The ship which sank leaving 84 Sunderland orphans

Fuenten-Aod where the ship was lost.
Fuenten-Aod where the ship was lost.
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Imagine it. A ship sunk at sea with all hands lost and most from Sunderland.

That is what happened to the SS Ottercaps which suffered a miserably short nautical life.

Meg Hartford places flowers on the communal grave in Plogoff.

Meg Hartford places flowers on the communal grave in Plogoff.

Now, the ship is being remembered once more as part of the Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade’s events to celebrate the brigade’s 140th anniversary.

There’s a free exhibition on the way at the Brigade’s Watch House at Pier View, Roker.

It will be open from 12pm to 4pm on the following dates;

l Saturday, August 26, to Monday, August 28,

There are a few crew members about whom we know very little and, if anyone has a connection with the Ottercaps or its crew, we would love to hear from them

Katy Gill

l Friday, September 1 to Sunday, September 3.

l Friday, September 8 to Sunday, September 10.

Exhibition spokesperson Katy Gill said: “It was decided to tell the story of this ship which is an important part of the city’s maritime heritage and to remember the crew who were lost and their families.

“A former member of the crew who had signed off the ship just a month before its loss was John Knights. He lived for a time at the Trafalgar Square Almshouses.

Janet Wardell, great great niece of crewman John Wood at Plogoff Cemetery.

Janet Wardell, great great niece of crewman John Wood at Plogoff Cemetery.

“A Mr Richard Pratt found John’s Royal Naval Reserve Long Service and Good Conduct Medal among his mother’s possessions although they are not related. He will present the medal to John Knights’ descendants at the opening ceremony.

“Known descendants of the crew members have been invited to the exhibition and they have provided lots of information, family stories and photographs.”

But what is the sad history of this ill-fated ship? Katy explained more.

On August 10, 1890 Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade rescued the 2 passengers and 16 crew of the SS Ottercaps which had gone aground south of the South Pier. The passengers were Mrs Ann Robinson - wife of the Chief Engineer - and a young boy aged about 5.

Mrs Robinson wrote to the Sunderland Daily Echo in thanks and told the newspaper of the “prompt assistance and exceeding kindness” shown to her that day.

Yet Ottercaps’ sad fortunes were not over.

Thirteen years later, she was lost with all hands off the coast of Brittany; most of the crew were from Sunderland.

The ship was one of the Lambton Steamers which were used to carry coal. She frequently sailed from the North East to France and Spain. It was during the return from one of these trips that she met her fate while carrying iron ore from Bilbao to Middlesbrough.

Reports state she left Bilbao on the 25th but the next day ran into a storm with violent, gale force winds while nearing the headland of the Pointe du Raz. She was reported lost just off Feuntenot, the last rocky point to the south of a huge tidal rapid between Pointe du Raz and the Ile de Sein.

Katy said: “This area was notorious for shipwrecks, with a bay to the north being named the Bay of the Dead.

“It was said that two girls heard cries coming from offshore that night as well as the sound of an explosion, but they did not dare go outside.

“The local people realised that a ship had been lost when wreckage and bodies were found on the shore and they were able to identify the ship as the Ottercaps.”

News of the loss soon reached Sunderland and reports were in the local press by the 28th.

The bodies of 15 of the 16 crew were recovered and buried in two cemeteries in France. The body of the Chief Engineer, Alfred Robinson, was never found. All but two of the crew lived in Sunderland. The loss was huge with 8 children orphaned; 14 women made widows; and 84 children and young adults lost their father.

Katy added: “A group of descendants of the crew, who have made contact over the past 10 years, researched to identify where the bodies were buries and, in 2015, paid for a memorial plaque to be put up in the cemetery at Plogoff where most of the crew are buried.

Katy would love to hear from descendants of the crew and their families, and said: “There are a few crew members about whom we know very little and, if anyone has a connection with the Ottercaps or its crew, we would love to hear from them.

“Also the little boy rescued in 1890 by Sunderland VLB has never been identified, we know he was the son of one of the crew but not which one. Someone may have heard a family story about an ancestor being rescued at Sunderland so if any reader can help us to identify him we would be very pleased to hear from them.”

Contact Katy at kategill31@gmail.com or on 07990786220.