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On this page ... The Harbour and Docks of Sunderland, The South Pier Lighthouse, page bottom (model sailing ship).

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The following text has been kindly written for the site by Len Charlton.

On the north shore of the Wear & close to the sea lies one of Sunderland's newest developments, the Marina, a complex of over 200 moorings & berths with buildings & permanent staff providing full services to its members & families.
Perhaps some of the older members may think of the Marina as Sunderland's 'North Dock' but very few will refer to it as being 'Sir Hedworth's Bath Tub' - and what a story lies beneath that nickname.


As far back as 1699, a petition had been sent to Charles II requesting that the river be cleaned up & controlled. Permission was granted to build piers & lighthouses at the harbour entrance 'and cleanse the river', following which, in 1717, the River Wear Commissioners were appointed to remove the old obstacles and to design the breakwaters & piers required for a viable port.

One can imagine the anger of many old river-men at what they would see as state interference with their 'rights', but action was certainly needed as the river was barely navigable.

A 1719 map of the river mouth (right) shows that the harbour entrance was then in its natural state with the river split into channels running through large shifting sandbanks. The coast line can be traced running from top to bottom centre with the sand banks & rocks extending to the low tide line.
'Potato Garth', (image below) one of those sandbanks, had always being used for haphazard ship building/ breaking & the lower reaches of the river were full of fishing aids, ferry landings, wreckage, & ramshackle breakwaters.


Early attempts to form a breakwater on the north bank had utilised old keelboats sunk against pilings while on the south bank a stone pier 333 yards long was in use by 1746. This pier reached 1,900 ft. in 1765 before it was badly damaged by tidal swells & a new stronger pier was planned by John Smeaton. In the 1780s this new south pier was started adjacent to the old one but it caused sand to be carried into the river through the temporary north breakwater & in 1786 plans for a new north bank pier of timber framing filled & surfaced with stone were approved - to extend 1,500 ft. into the sea.

By 1795 this had reached 700 ft. with a reflector light at the end and the river flow & sand banks were under control. Seven years later the pier had been extended to 1,000 ft. & ended with an 'elegant stone lighthouse' to replace the reflector light. The lighthouse, octagonal in shape, was 78 ft. high with 9 gas burners & reflectors in the top dome to provide a stationary light between sunset & sunrise, visible for 12 miles.

It was planned to wait until the pier was completed before dismantling & rebuilding the lighthouse on the new pier head. But in 1841, serious cracks in the foundations undermined it, & urgent action being needed, it was decided to move it bodily.
The structure was banded round then jacked up on to a cradle of 250 wheels & moved on lines 28 ft. across to the new section. Here the lines were realigned along the pier & the cradle pulled 150 yards to its new position, there to be jacked up onto new foundations. Three manual 'ten men' windlasses were used as well as many jacks & levers and by any measure it was a great achievement. The 78 ft. 338 ton lighthouse had been moved 478 ft., completely undamaged, in some 60 days - during which it had remained fully active & lit.


The pier had finally reached 1,770 ft. but much of the early work was of poor standard & rebuilding the old timber structure continued for ten years.

Meanwhile work on the south pier continued. Building had started in 1723 & the pier was gradually extended until, in 1746, it was 1,000 ft. long, built entirely in stone.

At that time there was a 'tide-light' at pier end mounted 'on a long pole' which was lit when the harbour was deep enough to enter. A flag was used during daytime. Drawings of the period show that over the years a remarkable variety of 'tide-light' buildings were erected at pier end, each ornate wooden structures that in due course were demolished by the frequent storms. (An image of one such 'tidelight' is below. Another is here.)

