According to the Royal Navy muster books and ships’ logs at the National Archives in London, John stayed on the Minotaur less than two months, until 30 September, 1859, when he transferred to HMS Cumberland, a 70-gun man o’ war. Cumberland was serving as a guard ship at Sheerness on the Thames Estuary, protecting the fleet in harbour. Sheerness itself was one of the bases of the Royal Navy responsible for safeguarding British waters in the North Sea. Three different captains on Cumberland - Hatten, Schomberg and Thompson - each rated his behavior as “very good,” unlike some stokers who seemed to be forever in the cells for misbehaving.
When the next English census was taken on the night of Sunday, April 7, 1861, John Otterson was still aboard the Cumberland, serving as a stoker. Both the census and ship records give his age as 29, but he was actually closer to 33. It’s likely he understated his age when joining the navy. Interestingly, John’s wife Isabella and the two children are on board the same ship, listed as passengers. While it was not uncommon in the British navy to have wives aboard, the presence of the children is interesting but unexplained.
In July of the following year, John Otterson transferred to HMS Rattler at Sheerness. Rattler was an entirely different ship than Cumberland. She was a new wood screw sloop, launched in 1862, but not to be confused with her predecessor of the same name which has a permanent part in British naval history as the first ship to demonstrate the effectiveness of the propeller propulsion system. That ship was decommissioned and broken up in 1856.
From Sheerness, Rattler sailed for the far east, as her predecessor had done. More noteworthy than stoker John Otterson, she had on board an interpreter to the legation. The Far East had become an extremely important sphere of influence for the British Government, and the Royal Navy was its primary instrument.
John was still with HMS Rattler when he became leading stoker on 27 Aug 1865. He went to the Far East on Rattler with captain Howard Webb, sailing back and forth between the ports of Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang, Malacca, Swatow, Yokohama, Shanghai, Kobe Bay, Castries Bay, Novgorod, Soya, and La Parouse Strait which separates the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido from Russian territory to the north.
John could not have known at the time, but his promotion to leading stoker on August 27 was just days before his wife, Isabella, died in England of gastroenteritis, possibly from food poisoning. She was buried at Mere Knolls Cemetery in Sunderland, on September 3. A neighbour and presumably friend, Ellen Dobson, was with Isabella when she died, and interestingly reported to the registrar that John was a coal miner. Perhaps she simply knew that John was still shovelling coal even in the navy.
It would have taken some time for word to reach John in the Far East, but four and a half months later, on 16 January 1866, he was discharged from Rattler to HMS Princess Charlotte to await passage back to England on Orontes. Again, his conduct was recorded as “very good.” John’s return and the feelings for his two daughters must have weighed heavily on him. (Ironically, Rattler was subsequently wrecked on a reef off the Japanese coast of Hokkaido in 1868, although the crew survived).
John spent the next period around English shores, notably on the Indus which operated out of harbours in Plymouth as a guard ship. Indus was moored at Keyham, a suburb of Plymouth which was built to provide dense, cheap housing for thousands of civilian workmen just outside the wall of the dockyard at Devonport. The Indus log shows parties of stokers being sent off to coal various ships coming in or out of harbour and working parties going ashore to the dockyard. Most evenings there is the entry “Rowed Guard”, then “boats up.” Every ship entering or leaving harbour was noted in the log.
On 15 May 1869, John transferred from the Indus to HMS Inconstant, an iron-screw frigate he was to stay with for nearly ten years. Although she was steam-assisted, she was fully masted and capable of over 16 knots. John joined her as a leading stoker.
Her base was Spithead, Portsmouth, and it was here that John met a widow, Rebecca Wilson, whom he married in the summer of 1870. The 1871 English census lists him as “borne on the books” of the Inconstant but “not on board”. In fact, he was staying with his new family at their home in Yorke Street, Portsmouth, which was walking distance from the docks. Apart from his wife, Rebecca, whose age is given as 41 (John lists his own age correctly as 45), there were three step-sons and a step-daughter, as well as Rebecca’s 81-year-old mother. At this time his natural daughter, 17-year-old Elizabeth, had also joined the family. Her elder sister, Sarah, 18, was working as a domestic servant for a ship’s broker in Sunderland. By the end of the following year, both of John’s natural daughters were married.