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


As the 1850s drew to a close, John Otterson made a major change in his life, leaving the coal mine and joining the Royal Navy.  It was a change that would take him all over the world.

For an ex-coal miner, there was an obvious job on board ship. The British Navy was transitioning from ships that were entirely dependent on wind, to those with screw propellers driven by steam. The new propulsion system required shovelling coal into rows of furnaces in the bowels of the ship, and the men that did the hot and dirty work of stoking the furnaces were called stokers. At first, ships built by the British Admiralty had both wind and propeller, and the screw could be lifted clear out of the water when relying on wind alone.

John Otterson received his navy uniform when he joined the 74-gun Minotaur as stoker 2nd class on 5 Aug 1859. His navy records say that his complexion was ruddy, eyes blue, hair brown, he had been vaccinated, was married, and was formerly a miner, and belonged to the Church of England.

It is significant that he joined the Minotaur as a stoker. The ship, one of a half dozen in British history to carry the name Minotaur, had been built as a wooden vessel propelled by sail, launched in 1816 at Chatham Dockyard. She should not be confused with her predecessor which fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, nor with the iron-clad battleship of the same name which followed her. HMS Minotaur had, in fact, been placed on harbour service in 1842. But in the late 1850s there was serious discussion of possible invasion by France, and the British Admiralty had ordered the conversion of more than 60 wooden warships.

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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Above: HMS Cumberland

John Otterson served on Cumberland at Sheerness from 1861-1862. In 1870 Cumberland was converted to serve as a training ship. Later on, she became a hulk and was used as a reformatory training ship in the Clyde for boys in trouble who were trained to be merchant seamen. Cumberland was destroyed by fire in 1889. She was the model for this depiction in a wool-work on the National Maritime Museum's website Copyright National Maritime Museum.

Below: HMS Asia (center of picture) engaged with Ottoman ships at the Battle of Navarino in 1827, and at port in Malta. John Otterson joined her long afterwards, when she was a guard ship at Sheerness, Scotland, in 1878.

Research notes acknowledgment

Movements of the ships mentioned on this page were taken from the log books in Class ADM at the National Archives, London, by Margaret Otterson Seabourne, 2009. John Otterson’s transfers are taken from muster books for these ships.


ADM 38/8831, 8832, 8833


ADM 53/10314, 9272, 9273, 9274, 7805, 7806


ADM  53/11221, 11222, 11971 


When the next English census was taken on the night of  Sunday, April 7, 1861, John Otterson was still aboard the Cumberland, serving as a stoker. Both the census and ship records give his age as 29, but he was actually closer to 33. It’s likely he understated his age when joining the navy. Interestingly, John’s wife Isabella and the two children are on board the same ship, listed as passengers.  While it was not uncommon in the British navy to have wives aboard, the presence of the children is interesting but unexplained.

In July of the following year, John Otterson transferred to HMS Rattler at Sheerness. Rattler was an entirely different ship that the Cumberland. She was a new wood screw sloop, launched in 1862, but not to be confused with her predecessor of the same name which has a permanent part in British naval history as the first ship to demonstrate the effectiveness of the propeller propulsion system. That ship was decommissioned and broken up in 1856.

From Sheerness, Rattler sailed for the far east, as her predecessor had done. More noteworthy than stoker John Otterson, she had on board an interpreter to the legation. The Far East had become an extremely important sphere of influence for the British Government, and the Royal Navy was its primary instrument.

John was still with HMS Rattler when he became leading stoker on 27 Aug 1865. He went to the Far East on Rattler with captain Howard Webb, sailing back and forth between the ports of Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang, Malacca, Swatow, Yokohama, Shanghai, Kobe Bay, Castries Bay, Novgorod, Soya, and La Parouse Strait which separates the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido from Russian territory to the north.

John could not have known at the time, but his promotion to leading stoker on August 27 was just days before his wife, Isabella, died in England of gastroenteritis, possibly from food poisoning. She was buried at Mere Knolls Cemetery in Sunderland, on September 3. A neighbour and presumably friend, Ellen Dobson, was with Isabella when she died, and interestingly reported to the registrar that John was a coal miner. Perhaps she simply knew that John was still shovelling coal even in the navy.

It would have taken some time for word to reach John in the Far East, but four and a half months later, on 16 January 1866, he was discharged from Rattler to HMS Princess Charlotte to await passage back to England on Orontes.  Again, his conduct was recorded as “very good.”  John’s return and the feelings for his two daughters must have weighed heavily on him. (Ironically, Rattler was subsequently wrecked on a reef off the Japanese coast of Hokkaido in 1868, although the crew survived).

John spent the next period around English shores, notably on the Indus which operated out of harbours in Plymouth as a guard ship. Indus was moored at Keyham, a suburb of Plymouth which was built to provide dense, cheap housing for thousands of civilian workmen just outside the wall of the dockyard at Devonport. The Indus log shows parties of stokers being sent off to coal various ships coming in or out of harbour and working parties going ashore to the dockyard.  Most evenings there is the entry “Rowed Guard”, then “boats up.”  Every ship entering or leaving harbour was noted in the log.

