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We thank Meg Hartford for these two fine histories - of Ottercaps, a steamer built in 1878 & of Emma, a brig built at North Hylton in 1865.

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'The Wreck of the Ottercaps' - wrecked on the coast of Brittany in 1903.


'The Brig Emma of Sunderland' - lost at the mouth of the Humber river in 1893.


Ottercaps was an iron ship built in 1878 and launched from Robert Thompson’s Southwick yard on 16th July of the same year.

Ottercaps aground at Sunderland in Aug. 1890.

Ottercaps, which in 1903 was owned by Lambton Collieries, made many voyages between Sunderland & the ports of St. Nazaire, France & Bilbao, Spain.

It mainly transported coal from Sunderland and iron ore from Bilbao but other cargoes were carried depending on the circumstances.

Ottercaps was wrecked off Fuenteun-Aod, near the Pointe du Raz, Brittany, on the night of February 26/27, 1903.

Here is an article from 'The South Shields Daily Gazette and Shipping Telegraph' published on March 7, 1903. It describes the events of that night when a huge storm was blowing in the Bay of Biscay.

A French newspaper of the time, 'Le Petit Parisien', also reported the disaster.

The Wreck of a Steamship

The news of a disaster which we reported yesterday has sadly been confirmed. Enveloped by the dreadful gale which was blowing on the coast of Brittany, the steamer Ottercaps went down with all hands in one of those tragedies of the sea the horror of which defies all description.

Here are the details which were telegraphed to us by our Brest correspondent yesterday.

Brest 28 February - Numerous pieces of wreckage carried into the Raz de Sein yesterday morning led people to assume that a maritime disaster had occurred in this vicinity.

In the course of the afternoon the recovery of some bodies on the beach by the fishermen of Feuntenot left no further room for doubt : there had been a shipwreck and the inspection of numerous pieces of wreckage washed up by the tide enabled people to learn the name of the ship. It was the steamer Ottercaps, of Sunderland, with some thirty people aboard.

We don’t know what led to the shipwreck but unfortunately everything leads us to presume that the crew and passengers have perished.

At the present time ten bodies have been recovered by the inhabitants of Feuntenot. They were buried today in the presence of Mr. Herbert Gye, the British consul at Brest, who has been on the scene since the first news of the disaster.

The sea has been absolutely impassable in the vicinity of the Raz de Sein channel for the past week and the captain of the steamer was obviously seriously imprudent to enter the narrow and fearsome channel where so many ships have sunk.

Judging from some information cabled by Mr Salaun, chief look out at the signal station of Bec du Raz, the shipwreck occurred about midnight, when thunder, rain, hail and wind were raging.

Two girls who live by the sea in the neighbourhood of the Anse de Feuntenot report having heard heart rending cries coming from offshore, as well as the sound of an explosion, probably the ship’s boilers. The girls did not dare to go outside.

The disaster was discovered yesterday morning by some fishermen visiting their nets.

Innumerable pieces of wreckage which are still coming ashore at the present time show that the ship was literally pulled to pieces.

The Ottercaps which was built in 1878, measured 216 feet long with a breadth of 32 feet. It displaced 546 tons and was used for the transportation of coal. The steamer belonged to the company “The Lambton Collieries line of Steamers of Newcastle upon Tyne whose manager is Mr. Thomas Incholsop.

The Ottercaps was on her way to England, heading back towards her home port of Sunderland.

Note: There were 16 crew aboard and no passengers. The surname of the manager was Nicholson.


Saint Collodan Church at Plogoff, Brittany.

The fishermen of Plogoff retrieved the bodies of the crew. 12 were buried in Plogoff. All the parish attended the burial on 28th February, 1903. Two more crew members were later buried in the same communal grave, by the sacristy wall in the churchyard of Saint Collodan, one on March 1st and a second on March 3rd, 1903.

A burial certificate from the Archives at Quimper, Brittany. Click the image to see it in a larger size.

In 1928, when improvements to the centre of Plogoff were undertaken, all graves were removed from the churchyard and the bodies were re-interred in the new municipal cemetery about 200 yards away. The crew of the Ottercaps were placed in an unmarked communal grave by the main entrance of the cemetery (at left in the image below). One crew member was washed ashore at Trez Goaren beach, a little way across the Bay of Audierne from Plogoff and buried at St. Tugen in the commune of Esquibien. (An image of the church at St. Tugen is at right below). The headless body was later identified as that of Peter Thompson by body tattoos which were described in a document drawn up by the mayor of Esquibien & signed by him. I have a transcript of the document.

