Glasgow's 'river man' reflects on a lifetime of rescues
“The joke was if you put a notch in your oar every time you did a rescue, there’d be nae oars,” George Parsonage quips, as he falls back into his chair, reflecting on a lifetime of pulling people out of Glasgow’s River Clyde.
Holyrood meets Parsonage at his home, the only house on Glasgow Green.
“I was born in the room upstairs, so I’ve always lived here,” he says.
Buried behind green hedges, surrounded by trees and overlooking the river, the property doubles as the Glasgow Humane Society’s offices and the Parsonage family home.
Parsonage explains that the house was built in 1936 for his father, Ben, who served as chief officer for the society until he died in 1979.
“My earliest memories of my father were when I was a tiny wee boy. I used to just sit at the hall window upstairs, the window overlooking the river, and watch everything he was doing,” he recalls.
“And I mean, it was a strange thing, because you had the police and ambulance, and they would be in and out of the house non-stop, and that was even at two, three, four or five in the morning.”
Parsonage was “13 or 14” when he began helping his father rescue people from the river, in the 1950s.
They used to say that we learnt to row before we learnt to walk
“I don’t think that’s true, but, I mean, you were just brought up with it, there’s nothing else you can do. I suppose it’s the same if your father was a farmer, you just got on with it, the only difference is this was a 24/7 sort of thing, so it was quite difficult.”
Parsonage trained as a sculptor after he finished school, but he says rowing was “in his blood” and it eventually prevailed.
“So, I stayed at home waiting on the river and I just got on with it. If you’re going to do something in this world, you might as well do something useful.”
By his reckoning, he must have been “hardly able to carry” a stretcher, when he was told to “nip down” and collect one during rescues with his father.
“Or I’d just go up from the boat, stand at the top, and watch for an ambulance or something coming in, make sure it’s coming to the right place,” he says. “So, you had a stranger driving a police car or an ambulance and you are waving them in.”
Parsonage’s mother, Sarah, also played a vital role in the rescues. A black and white photo of her perched over a single bed hangs from a wall in his office.
It’s a whole family thing, the whole family worked together
“If somebody was taken out of the water, my mother would take them up to a room next door and there was one bed with just a rubber mattress where she would lay them in their wet stuff, dry them down, take the wet stuff off them.
“So, my mother was doing the nursing, looking after all of them, because there was a delay in getting an ambulance. Ambulances in those days weren’t on radio. Whereas if somebody fell out there just now, the ambulance would be here by the time I get them to the bank because I’ve made the triple nine call.”
The Glasgow Humane Society was founded in 1790, after it was set up by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.
The society boasts that it is the “oldest practical lifesaving society in the world” with lifeboat officers attributed to saving thousands of lives both by rescuing people from the river and teaching safety.
Parsonage is the society’s 10th officer in its 229-year history. But now aged 75, Glasgow’s ‘river man’ is entering retirement and has been training a young man named William Graham to take over.
No stranger to media attention, Parsonage’s moniker was immortalised into song in the 1990s by an Australian couple who had seen a programme about him. “I’m now known as the river man, but they coined the name.”
After the song’s release, folk duo Jay Turner and Cath Mundy went on a European tour and ended up in Glasgow. The pair walked into George Square and asked a policeman: “We wrote a song about this chap that works the river, does he actually exist?”
“And the policeman put them straight into his car and brought them straight down here,” Parsonage recalls, pointing to a signed copy of River Man which sits proudly next to his computer.
The Glasgow Humane Society’s history books tell tales of accidents and suicides on the river. Parsonage says he and his father’s “proudest boast” is: “Whenever we’re called out to rescue someone in the water, we’ve always rescued them, we’ve never ever lost them, we’ve always made it in time.
“That’s the only thing I’ve tried to really emulate and live up to my father’s name,” he says.
When Parsonage was too young to watch what was unfolding on the river, he says his dad “would put me into the boatshed and tell me to stay there until an incident was over”.
“You learn very quickly to keep out of the road and do what you’re told, unless you were asked to do something, but I mean, we were getting asked to do things when we were very, very young.
“We do an awful lot of rowing in our work and I became a pretty good rower and I just went out with him, same as I’ve done with my own two sons.”
While it’s believed Ben rescued “over 1500 people”, Parsonage admits: “That number will never be known, because he never wrote them all down.
“And they claim that I’ve rescued about 1500 people, but there must be an overlap,” he says.
The other thing is, what do you count as a rescue? You don’t go looking for rescues.
“Is a rescue eight people in a boat that’s sinking, who may or may not need help, or is it somebody that’s in the water without anything to hang onto screaming for help?”
Sadly, sometimes a rescue becomes a recovery. Holyrood asks Parsonage how he deals with pulling dead bodies out of the often-unforgiving river.
