John Otterson and Jane Storey
 Sunderland and Southwick;  Durham collieries, Durham, England

Below: Miners sinking a shaft at Monkwearmouth Colliery, about 1860.  [Reproduced by permission of the Durham County Record Office, D/CL 27/277/50].

John Otterson grew up as an only child - a rarity in a time when families routinely had eight or ten children and whose parents became used to losing some of them to sickness while still in their infancy. Born in 1845 and son of a coal miner, John was just old enough to remember his mother, Hannah, when she died in the early 1850s.

When his father, Nicholas, remarried in 1857 to a widow, Sarah Scott, two more children joined the family - Thomas Scott, age 7 and John’s junior by about four years, and 5-year-old Jane. The family moved to Brook Street, Monkwearmouth, and by the time John was 14 both he and Thomas were working in the mines, probably at Monkwearmouth Colliery.

John was 21 when he married Jane Storey from Southwick, just a couple of months past her 18th birthday. Jane, too, was from a mining family. Her father, like John’s, had been born in Jarrow on the banks of the River Tyne and had worked the mine there. The couple set up home in Ryhope, a seaside suburb of Sunderland with a centuries old tradition of farming. But, situated on the rich Durham coal field, Ryhope had already abandoned its farming roots for the more lucrative investment in coal. A new mine opened in Ryhope a few years before John and Jane were married. The face of the village and its surroundings would change dramatically over the next few years.

Ryhope Colliery, where John Otterson worked, and eventually died in an accident in 1898. [Reproduced by permission of the Durham County Record Office, D/CL 27/277/77].

County Durham, Northern England

The above map shows the towns and collieries with which the Ottersons and related families were most closely associated  in the 1800s.

* There are two Thornleys in County Durham. Both were mining villages, the most substantial being the one east of Durham City. However, it appears that John Otterson worked in the pit at Thornley to the west of Brandon Colliery.












Bishop Auckland







John, the only child, fathered nine children and all of them reached adulthood.  His work at Ryhope continued for several years and his first two children were born in the village. But he also worked at the other collieries in the villages of Thornley and Brandon before moving back to Sunderland and a house at 13 Robinson Terrace in the suburb of Hendon some time in 1871.

John suffered with deafness - a defect that would prove fatal on the last day of March, 1898, while working at Ryhope Colliery. A set of ten wagons had been hauled by a locomotive engine to the top of an incline alongside the walls of some coke ovens. From the high point, the gradient then dropped over a distance of 130 yards sufficiently for the wagons to run without the locomotive before leveling out. It was common for a man riding on the back of the last wagon to apply a brake without the need of the locomotive, and on this day the ten wagons were already rolling down the gradient when the brakeman saw a man on the line, oblivious to the approaching train. As he yelled and applied the brake hard, two other miners saw what was happening and ran toward the miner in the path of the speeding wagons. It was too late. John Otterson was caught by the wagons which ran over his legs.

Rushed to the Infirmary (hospital) with his legs badly mangled, the father of nine died a little after 3 p.m. that afternoon.

At an inquest two days later, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death, but recommended that the wagons always be attached to a locomotive instead of being allowed to run into the siding under the direction of a brake man. [Source: Mines Inspectors Report for 1898, Durham District, from a copy held in the Scottish Mining Museum, Newtongrange, Midlothian, Scotland].


Children of
John Otterson and Jane Storey

Margaret Otterson - b. 1866 Ryhope, Durham
John Otterson - b. 1869 Ryhope, Durham 
Elizabeth Otterson - b. 1871 Thornley, Durham
Isabella Otterson - b. 1874 Thornley, Durham
Nicholas Otterson - b. 1876 Brandon, Durham
Cecilia Otterson - b. 1879 Brandon, Durham
Robert Otterson - b. 1881 Sunderland, Durham
James Otterson - b. 1884 Sunderland, Durham
Mary Otterson - b. 1886 Sunderland, Durham
Parents of
John Otterson
Father: Nicholas Otterson
Mother: Hannah Eliza Calvert
Jane Storey
Father: Robert Storey
Mother: Margaret McFarlandotterson__nicholas_and_hannah_1825.htmlotterson__nicholas_and_hannah_1825.htmlshapeimage_22_link_0shapeimage_22_link_1
John Otterson: 
Born 1845 Monkwearmouth, Durham, England
Jane Storey: 
Born 1848 Southwick, Durham, England

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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Jane now had to finish raising her remaining family on her own at their Robinson Terrace home.  By the 1901 census the five older children were already married.  Daughter Cecilia was 23 but recently widowed, and lived in the home with her two little children. Son Robert, 19, James, 16, and Mary, 14, completed the family. Daughter Elizabeth lived next door with her family.