The pier itself was of poor quality & over the 1821/1846 period, the pier was rebuilt, to a 40 ft width, to reach some 2,000 ft. Ten years later a lighthouse of wrought & cast iron was built, a plain but strong structure which was to remain working until 1983 when the pier was shortened & the lighthouse was relocated to Roker Cliffs - where it now stands overlooking the bay. (left)

The early plans for developing the harbour resulted in some Durham businessmen seeking permission to develop their own port. This was granted in Parliament by the 1759 Wear Act & John Smeaton was appointed to present plans which proposed to raise the level of the Wear at Durham by using 12 locks down to Sunderland as well as making several diversions. The sheer expense of this task coupled with a restriction on ship sizes were soon seen to make the idea impractical and it was dropped. Meanwhile, in Sunderland, the harbour developments were being driven by a continual & rapidly increasing demand for port facilities which the local landowners and industrialists were prepared to finance in order to enhance their own family interests. The families engaged in many political & financial battles to this end & in particular the Londonderry, Lambton & Williamson families rich in their own right were investing heavily in coal & frequently at loggerheads over land rights.

Sir Hedworth Williamson was from one of the many wealthy families who owned rights along the river banks. Records in 1710 detail their involvement in the Wear ferries & there was a notable confrontation in 1792 with the Lambton family over their respective interests in the Pann Ferry landing rights. These rights could be very difficult to resolve. The battles were compounded by competition between the Wear and the larger Tyne for ship building & the coal trade but, fortunately for Sunderland, many of the rich coalfields were to the south of the Wear & the coal staiths had developed on the south bank on Lambton land long before there was a rail bridge over the river. It had become increasingly obvious by 1800 that with the river being opened up & now under control, a wet dock was needed in the new harbour. Sir Hedworth Williamson's interest in developing Monkwearmouth favoured this being built on the north bank. This was controversial & two parties formed one to present Bills for docks on the north bank and the other on the south bank. To favour his case, Sir Hedworth formed the Wearmouth Dock Co. in 1834 & appointed the great engineer Brunel (Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1806/1859) to prepare plans.

Brunel proposed to link the north dock to the southern collieries & the Lambton staiths via a railway running across a bridge he would build close to the recently built road bridge. His plans show this to be a suspension bridge carrying two tracks one above the other. Many regarded this as a very dubious concept (in fact a railway suspension bridge built by Stephenson at Stockton in 1830 was already proving impractical & was later rebuilt with girders).


Further opposition was based on the argument that Brunel's bridge plus a proposed railway line between Shields & Monkwearmouth would allow the best of Sunderland's coals to be taken to the Tyne. In fact John Clayton, then the very active Town Clerk of Newcastle, claimed 'the pre-eminence of the Tyne in the coal trade'. There was even some suggestion at one stage of deviating the Wear through a canal to the Tyne at Redheigh (Gateshead), which suggestion caused a great uproar in Sunderland. Sir Hedworth however was determined to press ahead before any docks were opened on the south bank. He had decided to build 'North Dock' on undeveloped land from which the north pier extended. It was just to the east of Potato Garth (image at left below) part of 'North Sands' which became uncovered at low tide. Closer to the Monkwearmouth shore where the sands were higher, ships had been broken-up & built for many years & it was a great playground for children. William Pile's shipyard (image at right below) was already well established there when the 'North Dock' opened in 1837 alongside his works.

The disputed Brunel railway & bridge were never built but a line was laid from the dock to Brandling Junction (near Gateshead). Brunel finished his work in 1839 when this line was completed.

North Dock was square, of about 6 acres in size, with gates opening to the small river basin but the basin was tidal & could not be used as a lock, so the dock itself could only be opened during higher water levels. Although early maps show one or two coal staiths there, this trade was much restricted as the dock was not connected to the main coal railways on the south bank.

