Robert Otterson (1881-1970)

Robert Otterson and Lizzie Abernethy, c. 1914

Robert Otterson (1881-1970)

  • Born Sunderland, Durham, England
  • Died Nottingham, England
  • Married 1904 in Sunderland to

Lizzie Abernethy (1883 - 1964)

  • Born Sunderland, Durham, England
  • Died Sunderland, Durham, England
  • Eight children
UK Intro map

"The staithmaster was retiring, and the company offered the job to Robert. The prospect intimidated and scared him. He lacked both education and training to move from little more than a laborer to someone who would be virtually in charge of the coal shipping from the colliery. But he took the job."

In Britain, a time of reform

Robert Otterson was 19 years old when Queen Victoria died early in 1901.  The Victorian Age had been a time of extraordinary change in Britain. The Industrial Revolution had urbanized the country. Cities with their booming industries had drawn vast numbers of workers from the countryside. The British nation with its vast Empire, protected by its powerful navy, had become the most advanced industrial society in the world, and the most democratic in Europe.

Yet with that growth had come massive social problems, which successive government reforms attempted to address. Almost a third of the population struggled to find enough to eat. Public health in the working classes was poor, and education did not extend for most beyond primary school. Despite its growing middle class, the nation was still highly class conscious, and the lines of demarcation were always evident.  Wage disparities between the classes were enormous.

In 1881, when Robert Otterson was born, the middle class had had the vote for nearly 50 years, and for the past 15 years it had been extended to every male householder and to lodgers paying a certain amount of rent.  The result was a million and a half men had been added to the electoral rolls and had a voice in their own future. In a few more years, agricultural laborers would be added.

Unions were now legal and growing in power, but the mines, shipyards and other privately owned enterprises paid only as much attention to working conditions for the men as seemed absolutely necessary. One result was a simmering resentment and tendency toward socialist politics among the working classes that seemed to be the natural order of things in industrial Britain as the 20th century opened. 

Big changes lay ahead. The suffragette movement fought for the vote for women, although success was still years away. Successive government reforms to the electoral system, education, public health gradually improved conditions. But in the first ten years of the 20th century, there were clear signs that Britain's leadership in the world was slipping. Coal production in the United States now outstripped that of the UK, as did steel production in Germany. Germany was building a navy to rival Britain's, and gradually the stage was set for one of the most disastrous of all human conflicts - World War I.  That titanic struggle would not only begin to redefine Britain's role in the world, it would also prove in time to be the great leveler of the class system.

Newspaper photograph (unidentified)
Newspaper photograph (unidentified)

ROBERT OTTERSON was the son of a coal miner, born the seventh of ten children at 32 Byron Street, almost a stone's throw from the north bank of the River Wear as it snakes through the heart of Sunderland.  The terraced houses of Byron Street - almost all occupied by coal miners who worked at the nearby Wearmouth Colliery - were typical of the time, built in working-class areas for high-density occupation. 

Google Maps.
Google Maps.
Google Maps
Google Maps

Top:  Robert Otterson and wife Lizzie Abernethy Otterson on their golden wedding day. Above center: Aerial view of the streets once almost wholly occupied by coal miners. The parallel streets in the center of the picture, running back from the river at right angles, include Byron Street and Chilton Street, where Ottersons lived. Above: Byron Street as it is today, courtesy of Google Maps. No. 32 is on the left. Most of the houses have been remodeled. 

When his father began work at Ryhope Colliery, about four miles south of the river, the family moved to 13 Robinson Terrace, which became his childhood and teenage home. It was a large house in the Hendon area of Sunderland, and which was occupied by two other families. The arrangement was normal for the time - two or three families typically occupied different parts of the same building for which they paid weekly rent.

On the last day of March, 1898,  Robert's father, John Otterson, was at work at the colliery when he was hit by a coal wagon that ran over his legs and caused horrific injuries. John did not survive the day, and at age 17 Robert and his siblings found themselves without a father.

Still in his teens, Robert worked as a bricklayer’s labourer, and then as a stonemason's laborer. Growing up, Robert was closest to younger brother James. With only two and a half years between them, and older and younger sisters either side, the boys naturally gravitated to each other. At only 18, his younger brother was the first of the two to marry - to a neighborhood girl named Jessie Abernethy, virtually around the corner in Athol Road. That is probably how Robert first met Jessie's sister, Lizzie, whom he married in 1904.

