Can you help solve the mystery death of a Sunderland sailor?

The Battle of Sinop during the Crimean War.
The Battle of Sinop during the Crimean War.
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MYSTERY surrounds the death of a Wearside sailor during the Crimean War - do you hold the key to solving the puzzle?

John Phillips, a ship’s captain from 12 Cousin Street, is recorded as drowning in the Black Sea while “in command of a transport”. No details, however, can be found.

Franz Roubaud's panoramic painting The Siege of Sevastopol - part of the Crimean War in which Wearsider John Phillips took part.

Franz Roubaud's panoramic painting The Siege of Sevastopol - part of the Crimean War in which Wearsider John Phillips took part.

“My interest in John, who was my great-great-uncle, was sparked by a grandson who asked me about our old ancestors,” said retired charted accountant Sandy Phillips.

“This got me intrigued in John’s story - how did he die, and what ship he was on? But despite some extensive research, we have yet to find out any more about him.”

John, 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.

His first job was as an apprentice aboard a ship called Monarch and, over the next seven years, he served as apprentice, seaman and mate on various Sunderland ships.

“John was 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,” said Sandy.

“But, for some reason, young John didn’t go into the family firm. Instead, he chose to make his own path in the merchant navy - going on to pass his Master’s Certificate.”

The Crimean War - a conflict in which Russia lost to an alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia - was at its height in 1855; the year John died.

Indeed, several major battles were fought that year - including the Siege of Sevastopol, the Sea of Azoff naval campaign and the Siege of Taganrog - resulting in great loss of life

But Sandy, who lives in Buckinghamshire, has yet to discover how his great-great-uncle John died - despite searching the internet and scouring the National Archives.

“I have an old family tree, dating back to the time of the first John Phillips who worked with Maling in the 1700s, which mentions the younger John,” said Sandy.

“Underneath John’s name it states he drowned while “in command of a transport” in the Black Sea in 1855, and I really have no reason to doubt this information is true.

“We know that he was a sea captain at the age of 24, which was pretty good for his age, but we have no idea which ship he was serving on when he died during the war.

“It is really disappointing to spend so much time on research, yet get nowhere. Maybe someone, somewhere, in Sunderland, is researching the same family and can help?”

John can be pinpointed exactly, for the last time, in July 1854 - when he passed his Master’s Certificate. After that, however, he disappears from archive sailing records.

“The last ship we know that he sailed on was the William Thomas in 1854, which was registered out of Sunderland. Perhaps he returned later as its captain?” said Sandy.

“As he had spent his working life in the merchant navy, it is likely John was in the Crimean War as the captain of a supply vessel - rather than with the Royal Navy.

“Obviously in those days it took time to get news back of deaths so far away, but I have no reason 
to suspect the 1855 date mentioned on the family tree is incorrect.”

Sandy, whose father Alexander worked as an inspector of ship’s provisions, only learned of John’s story following his dad’s death - when he was given the family tree.

“My father never really mentioned our ancestors,” said Sandy. “But family trees wasn’t as popular back in the 1970s as they are today - I would have loved to know more.

“I would be very, very interested in hearing from anyone who can shed further light on how John died, or what ship he was on. I’m determined to keep trying to find out.”

l Sandy can be contacted by email at or by phone on 01494 675829.

Facts about John Phillips

•John was born on February 8, 1831, and lived at 12 
Cousin Street. He later moved to 17 Sussex Street, Bishopwearmouth.

•He started his merchant naval career as a boy sailor in January 1847, just before his 16th 
birthday. He signed up for a four-year apprenticeship on March 2, 1847.

•John was apprenticed on the ship Monarch as his first job. He also served on the Dorothy and the Matura as an apprentice between 1847 and 1851.

•He graduated as a seaman in 1851 and served on both The Record and The Messenger as a seaman in this year.

•John recieved his Only Mate competency certificate in 
August 1851. He served on The Exchange, The Scott and The Harbinger as a mate between 1851 and 1852.

•The last ship John is recorded as sailing aboard was the Sunderland-based William Thomas, where he was a mate from November 1852 to May 1854.

•Possibly his last voyage was to the Meditteranean/Black Sea on the William Thomas, sailing from Sunderland in 1854.

•In July 1854 John passed his First Mate competency and a week later his Masters competency. It 
is uncertain which ship he sailed on after completing his Masters.