Thomas Abernethy Otterson (1909-1993)
- Born Sunderland, Durham, England
- Died Tommerup, Funen County, Denmark
- Married 1937 in Sunderland to
Cecilia Mary ("Molly") Allen (1916-1993)
- Born Sunderland, Durham, England
- Died Tommerup, Funen County, Denmark
- Two children
Tom Otterson left school at 14, and showed enough promise that his headmaster recommended him for a job with Sunderland's port authority, known as the River Wear Commission. It was the start he needed. In the years to come, he would become an accountant, company secretary and managing director, with a life-long love for scouting and Rotary.
By Margaret Otterson Seabourne, his daughter
THOMAS ABERNETHY OTTERSON was the son of a coal miner. His father had worked at the local colliery in a minor supervisory role before being offered a substantial promotion to the responsible position of "staithmaster," overseeing the loading of coal from the mine onto the dockside ships. But the family's origins were, nevertheless, humble.
Tom was the eldest son of Robert and Lizzie Otterson, born on 7th November 1909. His parents' first child, Robert, was a boy who lived for only 14 months. Later, a baby girl, Elizabeth, died at only six months. Tom and his sister, Mary, two years his senior, would therefore grow up as the eldest children in the family - brothers and sisters to Rob, Doris, Will and Jim.
Tom attended the National School at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland, associated with St Peter’s Church. The headmaster, a Mr. Watson, recommend him for a post at the River Wear Commission after Tom had left school. His letter of appointment is dated 24 April 1924 when he was 14 years old and his starting salary was seven shillings and six pence per week - roughly equivalent to about £15 or $20 in 2019 values, but at a time when the purchasing power was very much greater than today. It wasn't a bad wage for an untrained boy.
But Tom was a studier, recognizing at even that early age that qualifications mattered. While he worked at the River Wear Commission he also studied at night classes to obtain qualifications and won three free scholarships, each for a further year’s study towards the preliminaries for the commercial courses and Chartered Institute of Secretaries certificate, which he finally received in April, 1937. He also studied for his Cost and Works Accountant certificate, received in 1947. (As a child, I remember how he was often at weekends and evenings shut in a different room working at his studies.)
His interests were church (Williamson Terrace Methodists), scouting, and long distance walking races, in which he encouraged his younger brother, Rob, to participate. He was successful in races, for which I have his medals. For one race he won a silver epergne which his mother kept in pride of place on display. He was a Rover Scout in the 6th Sunderland (Dora’s Lighthouse Group), and in November, 1932, was commissioned as scoutmaster at Williamson Terrace. His brother, Will, became assistant scoutmaster and youngest brother, Jim, was later a patrol leader. They used to go off camping to Sharpley or Cox Green, and to other places in County Durham, including the Northern Counties Jamboree at Raby Castle in 1936.
Above left: Tom and Molly shared an interest in scouting and girl guides from their earliest years together.
Left: Officers of the Williamson Terrace Scout Group. Left to right: Bill Prentice, Will Otterson (Assistant Scout Leader), Eric Brown, Alan Goldsbrough, Tom Otterson (Group Scout Leader), Jim Otterson, Bill Dickinson (Assistant Scout Leader).
Molly, born on 18th March 1916, was the second child and eldest daughter of Gordon and Ellen Allen and won a free scholarship to Bede Girls School, where she studied until school certificate. She then worked in the office of a furniture company. She was a guide and enjoyed swimming and walking. Being very competitive, she had to gain lots of badges. Through guides, she met Doris Otterson, Tom’s younger sister and soon after met Tom. She and Doris later became cub scout leaders at Williamson Terrace Church.
Tom and she used to go on cycling holidays, staying in Youth Hostels, and went as far as Bettws y Coed in Wales. Tom also went on cycling trips with his friend Wilf, to Northumberland and Scotland.