The family home in the early 1900s for Robert and Lizzie and the six children that followed (two had died as infants) was 22 Chilton Street (pictured below in 2009), a house owned by the local coal company. It was a hundred yards from Byron Street in Monkwearmouth where Robert was born. There were three bedrooms upstairs, and a bed in the living area downstairs. “Clip mats” were spread on the floor - made from strips of surplus materials and stitched together with a heavy wooden needle.

Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson

Lacking a good education, Robert’s options were limited. He gave up laboring to work at nearby Wearmouth Colliery - but above ground. His job was that of a “keeker,” and it was one he held for many years. In the mines at that time the coal was removed from the coal face by hewers, transported to metal screens and then examined by boys or men for stones, slate or other impurities which were removed before the coal was loaded into wagons. It was the keeker’s job to oversee the gang removing the stones, and Robert was paid a shilling a day more than the men he supervised. As his son, Tom, said in later years: “Life was, you know, pretty poor...We always got enough to eat but there were never any luxuries.”

Because there were no baths at the pit head, the miners followed a ritual when arriving home to remove the coal dust that had lodged everywhere. Outside the house, they would shake their caps and jackets of dust, enter the house, remove boots and clothes to hang in the back kitchen - a kind of wash house - then wash their hands and later take a bath in a portable tub in front of the fireplace.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Robert and younger brother James signed up in December. Robert  joined the line of volunteers with Jacob Forrest, the husband of his eldest sister. They were issued sequential numbers - 18491 for Jacob and 18492 for Robert. Robert’s enlistment papers say that he was just over 5 ft 7 ins, with a 30-inch waist at age 33.

The following day, Robert’s brother James also joined up - his number was 18497 - and all were posted to 3rd Battalion of the Green Howards Regiment on 4 January 1915. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were regular army units. The 3rd Battalion was a training regiment raised because of the war and was sent as replacements and reinforcements to the 6th Battalion. However, soon after they joined up, Robert was posted to the 10th battalion and sent across the Channel to Belgium. James was assigned to the 6th battalion and shipped off to Gallipoli. Both of these theaters of war were like hell on earth. Although James survived Gallipoli, he did not survive the mud holes of the Somme, and died a few miles from where his brother Robert was fighting. For more on Robert's First World War experience, see below.

After the war, Robert returned to work at the colliery. It was a long time afterwards - some time around 1930 - when Robert suddenly faced the opportunity for significant promotion. The waterside depots for the coal brought from the collieries were known as staithes, and from there the coal was loaded straight into the coastal ships that serviced the ever-hungry coal-fired power plants along the River Thames, providing London with electrical power. The staithmaster was retiring, and the company offered the responsible job to Robert. The prospect intimidated and scared him. He lacked both education and training to move from little more than a laborer to someone who would be virtually in charge of the coal shipping from the colliery. When Robert went home that night he was full of uncertainties as he discussed it with the family.

Fortuitously, Tom, the oldest boy was in a position to help. Encouraged by a local school teacher, Tom had started early learning office work, and had gained the kind of experience needed to help his father - indexing, tracking the men’s wages, logging the tonnage in the holds of each of the ships. He had even worked in an office for the riverside commissioners, so he knew the industry well. So, with encouragement from Tom and probably from others in the family, Robert took the job, brought the books home each evening and Tom helped him learn how to do what was required.

Origin unknown.
Origin unknown.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson

Promotion meant more wages, and soon the Otterson family would move to a much better colliery house in Wreath Quay Road, a 15 minute walk away and situated right next to the colliery.  The house had a bathroom - a huge luxury.

Robert's granddaughter, Margot Otterson Seabourne, remembers the house. In 2018 she wrote:

"I remember when we visited them in Wreathquay Road, Sheepfolds, we would get the bus or tram to near the Wheatsheaf and walk over a railway bridge. It was a big red brick house in streets of houses belonging to the colliery and always seemed dark inside. The sitting room had a black horsehair-stuffed sofa that prickled when we sat on it and we used to pull out the prickly hairs.

"There was a chenille cloth on the table and gas lights as well as electric lights. The passage and stairs were always gloomy and there was a door covered in green baize or felt, that closed itself behind you and left you in the dark unless a grown up came with you to put the electric light on. The only brighter place I remember was the kitchen and the pantry off it. Nana used to keep bottles of pop there and we used to have pop when the grown ups had tea. Dad told me that one time Will had been out doing something energetic and when he came home he saw a pop bottle by the sink and was just about to have a swig from the bottle when he discovered it was actually bleach in the bottle - Nana had used an empty pop bottle to store her bleach. I don’t think she did that again!

Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson

Above left: Old staithes on the River Wear when the city of Sunderland had a booming mining industry, and below, the same spot today.
Above:  What used to be Wreath Quay Road, now Millenium Way.
Below: The Wheat Sheaf pub, popular "watering hole" and in its prominent position an iconic reminder of old Sunderland. Although the building was still standing in 2018 when this photo was taken, it is no longer a pub.

Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson

"Grandad always gave us threepenny bits when we visited - sometimes silver ones, sometimes the yellow ones with lots of edges. I remember he smoked a pipe with a silvery top and we liked the smell of it and he had a watch on a chain in his waistcoat pocket. We loved to see the lump on his bald head where the shrapnel wound was still evident and liked to feel it too, though we didn’t know anything else about his part in the war. He almost always seemed to wear boots rather than shoes when we were small."

Wreath Quay Road no longer exists - at least, not by that name. It is now known as Millenium Way, and runs right past the former Wearmouth colliery where generations of Ottersons and related families labored in the blackness of the mines. At the far end of the street, away from the river, was the Wheatsheaf pub to which Margot Seabourne refers. It was the "local" for many of the Wearmouth miners, and the building still stands (pictured, above).  The colliery itself, long since closed, is now the location of Sunderland's football stadium, cleverly named the Stadium of Light.

Robert lived to a good age, but sadly had to face the death of two more of his sons. Rob was killed in a motorbike accident in Wales in 1949, and Will died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in Newcastle in 1957. Robert and Lizzie’s last years were spent together in Nottingham, where they lived with their single daughter, Doris, a career nurse, from about 1951. Lizzie died in 1964, and Robert survived her by six years, passing away in 1970 at the age of 89.

Robert Otterson in World War I: Battle of the Somme

Source: The National Archives, via Ancestry.com
Source: The National Archives, via Ancestry.com

Above:  War Diary intelligence summary for October 18-22, 1916.  On October 22, the entry reads:  "In trenches 94 - 106. Fine weather and repair work carried out, otherwise quiet in morning. About 4.30 pm two heavy minenwerfer fell in northern crater and caused several casualties and considerable damage to defences." The list of casualties shows three killed and 12 wounded, including Lance Sergeant Robert Otterson among the wounded. The minenwerfer were German mine launchers used with effect against trench warfare in World War 1. They worked by throwing mines at a steep incline, which would then drop into the trenches.

ROBERT OTTERSON AND HIS BROTHER JAMES both began service in the British Army in the same Yorkshire regiment, but were soon separated - James going to the 6th battalion of the Green Howards, and Robert to the 10th. In July of 1916, Robert's 10th battalion was fatefully posted to the area of the Somme in north-eastern France, whose name has gone down in history as one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the British Army, with the 10th battalion becoming one of the heaviest hit units in the entire British Army on any single day of action. At dawn on 1 July the 10th Battalion had begun their attack with around 900 men. By nightfall they numbered barely more than 125. The official battalion war diary for this day records losses as 750 soldiers and 27 officers, killed, missing and wounded.

Men of the 10th battalion were attacking the German-held village of Fricourt on this day. They left their trenches at 7.30am following the cessation of an artillery bombardment, attacking the German position across no man’s land in four waves. The first two waves of the attack successfully reached German lines without substantial losses. While they were doing so, however, German soldiers who were largely unaffected by the artillery bombardment preceding the attack emerged from their dugouts and mounted their machine guns. As the final two waves of attack were launched from the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment’s trenches, the men walked into a wall of machine gun fire. These two waves of men were virtually annihilated. Those who had reached German trenches earlier in the offensive had to make their way back across no man’s land without support, resulting in more casualties.

Public domain (Crown Copyright expired).
Public domain (Crown Copyright expired).

Above: British artillery barrage in attack on Fricourt, Somme, in August 1916.

Due to the immense bravery and courage required from men continuing in the attack despite heavy losses, all survivors from 10th battalion West Yorkshire Regiment were awarded a gallantry medal. These medals included the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Military Cross and Military Medal.

This action in which Robert suffered a shrapnel wound to his head was just three weeks after his brother, James, was killed in the trenches a few miles away.