Over the next few years the remaining children married. In 1910, Jane moved in as housekeeper with son Nicholas at 6 Norman Street after Nicholas’s wife died at the age of 35. Jane, however, was now 66 and was probably unable to make much of a contribution. Soon after, she moved again, to son Robert’s house in Charles Street. 

She was a gentle woman, very religious and would not have been much of a burden. But after she suffered a stroke, her personality changed and she became more difficult. By the time Robert and wife Lizzie were expecting their sixth child (they had lost two in infancy), Jane had developed dementia and it became impossible to look after her. The decision was made to put Jane into full-time care.

It must have been an agonizing decision. We know that her son, Robert, could not bear to be at home when the local care authorities came to collect her. As it happened, he arrived home just at the time she was leaving. Crying, she called out her son’s name again and again. One can only imagine the heart-rending feelings of all of the family at that time.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the terms used for senile dementia seem harsh to us today. Even some official census forms had columns for “Deaf, Mute, Imbecile or Lunatic.”  In fact, Jane was transferred to the section of the Sunderland workhouse reserved for the mentally ill.

Even as early as 1885, the reports of the Poor Law District Conferences praised the Sunderland workhouse for its care of mentally ill patients, but it is still difficult to imagine what it was like for Jane to spend her last six years there, surrounded by other mentally ill patients. Her death certificate listed the place of death as the “Workhouse Insane Ward.” It was a sad end to her life.

Care of the mentally ill

Below:  Extract from a report on the treatment of mentally ill patients, 1885. The free use of words like “imbecile, idiot and lunatic” was common for that time. Each term had a specific meaning and significant social stigma was attached to mental illness. It would take more than a century for widespread public understanding of mental illness to overcome those prejudices.

The Fourteenth Annual Conference on Local Government Administration for the Four Northern Counties (Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland and Durham), held at the Shaws’ Hotel, Gilsland, July 28-29, 1885. Extracted from “Reports of the Poor Law District Conferences held during the year 1885,” Pub. Knight and Co., 90 Fleet Street, 1886; pages 74-100. 

The following extract from pages 98-100 of the report contains a discussion on one of four subjects addressed at the conference – “Care of Lunatics, having regard to the measure laid before Parliament, and including the power of sending Lunatics to an Asylum.” The discussion followed the presentation of a paper on the subject by Mr. John W. Gibson, Clerk to the Guardians, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.


Capt. JOHNSON said that cases had been before the public of persons having been sent to private lunatic asylums under very doubtful conditions; but he did not think that that had occurred in regard to pauper lunatics. There was no doubt that there were many imbeciles who might be very well treated at less expense in the workhouse instead of being sent to an asylum, and there had lately been an order from the Local Government Board directing the attention of the managing committees of asylums to this point; he believed, under the recommendation, that a considerable number of imbeciles had been returned to workhouses. This was a very wise and proper step. He expressed his disapproval of the proposal to provide asylums, out of the public rates, for private patients. 

Mr. MATTHEW BELL said that in some workhouses there were wards for imbeciles, and, if the law and the Lunacy Commissioners allowed imbeciles and chronic lunatics to be in these imbecile wards instead of being sent to lunatic asylums, those unions which provided such accommodation should receive the Government grant the same as if the patients had been sent to asylums. If the Guardians did not receive this grant, what encouragement had they to provide imbecile wards? At Sunderland there was an imbecile ward in which there were upwards of 100 persons; but in many unions no such provision was made. Those unions which made the necessary provision for imbeciles ought to receive the Government grant, and he trusted the Conference would support this suggestion. 

Below: Site of the Sunderland workhouse in 1914, when Jane Storey Otterson was a patient and inmate. With added buildings and development, the workhouse eventually became Sunderland General Hospital.

