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First an index to the page.


'The Coal Mines & the Staiths' - an illustrated article by Len Charlton


'The Staiths in Sunderland' - where they were in central Sunderland, with a map.


'George Stephenson and the Hetton Railway' - an article by Len Charlton about Stephenson's pioneering 1822 railway line.


'Lambton Drops' - beside the bridges - what they looked like - now a distant memory!


'Hendon Staiths in South Dock' - not a lot of data on the subject yet. Hopefully more soon.


'The First Coal Drops in Sunderland' - John Neasham & the Hetton Staiths - a Len Charlton article.


'Gill Bridges' - there were many of them over the years - a fine Len Charlton illustrated history.


'Mysterious Structures at the Gill' - What are they? - A question asked by Len Charlton. And now answered.


'The Staiths Up River at Washington' - an introduction to a Keith Cockerill 17 minute slide show..


'How Did The Coal Drops/Staiths Work?' - just a modest start on an interesting subject. Need help!


'Mining Terms' - A place to note unusual terms used in coal mining.


An introduction

For a long time now, there clearly has been a need to expand these pages & attempt to cover, in part at least, the history of the coal mines and staiths of the Sunderland area. A subject of particular interest to the webmaster having seen many most interesting images of the coal staiths located on the south bank of River Wear just to the west of the bridges. Coal 'staiths', incidentally, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, are structures used for the loading of coal into the holds of the waiting ship. One such image is next. Which shows the railway lines & coal cars at the Lambton staiths & the collier Fenton at dock to be loaded with coal (actually the outermost of 2 ships at the staiths). I hope that others will find the image, as I do, to be visually of great interest.

You might like to know that the Fenton, of 784 tons gross, was built in Sunderland in 1876 by Austin & Hunter, a few hundred yards only from where she is shown in the image below. I am not aware of the date of the image but suspect it must be very soon after the Fenton was completed.

And another fine image, which can be see in a much larger size here. Do view it in the larger size! An image which could usefully be on a great many of the pages of this Sunderland site. Since it covers so much of Sunderland's history in a single glance. The Hetton staithes at left, Wearmouth Colliery in the right distance, a vessel being moved up the narrow river by two paddle tugs - what a sweep of Sunderland history in a single image. For which we thank Meg Hartford. It comes, Meg advises, from an old album of photos of Sunderland & Roker produced by Valentine and Sons Ltd., postcard vendors of course, of Dundee and London. Likely in the early 1900s, i.e. the Edwardian era. Do view it in the larger size!

The Lambton Staithes are of course in the left foreground. And, unless I am mistaken, the tall Hetton Staithes can be seen in the left far distance.

The above staiths are not there any more, of course, and for those who remember them are but a distant memory. For many indeed the subject is totally new. I remember, when this site commenced a number of years ago, a good friend of the site who lived, in fact, really close to the bridges in central Sunderland, did not know that the staiths had ever existed there at all. My words are not intended in any way to be criticism. Many of today's residents of the city of Sunderland, seeing the green & footpathed river banks at the bridges today, have no awareness of the gritty industrial scene that existed on both sides of the river at that very spot until relatively recently. Recently? About 50 years ago.

It may surprise you to know that the webmaster is not from Sunderland or the North-East himself, has no family association whatsoever with the city & has never even visited it. The webmaster lives in fact, in Toronto, in far away Ontario, Canada. I mention this with a view to saying that I personally have no local knowledge of the city & welcome therefore information, images etc. from those who share an interest in the subject matter & who do have the knowledge that I clearly lack. This by way of introducing the following italicized text, kindly written especially for the site by Len Charlton. A start at least, on what Len himself describes as a 'complicated subject'.

The coal mines and the staiths - by Len Charlton

The massive coal deposits in the North East became essential for the steam engines and foundries developing country-wide during the Industrial Revolution. The Wear and Tyne became the main coal exporters and the North East changed from an essentially rural community to one based on mining, shipbuilding and exporting. The fish quays become wharfs, docks were built, staiths were developed, and as small wooden ships frequently built up river were replaced by larger ships, the rivers were dredged deeper, and bigger shipbuilding yards built downstream. This industrialisation was further hastened when wooden ship construction changed to iron and steel and then to steam.

Digging out surface coal went back to earliest times. By the mid 1700s, small surface mines were using horse and rope hauled waggon ways to move coal to nearby depots. And by the 1790s, some 25 local pits were supplying 10 staiths on the Wear near Penshaw to load 'keel boats'.

'Keel boats' were shallow draught boats with oars or poles, about 40 ft. long, with both ends pointed, (as you can see above and next), which used the tides or a sail to take the coal to the waiting ships at Wearmouth.

