WEARSIDE sailors who lost their lives in a shipwreck off the French coast are finally to be remembered - 112 years after the tragedy.
Sixteen men - including 15 from Sunderland - were drowned when steamship SS Ottercaps sank in stormy seas close to Brittany on the night of February 26/27, 1903.
Now descendants of the crew have clubbed together to buy a plaque in their honour, which is to be erected above the unmarked grave of the men in Plogoff Cemetery.
“My great-grandfather, Robert Taylor, was a stoker on the ship. He left a widow and six children, including my grandmother Mary Jane,” said Sunderland-born Meg Hartford.
“Last year I visited the cemetery at Plogoff and it made the story of the shipwreck very real to me. It is important to mark the deaths of these brave men in some way.”
SS Ottercaps - an iron steamship - was built at Robert Thompson’s Southwick Yard, with engines supplied by George Clark, for H.T. Morton esq of Biddick Hall in 1878.
Just a few years later, in July 1891, the vessel rescued ‘three boatloads’ of survivors from the steamer Neko, after it was wrecked in fog off Brittany en-route to Hamburg.
“Ottercaps had a chequered history. Between November 1879 and August 1891 she was involved in 11 incidents and collisions, and was beached three times,” said Meg.
“The worst was in 1890, when she ran aground near the South Pier. The 16 crew and two passengers were rescued by Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade and coastguards.
“One of the passengers, Mrs Annie Robinson - wife of the chief engineer Alfred Robinson - wrote to the Sunderland Echo on August 12, 1890, thanking the rescuers.”
Meg’s great-grandfather, Robert Taylor, was 20 when SS Ottercaps was launched, having been born in Warren Street in 1858 to mariner Robert and his wife Mary.
Robert senior later left the sea to become a railway labourer, while young Robert trained as a brass moulder before switching careers for a job in the merchant navy.
He went on to marry his sweetheart, Margaret Ann Barrett, at Holy Trinity in May 1883, and the couple had six children. The oldest, Mary Jane, was Meg’s grandmother.
“By the time Robert joined the Ottercaps it was owned by Lambton Collieries and was making regular journeys between Sunderland, France and Bilbao in Spain,” said Meg.
“Usually, she carried coal from the Wear over to Europe, and brought back iron ore on her return journey. Tragically, she was destined never to return in February 1903.”
The sea had been “absolutely impassable” for a week, according to French newspaper Le Petit Parisien, when SS Ottercaps attempted to enter the Raz de Sein channel.
Within minutes it was in difficulties and, as the paper revealed, “The captain was seriously imprudent to enter the fearsome channel where so many ships have sunk.”
Just a few hours later, on the morning of February 27, the bodies of 12 crew members were discovered by fisherman - who had been fishing with nets at Feunteun-Aod.
“They carried the bodies to the nearest village, which was Plogoff, and the sailors were buried side-by-side in the churchyard in an unmarked grave,” said Meg.
“All the village turned out for the funeral and the women decorated the graves with green branches - as no flowers were available at that time of year.
“Two further bodies were then recovered and buried in the same place, one on March 1 and the other on March 3. One of these men was Robert, my great-grandfather.”
The headless body of a 15th crew member was later washed ashore at Trez Goaren, across the bay from Plogoff. He was identified from his tattoos as Peter Thompson.
The body of the 16th, and final, crew member of SS Ottercaps - Alfred Robinson - was never recovered.
“The death of 16 crew members, 15 from Sunderland, left 15 widows - one pregnant - and 83 children in mourning. Some were grown, but many were very young,” said Meg.
“Three children were orphaned, and at least two ended up in the orphanage. My grandmother was 20 at the time, so she would have helped looked after her siblings.
“One of the sailors who died, Peter Thompson, had been a good friend of my great-grandfather - and had even been a witness at his wedding to Margaret Ann.”
Lambton Collieries is said to have contributed £500 to a relief fund for the families, and collections were made at several fund-raising events across the town as well.
The Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Benevolent Society also paid out £200 to the grieving families a month after the disaster - but only if they had been insured.
“The next-of-kin received a letter confirming the deaths, and the first I knew about the tragedy was when I came across the one about Robert a few years ago,” said Meg.
“Although I lived with my grandmother as a child, she never talked about the tragedy. She was very small, but feisty - and took no prisoners. I have fond memories of her.”
The discovery of the letter inspired Meg to start researching the shipwreck and, after tracing 25 crew descendants, she helped organise the purchase of a memorial plaque.
A date has yet to be fixed for it to be unveiled, but Meg is hoping it will be this year.
“Although the plaque has been bought, I’m still researching the story of SS Ottercaps and I’d be very interested in hearing from any other crew descendants,” she added. “Some of those I’ve found are still living in Sunderland, while others as far away as Australia, New Zealand and Canada - but I’m sure there are many more out there.”
•Meg can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ottercaps crew in February 1903
l Captain Alan Barclay Watt, 61, of Rosslyn Terrace. Left wife and seven children.
l First Mate Joseph Teer, 54, of Herrington Street. Left wife and three children.
l Second mate John Young, 54, of Deptford Road. Left wife and 12 children.
l Chief engineer Alfred Robinson, 51, of Thelma Street. Left wife and eight children.
l Second engineer Joseph Elliott, 50, of Earl Street. Left wife and three children.
l Cook John Wood, 34, of Whitby. Widower - left three children.
l Sailor Peter Thompson, 48, of West Wear Street. Left wife and nine children.
l Sailor Robert Deans, 49, of Sheepfolds Road. Left wife and four children.
l Sailor James Roffe, 52, of Robinson Terrace. Left wife and two children.
l Sailor Robert Rooks, 50, of Cairo Street. Left wife and nine children.
l Sailor George Spendley, 55, of Moor Lane, Cleadon. Left wife and three children.
l Sailor John Forster, 44, of Margaret Street. Left wife, no children.
l Stoker William Walker, 40, of Milburn Street. Left wife and five children.
l Stoker Robert Taylor, 44, of Woodbine Street. Left wife and six children.
l Stoker George Smith, 38, of Dock Street. Left wife and two children.
l Stoker George Clark, 39, of Milburn Street. Left wife and seven children.