The St. Tugen burial certificate - from Quimper Archives. Later identified as the burial certificate of sailor Peter Thompson.

The Ottercaps Crew February 1903




Place of birth


# of children


Buried at



Allan Barclay Watt


Aberdeen, Scotland

Isobel Leaske


Rosslyn Terrace, Sunderland


Art Wood


Joseph Teer



Emily A. Herron


Herrington Street, Sunderland


Michael Teer,
Brown Chris Robins.
Margaret Bulmer


John William Robson Young


Glanton, Northumberland

Isabel Jane Mackintosh


Deptford Road, Sunderland


Peter Herring


Alfred Robinson



Annie Davison


Thelma Street, Sunderland

Body not found

Robyn Williams


Joseph Elliott



Isabella Henderson


Earl Street, Sunderland




John Henry Wood


North Yorkshire

Isabella Laws (died 1900)


The Crag, Whitby


Janet Wardell,
Viv O'Shaughnessy


Peter Thompson



Jane Westgarth


West Wear Street, Sunderland

St. Tugen

David Nichol,
Arthur Ryan


Robert Frederick Deans



Susannah Foster


Sheepfolds Road, Sunderland


Rachael Black


James Roffe



Elizabeth Dickenson

1 plus 1

Robinson Terrace, Sunderland




Robert Rooks


North Yorkshire

Ann Elizabeth Callaghan


Cairo Street, Sunderland


Jane Harrison


George Mitchell Spendley



Alice Maud Hall


Moor Lane, Cleadon, nr. Sunderland


Kerri Smy


John Forster



Jane Bullock


Margaret Street, Sunderland




Thomas William Walker



Mary Jane Pearson


Milburn Street, Sunderland


Joyce Laundy Healy


Robert Taylor



Margaret Ann Barrett


Woodbine Street, Sunderland


Meg Hartford,
Jean Graham,
Janice Graham,
Ken Talbot,
Denise Elliot,
Susan Webb


George William Smith



Esther Clasper


Dock Street, Sunderland




George Moore Clark



Elizabeth Morrison


Milburn Street, Sunderland



I am hoping to arrange for a small memorial to be placed on the wall by the communal grave at Plogoff cemetery, to commemorate the 16 who were lost. I am grateful to Maurice Lemaître, Mayor of Plogoff, who is sympathetic to the idea of erecting a memorial to the crew in the Plogoff Cemetery & has agreed in principle to the proposal. The Plogoff website is available here.

I would like to acknowledge the research done by the late Laurent Vichon of Plogoff & by François Pouzet who kindly provided me with valuable information and the above fine picture of St. Collodan Church. 

There is more information on a Facebook page named 'Ottercaps History'. And elsewhere on this site.

I am hoping to write a longer piece telling the story of Ottercaps, which had a very chequered history. For further information please contact me.

Meg Hartford
June 2014
Ottercaps on Facebook

A November 2014 update - Meg refers above to her hoping to arrange for a plaque to be placed in the Plogoff cemetery to commemorate the 16 Ottercaps crew members who lost their lives back in 1903. Meg advises that she and a group of descendents clubbed together to commission a small memorial plaque. Thanks to Maurice Lemaître, the Mayor of Plogoff, cemetery visitors are now able to read the plaque which has been affixed to the cemetery wall near the burial place of the crew. A photograph of the plaque follows. Along with an image of the scene at Plogoff cemetery (another image at the cemetery can be seen here).

A February 2015 update - On Feb. 5, 2015, the 'Sunderland Echo' featured a splendid illustrated article about the loss of Ottercaps, including a list of those who had lost their lives. Do read the article which is available here, on the 'Sunderland Echo' website. Now, 5 years later in 2020, that article is no longer available at the link & is not archived on the 'Sunderland Echo' website. It was an interesting article indeed. Now I try, witness this entire site, to link to data made available by others & respect their creative effort. So they can enjoy the advertising revenue stream which goes with their original page. When data is no longer available, as in this case, the site in question will hopefully not have concerns if I try to assemble, from 2015 screen shots, the content of that article. Such composite image, i.e. the content of that article, is now here. Enjoy!


The brig Emma was lost with all hands in a storm off Spurn Head, Yorkshire, on 18th November, 1893. I have tried to trace the story of this Sunderland built vessel from its launch in 1865 until its loss in 1893. It has a family as well as a local connection as my (Meg Hartford) great great grandfather was one of her crew for many years.

The Vessel

The Emma was built by Briggs and Company at North Hylton in 1865. She was a wooden brig of 183 tons joined with iron bolts, 91 feet in length, 23 feet 7 inches broad with a depth of 13 feet.