Staiths were originally just storage depots with chutes down which the coal was dropped into the ships. This broke up the coal, however, so machinery was designed to swing out over the river & lower the wagons into ship's holds.

This became the normal method but the capital cost of railways & staiths was high & in County Durham several land-owning families had become heavily involved. The Lambton family had developed collieries & waggonways for over 250 years, their interests extending from Sherburn Colliery (near Durham) down river to Penshaw.

In 1819, John Lambton acquired a cable & horse line to staiths located on the Wear causing the keelmen, who saw the end of their trade in sight, to riot.

Deep mining, which required driving shafts through the limestone overlay to reach the rich seams beneath, started in 1822 when the Hetton Coal Company, Limited successfully drilled 900 foot deep shafts at the Hetton Colliery, located 6 miles ENE of Durham.

This success was soon copied, resulting in such a rapid expansion of coal extraction that the use of keels (keel boats) became impractical. But there was a big problem.


To take coal from the 'Hetton' mine to Wearmouth meant running over 8 miles of undulating land with a 600 foot high point at Warden Law, around West Sunderland and then down to the new staiths.

(Webmaster's comment. Above right is an early image of the Hetton Colliery. With a George Stephenson locomotive pictured. Click the image to see it in a larger size.)

However steam locomotives were developing rapidly, heralding new methods of transport and so George Stephenson was called in. He decided to use 7 chaldron trains drawn at different points by locomotives, by fixed engine/cable, by gravity & by horse. Shipments started in 1822, and within 5 years had reached 120,000 chaldrons a year. Three more deep pits, those at Eppleton (1, 2), Elemore and Silksworth later fed into this one railway, the 'Hetton Railway', supplying the Hetton Staiths located west of Wearmouth Bridge. The whole system was so revolutionary that many engineers came from abroad to marvel at it.

The Vane Tempest family were known as the 'Londonderry's' from Irish titles that they held and their ownership of mining interests in the Seaham area. In 1830, Lord Londonderry had opened a colliery at Rainton and built a new line from there to Seaham where a harbour & staiths had been built This line crossed the Hetton/Sunderland line and also used both cable hauled and gravity. It is claimed that a passenger coach was sometimes attached to the trains which must have given a lengthy and complicated journey.

On the Wear, Monkwearmouth Colliery had now opened directly opposite the Hetton Staiths and started supplying their own staiths on the North bank. This colliery was, at the time, the deepest mine in the world with working faces over 1500 ft. underground.

The sheer volume of coal exports plus demands for other shipping freight had raised the urgent need for new docks and the South Docks at Sunderland were opened in 1850 with 13 coal drops. Access was originally from the river but later the docks were expanded with a new sea access and were then supplying some 20 colliers.

As more powerful steam locomotives took over from cable haulage and new pits were opened, the railway lines became interconnected and in 1853 the Londonderry railway system was extended by a line running along the coast from Seaham to their new Sunderland South docks. With a passenger station in Hendon.

In 1850, Lambton who was supplying the Lambton Staiths alongside the Hetton and Monkwearmouth Staiths now branched his line to have the option of sending coal around Sunderland to South Docks. This line became even busier when it was fed by coal from mines on the north of the Wear over the Queen Alexandra bridge built in 1909 with a railway level running above the roadway level. In 1911, he took over and combined the Hetton systems with his own.

These were the years of Industrial Sunderland which ran on through WW2 until the colliery closures in the 1950s. The staiths by the bridge, in conjunction with the staiths at South Dock been thriving for some 100 years but the old Hetton line finally closed in 1959 and the remaining lines and staiths had closed by 1967. With the collieries and coal export trade over, it was a bad time for Sunderland but worse was to come. Shipping freight was changing to a new world of huge container ships and tankers supplying a few specialised deep water ports and the Wearside docks and shipyards died as rapidly as had the mines.

Len Charlton
Abingdon, Oxfordshire
Jan. 3, 2009


There were a number of coal 'staiths' in Sunderland, & more were located up river. In Sunderland itself, they were in three areas as follows. i) To the west of the bridges on the south bank of River Wear, i.e. the Hetton & Lambton Staiths/Drops, ii) On the north bank of River Wear, also west of the bridges, to serve the needs of Wearmouth Colliery, located where the 'Stadium of Light' is today, i.e. the Wearmouth Drops. And iii) in South Dock, the western side of which was lined with coal drops. I will take them in turn. First the Hetton & Lambton Staiths/Drops.