(At left, part of an illustration of 1849 by Thomas Meik, which shows North Dock full of ships. River Wear is of course at right & part of Potato Garth is at bottom. A section of an 1895/8 map is below)

On the south bank the coal staiths, a mile upriver alongside the new road bridge, were rapidly becoming overloaded & this plus the rapidly increasing general trade made very obvious the need for large docking facilities on this side of the river. Unfortunately, near to the river entrance, the Old Town packed the bank running eastwards to the Barracks and it seemed that the docks would have to be built on the adjacent sands extending to the low tide line. Many suggestions were put forward including an extremely ambitious plan first proposed by Joseph Cook, a coal dealer, & presented with a contour map prepared by Thomas Robson and Sons (Surveyors and Printers) in 1843 (map next). This plan closed the existing river mouth & diverted the river southwards to a new sea entrance. Lock gates were to be built across the river near the new entrance & also upriver at the old ferry landings. This would effectively enclose over 1/2 a mile of river & change this stretch into one high-level dock. The plan suggested walling off & flooding part of the old town to increase the river's width & even showed a canal bypassing the enclosed area.

Len Charlton believes that the Joseph Cook/Thomas Robson 1843 map above may be difficult to follow at first sight, but has coded it in red to make it easier for us to understand. a The proposed lock gates at Wearmouth ferry, b The proposed lock gates on the diverted river, which would then flow c-b-d, to d the proposed new river access to the North Sea. c-c-c is the original river passage shown closed with fill, e a walled off area of the old town, part of the relocated river after being flooded, f a possible canal from the new river mouth to bypass the closed river section. Higher ground is shaded. The river at c-b is where South Docks were later built. A drastic plan which indeed may well have been catastrophic for 'Old Sunderland'.

The opposition to this drastic idea can be imagined & a more acceptable solution was formulated in 1845 when The Sunderland Dock Company was founded by George Hudson, Sunderland's MP. Better known as the 'Railway King' because of his involvement in the railway boom, his career was eventually to be ruined by disclosures of fraud & bribery. But before this he was a major figure in the new development & the docks were to carry his name. From the beginning, South Docks were planned as a massive project & Robert Stephenson was appointed as consultant. As the barracks & town moor of old Sunderland ran right down to the foreshore, the docks would have to be built eastwards by extending out into the sea from which some 20 acres were eventually claimed. After building the necessary groynes & walls, excavated soil was dumped over the walls into the sea to build up a new eastern strip of land as a foundation for dock offices, warehouses & cranes. Swing bridges were built over several of the locks. Additionally, as the lock gates & bridges were driven hydraulically, space on the new land was wanted for the complex hydraulic power system of pumps, pipes & accumulators.

The first Hudson Dock was opened with much ceremony by Prince Albert in 1850 & at the same time the rail links from collieries to the staiths at Wearmouth bridge were branched to run coals round the west of Sunderland through Hendon to the new dock. Within five years the original dock was extended southwards in order to cope with the increasing trade. After Lord Londonderry opened a new railway line from Seaham to transfer excess coal from Seaham Harbour to Sunderland, there were some 20 collieries shipping coals from the Hudson Dock using no less than 13 staiths on the west side. Bulk cargo handling was into the warehouse facilities on the east side. The new docks were soon so busy with river traffic entering through the river basin locks that in 1856 a direct sea access channel was cut through the south east corner of the extended docks. This had to be gated & another lock & bridge was later (1880) built to raise or lower the ships to sea level, where a small harbour protected by two piers had been excavated. This harbour was in effect another tidal basin about a mile south of the river mouth. In 1871, 'Bartrams' shipyard moved there from Hylton & was able to claim to be the only firm launching ships directly into the North Sea.

