Before John was eight years old, his father took work at Monkwearmouth Colliery, which stood at the heart of the growing city of Sunderland. It would have been a homecoming of sorts for Nicholas. But at an age when most children today are beginning to make their first firm friends in school, John entered the mine as a door-keeper on the barrow way. His two older brothers had already preceded him into the colliery.

John Otterson and Isabella Kane
Also second wife Rebecca Sarah Quick 
Jarrow, Sunderland and Tanfield, County Durham, 
and Portsmouth, Hampshire, England

John was born in Jarrow, the eighth of twelve children, in the spring of 1827. Two of his elder brothers died before John was born, and two younger brothers died in infancy when he was growing up.

The family had lived in Jarrow for only about five years when John was born. John’s father, Nicholas, was from Sunderland, where the family resided for the first eight or ten years after his marriage to Jane Middlemas. It was common for coal miners to move from coal town to coal town, as new seams opened up or as certain mines appeared more promising or the work and living conditions seemed more favorable. Nicholas worked at different periods both as a miner and a sailor - possibly on the coastal vessels of the merchant navy.

Jarrow lies about 12 miles north of Sunderland, on the south bank of the River Tyne, which then marked the county border. The Otterson home was in Dunkirk Place, a street that roughly paralleled the edge of the river, and from where father Nicholas could easily have walked to work at the Jarrow Colliery and where he would also have had easy access to the docks. This was where John was born. He was christened at St. Paul’s, an ancient church and monastic site, part of which dates back to 681 A.D. and which is even today Jarrow’s most noteworthy feature.

John Otterson started work in the mines at age 8.

“I got up at four o’clock, took breakfast, walked to the pit by half-past four; began work at five.”

Left: typical group of unidentified miners in County Durham, late 1800s, together with a pit pony. Some are little more than boys. (Reproduced courtesy of Durham County Records Office).

The barrow ways had been used in Durham mines for centuries. Originally, woven baskets full of coal were dragged from the coal face through tunnels. Later, small wheeled push-carts replaced the baskets and rail lines were laid to speed removal. The boys in some of these mines would enter a mile deep to do their work, at times operating in complete darkness.

It is difficult today to understand how the shocking conditions in which these children labored could be tolerated. In fact, it was a matter of survival for many families. A man might work at the coal face, in cramped positions for hours, or even lie flat on his back or side while he chipped away at the coal face. He was paid by how much coal he could load into a tub, and many men were assisted at the face by wives and children who would load the tubs and help move them to the surface.

The Otterson Families of Northeast England and related lines                                  To share information or comment on this site, contact the webmaster: Michael Otterson

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The life of John Otterson began in a coal mining family in County Durham in the first half of the 19th century, and ended with a fall down stairs as a Royal Navy pensioner in Portsmouth 77 years later. Among all of the Ottersons who lived in Durham in the 1800s, John’s is one of the better documented and more remarkable stories.

Above: Dunkirk Place, Jarrow, was just south of the river, in the heart of rapid industrialization, about 15 minutes’ walking distance from Jarrow Colliery, just beyond the Mineral Water Works. On this 1898 map, Dunkirk Place is known as Tyne Street. Today, the area is under industrial redevelopment and little trace of Tyne Street remains.

Right: St Paul’s Church, where John was christened, on the ancient monastic site dating back to 681 AD.

John Otterson’s Royal Commission testimony
Unfamiliar terms

Transported: Possibly the reference here is to the practice of transporting British criminals to Australia or other colonies in dark prison ships.

Overman:  Third in rank of officers of the mine, responsible for everything below ground. 

Bray: The meaning here is to “beat,” possibly from Middle English, to crush or pound.

Yard wand: Probably a yard-long stick, carried by the overman and evidently often use for discipline of young miners.

Putters: Those who push the  wagons of coal along the tram lines.

10d: Ten pence.

Trapper: A boy stationed at a door to open or close it for coal waggons or miners. This was to help keep the mine properly ventilated.

Galloway: A Scottish breed of small, strong horses. In the mines, pit ponies were considered by mine owners as an important investment.

Bait:  Lunch.

1s: One shilling, or 12 pence.

Smart-money:  Money paid to miners injured in colliery accidents while they were unable to work.