I find it to be helpful, and maybe you will also, to see a map of the area with the coal staiths clearly marked. And the 1897 Ordnance Survey Map is just perfect for that purpose. As you can next see. In fact, the map section shows not only the Hetton & Lambton Staiths/Drops but also the Wearmouth Drops on the north side of the river.

At bottom right, then, in the map section below, are the two bridges over the River Wear, side by side. From right to left then, on the south bank are first the 'Lambton Drops' and then, beyond a timber yard, the 'Hetton Staiths'. With 12 & 7 drops respectively. While across the river, on the north side, the 'Wearmouth Drops' can be seen, with 5 drops. The map is, now, an 'image-map'. Click on the boxes outlined in red to go directly to the related text.

It is interesting also, to see again an image of the scene in 1842, before the area on the south bank had been so developed. That image can see seen here.

Motive power was provided by horses from the earliest times. And even later at transfer depots & at the staiths. As you can see next as strong carthorses pull chaldrons of coal in this industrial image (an image at Lambton Drops, however, absent a Hetton related similar image. The full image can be seen here.) 

Now there are, however, many images of the Lambton Drops (below). Perhaps the elevated railway tracks provided a fine place from which to photograph the Lambton Drops, a vantage point not possible re the Hetton Staiths? And in the other direction, an image of Lambton Drops would naturally include the most photogenic paired bridges of Sunderland. If you can provide a print or a photograph of Hetton Staiths for inclusion here, it would be most welcome.

But the 'Hetton Railway' referred to in Len Charlton's article above was truly world famous, the very first such railway in the world. And here is a fine article about that railway, also written by Len Charlton.


In the early 1800's, Hetton-le-hole was just a small mining village near Houghton-le-Spring in Co. Durham. Hetton was surrounded by many old mines working shallow seams of coal and using horse wagonways to nearby staiths at Penshaw. Some thought that much larger coal deposits lay deeper and in 1819 the Hetton Coal Company was formed to take the costly risk of sinking deep shafts. At 900 ft the gamble paid off and a plan was formulated to move bulk coal direct to staiths 8 miles away near the new Wearmouth bridge. There were soon to be many more shafts and mines using this railway.

Most believed the task to be quite impossible. Apart from the distance, the route ran across a range of hills and rough open terrain before running round West Sunderland to the staiths which still had to be built in a cliffside. Seeking experienced help the company decided to call in George Stephenson to survey the route and see how it might be done.

Born in 1781 at Wylam in Northumberland, (15 km west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne). George Stephenson was, by 1800, working as a colliery enginewright at Killingworth Colliery. By studying locomotive tests of various modes of drive (gear, chain, direct etc) and different types of rail (plain, flanged, rack etc.) he had decided the way forward was to use direct piston drive on to flanged wheels running on flat rails bellied to prevent breakages. He had already built a number of successful locomotives when the Hetton management called for him. His brother Robert was following in his footsteps and joined in the survey.

George's survey reported that the line traversed:-

A level run of 3 miles from the colliery to Copt Hill. And then
A steep climb up Copt Hill followed by a decline requiring brakes.
Then the long climb of some 600 ft. to Warden Law summit.
Followed by a two mile decline before a longer slight slope to Sunderland.
Then through the built up areas where the line gets steeper before leading into the staiths to be built in the riverside cliffs.


Webmaster's comment. At left below is George Stephenson's first railway locomotive. It was constructed in 1814 for use at Killingworth Colliery, and was named 'Blücher', after Prussian general 'Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher', who arrived in the nick of time & after a speedy march at the Battle of Waterloo, helped defeat Napoleon.

George had many decisions to make.

Whereas level areas could use locomotives, they were not powerful enough for hills which would need rope railways. For many years these had been used for coal transport - a downhill train of loaded wagons connected to a long rope loop would pull a train of empty wagons uphill. These self activating (gravity) declines required no power but to pull loaded wagons uphill, a steam engine at the top of the rope loop was used (with assistance from the empties being returned).

Both gravity and powered systems often used a single track with an automatically switched passing rail at the midpoint. There would be an operator at the top with rope brakes or engine controls and a limited view of the line (which was often curved). However the actual trains were unbraked and unmanned and were highly dangerous. Anyone wishing to cross the line could easily watch a train clatter past and then walk into the path of the train going in the other direction on the same lines.

As well as haulage methods he had to consider the weather which could be atrocious in the open country and arrange the leases and wayleaves required with landowners some of whom were very obstructive. It was a massive undertaking but he agreed to take up the challenge using Robert as the resident engineer.

When the Hetton line opened, on Nov. 18, 1822, it was run with 5 locomotives, two steam engines for rope pulled sections and five gravity inclines.

