Robert Otterson and Lizzie Abernethy 
  Sunderland, Durham, and Nottingham, England
 1881-1970

Robert Otterson was the son of a coal miner, born in Sunderland in 1881 when the town was riding a boom in expansion of its mining and shipbuilding industries. He was the seventh of nine children, all of whom grew to adulthood.


Robert lost his father in a mining accident when he was 17. His childhood home was 13 Robinson Terrace, a large house in the Hendon area of Sunderland which was occupied by two other families. The arrangement was normal for the time - two or three families typically occupied different parts of the same building for which they paid weekly rent.

Robert Otterson and Lizzie Abernethy, at time of their golden wedding anniversary, 1954.

Growing up, Robert was closest to younger brother James. With only two and a half years between them and older and younger sisters either side, the boys naturally gravitated to each other. Later, they would marry sisters from the same Abernethy family, and at the outbreak of war would enlist together in the British Army on successive days.


Still in his teens, Robert’s first significant job was a bricklayer’s labourer, and he was still working as a stonemason’s labourer when he married Lizzie Abernethy at the age of 23. It was 1904, and life was hard for the working classes. The mines, shipyards and other privately owned enterprises paid only as much attention to working conditions for the men as seemed absolutely necessary. The result was a simmering resentment and tendency toward socialist politics among the working classes that seemed to be the natural order of things in industrial Britain as the 20th century opened.


Lacking a good education, Robert’s options were limited. He gave up laboring to work at Wearmouth Colliery - but above ground. His job was that of a “keeker,” and it was one he held for many years. In the coal mines at that time the coal was removed from the coal face by hewers, transported to metal screens and then examined by boys or men for stones, slate or other impurities which were removed before the coal was loaded into wagons. It was the keeker’s job to oversee the gang removing the stones, and Robert was paid a shilling a day more than the men he supervised (about 20 US cents at that time). As his son, Tom, said in later years: “Life was, you know, pretty poor...We always got enough to eat but there were never any luxuries.”


The family home in the early 1900s for Robert and Lizzie and their six children (two had died as infants) was 22 Chilton Street, a house owned by the local coal company. There were three bedrooms upstairs, and a bed in the living area downstairs. “Clip mats” were spread on the floor - made from strips of surplus materials and stitched together with a heavy wooden needle.


Because there were no baths at the pit head, the miners followed a ritual when arriving home to remove the coal dust that had lodged everywhere. Outside the house, they would shake their caps and jackets of dust, enter the house, remove boots and clothes to hang in the back kitchen - a kind of wash house - then wash their hands and later take a bath in a portable tub in front of the fireplace. Later, the Otterson family would move to a colliery house in Wreath Quay Road with a bathroom - a huge luxury.


When the First World War broke out in 1914, Robert and younger brother James signed up in December. Robert’s enlistment papers say that he was just over 5 ft 7 ins, with a 30-inch waist at age 33. Robert and James both served in the Balkans and in the battlefields of the Somme and Ypres. James did not return. He was killed at Delville Wood, near Thiepval in France, leaving wife Jessie Abernethy with five children, the youngest of whom also died within a year. For more on Robert and James’ First World War experience, click here.


After the war, Robert returned to work at the colliery. It was some time around 1930 when Robert suddenly faced the opportunity for significant promotion. The staithmaster was retiring, and the company offered the job to Robert. The prospect terrified him. He lacked both education and training to move from little more than a laborer to someone who would be virtually in charge of the coal shipping from the colliery. The staithes were the waterside depots for the coal brought from the collieries, and loaded straight into the coastal ships that serviced the ever-hungry coal-fired power plants along the River Thames, providing London with electrical power. It was a responsible job, and when Robert went home that night he was full of uncertainties as he discussed it with eldest son, Tom.


Fortuitously, Tom was in a position to help. Encouraged by a local school teacher, Tom had started early learning office work, and had just the kind of skills needed to help his father - indexing, tracking the men’s wages, logging the tonnage in the holds of each of the ships. He had even worked in an office for the riverside commissioners, so he knew the industry well. So, Robert took the job, brought the books home each evening and Tom helped him learn how to do what was required. 


Robert lived to a good age, but sadly had to face the death of two more of his sons. Rob was killed in a motorbike accident in Wales in 1949, and Will died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in Newcastle in 1957. Robert and Lizzie’s last years were spent together in Nottingham, where they lived with their single daughter, Doris, a career nurse, from about 1951. Lizzie died in 1964, and Robert survived her by six years, passing away in 1970 at the age of 89.

Above:  Photograph from the Sunderland City Council web site shows the last surviving coal staithe on the River Wear, where once rows of staithes along the banks fed the ships for the coastal trade to London and the Thames. This structure has now been demolished.

Parents of
Robert Otterson
Father: John Otterson - b. 1845, Sunderland
Mother: Jane Storey - b. 1848 Southwick
Lizzie Abernethy
Father: William James Abernethy - b. 1846 Heworth
Mother: Elizabeth Jane Charlton - b. 1849 Gatesheadotterson__john_and_jane_1845.htmlotterson__john_and_jane_1845.htmlabernethy_william_james_and_charlton_eliz_1846.htmlabernethy_william_james_and_charlton_eliz_1846.htmlshapeimage_6_link_0shapeimage_6_link_1shapeimage_6_link_2shapeimage_6_link_3
Robert Otterson: 
Born 1881 Sunderland, Durham, England
Died 1970 Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England
Lizzie Abernethy: 
Born 1883 Sunderland, Durham, England
Died 1964 Sunderland, Durham, England
Children of
Robert Otterson and Lizzie Abernethy

Robert Otterson - b. 1905 Sunderland
Mary Jane Otterson - b. 1907 Sunderland
Elizabeth Jane Otterson - b. 1908 Sunderland
Thomas Abernethy Otterson - b. 1909 Sunderland
Robert Otterson - b. 1911 Sunderland
Doris  Otterson - b. 1913 Sunderland
William Otterson - b. 1916 Sunderland
James Otterson - b. 1920 Sunderlandotterson_robert_and_doris_1911_p1.htmlshapeimage_8_link_0

Click on the play button, right, for an audio extract from an interview with Thomas Abernethy Otterson during the 1980s, in which he talks about his father’s work at Wearmouth Colliery (Length: 2 mins).

Left: Link to World War 1 experiences

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

For details of the family tree of Robert Otterson and Lizzie Abernethy, click on the WorldConnect icon below. This will open a window for these individuals in the Otterson-Berry family tree at RootsWeb.com, a free site.