Tom moved to Leeds to work for Yorkshire Copper Works (which he remembered as 3 difficult and demanding years in Leeds) and in 1937 he and Molly were married at Williamson Terrace Methodist Church and set up home in Roundhay, Leeds. He continued his involvement with Scouting in Leeds and through the gangshow there met Edgar Taffinder, a jobbing builder and occasional newspaper reporter, who with his wife, Mavis, later became my godparents. The new house they lived in there needed to have the garden made from scratch and Tom developed another great interest - gardening. I remember helping him in the garden when I was around three years old, putting potatoes in the holes he had "dibbed" in the soil - part of the “Dig for Victory” campaign in World War II.
War had broken out in 1939, and because he was in a reserved occupation working for companies involved in war work, he did not join the forces, but acted as a special constable. One day, Molly moved the furniture around in the bedroom and that night there was an air raid warning. Tom leapt out of bed, forgot about the new arrangement, and ran full tilt into the wall, knocking himself out. He was not on duty that night!
As part of his work during the war, he was sent to Filton, near Bristol where there was a big aircraft factory and a large electricity generating base. By this time he was working for British Acheson Electrodes Ltd, in Sheffield, and the family had moved to Abbey Lane, Sheffield, so he stayed in "digs" when away. One night he was working late in the factory offices and somehow could not settle. Feeling jumpy, he eventually decided to take work back to his digs instead of working in the factory. Later that night, there was an air raid on Filton and the factory and generating works were flattened by German bombers. It was a lucky escape for him.
As well as working, he continued to study for his professional qualifications. His interest in walking continued and at weekends he used to take me and my folding pushchair on the train into Derbyshire, and we would walk in the countryside around the Bakewell and Hathersage area - with me climbing into the pushchair when I was tired. This left Molly time to look after my younger sister, Pat, and also to have a rest as she was not well at that time.
There was never any doubt about my Dad's integrity. He was working as an accountant by this time and was once offered a chance to make a lot of money by an acquaintance (who, it seems, was into the black market) to “cook the books”. He firmly declined on principle.
After the war, having passed the final exams of the Cost and Works Accountants Institute, he was offered a post at Steels of Sunderland. So the family, now including Pat, born in 1943, moved back to Sunderland and lived with Molly’s parents for 6 months until able to buy a bungalow in Silksworth Lane. He continued to work for the Steel Group for the rest of his working life, but continued his interest in church, Scouting and walking. He was on the National Savings committee in Sunderland.
In 1948 he was transferred to Glasgow, where Steels had taken over a marine pipework company, Archibald Low & Sons, as Company Secretary and later became Managing Director of the company. They did work for the Glasgow shipyards and also for Harland and Wolff in Belfast. As well as pipework, they branched out into aluminium flooring for ships. He was given a company car - a green Ford Popular - and a telephone at home. Such modern luxury for us all! As managing director he was upgraded to an Austin Westminster and later a Ford Zodiac.
As part of the Glasgow overspill programme, the factory moved from Merkland Street in Partick to Kirkintilloch and we moved from Manchester Drive in Kelvinside to “Ruaig” a big old house in the country near Kirkintilloch. It needed a lot of work to bring it up to date and make it comfortable, and we all spent hours making the half-acre garden beautiful. We all loved the house and garden, and were sad when Steels transferred him back to Head Office in Sunderland in 1960 and the family home became 1 Parkside South, East Herrington. He continued his love of gardening there and made another beautiful garden where the grandchildren loved to play.
He also resumed his involvement in Scouting and became District Commissioner and Assistant County Commissioner. He went to Gilwell Camp and made a group of firm friends from Guyana, Zambia, and USA who he kept in touch with for the rest of his life. He was awarded the Silver Acorn in recognition of his services to Scouting. After retiring from these scouting posts he belonged to the BP Guild and organised the setting up of a sea scout troop at Ford, with help from Sunderland Rotary Club, of which he became President and then District International Secretary (which involved trips to USA.)