The final docks development was deferred until 1868 when a further extension southwards called the Hendon Dock was opened also with direct gated sea access to the small harbour. The whole system from the Wear entrance to the Southern Hendon dock was massively engineered with the hydraulic system operating the many locks between the river & docks and the other two sea passages. From the river at the northern end ships would collect in the Tidal Basin and then enter through lock gates into the Half-Tide Basin which would be filled before the next gates were opened for them to enter the higher level docks. There were also two dry docks connected to the river basins. Entering directly from the sea, ships would go into the small harbour south of the river & then through locks to either the Hudson or Hendon Docks. The Hudson and Hendon docks together covered 43 acres & it is difficult to see how Hedworth Williamson's plans for the Monkwearmouth dock could have competed, even if he had succeeded in his original aim of a rail bridge. His grandiose plans had failed & while an 1856 map shows a rail link to North Dock ending in 4 staiths, most of the rail sidings ran to a nearby creosoting works. However he had led the way & it seems unfair that the 6 acre North Dock became ridiculed as 'Sir Hedworth's Bath Tub'. But such is life. Public opinion can at times be most cruel. Next, a remarkable c.1850 drawing gives a birds eye view of the east end of Sunderland with South Dock stretching from the centre to the right edge of the image. The docks, reclaimed from the sea & sited against the barracks square & town moor, are packed with shipping. North Dock (at top left) has indeed been dwarfed.

River trade was flourishing but by the late 1800s the two piers at the river mouth were some 100 years old & storms & heavy river traffic had caused deterioration.

Above is an 1883 print of the entrance to Sunderland Harbour, as published in 'The Graphic' on Feb. 3, 1883. Click the image should you wish to see it in a giant size.

So in 1883 plans were made to protect the existing piers by enclosing the entire harbour entrance within two new long piers. They were to be some 3,000 ft. long, ending over 2,500 ft. further out to sea than the lighthouse on the end of the old piers. This would be a major undertaking worthy of a great port.
The new north pier was started in 1885 by building a blockyard on the foreshore where stone blocks, each weighing about 45 tons, were made from concrete faced with granite chipping. A locomotive moved the blocks to a massive Goliath 290 ton radial jib crane which straddled the pier & moved along the pier as work progressed. A tunnel 6 ft. high by 4 ft. wide ran inside the pier allowing access in bad weather to the new lighthouse, an attractive 82 ft. tall granite tower finished in red & white coloured bands. The last stone was laid amidst great celebrations in 1903.


At left above, a pictorial celebration drawing gives a good impression of South Docks. The river entrance past the new pier is at right while the southern entrances though the small harbour & locks are at left. And at left below is a postcard image of the new north pier, with the jib crane in place out near the lighthouse.

Wiliam Donaldson has kindly advised that the 'Co-Curate' website shows another view of Goliath, a 'Titan' crane used in the construction of the Roker Pier. The particular web page is here - it contains interesting details about the pier & its construction. A webmaster adjusted verson of the 'Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums' image is next. I note that a 'Co-Curate' page with many images of the Roker Pier is available here.


On the other side of the harbour, the south pier was started in 1893. It was built with smaller blocks than those used on the north pier & rather than a tunnel there was a high parapet wall along its length with arched recesses to shelter in. Otherwise the designs matched & it was intended to finish the pier off with a matching lighthouse.
In 1902 however, increasing wave action had so damaged the lighthouse on the old north pier that it had to be replaced with a smaller sturdier design.

This damaging wave motion inside the harbour was being affected by the restricted opening between the two new piers. Work on the new south pier was stopped short at 2,700 ft. In the end, the pier was finished with an unmanned column & fixed light and the planned lighthouse was never built. It seems strange that the new piers were causing damage to the old piers they were designed to protect.

The new north pier had dramatically altered the seafront at Roker. The pier became a great attraction as it was usually open to walk along to the lighthouse which sat on a raised circular plinth (19). As the new pier started some 1,000 ft. north of the old pier, a popular section of Roker beach now lay between them & over the years many ships trying to enter the river went round the wrong side of the old pier & finished up on this beach. River debris was trapped by the new piers which soon made the beach dirty & unpopular for swimming although the water was considerably warmer than it was outside the harbour. Directly across the river mouth, the old and new south piers were part of the scene but as they started from South Docks they were not open to the public without permit.

