An 1850s mystery is finally solved thanks to an Echo reader

Annie (nee Phillips), her eldest daughter Ida, born in Sunderland, and Frank Wilson.
Annie (nee Phillips), her eldest daughter Ida, born in Sunderland, and Frank Wilson.
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A mystery which puzzled a retired chartered accountant has been solved – three years after the Sunderland Echo first highlighted it.

In 2015, we stepped in to the tale of John Phillips, a ship’s captain from Cousin Street in Sunderland.

A close-up on Frank Wilson who was twice Premier of Western Australia.

A close-up on Frank Wilson who was twice Premier of Western Australia.

Captain Phillips was recorded as drowning in the Black Sea while “in command of a transport”. But how did he really die and which ship was he on?

He was the great great uncle of Sandy Phillips, who contacted the Echo three years ago.

Sandy is also the man who began researching the story himself when a grandson began asking about the family’s ancestors.

Sandy promised to send the youngster a copy of the family tree – but then noticed that it had not been updated for 100 years.

It was while Frank Wilson was Premier that he came back to Sunderland for the last time as part of his attendance at the Royal Coronation of George V in June 1911

Sandy Phillips

There were questions which needed answers and that’s why Sandy sought our help.

Soon, he was on a trail of discovery and we were honoured and delighted to play our small part.

Not long after the story was published, an Echo reader provided a reference to a list of 60 ships which had been lost in a violent storm in December, 1855.

One of the newspaper references referred to ‘Constantinople, Caledonia, Sunderland, Phillips’.

Our original report on Sandy's quest for information.

Our original report on Sandy's quest for information.

As Sandy explains in “The Phillips Family History 1762 to 2015” that one article seemed to show Great Uncle John was in command of a ship called the Caledonia.

More research followed and, as well as finally bringing Captain Phillips’ story to a conclusion, it also led Sandy to his Wearside ancestry.

As he tells us: “The whole Phillips family was based in Sunderland from 1762.”

There were many twists, turns and upheavals which led to a branch-out to Liverpool and Cardiff where Sandy was born, before the Phillips clan found themselves back in the North East at Whitley Bay.

So today, we look at a family with a rich history with the help of its latest author.

Imagine what a thrill and surprise it must have been for Sandy to find out more on John Phillips.

John was the son of earthenware manufacturer Alexander Phillips and his wife Mary, was born in Sunderland in February 1831 and chose a career at sea as a boy of 15.

John was also the great-grandson of John Phillips, who worked with John Maling at a pottery in North Hylton in the 1760s and later opened his own factory.

We knew all this in 2015 but new information came to light with help from Echo reader Margery Bolam.

“Margery found out about the 60 ships which perished in the violent storm in the Black Sea of 18 December 1855,” said Sandy.

“She further thought that The Caledonia was Great Uncle John’s ship. Further examination of newspapers at the time is a report of the loss of the Caledonia.

“We also saw shipping newspaper records showing the Caledonia, Captain Phillips arriving on 11 December 1855 in Constantinople (now Istanbul).

“ My wife and I were then able to go to The National Archives and search through voyage records. Margery later came up trumps from examining at Sunderland Library an extract from The Sunderland Herald as shown above. All this is incontrovertible evidence of the ship and events.”

But so much more has also come to light since then. There’s the Australian connection, particularly Frank Wilson who married Annie Phillips, daughter of Robert Hall Phillips.

Frank was the “son of a prominent Sunderland family and had been privately educated in Germany and Sheffield.”

But his fame was to lie thousands of miles from Wearside. He and Annie set sail for Queensland when they became disillusioned with the UK.

By October 1891, Frank was managing director of the Canning Jarrah Timber Company. He later held other directorships and was president of the Perth Chamber of Commerce.

From 1895, he was involved in local politics and progressed to represent Canning in the Western Australia Legislative Assembly where he sat in opposition to Premier John Forrest.

After holding various ministerial roles, he became the 9th Premier of Western Australia between September 1910 and October 1911.

The story doesn’t end there, either. There are more Phillips tales to tell in the coming weeks.