Mr. J. D. CARTS said that before branding a man and his progeny with the taint of insanity by sending him to an asylum, the greatest precautions should be taken, and an order ought to be signed by two medical men and by three or four justices of the peace, instead of by one medical man and one magistrate. The Sunderland Guardians must be commended for the provision they had made for the reception of harmless lunatics, but in most workhouses no such provision existed. The number of patients from the South Shields and Gateshead Unions in the Sedgefield Asylum were sufficient to warrant those unions having a special wing at their workhouses, where the patients would be under the care of the Guardians at a great deal less cost than in the asylums; and if this were done, he could not see why the Guardians should not receive the Government grant for these cases. The county asylum at Sedgefield was full to overflowing, and many insane persons were sent back to the unions; and, as the unions did not receive the Government grant, the onus of providing accommodation should not rest upon them, but upon the visiting justices of the asylums. 

Mr. JOHN WYLD thought some provision should be made for the temporary care of persons who were taken before magistrates as suspected lunatics. No doubt many idiots and imbeciles were kept in workhouses, but he did not think epileptics were fit subjects for detention in workhouses, as they were subject to sudden wild outbursts and might do harm. He commented upon the cost of the imbecile ward at Sunderland, and contended that in regard to the question of cost there was not much saving by keeping imbeciles in workhouses instead of  sending them to asylums. 

Mr. TOWNEND agreed that where patients were treated in workhouses, the Guardians ought to receive the same allowance which the Government would have made if the patients had been in a lunatic asylum; but he dissented altogether from the suggestion that any cases ought to be treated in workhouses. Guardians knew that the special establishments at workhouses for imbeciles looked all right on paper, but were all wrong so far as the patients were concerned; a great deal was kept in the background that would look rather awkward. Every place that was allowed to receive lunatics ought to be constructed regardless of cost, so far as appliances and staff were concerned. Nothing would be introduced into their establishments by Guardians that was not absolutely necessary. Guardians were rather too much given to economizing and sparing the pounds, shillings, and pence; and, had the asylums not been under the care of gentlemen not so heavily burdened with rates as the Guardians were, the asylums would not have been so efficient. He thought the county area was not large enough for pauper lunatic asylums; it would be better to make asylums an Imperial matter. Asylums for idiots, similar to the great institution at Lancaster, ought to be erected in different parts of the country. 

Mr. BRAITHWAITE said there was no proper organization for insane persons being treated in workhouses; they ought to be sent to an asylum without delay. He hoped workhouses would never be receptacles for insane people. 

Mr. S. S. HODGSON said that at Sunderland the ward for imbeciles was altogether separate from the workhouse, and no person was detained in it if the medical officer stated that the person would be benefited by being sent to an asylum. It was economy which led the Sunderland Guardians, in 1868, to provide this establishment for harmless lunatics. They were treated by a medical officer who devoted his entire services to the workhouse. Afterwards the law was altered, and a grant of 4s. per head per week was allowed by the Government towards the maintenance of lunatics in county asylums; but Guardians did not receive the grant for insane persons kept in workhouses. He was one of a deputation who waited upon Mr. Dodson, the late President of the Local Government Board, with respect to the same allowance being made to Guardians, and Mr. Dodson's reply was that the change had been recently introduced, and he would like to have a little practical experience of it before giving any decision upon the application of the deputation. 

The PRESIDENT said that the measure referred to by Mr. Gibson had been introduced into the House of Commons, but had not been proceeded with. Mr. Balfour had said that he hoped to pass a Bill during the session authorizing the temporary detention of lunatics in workhouses. A good many suggestions had been made by the gentlemen who had taken part in the discussion, but all seemed agreed that where Boards of Guardians had gone to the expense of providing accommodation in workhouses for harmless imbeciles and idiots, it would be only fair that they should receive from Imperial funds a grant, as was given for lunatics in asylums. This was a very fair suggestion. At Sunderland Workhouse a medical gentleman gave his whole time to the supervision of the inmates; but at many workhouses the Guardians would not be able to obtain the requisite medical supervision of imbeciles. He proposed a vote of thanks to Mr. Gibson for his paper. The motion was agreed to. 

Mr. GIBSON returned thanks, and briefly replied upon the discussion. 

Mr. MATTHEW BELL proposed the following resolution :—" That it is desirable that where unions provide satisfactory accommodation for harmless lunatics, they should receive a Government grant." 

Mr. TOWNEND seconded the motion. 

Mr. FEETHAM said the Darlington Guardians discussed this question, and were of opinion that the asylum was the only proper place for lunatics. 

The resolution was agreed to almost unanimously.