The opening of Keel Square - a £3million tribute to Sunderland’s maritime heritage - holds special meaning for one Wearsider.
Keith Cockerill’s family made their living from the sea for more than 200 years; first as mariners and later as shipowners.
“The new Keel Line holds a particular significance for me, as seven or eight of the vessels owned by my family have made it onto the list,” said the historian.
“Two of those ships even contain the family surname, namely Cockerills and Jane Cockerill, which made the opening all the more significant for me.”
Keith’s connections to the sea date to the 18th century, when many of the vessels involved in moving coal from Sunderland were registered to Yorkshire ports.
“Records at Scarborough library show a number of vessels were owned or mastered by members of the Cockerill family,” said Keith, author of Sunderland Through Time.
The new Keel Line holds a particular significance for me, as seven or eight of the vessels owned by my family have made it onto the list.Historian Keith Cockerill.
“In fact it was the coastal coal trade that helped integrate communities along the North East coast - like my four-times great-grandfather, who moved to Sunderland from Yorkshire.”
Scarborough man John Cockerill is thought to have hailed from a long line of seafarers - with ships such as Content and Unity registered to the Cockerill family as far back as 1747.
In 1796, however, he left Yorkshire to marry his sweetheart Jane in Sunderland and settled in the town. More generations of seafarers would soon follow.
“Two of their sons, Anthony and John, went on to become Sunderland shipowners, with vessels such as Cockerills and Jane Cockerill built new for them,” said Keith.
“Anthony was a cordwainer by trade, but wisely invested in the ownership of ships. Being a local sailor usually meant working the coastal trade, but foreign trading also took place.”
The next generation of Cockerills became masters of many of the family ships, including Keith’s great-great-grandfather Anthony and his brother William - sons of Anthony senior.
“In early 1852 Anthony Junior was waiting to board the ferry to Monkwearmouth when a young lady called Ann Wilson slipped on the icy ferry steps,” said Keith.
“Anthony helped her to her feet, and was so taken by her that he contrived to be there every day to help her down those steps! A few weeks later he proposed and they secretly married.
“But he didn’t tell her that he was a ship’s captain until after they were married - perhaps he thought knowledge of his dangerous profession would dissuade her from tying the knot?”
Indeed, seafaring was a notorious “widow-maker” and, in 1859, young Anthony had a lucky escape after the barque he was captaining - Cockerills - sunk off the coast of Malta.
“It was carrying a cargo of barley from the port of Sulina in Romania to the UK. The crew, including my great-great-grandfather, were all safely rescued by an Italian vessel,” said Keith.
The sea would, however, eventually claim Anthony Jnr’s life in 1867 - whilst he was captaining his father’s vessel Star in the East from Hamburg to Sunderland.
Anthony was just 38 when he died aboard the ship on October 13. An inquest held at the Salutation Inn, Hendon, later that week ruled the father-of-three died from natural causes.
“Just recently I discovered his unmarked grave in Sunderland Cemetery at Grangetown. The cemetery superintendent kindly marked the grave location for my visit,” said Keith.
“Anthony’s son, also called Anthony, was only seven when his father died. He was placed in the Boys’ Orphan Asylum to be taught the skills of seamanship.
“But he did not go to sea. Instead, he kept his feet on dry land to become a cabinet maker. His brothers William and Thomas also appear to have steered clear of the sea.”
The Cockerill link with the sea is now forever remembered, thanks to the new Keel Line, and Keith added: “It is nice to think it has a particular significance to the family.