Molly did not work after her marriage, but was a full time housewife and mother, but she supported Tom in all his activities. Even though money could be tight at times, she always looked smart. She took a tailoring course so that she could make clothes for herself and us children, which was cheaper than buying. When Tom was chairman of the school Parent Teacher Association, she presented the prizes at the annual prizegiving. We were very proud of our smart, pretty mother, but it was quite strange to receive a prize from her and have to curtsey to my own mother. She helped with hosting and organising the 100-year anniversary celebrations of Archibald Low in 1953, which included a dinner and chartering the “Duchess of Hamilton” paddle steamer for a cruise down the Clyde to Keppel Pier on the island of Great Cumbrae. She was a great hostess and enjoyed having relatives to stay and show them around the area. She was also a great cook and baker.
When Tom was asked to join Rotary in Kirkintilloch, she became a member of Inner Wheel (wives of Rotarians) and after moving to Sunderland, she was chair of Sunderland Inner Wheel twice, District Chairman, then National Chairman. She had to travel all round Britain that year, giving speeches and attending rallies. Tom was very proud of his accomplished wife and helped her with composing and typing out her speeches.
Through Rotary they developed a circle of friends who stayed in touch all the rest of their lives. We are still in contact with some of them. The club entertained international visitors to courses in Durham University, and to one of those there came a young Danish teacher, Lokky Jorgensen. He came to visit more often during his stay and returned to visit again, inviting my sister, Pat, to visit his home in Denmark … and in July 1969 they were married. In his speech at Pat and Lokky’s wedding, Dad said that his daughters had had to look far away for husbands - for Margaret there was no one good enough in England so she had to look to Wales - for Pat there was no one good enough in the UK so she had to look to Denmark.
Pat and Lokky, later with their children Gavin and Melanie, came to Sunderland for holidays every year and the four grandchildren played happily together in the big garden and in the football field across the road as they got older.
At Steel’s Crown Works, where Coles Cranes were made, Tom was in charge of moving the accounting system, first to a punch-card system and much later to computers. He organised the transfer of the system from pounds, shillings and pence to decimal currency. At 65, he retired officially from Steels but continued to work as a consultant for them for several years. He also acted as part-time accountant for a small bakery firm in his spare time.
In his late 70s, he had heart problems and had a pacemaker fitted. Then Molly had a gall bladder operation and was unable to do housework for several months. Both were very busy people and the doctor insisted they had to slow down. We realised they would find it difficult to give up all their interests if they stayed in Sunderland, and just at that time a small bungalow next door to Pat and Lokky’s house in Denmark became available to buy. The decision was taken to move to Denmark and another adventure began. They loved their life in Denmark and their time with their Danish family.
Tom and Molly came back to Sunderland twice a year to stay with me and to visit their old friends, and their friends and relatives visited them in Denmark. A link was made between Sunderland Rotary and a Danish club. Our family went to Denmark for holidays. My husband, Bryn, and I visited more frequently as they became less well.
For the last three years of his life, Tom was unable to travel back to Sunderland. Molly came once on her own but after that felt unable to leave him alone in Denmark. When he died, in June 1993, her friends all phoned to condole with her and sent floral tributes. As well as Bryn and I, her sister Beatrice and husband Frank travelled to the funeral. But by then she was very unwell herself and soon after was diagnosed with advanced cancer. In the summer that year, Bryn and Lokky laid paving stones all the way up the drive so that she could be taken in a wheelchair to join in the family birthday celebrations, but she was soon unable to move from bed and she died on August Bank holiday weekend. At her funeral, the floral tributes stretched right down the church aisle.
Both were cremated, by their own wish, and their ashes were buried in “the lawn of the unknown” - an area where ashes could be buried so that families did not have to tend a grave in perpetuity. Although they loved the Danish graveyards, so well-kept and decorated, they did not want to impose a burden on children and grandchildren for years afterwards.
Written in March, 2019
Left: Tom and Molly Otterson in East Herrington, Sunderland, on one of their visits to England from Denmark.
Below left: In Denmark, where they lived their final years close to their daughter, Pat, and her family.