On Feb. 3, 2015, an image was posted to the Emma Facebook page of a splendid painting of Emma. Painted in 1888, by John Fannen who was, I read, a River Policeman on the Wear. That image - it is beautiful indeed - is next. Click on the image to view it on Facebook - select 'Open Photo Viewer' to see it to best advantage. Another image of what is believed to be Emma is available also, thanks to John Lukacs. You can see it here.

Emma could carry loads of over 300 tons. She was registered in Sunderland and her official number was 53089. According to Lloyd's, Emma traded with ports in Germany, France and Holland, usually exporting coal. With the introduction of steam power, brigs such as the Emma were reduced to the coasting trade due to their lack of speed and dependency upon the wind.

The 1881 census records that Emma was employed in the coaling trade and that on the night of the census the vessel was in Caen Dock, France, with all six crew members on board. The master was George Barrett. The mate was George Beattie and the carpenter was John Paton, both Sunderland men. The remaining three able bodied seamen were from Nova Scotia, Stockholm, and Jacksonville, Florida.

I suspect that Emma continued to carry coal to ports on the east and south coast of England and to France in the years that followed.

The Shipbuilders – Briggs and Company

William Briggs was born in 1803. He married Margaret Hedley. Both were born in Richmond, North Yorkshire. By 1841 the family were living in Sunniside West, Sunderland, and William is recorded as a merchant. The family comprises of eight children ranging in age from 13 to 2 years old and there are three servants.

By 1856 William Briggs and Co. were building ships at North Hylton and the 1861 census records William as a timber merchant and shipbuilder living at The Esplanade, Sunderland. His eldest son, Robert, now aged 33, is enumerated as a ship builder and ship broker.

In 1862 William bought Hylton Castle, which stands on the north side of the River Wear. He made alterations to the building to make it look 'more medieval'. He never lived there. His second son, Charles James Briggs, inherited it on the death of his father and he lived there until his death in 1900.

William Briggs had retired by 1871 when he lived at Moorlands, South Moor, Sunderland. Some of the Briggs family continued to live there until the 1950’s. This is the site of the present Southmoor School and I believe that parts of the house were retained. Robert Briggs is a timber merchant in 1871 and this business is listed in Whelan’s Directory of 1894, with offices in John Street. It appears that the ship building and brokerage interests had either been sold or had closed.

William Briggs died in July 1871, his wife Margaret in April 1872 and his son Robert in November 1913. All are buried in the family plot at Sunderland (Grangetown) Cemetery.

The Owner and First Captain

From its launch to its loss the registered owner of the Emma was Paddon and Co. of Sunderland. There is one exception to this in the records that I have seen and that was in 1883 when Peacock Bros., also of Sunderland, are listed as registered owners.

Charles Paddon was born in 1817 in Hampshire and married Elizabeth Gibbs on 17 April 1841 at Alverstoke, Hampshire. Charles had a brother George, who also came to Sunderland. Each brother owned a sailing vessel. Charles and his wife were living in Sunderland by 1843 when their first of six children was born. In various census returns Charles is recorded as a master mariner. Three of his sons were shipwrights and one was a joiner. His eldest daughter, born in 1853, was named Emma. Charles was master of the Emma for many years until he handed over the captaincy in the mid 1870’s. Charles died at age 80 on 15 January 1898 at 15 1/2 St. Luke’s Road, Pallion, Sunderland where he had lived since at least 1881. Probate of his estate was granted to his son Charles who also lived on St. Luke’s Road.

The Second Captain

George Barrett was born in Wilton, Wiltshire, in 1833, the son of Robert Barrett, a painter, and Ann Grace, one of seven children. He married Mary Jane White on March 3rd 1856 at St Michael’s, Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland. In 1861 the family home was in Flag Lane and three children had been born - John Thomas (1856), Charles (1859) and Margaret Ann (1860). George was at sea and is recorded as the ship’s cook on a vessel named Ford, off Flamborough Head.

The family had moved to East Street by 1871 and George is absent, presumably at sea. Another child has been born to the family, William Phillips Barrett born in 1864.

George became master of the Emma in about 1876, so prior to that he must have sailed as a mate and obtained his mate’s and master’s certificate. I haven’t managed to trace these.

Two more children, Ann (1872) and Mary E. (1876) are listed in the 1881 census at 12 Wear Street. William is now recorded as a step son.

By 1891 the family home is in Woodbine Street, Hendon, where they remained for many years. My mother, the great granddaughter of George Barrett, was born there in 1916.

