Dear Friend Update: William Elliott, a life well lived

When we started the Dear Friend project, inspired by a letter discovered at Holy Trinity church in Sunderland, we didn't know much about the young author of the note.

A young William Elliott (Image: Erin Barrett)

I'm delighted to say that after much hard work by genealogists, both professional and amateur, we now know his story. I felt moved to write a reply to William, telling him about the impact his letter has had on so many people ( transcript below).

Dear William,

125 years ago you sat here in a pew at Holy Trinity, just across the Town Moor from your home at Sunderland Orphan Asylum, and wrote a heartfelt letter to an unknown Dear Friend who you hoped would remember you. A 13 year old choir boy you had lost your father and been placed in an orphanage by your mother to give you an education and the best start in life she could; you were fearful of what the future would hold for you out in the world.

Little could you know as that uncertain young boy what adventures lay ahead for you, a life across the ocean in America; a career in the US Navy, retiring at the rank of Commander and a family who today number dozens of great-great grandchildren who are only now uncovering your story.

The discovery of your letter was of great interest to people in Sunderland and beyond (as far away as America!) and they wanted to know what had become of you, hoping your life had been a happy one. As a local calligraphy artist, I was very touched by your letter and working with the Seventeen Nineteen team at Holy Trinity, we sent out letters to anyone who requested one telling them your story and hoping we would receive some replies. Many people took the time to write addressing their letters to you, sharing their experiences of being lonely and uncertain or with memories of Sunderland and Holy Trinity church.

This letter is to thank you for your intriguing note, penned all those years ago and hidden beneath a pew for more than a century, which has brought people together sharing their stories and experiences. We are so delighted that your story had a happy ending and we want you to know that you are remembered, dear friend, and will be for many years to come.

With warmest wishes,

Jules Eachus, calligrapher for the Dear Friend project

& the team at Seventeen Nineteen, Holy Trinity.

p.s. the enclosed pressed daisies are from the churchyard at Holy Trinity, in remembrance of your home town.

As a young US Navy officer (Image: Erin Barrett)


William is born in Sunderland on 29th October to Thomas Duncan Elliott and his wife Sarah Ann (nee Barker), one of four children. Thomas is a Chief Officer in the Mercantile Marine (a forerunner of the Merchant Navy).


On 9th December Thomas is sailing on the merchant vessel Skyros, carrying a cargo of wood from Sundsvall in Sweden to Dordt in Germany. Battered by a violent storm and overloaded with more lumber than she could safely carry, the ship dipped sharply into a wave and Thomas is washed overboard and drowned.


William's mother, struggling to provide for him and his two surviving sisters, reluctantly places him in the Sunderland Orphan Asylum, which cares for the sons of dead or injured mariners. Funded by sailors at the port city, the orphanage provides a decent education including seafaring skills.


William, aged 13, writes his “Dear Friend “note and hides it under a pew at Holy Trinity church where he sings in the choir. In October, when he turns 14, he leaves the orphanage where records show that his conduct throughout the years had been "very good”.


On the census, William is working as a clerk for a local solicitor and living with his mother, Sarah.


On 3rd March William sails from Glasgow to New York on the steamship Columbia, giving his occupation as 'clerk'. He is travelling to join his older sister, Edith, who had married California-born Alexander Stuart and travelled to America in 1900.

When he arrives in America 20 days later, with just $25 in his pocket, William moves to Newport, Rhode Island - a sailing mecca. With the seafaring skills he has learned at the orphanage, he enlists in the US Navy on 26th October, just three days before his 20th birthday.


William marries American born Dora MacIntire on 3rd August and they go on to have two children, William Jr. and Edith. Records show he is stationed at Boston, Massachusetts, where he rose to the rank of Chief Yeoman.


William becomes a US citizen and is honourably discharged from the navy.


At the outbreak of the First World War William re-enlists in the US Navy and is assigned to the pay corps. By 1920 he has been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.

US records show that in 1923 William's sister Edith, aged 43, accompanied by her daughter Louise, 21, sails aboard the Cunard steamship Scythia from Florida to England to visit her mother in Sunderland.


Dora, William’s wife, dies aged 52 years.


William retires from the navy and settles in San Diego California.


When America joins the Second World War, William reenlists

working as a supply officer and reaching the rank of Commander before retiring again at the end of the war.

During his naval career William has served on supply ships, submarine tenders, destroyer tenders, the repair ship Vestal, at the Cristobal submarine base in Panama, and at the Boston Navy Yard, before commanding the supply department at the Naval Training Centre in San Diego.

He has an active social life in retirement belonging to officers' clubs, military associations, a Masonic Lodge and a men's club. In 1962 he marries again to Boston-born Mabel Frances, who dies in 1962 and finally weds a third time to Florence, who survives him.


William dies in a San Diego retirement home on 27th April, aged 84, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He is survived by his second wife, Florence, his daughter Edith, son William Jr, sister and eight grandchildren. He was cremated and interred in Arlington National Cemetery alongside his first wife Dora.

William Elliott’s headstone in Arlington National Cemetery. Picture: Arlington National Ceremony, via the ANC Explorer app.

20 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All