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The intriguing link that connects Sunderland, South Shields and the Shetland Islands

Two avid historians have uncovered an intriguing link which connects Wearside and South Tyneside to the Shetlands.

Friday, 11th March 2022, 4:55 am

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And it shows that dozens of seafarers from the islands turned to Sunderland and South Shields for a new place to settle – more than any other part of the world.

Now, both Shetland author and amateur historian Laughton Johnston and Sunderland historian Keith Gregson would like North East people with island ancestry to get in touch and tell us more.

Keith said Laughton has ‘traced the destinations of over 500 Shetland born men, among the 2050, who appear as masters and or mates in a sea-going list (Lloyds Masters and Mates 1850-1927). From the research it suggests that North East England and Sunderland and South Shields in particular were major places of settlement with at least 150 possible candidates, i.e. almost one third, settled here.”

The links between Sunderland, South Tyneside and the Shetland Islands have been examined by historians Laughton Johnston and Keith Gregson.

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To put the figure into context, Shetland seafarers who settled in North America, New Zealand or Australia only amounted to another 150 – combined – while a minimum of 70 settled in both Leith or Liverpool.

Laughton said: “Leith was the turnaround port for the ‘north’ boats to Shetland so it is not surprising that many settled there, such as my own grandfather in the 1890s.

"But there was also an attraction in moving further south to busier ports with more employment opportunities. Another benefit was the fact that much of the seaborne traffic on the Tyne and Wear was in the home trade to other ports of the UK and the Continent, meaning that voyages were short and men would not be away from home and family for long periods.”

Laughton’s work was brought to the attention of Wearside historian Keith Gregson who had Shetland maritime ancestors who settled both in Sunderland and Shields.

Keith’s ancestral ruined croft at the Taing of Houss, Burra Isle, Shetland.

Keith said: “There has been a school for trainee officers in South Shields from the 1860s which was an added attraction although a significant number also ‘signed on’ at Sunderland. In my family out of five Shetland born brothers who became ship’s captains (all called Pottinger) three lived in Sunderland and two in South Shields.”

As part of his support for fellow family historians during the pandemic, Keith gave away online copies of a book he wrote about the links between Shetland and the North East and has been overwhelmed by the response.

“I have had requests from across the globe including Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The feedback has also been interesting and has helped me with my own family researches. For example I had lost the only sister of the five brothers somewhere in New Zealand.

"After reading my book, researchers in New Zealand set to work and discovered that she had later moved to Canada and that living descendants had researched the family’s progress in North America.”

The ‘Ocean Bride’ which Keith's ancestor George Pottinger captained out of the Tyne and Wear.

Both Keith and Laughton would love tales or memorabilia on Shetland seafarers who settled on the Tyne and Wear. Those who can help should email [email protected] or text 0791 0351272. He is also happy to share his book ‘From Shetland to Keel Square’ online with those who have an interest. Laughton is in the process of writing a publication on Shetland’s merchant service seamen of the 19th century and would also be pleased to hear from readers, email [email protected]

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Keith Gregson.

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Laughton holding a copy of his last book.
Keith Gregson.