“You’ve just got to treat them with the greatest respect,” he says. “They’re a human being and they’re somebody’s loved one. And you’ve just got to get on with it, you know.
“It can be difficult at times because you’re dealing with children to old people and sometimes it’s incredibly sad how they’ve ended up in the water, but what can you do?”
That must be the hardest part of the job? At this point, Parsonage becomes quiet, his eyes widen, and he stares down at his wooden desk. “It can be, yeah,” he responds.
Parsonage says the media “have this fascination with dead bodies”.
“And they always try to say, for instance, my father was taking so many dead bodies out of the river,” he says. “But we are very proud that we take three or four times more alive, than we do dead. And that was something that really bugged my father, and, in a way, it bugged me too.”
He adds: “Nowadays, if someone does end up unfortunately losing their life in the river, it becomes a big memorial and you’ve got flowers and you’ve got all this sort of thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s their way of grieving. We’re in touch with a few more people who have lost their loved one in the river than we used to, that’s definitely a change in society.”
But it’s not always the same story with the people he has rescued alive. “Ninety-nine times out of 100, if you rescue someone, they don’t want to know you because they’ve done something silly,” he says. “And we very, very seldom see people that we’ve rescued from the river.”
Rescues can be dangerous for the rescuers. Parsonage says his most perilous rescues involved having to enter the water by himself, without the aid of a boat.
“Now, we’re boatmen. If you end up having to go into the water to get somebody, it means you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong equipment,” he says.
If somebody is drowning in the water, they want to see a boat coming to get them, they don’t want to see a swimmer who may or may not make it back to the bank with them, and we always have.
One day, Parsonage says a man entered the water and floated a mile or a mile and a half downstream. He phoned the police, and a police car arrived but it didn’t have a tow bar.
“So, I just went down and swam out to the man, and he was very drunk and I don’t know if he was wanting rescued,” he says, adding: “Well, he was wanting rescued but he was too busy floating about and singing his heart out.”
Parsonage reached the man, attached a lifebelt to him and started pulling him back to shore, “and it was wonderful because there’s a policeman who uses the throw rope with absolute precision, he put it right into my hand when I was halfway across, and he pulled me in,” he says.
However, rope throwing doesn’t always go to plan. On another occasion, Parsonage says he went down to Albert Bridge and found a man being swept downstream.
“I swam to the other end of the bridge, because he’d been getting carried down with the stream, I had to swim against the stream to get to him. I got a hold of him and started swimming back down with him and I was really, very, very tired and as I get near the bank, one of the emergency services ran down to the foot of the bank with a rope and put the rope right into my hand.”
But the emergency services worker let go of the other end, and Parsonage also lost his grip. He says a “big cheer went up” from a crowd watching on the bridge and that gave him the energy to carry on. Holyrood asks: So you kept swimming?
“Yeah, and the poor man was quite embarrassed, for letting the rope go,” he says.
Greeting cards cover Parsonage’s desk, thanking him for his help and wishing him all the best in recovering from a recent back injury. One of the cards is penned from Glasgow University. Parsonage explains that he rescued nine of them who were out rowing on the river one day, “and they were in trouble, big trouble, they hit the weir”.
“They were rowing but they made a mistake, my son and I did it with the motor boat, but in case the motor boat got into trouble, my other son was in a rowing boat, sitting, ready to move in if we got into any trouble,” he says. “And William [Graham] was a further 15 metres up river in another rowing boat, ready to move in also. So, we had two rowing boats covering a motorboat, try and explain that to Joe public and they just won’t understand it. A motorboat is more likely to get into trouble than a rowing boat is. We can do anything with rowing boats.”
After more than 40 years working on the River Clyde, Parsonage is entering “semi-retirement”.
“I’m taking a backseat,” he explains. “For nearly five years now, I’ve been training up a young man, William Graham, to take over as officer of the Humane Society.
“This morning he was scraping and painting a trailer, repairing a boat, while he’s watching the people out in the river. Most days he’ll cycle here, check all the lifebelts, things like this.”
Holyrood walks down to the boatshed and meets Graham, who got the job a couple of months after he returned from 12 years serving in the army.
Graham says there is one rescue he undertook with Parsonage “that sticks in my mind”.
“We removed a cow from the river. A cow on a Sunday afternoon, outside the BBC building,” he says, laughing, aware that Parsonage is listening just metres away. “We tied it up with the boat, towed it to the slipway and then we used the hightide to bring the cow out.”
Graham is now in charge of all rescue operations, but since “George has got all the knowledge in his head” he plans to continue to pick away at that and get advice when he needs it.
“George, aye, he is a unique character,” Graham says. “I heard that!” Parsonage yells from the distance.
Graham continues: “George has been here so long, it’s just second nature to him, you can’t train somebody, you just need to do it and that’s how you learn the job, you just need to be here on the river every day.”