On 15 May 1869, John transferred from the Indus to HMS Inconstant, an iron-screw frigate he was to stay with for nearly ten years. Although she was steam-assisted, she was fully masted and capable of over 16 knots. John joined her as a leading stoker.

Her base was Spithead, Portsmouth, and it was here that John met a widow, Rebecca Wilson, whom he married in the summer of 1870. The 1871 English census lists him as “borne on the books” of the Inconstant but “not on board”.  In fact, he was staying with his new family at the their home in Yorke Street, Portsmouth, which was walking distance from the docks. Apart from his wife, Rebecca, whose age is given as 41 (John lists his own age correctly as 45), there were three step-sons and a step-daughter, as well as Rebecca’s 81-year-old mother. At this time his natural daughter, 17-year-old Elizabeth, had also joined the family. Her elder sister, Sarah, 18, was working as a domestic servant for a ship’s broker in Sunderland. By the end of the following year, both of John’s natural daughters were married.

In his first three years with Inconstant, John patrolled the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Baltic. He was off Lisbon during 1869-70. In 1871, Inconstant was part of the Detached Squadron of six ships which went to Madeira, Gibraltar, Karlskrona, Christiania and Bergen before returning to Spithead via Scotland in October of that year.  In 1872 John sailed to Bombay in India, and then Simon’s Bay in South Africa, and again back to Spithead. There were about 600 men on board. Sometimes they carried a Vice Admiral, or "supernumerary marines" being transferred to different stations or ships. 

After nearly ten years on Inconstant, John transferred to HMS Asia on 14 Oct 1878.  Asia was a large ship, an 84-gun ship of the line that had been built in Bombay in 1824 for the Royal Navy. The Bombay Dockyard had a high reputation for building ships of quality. Her most famous engagement had been as the flagship at the Battle of Navarino in 1827, in which a combined British, French and Russian naval force defeated the Egyptian and Ottoman fleet. In 1858, however, Asia was converted to a guard ship, which was her role when John Otterson joined her in 1878. The ship spent much time in harbour as Steam Reserve flag ship under Captain Philip Colomb and later Captain Codrington. Parties of stokers were regularly sent to other ships and working parties went to the dockyard. Like any good captain who knows he must keep his men busy, especially in port, the captain kept the crew busy cleaning the ship, the hammocks, canvas gear, and their clothes - or, as the log says, “cleaning the ship throughout.” The log records the amounts of fresh beef, water and other stores received on board. Ships entering and leaving harbour were noted, and whether a salute was given and how many guns. It also mentions the Dreadnought battleship going out on trials. The men “practised at fire stations for fire in an out ship” very frequently.  The captain performed divine service frequently and sent Roman Catholics ashore to Chapel on many Sundays.  There was also a lot of diving practice.  On one occasion, the log notes: “Dressed the ship rainbow fashion.” 

John Otterson retired from the Royal Navy and drew a navy pension from his early 50s. He and Rebecca enjoyed a long retirement. From Yorke Street they moved to St John Street, Portsea, then 45 Arthur Street, their last home. On the night of 17 June 1904, John took a fall on the stairs, struck his head and died the next day. He was 76, though his death certificate said 81. Rebecca, survived him for four more years and died naturally of old age in 1908.

According to research by Margaret Otterson Seabourne with Royal Navy muster books and ships’ logs at the National Archives in London, John stayed on the Minotaur less than two months, until 30 September, 1859, when he transferred to HMS Cumberland, a 70-gun man o’ war. Cumberland was serving as a guard ship at Sheerness on the Thames Estuary, protecting the fleet in harbour. Sheerness itself was one of the bases of the Royal Navy responsible for safeguarding British waters in the North Sea.  Three different captains on Cumberland -  Hatten, Schomberg and Thompson - each rated his behaviour as “very good,” unlike some stokers who seemed to be forever in the cells for misbehaving.

The deck of a British warship of the second half of the 19th century, showing full masted capabilities in addition to the funnels to carry smoke from the coal-fired furnaces.  The ship is HMS Warrior, preserved at Portsmouth dockyard.

Above: HMS Inconstant.

Below: Rows of coal-fired furnaces drove the screw propeller on later 19th century ships. Picture taken on HMS Warrior, Portsmouth.

Above: John Otterson’s name listed for transfer as a leading stoker to HMS Asia, October 1878.

Right:  Map of Portsmouth in the 1800s. Middle Street was where Rebecca Quick lived with her first husband and children before he died. The family lived with second husband John Otterson in Yorke Street. Both streets still stand today, despite heavy bombing of central Portsmouth in Word War II.

Above: Yorke Street, 2009.

Old Portsmouth