The sad fate of Sunderland’s last wooden brig

The brig Emma.
The brig Emma.
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ONE woman’s quest to trace her family tree has unearthed a shipping tragedy. Today we take a look.

GALE-FORCE winds and stormy seas lashed The Emma – the last Sunderland-built wooden brig operating from the Wear – as she made her way homewards on November 18, 1893.

Woodbine Street at Hendon - just before it was demolished.

Woodbine Street at Hendon - just before it was demolished.

Captain George Barrett had already been forced to seek shelter once due to bad weather, just off the Isle of Wight, but he was now determined to get his ship back safely to Wearside.

Tragically, just as the valiant vessel reached Spurn Head, it was caught in a storm which left more than 40 ships wrecked along the east coast. The Emma was lost with all hands.

“My great-great-grandfather was Captain Barrett, but I only found out about this awful tragedy when I started researching my family tree,” said ex-pat Wearsider Meg Hartford.

“He just seemed to disappear from archive documents and I became determined to find out what happened to him. Once I got going, I really got my teeth into the research!”

The burial record of Captain Barrett.

The burial record of Captain Barrett.

George, son of painter Robert Barrett and his wife Ann Grace, was born in Wilton, Wiltshire, in 1833 and is believed to have signed up for a career at sea while still a boy.

His ocean-going travels obviously, at some point, took him to Sunderland, where he married local lass Mary Jane White on March 3, 1856, at St Michael’s Church in Bishopwearmouth.

Three children soon followed - John Thomas, Charles and Margaret Ann - and, by the time of the census in 1861, the family had set up home in Flag Lane, near Coronation Street.

“George continued to go to sea and in 1861 he was recorded as working as the ship’s cook on a vessel named Ford, which was off Flamborough Head at the time,” said Meg.

The mourning cards printed after the death of Captain Barrett.

The mourning cards printed after the death of Captain Barrett.

“Three years later another child, William Phillips Barrett, had been born and by 1871 the family had moved to East Street. George was absent from the census, presumably at sea.

“Two further children, Ann (born 1872) and Mary (1876), are listed in the 1881 census, by which time the family were at 12 Wear Street. Strangely, William is recorded as step-son.”

As George continued his seafaring career, and his family back home in Sunderland continued to flourish, so Sunderland’s shipbuilding industry was starting to change.

Wooden sailing ships were giving way to steam but, in 1865, the go-ahead was given to build the Emma - a wood brig weighing 183 tons - at Briggs and Company in North Hylton.

“She was joined with iron bolts, 91 feet in length, 23 feet 7 inches broad, with a depth of 13 feet and could carry loads of over 300 tons,” said Meg, who now lives near Nottingham.

“The Emma was registered in Sunderland to owner Paddon and Co and, according to Lloyds, she traded with ports in Germany, France and Holland - usually exporting coal.

“But, with the introduction of steam power, brigs such as Emma were eventually reduced to working the coastal trade due to their lack of speed and dependency on the wind.”

Hampshire-born ship owner Charles Paddon, of Pallion, served as master of The Emma for several years, until handing over the captaincy to George Barrett in around 1876.

Prior to this, George is believed to have sailed as a mate and obtained his mate and master certificates - although the official documents have yet to be tracked down.

“George captained The Emma for several years and, by the 1891 census, his family was living at Woodbine Street, Hendon - where they remained for many years,” she said.

“My mother, the great-granddaughter of George Barrett, was born there in 1916. Sadly, due to the tragedy, she would never meet him. He was only 60 when he was killed that day.”

The Emma’s last voyage in 1893 was to Southampton, with a cargo of coal. On her return trip she was carrying “Southampton Drug” - used in the manufacture of concrete blocks.

The material was earmarked for use in the construction of the new pier at Sunderland, but would never arrive home. Sadly, neither did her crew of five - who were mostly local lads.

“There were high winds and stormy seas from the beginning of the voyage and the ship had to shelter in Stokes Bay, Isle of Wight, for some time after first leaving port,” said Meg.

“George then decided to press on homewards, until getting caught in the storm. The Emma was seen by fishermen about a mile off shore flying distress signals, all her sails in tatters.

“She was out of control, making directly for the shore. The fishermen got rescue equipment ready but it was never used. It was just too wild and rough to even attempt a rescue.”

Indeed, as The Emma drifted half-a-mile out, so the little ship 
was caught by several huge waves - leaving the crew clinging to the rigging with just their lifebelts to help them.

The vessel then struck a sand bank and, in a few seconds, disappeared from view. No further trace was seen that day, but the following morning three bodies were washed ashore.

News of the disaster didn’t reach Sunderland, however, until November 30, when Captain Paddon received a letter from Rev Barnes, curate of All Saints, Easington, East Yorkshire.

“Rev Barnes gave a description of the bodies, including their tattoos. From this Capt Paddon, thanks to his service aboard Emma, was left in no doubt - he knew the crew,” said Meg.

“Charles and William Barrett travelled to Yorkshire and identified clothes belonging to their father. They also visited St Helen’s Church at Kilnsea, where the three men had been buried.

“The burial records showed the interment of three unknown sailors washed ashore. Later notes were added to identify the men as George Barrett, Charles Jones and Alf Hollands.”

The wreck of The Emma was listed in the Board of Trade Wreck Reports for 1893, when it was stated she went aground at Stone Banks at the entrance to the Humber River.

“Her loss marked a turning point in Sunderland’s shipping history, as she was the last local wooden brig operating from the Wear in an age of steam driven iron ships,” added Meg.

“Sadly, George’s daughter Margaret Ann was widowed 10 years later when her husband, Robert Taylor ,was lost in the wreck of the Ottercaps off Brittany in February 1903.”

•To you have a family story to share? Email Sarah Stoner at

Fact file

•The lost crew were: Captain George Barrett, of Woodbine Street; Mate James Moor, of Vine Street; Alf Holland of West Country Arms, Seaman William Best of East Cross Street, John Marshall of Shields and Charles Jones of Sunderland.

•Ship builder William Briggs was born in 1803 in Richmond. By 1856 William Briggs and Co were building ships at North Hylton. In 1862 William bought Hylton Castle, but never lived there. He died in July 1871 and is buried at Grangetown.

•Master mariner Charles Paddon was born in 1817 in Hampshire. He and his wife Elizabeth were living in Sunderland by 1843, when their first child was born. Three of his sons became shipwrights and one a joiner. He died aged 80 in 1898 at his Pallion home.