South Shields Local History Group

Under Construction

Pells, John (North Sea Pilot)

John Pells was born in 1867 at the oddly named Cley next the Sea; which had been one of the busiest ports in England.

John started life as a ‘lad’ on board the barges that took potatoes from Norfolk to the Tyne and coals back to Yarmouth – the crew was a captain and a lad.  He moved his family up to Shields in 1900.

John Pells (John Orton)

He lived in Erskine Road (like all the best people, yours truly lived 3 doors away from him, small world! Ed).

North Sea Pilots were different from the River Tyne Pilots; who worked close to the Tyne – they would pilot the ship out of the Tyne and then through the North Sea, north or south.

John Pells Pilot’s licence – 1917 (John Orton)

John has not just one claim to fame but two!

Yarmouth Independent – 8th April 1916

   Captain a Pells, a North Sea pilot, who landed at Deal, on Saturday, from the Danish steamer Svenholm, gave the following graphic details of how the damaged Zeppelin was found:

   “I left the Tyne yesterday (Friday), and from twelve o’clock last night until four o’clock this morning we heard very heavy firing. When we reached a point close to the Kentish Knock at 3.15 this morning we saw a large object floating on the sea about a quarter of a mile to the westward. We could plainly see that it was a disabled Zeppelin and that L15 was painted on the port quarter in large red letters.

   “A number of British destroyers, mine­sweepers, and other boats surrounded the airship. As she came closer we could see that she was completely broken in two and had a large dent in the stern. We estimated her length at more than seven hundred feet, of which thirty feet at the stern were out of the water and twenty at the bows. On either side of the bows she had two large horns protruding upwards.

   “As we were passing by, I noticed a German coming out of a manhole door in the Zeppelin.  He crawled along the slippery side of the envelope and appeared to be holding up his hands in token of surrender. Another German came out of the same door and did the same thing. We saw a number of other Germans looking out of the door, evidently anxious to come out and give themselves up.”

The story of the Zeppelin was widely reported in the press: The Pall Mall Gazette, The Daily Record, The Graphic

The Graphic – 1916

Even as far away as Lahore in India!

Civil and Military Gazette, Lahore, India – 1916

His Great Grandson John Orton recalls:

“My late cousin Ernie Pells, John Blot’s grandson, used to tell the tale about the Zeppelin – in his story John Pells captured the Zeppelin – but Ernie always told a tall story!

Below is his second report of an incident in the North Sea when he was on convoy duty on the 17th August 1917 and he sunk a German submarine!

On the 30th August 1917, received orders to pilot SS “RENVOYLE” from the Tyne to Yarmouth.  At 12 midnight, I left the Tyne. All went well until 5.45 p.m. August 31st, we had then ran 146 miles when the SS “VERNON” which was about 4 miles ahead of us was torpedoed. I immediately called the Captain out of the cabin, as we were towing Otters at the time, to prevent our ship from being mined, I gave orders to stop the ship and got the Otters on board. We then proceeded on our course S.S.E. and the Captain went below.

A Trinity Tug picked up the crew of the “VERNON” and spoke me flying his ‘B’ flag and Ball submarines and I answered him “I am going on.” I ordered the gunners and helpers to be in readiness and all hands to stand by except the 2nd Engineer, Donkeyman and Firemen. At 7-40 p.m. the submarine attacked just aft my beam. I blew 3 blasts for the gunners to open fire, put my helm hard….indecipherable……on with a ¾ mile range. 2 shots had been fired before the Captain came on to the bridge. The gunners fired 3 shots, the submarine disappeared and all that was seen after was a boiling pool of oil on the water 1 ¼ miles from the Inner Dousing L. V. bearing S.W. and N.E.  2 days later the L.V. was taken away. On September 1st 1917 I landed at Yarmouth at 3-40 p.m. I handed a report to the Customs first, and was ordered to the Naval Base at Gorleston and gave a full report to the senior Naval Officer (not Immingham or Lowestoft).

(Signed) John Pells.

John Pells was awarded two medals the Mercantile Marine Medal and the British War Medal.

Mercantile Marine Medal (sample)
British War Medal (sample)

John Orton recalls: “He was a bit of a character and his nickname was ‘John Blot’ because he could soak it up!”

After these two harrowing episodes it is no wonder he drank!

John Pells died in 1947 aged 79.

John Orton
National Archives
British Newspaper Archives

John Orton

error: This content is protected.