The river and harbour were very busy in the war years but in the 1950s the industrial scene started to change. Cheap oil was threatening coal and super tankers were being built. Huge container ships & cranes were replacing manual cargo handling. Sunderland as a port was soon too small to compete with the new demands & the decline started. The end really came with the closure of the pits - by 1986 coal exports had stopped completely. The last ship was built in 1988 & Sunderland was soon in the throes of massive unemployment & depression. At first work was available repairing WW2 bomb damage & then the demolition of unused industrial property kept the town busy but it was not until the 1990s that a new town became a city & started to show new life. 'North Dock' remains as a pleasure marina & 'South Dock' is still used although the two sea outlets on the south-east side are closed off & built over. Traffic can only enter from the river but the gates from the basins to the docks have been retained to maintain dock water levels. The staiths have gone as have most of the dock warehouses & buildings but the docks retain some industry including a new oil terminal still standing firm where 170 years ago was the North Sea.

Len Charlton
Abingdon, Oxfordshire
Sep. 08, 2009

Len, we thank you for the above article!

I trust that it is in order for the images which are shown above, to be included in this informational & non-profit website. If you are the copyright owner of any of the material included in this page, & would wish it removed, please be in touch & I will gladly remove it. But probably with some regret! And probably I would wish to try to replace the material from a source which is acceptable. You can contact me here.

Sources (where known or otherwise indicated) of the 'Harbour and Docks of Sunderland' images? (7, 9).


What follows is a composite image of two renditions of the same print. Drawn by G. Balmer & engraved by W. Finden. I cannot tell you which coloration best presents the actual prints which originate, I understand (left) in Finden's 'Ports, Harbours & Watering Places of Great Britain' & (right) Finden's 'Ports, Harbours, Watering-Places & Coast Scenery of Great Britain by William Beattie, M. D. illustrated in a series of views taken on the spot and expressly for the work by W. H. Bartlett', both published by James S. Virtue Co. of London in 1840 or 1842. The prints are entitled 'SUNDERLAND' and the following words are under the bottom of the print: '(THE LIGHTHOUSE ON THE SOUTH PIER)'.

The following description accompanied the prints when originally published.

THE view of the Lighthouse on Sunderland South Pier is taken from the south-east. The entrance to the harbour lies beyond the pier-head, to the right, on which a crane, and a capstan used in warping out ships, are perceived. The large D on the fore-topsail of the collier lying within the pier is a distinguishing mark adopted by the owner that his vessels may be more readily known. To the left is seen the higher lighthouse, of stone, which stands on the north pier, on the opposite side of the river.

The erection of a pier on each side of the entrance to Sunderland harbour, has been rendered necessary in consequence of the constant tendency of the bar of sand at its mouth to accumulate. The piers, by contracting the channel of the river, have deepened the water, and increased the velocity of the current at ebb tide, which thus scours the entrance to the harbour, and prevents the accumulation of sand upon the bar. In 1669 Charles II. granted letters patent to Edward Andrew, Esq., empowering him to build a pier, erect lighthouses, and cleanse the harbour at Sunderland, and also to raise funds for these purposes by a tonnage-duty on ships. At a subsequent period commissioners were appointed for the same purposes by an act of parliament; and under their authority 333 yards of the north pier were built, between 1716 and 1746. From a report of the commissioners made in 1765, it appears that £50,000 had been expended on the south pier up to that time, and it was estimated that to finish it would cost as much more. It is now extended to the length of 625 yards. The north pier, which is entirely of stone, was commenced about 1785, and additions are still making to its eastern extremity.

The lighthouse on the north pier was erected in 1803. The light, which is stationary, is exhibited from sun-set to sun-rise, and is visible in clear weather at the distance of twelve miles. The light on the south pier is a tide-light, and is only shown when there is sufficient depth of water on the bar for ships to enter. This light is of a red colour, and for these last two years has not been shown from the lighthouse, but from the top of a long pole, which is fixed at the extremity of the South pier. By day a flag is hoisted during tide-time. At full and change of the moon it is high water at Sunderland bar at three o'clock; and the average depth of water at spring tides is about sixteen feet; at neaps about twelve.