Lord’s Prayer, Catechism, Ten Commandments: Evidence of a child’s proper upbringing, at least among the middle and upper classes, was found in their ability to repeat by memory the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments from the Bible, and the Catechism of the Church of England - a brief summary of the key principles of the faith. Evidently, John Otterson found time to do none of these. It is improbable that many children of his age or circumstances did.

Sometimes men would work in those conditions stripped of all clothing, and wives too would work stripped to the waist. Interestingly, the government’s investigation into conditions in mines for children was partly the result of public outrage at the morality of this environment, and not necessarily due to any intrinsic abhorrence of child labor.

In 1842 the British Government published a report on the findings of a royal commission - the Children’s Employment Commission. Among many children from different parts of Britain who were interviewed was 12-year-old John Otterson. His testimony is a remarkable insight into how the Otterson family and their neighboring mining families were living in 1840s England. Witness number 116 in the published report, the complete text of his testimony follows. Some of the language and terms of the time are unfamiliar to modern eyes, but the sentiment is unmistakable.

No. 116.- John Otterson

“I am 13 the 15th April, 1841. - I became a door-keeper on the barrow-way four years ago. I got up at four o’clock, took breakfast, walked to the pit by half-past four; began work at five. I had no candles allowed at all, except my father gave me any; he gave me four, which burnt about five hours, and I sat in darkness the rest of the time. I liked it very badly, it was like as if I was transported. I used to sleep; I could not keep my eyes open. The overman used to bray us with the yard wand; he used to leave the marks; I used to be afraid. The putters sometimes thumped me for being asleep. They never gave me any money. We loose at five and come home. I did not go to play; the more we play, the more we sleep in the pit.”

I got up at ten on days when we did not work. On Sunday I went to the Sunday school at one o’clock, and spent three hours in school, and then came home. I did not then go to chapel. I went to bed at seven to get a good load of sleep, for fear of falling asleep and getting lamed next day at work. I got 10d a-day as a trapper.

After half a-year I went to drive a galloway. I liked it badly; it was as a help up. The galloway was yoked to a tram to draw it up the bank, where the road rose up. I had to walk on foot at the horse’s head; it was fatiguing; there was 12 hours’ work. I had time to take my bait; not always; it was a time of chance. I was half a-year at this work, and got 1s a-day.

How much school John managed to squeeze into these difficult years as he went though his teens is impossible to say, but it must have been very little. The Royal Commission report refers to boys being told to go to school but slipping away. There seemed to be more questions from the Commissioners about Sunday School than regular school. By the time John Otterson married at the age of 23, in 1850, he could still only sign his name with an “x.”

John’s bride was 20-year-old Isabella Kane, who was literally the girl next door in Stafford Street, Southwick - then a distinct village but now a Sunderland suburb. Isabella’s father was a soldier who had died a month before the wedding, but two of Isabella’s brothers were also miners. The Ottersons’ first child, a daughter, arrived the following year and they named her Sarah Jane. By the time their second daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1855 the small family had moved to Tanfield, a village seven miles south-west of Gateshead. New mines were opening in the area as the other coal seams along the banks of the Tyne River were gradually worked out. During this period three Tanfield mines employed some 1,200 men and boys, a substantial proportion of the village population of around 3,500 in 1850.

By his late twenties, however, John Otterson had had enough of coal mines. If the feelings revealed by his teenage testimony accompanied him into adulthood, he was glad of the opportunity to change his career. It was a dramatic change. The Royal Navy, which then enjoyed unchallenged supremacy at sea, was on the point of transitioning from sail to steam.  John Otterson would soon become a part of that transition as a navy stoker, a move that would take him around the world.

I then went to drive the waggons and got 15d a-day. I had time for my victuals, sometimes. There is often a plate in the way, which throws the waggon off the rail, and we get lamed. I have been lamed three or four times; I was laid up three months one time for lameness. I got smart money. I am now a driver; I like it very badly. I would work on foot if I had daylight to walk in, rather than ride in the dark. I do not like the darkness; it is dangerous; many are hurt.

I cannot read very well. I cannot write my name. I try to read the spelling-book. I cannot say the Lord’s Prayer, nor the Catechism, nor the Ten Commandments.

I was at work to-day till half past four. There are sometimes few and sometimes many in the tub when we come up. The tub this night was full; I got my head knocked against the side of the tub, it was so full. I went straight home. It wanted then 20 minutes to 7.

The hours of drawing coals are an hour longer now than they were two years ago.”