were: Thomas Brown; Ellen Lee, the heroic ARP warden who saved more than 30 lives during a wartime raid on George Street; Charles Minto, the champion boxer and civil rights activist; and Mary Ann Macham, the abolitionist who settled in North Shields.

Thomas Brown took more than half the votes: 2,149 out of 4,247.

The naming event on Friday 15 March, 2024 was attended by more than 30 of Thomas Brown’s descendants and featured live music from a 1940s-style jazz band.

A stone memorial to Thomas, commissioned by his family, has been installed in the square and was unveiled by Elected Mayor of North Tyneside Dame Norma Redfearn DBE.

It bears a graphic image of Thomas based on an original by artist Marcus Reed, with the family overseeing the design. This is etched on to granite in colour and set into a large monolith of sandstone. It stands at a height of 6ft 6ins.

The inscription reads: “A memorial to Thomas Brown GM. A North Shields boy who helped shorten World War II by capturing vital Enigma code books from a sinking German U-boat.

“Two of Thomas’ shipmates drowned in the operation carried out from HMS Petard during October 1942 in the Mediterranean.

“Thomas was awarded the George Medal but died before he could receive it. The medal was presented to his mother by King George VI in 1945.”

Thomas Brown’s niece Lynn Melville said: “When it came to the naming of the Town Square, for us Thomas was the only choice and we were confident but relieved that the vote was his.

“Lots of people in North Shields still don’t know his story and we want to change that. The other two men, Lieutenant Anthony Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier have memorials in their home towns. It’s right that Thomas is remembered in his.

“The Town Square is right at the heart of North Shields so this is a fitting tribute. We’re incredibly proud of Thomas and we’re also proud of our family’s efforts to get this recognition.

“His siblings got his stained glass window installed in the Exchange Theatre in 2002. Now we’re the second generation keeping his story alive.”

Thomas died on 13 February 1945 while waiting to receive his George Medal.

A fire broke out overnight in the family home in Lily Gardens on The Ridges estate. Everyone survived apart from Thomas and his youngest sibling, Maureen.

Lynn said: “Knowing what we do about his character, we think he may have tried to save Maureen. He was a brave and sometimes reckless person.”

Thomas Brown’s nephew Andrew Miller said: “Thomas was not meant to be there on that day. He was never in the Navy, he was only in the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes). He was a civilian who worked on board the HMS Petard in the canteen service.

“What’s more, when he signed up for the NAAFI he lied about his age, he’d only just turned 15.

“Thomas left home because he wanted away. North Shields was never big enough for him. He’d had quite a tough upbringing and he had a taste for adventure. His father and his brothers had taught him to swim by throwing him into the Tyne, which wasn’t unusual.

“At that moment when he jumped from the Petard into the water, we don’t know if he’d asked permission or if he was supposed to be accompanying the two naval men.

“As far as we know Thomas just appeared on deck and joined them, jumped in and swam over to the U-boat.

“The two other men went under the water into the submarine and he stayed above water. They passed the books up to him, making three trips to the surface.

“The submarine was sinking. It went down with the two men inside.

“The papers had to stay dry and Thomas did manage to protect them. He got them back on board the HMS Petard so they could go on to Bletchley Park where they were used to crack the naval Enigma code.

“We don’t know why Thomas took such a big risk. But when you’re 15 you don’t think anything’s going to happen to you.”

Lynn added: “No-one in the family talked about it afterwards, they weren’t allowed because of the Official Secrets Act and the 50-year closure period.

“Since that lifted in 1992 we’ve found out bits of detail from his siblings and read lots of historical information. It’s been a case of fitting the pieces together. Since 2017 we’ve been doing events and contributing to Peter Mortimer’s play about Thomas, Fire and Water, to help tell his story. We have a service for him in the Thomas Brown Room at the Exchange every Remembrance Day.”

Thomas Brown’s George Medal is now display in the Discovery Museum in Newcastle.

Elected Mayor of North Tyneside Dame Norma Redfearn DBE said: “North Shields has such a rich and proud history, it meant we were able to suggest four incredible local heroes as potential namesakes for the new Town Square.

“Thomas Brown was a very clear winner, he’s a young lad whose heroic actions helped shorten WWII. We can’t say for sure how many lives he saved by that moment of bravery, it could be many thousands.

“It’s a real privilege to unveil this memorial and officially name the Town Square after Thomas. We hope this helps keep his memory alive for future generations and gives people in North Shields a real sense of pride.

“The new Town Square is a great place for people to meet and enjoy a sit down, and for community events like this one.

“It’s part of our ambitious scheme of improvements for North Shields town centre, using millions of pounds of Government funding to create smart new public spaces, better transport links and a new pedestrian route linking to our vibrant Fish Quay.”

The other nominees for the public vote have been remembered in different ways around North Shields. Ellen Lee, the heroic ARP warden who saved more than 30 lives during the bombing of Wilkinson’s Lemonade Factory in 1941 has been honoured with a blue plaque. It was unveiled on Wednesday 8 March 2023, International Women’s Day, at the site of the former factory on George Street.

Civil rights campaigner Charles Minto has been remembered with a blue plaque  at 3 Northumberland Place. Now Pattinson Estate Agents, the building was formerly Colonial House, a hostel and community centre that Charles was instrumental in founding. 

Mary Ann Macham escaped slavery in Virginia, settled in North Shields, and became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. A sculpture of her by artist Keith Barrett will be installed on the Riverside Embankment Walkway linking North Shields town centre with the Fish Quay, as part of the North Shields Public Artworks programme.