The image at left comes from an offering by 'martin2001' of Virginia, U.S.A. The other comes from an expired offering of 'antiqueportrait' of Dorset, U.K. Both listing images are truly giant, & what I provide below are, in comparison, just large thumbnails. Both vendors must have devoted a lot of time to the creating their listings.


Len Charlton referred extensively above to the first Hudson Dock which was opened with much ceremony by Prince Albert in 1850. The foundation stone for such dock was laid on Feb. 4, 1848. The occasion was referenced in the Feb. 12, 1848 edition of Illustrated London News ('ILN'). With an illustration of George Hudson laying such stone (below) & with the following words. Words which were at times difficult to read - the following is therefore the webmaster's 'best efforts' transcription of the available ILN text.

YESTERDAY week was an auspicious day for the port of Sunderland, inasmuch as it was devoted to the ceremonious commencement of an undertaking which will, doubtless, prove an important event in the commercial history of the place. This was the Laying of the Foundation-Stone of the New Docks at Sunderland, which was performed on the 4th inst., by George Hudson, Esq., M.P., in the presence of a vast concourse of spectators.
  The day was generally a holiday : the bells of the parish church - "the poor man's only music" - pealed forth during the morning ; the vessels in the harbour were decorated with flags, and banners were displayed at all the principal works and public establishments in the town. The parties who were to take an active part in the ceremony, met in the Exchange Buildings, and walked thence in procession to the Docks ; to view which, the streets, and the windows of the houses were crowded with spectators.
  On arriving at the site of the stone, Mr. Murray, the Engineer of the Company, who is the projector of the undertaking, delivered to Mr. Hudson the tools to be employed by him on the occasion, and the articles to be placed in a cavity which had been prepared in the stone.
  Mr. Hudson, on receiving the sealed bottle, placed it in the cavity of the stone, the remaining space of which was filled up with gutta percha, which was poured into it in a semi-fluid state. It was then covered with a zinc plate, which bore the following inscription:-
  The foundation-stone of the Sunderland Dock was laid on Friday, the 4th of February, 1848, by the Directors ; George Hudson, Esq., Chairman; Christopher Bramwell, Esq., Deputy-Chairman ; the Lord Mayor of York, David Jonesohn?, Esq., Thomas Brown, Esq., Richard Spoor, Esq., William Ord, Esq., Thos. Reed, Esq., R. Davies, Esq., Nicholas Wood, Esq., J. Clay, Esq. : Engineer, J. E. Murray, Esq., : Solicitors, J. J. Wright Esq., and George Walton Wright, Esq., : Secretary, Mr. Coxon : Contractors, J. Craven and Sons.
  The cement was then spread over the surface, and Mr. Bramwell handed a silver trowel to Mr. Hudson, wherewith to adjust it.
  The stone, which had been suspended by the usual means during these proceedings, was then lowered into its intended site ; and Mr. Hudson, having applied the rule and square, and thereby ascertained that is was properly adjusted, struck it three blows with the mallet. Mr. Hudson then delivered the inaugural oration.
  The Directors of the Company and a large party of individuals afterwards dined together in the Bridge Hotel ; and the proceedings of the day were closed by a grand ball in the Atheneum, which was attended by upwards of a thousand of the elite of the community.



For your pleasure & interest.

An image which does not relate to Len Charlton's article above & almost certainly does not relate to Sunderland either - but surely merits inclusion somewhere on site. The 'A Little Ship' image pleases me each time I look at it & may well please you also. The postcard was an eBay item, published by Lilywhite, which did not sell, for GBP 4.99, on Feb. 19, 2012. By vendor cobwebpostcards. A fine image indeed, slightly modified for better presentation on this page.

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