THE fate of a Victorian orphanage choirboy, whose recently discovered letter asking not to be forgotten made headlines across the UK, has been uncovered.

The letter, written in 1897 by William Elliott, was found stuffed down the back of a church pew by workmen renovating the Seventeen Nineteen event space at Sunderland’s former Holy Trinity Church.

In it, the 13-year-old choirboy whose time at the nearby Sunderland Orphanage Asylum was drawing to an end, asked the finder to “keep it, in remembrance of me, W Elliott.”

The Northern Echo: Young William Elliott Young William Elliott

Read more: Letter from North East orphan unearthed after 125 years

And now researchers from Findmypast have discovered what became of William – who, having lost his father at sea was to become a naval hero on the other side of the Atlantic.

William was born in Sunderland on October 29, 1983, to Thomas Duncan Elliott - a Chief Officer in the Mercantile Marine, the forerunner of the Merchant Navy - and his wife Sarah Ann.

But on December 9, 1887, disaster struck when Thomas, who was sailing on the Skyros merchant vessel, was washed overboard during a violent storm and drowned.

Deprived of their breadwinner – and with four children to clothe and feed - William’s mother struggled and when the boy turned eight she placed him in the orphanage, which cared for the sons of dead or injured mariners and where he would stay for the next six years.

It was while there and serving as head choirboy at the nearby Sunderland Parish Church that William wrote his moving note, mindful that when he turned 14 just a few weeks later, he would leave the orphanage and have to make his own way in the world.

The Northern Echo: The letter found behind behind the church pew The letter found behind behind the church pew

“Dear friend,” he wrote, “whoever finds this paper think of William Elliott, who had two months, two weeks and four days on 11 of August 1897. Whoever you are that finds this paper, don’t tear it up or throw it away, keep it in remembrance of me, W. Elliott. I was the leading boy of this choir. I love you if you love me.”

Research by Seventeen Nineteen – operated by the Churches Conservation Trust - revealed that by 1901 William, who received a good education at the orphanage, was working as a clerk for a local solicitor.

But now further research from volunteers who came forward after reading about William’s letter has revealed he didn’t stay in the North East for long, setting forth to join his older sister Edith in America when he was just 19.

He arrived in New York in March 1903, settling at 20 Evarts Street, Newport, Rhode Island and, seven months later, enlisted in the US Navy.

That was the start of a 42-year career, during which he served in the First World War and later on a variety of Navy vessels before retiring in 1939.

Read more: Durham Cathedral searching for a choir to sing for the Queen’s Jubilee

However, when the US joined the Second World War in 1941, William re-enlisted, working as a supply officer, reaching the rank of Commander before retiring again after the war.

William became a US citizen in 1916, having met and married an American, Dora MacIntire with whom he went on to have two children; William Jr. and Edith.

Dora died in 1936, aged 52 and William was to marry twice more - Boston-born Mabel Frances, who died in 1962 and Florence, when he was in his 80s.

Shortly after, when he was 84, William’s story – which began in a seafaring North East town – ended in a San Diego rest home in 1968.

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Fittingly for a man destined from birth for a life at sea – and whose career was one of bravery and duty - William was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C; the final resting place for more than 14,000 US military veterans and widely recognised as the US’ most hallowed ground.

“Ever since we found William’s letter, we have wondered what became of him,” said Tracey Mienie, Centre Manager at Seventeen Nineteen, which now runs the fully restored Grade I listed Georgian former church.

“And now, thanks to the work of people who were as touched by his story as we were, we know he went on to lead a full, rich life, serving his country and much loved by his family.”

A copy of William’s letter now hangs next to the pew in which he wrote it. “He asked those reading it to make sure he wasn’t forgotten,” said Tracey, “and now he never will be.”

Restored with National Lottery Heritage Funding , Seventeen Nineteen is open daily to visitors, with William’s letter clearly on display.The Northern Echo: Tracey Mienie in William's seat with his letter Tracey Mienie in William's seat with his letter

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