The 1893 Crew

An 1893 newspaper report lists the crew as being George Barrett, Captain, of Woodbine Street, James Moor, Mate, of Vine Street, Alf Hollands of West Country Arms, William Best of East Cross Street, a member of the Royal Naval Reserve, John Marshall of Shields and Charles Jones of Sunderland.

Apart from George Barrett there are only two crew members who I can definitely identify in the 1891 census. William Best, aged 18, a seaman, & a British subject born in the West Indies was a lodger at Low Street in Sunderland. Alfred Holland aged 23, born in Rye, Sussex, was on another vessel name Emma (registered at Faversham) docked in the River Wear. He was the son of Harriet Holland and had been a baker’s assistant in Rye before going to sea. His grandfather was a butcher.

The Great Storm of November 1893

The Emma’s last voyage was to Southampton with a cargo of coal. On the return trip she was carrying 'Southampton Drug'. This was used in the manufacture of concrete blocks which were being used in the construction of the new pier at Sunderland.

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 leaving port on 14th November. George Barrett decided to press on homewards and on the morning of the 18th November, 1893, was caught off Spurn Head, Yorkshire, in a massive storm which affected the whole of the east coast of England, in which I believe more than 40 vessels were lost.

Spurn Head in Yorkshire, at the mouth of the Humber River - where Emma was lost in 1893. Inset into a contemporary 'Google' map is a portion of a c.1800 map originally published in 1692. Click the image to see it in a larger size. Inset also is an aerial image, thanks to ABP Humber Estuary Services, which shows well the 3 mile long long sand & gravel spit that curves across river mouth with, at its tip, Spurn Head.

The Emma was seen by some Hull 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.

Just over half a mile out, the Emma was caught by several huge breaking waves in quick succession. The crew could be seen clinging to the rigging wearing lifebelts. The vessel struck one of the sand banks and in a few seconds disappeared from view. The watchers on the shore saw no further trace of her that day.

The following morning, 19th November, three bodies were washed ashore.

News of the disaster did not reach Sunderland until 30th November 1893 when Captain Paddon received a letter dated 28th November, from Rev. C. M. Barnes, the curate of All Saints, Easington, East Yorkshire.

Captain Paddon had no doubts that the wreck was of the Emma - he knew the crew and recognised the tattoos and descriptions contained in the letter.

Charles and William Barrett travelled to Easington and discovered the clothes of their father, which they identified. They then went to St. Helen’s Church, Kilnsea, where the three bodies had been buried in one grave. They were George Barrett, Charles Jones and Alf Hollands.

The burial records at St Helen’s Church had recorded the interment of three unknown sailors washed ashore. Later notes were added to them to identify the men. (Click the image to see it in a larger size)

The Aftermath

The Sunderland Daily Echo printed two articles one about the wreck and another about the visit to Easington and Kilnsea of the two Barrett brothers. (It was these that led me to solving the mystery of what happened to George Barrett.)

George was deeply mourned by his wife and family as shown in his obituary in the same newspaper and in the printing of mourning cards.

George Barrett’s daughter, Margaret Ann, my great grandmother, was widowed 10 years later when Robert Taylor, her husband, was lost in the wreck of the Ottercaps (here & above) off Plogoff, Brittany, on 27th February 1903.

The deaths of five of the six members of the Emma crew are recorded in the Maritime Death Registrations.

George Barrett, master, aged 60, born New Forest, Hampshire.
James Moore, mate, aged 32, born Portsmouth, Virginia.
Alfd Holland, A.B., aged 25, born Rye, Sussex
Charles Jones, A.B., aged 33.
John Marshall A.B., aged 33.
William Best was not recorded.

The wreck of the Emma is listed in the Board of Trade Wreck Reports for 1893. It stated that she went aground at Stone Banks at the entrance to the Humber River and that the wind was from the north east and blowing at force 11.

The loss of the Emma marked a turning point in the shipping history of Sunderland as she was the last Sunderland built wooden brig operating from the River Wear, in what had become the age of steam driven iron ships.

Thanks go to John Lukacs, great great grandson of Charles Paddon, for the photo of a painting believed to be of the Emma, to Kaila Wyllys, a great great granddaughter of George Barrett for the mourning cards, and to The Sunderland Echo for the newspaper report.

Meg Hartford, 2014
Emma on Facebook

A January 2015 update - On Jan. 29, 2015, the 'Sunderland Echo' featured a splendid illustrated article about the loss of Emma, including a list of those who lost their lives. Do read the article which is available here, on the 'Sunderland Echo' website.

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