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Two Rooms And A View: 2 - The Master Mariner

"Going to sea in the late 19th century was a very dangerous occupation as John Connell sadly found out. Whilst in command of a vessel named Pelton, he was unfortunately involved in a disastrous incident at sea...''

Robert Owen, continuing his life story, tells us something of his family, which included an ill-fated forebear, Master Mariner John O'Connell.

South Shields is a long way from Wales, but judging by the telephone directory, many families, with the Welsh name of Owen or Owens, have found new homes at the mouth of the River Tyne. The name is said to have originated around Montgomery in mid-Wales. It comes from the latin which means well-born. One of the mottos associated with the name is 'Nee temere nee timide' which roughly translates as, 'Neither bold nor rashly'.

Research into my family tree indicates that it has its roots, not only in Wales, but in Ireland and the Gaunless Valley area of south-west Durham. It also confirms a strong occupational mix of miners and mariners. One branch of the family's roots goes back to the beautiful town of Limerick in South West Ireland. It was here that my paternal great-grandfather John O'Connell was born in 1835.

In his autobiography Terry Wogan (2000) describes Limerick as 'more Roman Catholic than the Vatican', so with a name like O'Connell it is extremely likely that my great-grandfather was of that religion. John would be a young teenager when the great potato famine and typhus epidemic struck Ireland between the years of 1846 and 1851. During this disastrous period over 1.5 million people died and about a million left the country, many for England via Liverpool. It is highly probable that the O'Connell family was one of these.

By 1856 John O'Connell was a young mariner living in South Shields. Many Irish immigrants could not read or write when they arrived in England. John O'Connell was not one of these. Evidence suggests that he was just the opposite - a self-willed intelligent and industrious individual.
First, his religion must have lapsed, because on 8th April 1856, he married Jane Thompson, the daughter of Mark Thompson, another mariner, at St Hida Church of England. Second, by the time their first child Mary was born on 15th September 1857, the newly-weds had changed their name to Connell instead of O'Connell. Was this to mask their Irish/Catholic connection or a demonstration of John's free spirit?

John's ambitious determination was certainly demonstrated during the following years when, although education was scarce, he worked his way up at his trade to become a Master Mariner. Whether he acquired his navigation skills at the local Marine School, which opened during the 1860's will never be known.

Records indicate that John and Jane Connell had four other children. John was born in 1859 and emigrated to Canada as a young man. James Petre died at 7 months in the early 1860's. The second James Petre was born in 1867, and a Jane Connell born in 1868 only lived for four years.

Going to sea in the late 19th century was a very dangerous occupation as John Connell sadly found out. Whilst in command of a vessel named Pelton, he was unfortunately involved in a disastrous incident at sea. The Pelton was an ironclad steamship rigged as a schooner. She left Newport, South Wales, bound for Havre with a crew of seventeen and a cargo of coal on 25th March 1882. About 30 tons of coal was also stored on the lower bridge deck. The following day, the vessel was caught in a strong north-west gale which caused the steamer to list to port. Although all hands were called to throw the coal on the bridge overboard, their efforts were in vain and the Pelton turned over in the Bristol Channel with the loss of all but one of the crew.

The report of the Wreck Commissioner's Court in the Times on 26th April 1882, concluded that the sole cause of the vessel going over as she did was due to the fact that she had a quantity of coal stowed over the bridge house and that 'blame was attached to the master and officers for allowing the coal to be so placed.' The Court also criticised the designers of Pelton for not knowing the stability of the vessel and the owners for allowing the overloading. During the late nineteenth century, it was a common occurrence for miners and factory workers to be exploited by the owner in order to maximise their profits. Was this another example applied to seamen?

The tragic loss of John Connell, Master Mariner, must have had a dramatic effect on the family. This was evidenced when his wife Jane died only five months later. The first grandchild born to the Owen-Connell family after the deaths of John and Jane Connell was John Connell Owen, born on 13th November 1883 and obviously named after his lost-at-sea grandfather.


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