The image that follows is the top portion of an image, available on the fine 'Pictures in Print' site. Showing the route of Hetton Railway from the mines at Hetton, at extreme right, to the river at Hetton Staiths, at extreme left. The original, a ca.1822 print by Jules Bouvier, can be seen here. Note: it is possible that the image below will not show properly on your browser. If that is so, you may access the image here, & scroll it on your own computer screen.

Next below:- At left ... Stephenson's & Nicholas Wood's 'Hetton' locomotive of 1822. Five of these locomotives were at work when the Hetton Railway opened on Nov. 18, 1822, witnessed by crowds of spectators. A grand spectacle indeed! Each locomotive travelled at about four miles an hour, & dragged after it a train of 17 wagons or chaldrons, weighing about sixty-four tons. At right ... Stephenson's 'Hetton' locomotive in York Museum. I am not sure that I understand the references to this locomotive. This site, low on the page, referring to a 1933 magazine, indicates the engine 'was used on the Hetton Railway in 1822, was rebuilt in 1857 and again in 1882, when link motion was fitted. The engine was actually in harness until 1913, and under its own steam it proudly led the Railway Centenary procession of old and modern locomotives at Darlington, on July 2nd, 1925. The “Hetton” now stands on show—a rare monument to the genius of Stephenson and his colleagues, and a rare inspiration for the railwaymen of to-day.' Can they really have rebuilt the engine at left & made it look like the very different engine at right, incorporating 'new technology'. Maybe the left image is suspect? It was entitled 'Hetton Engine as Built' & came from 'Strickland's Reports on Canals, Railways, Roads, and other subjects' of 1826.

The section to Copt Hill used locomotives. Then a steam engine section pulled the trains up Copt Hill to a second steam engine section up Warden Law, one of the highest hills in the district. From there it was down hill for some three miles and four gravity declines were used. Steam locomotives were then used for the trains round the Sunderland suburbs up to a final gravity decline down to the Staiths. The reason for splitting the three mile run into four sections was both to reduce section lengths and to maximise the running capacity of the line. The system worked well, but in 1825 the locomotives at Sunderland were replaced by gravity declines because of costs and damage being caused to the embankments by the locomotive action. For many years locomotives would only be used at the colliery end.

It must have been hectic at each transfer point with wagon trains being re-coupled from one set of lines to another, no doubt using horses plus sweat and ripe language.

Any accident, derailment or machinery problem would affect the whole system and surely there must have been empty and full trains stored at strategic points to keep everything moving. The staiths themselves stored trains which had to be broken into individual wagons to run onto the drops and many pictures show horses playing a major role. The whole point was that each individual wagon carried the coal loaded at the pit head right up to the ship's hold.

At left is Mr. George Stephenson. Site visitors, interested in learning more about him, might well commence at the many biographies which are WWW available including this one at Wikipedia. I should mention that George was provided with most limited funds with which to construct the Hetton Railway. As the following attests. 'The character of the country forbade the construction of a flat line, or one of comparatively easy gradients, except by the expenditure of a much larger capital than was placed at Stephenson's command. Heavy works could not be executed; it was therefore necessary to form the line with but little deviation from the natural conformation of the district which it traversed, and also to adapt the mechanical methods employed for its working to the character of the gradients, which in some places were necessarily heavy.' No big budgets then!

Mining and railway engineers from far and wide flocked to see this achievement and George Stephenson's fame became world-wide. Even before the line opened, 200 new houses had been built at Hetton, and the once tiny village quickly turned into a thriving community joined to Houghton-le-Spring.

This was the new age and although the Stockton-Darlington passenger line which opened in 1825 is often presented as the birth of the railway age, it was the Hetton Coal line that proved it was possible.

One hundred years later, I was a small boy growing up in the Thornhill district of Sunderland. An early memory was being taken to see the last silver rivet being put in the new Wearmouth bridge in 1929. The staiths were adjacent to the bridge and were of more interest to me than the opening ceremony. At home my brother and I could sometimes hear from our bedroom the wagons rattling along the Hetton Colliery line nearby. They were then pulled by small locomotives although my mother could remember rope haulage.

I could cycle the route which ran from open country through a tunnel then along embankments and cuttings down towards the river. I would also cycle with a friend up to Warden Law then a worked-out quarry but I was at the time unaware of its railway significance and somehow missed finding the engine house and lines. For me railways meant the Flying Scotsman and other famous express trains then offering expensive but highly luxurious travel. Locomotives which had reached the very peak of steam engineering ran, polished and gleaming, pulling famous trains of immaculate carriages over long distances at high speeds. Given priority over all other traffic they ran non-stop by picking up water from troughs and sometimes using double coal tenders. These trains were indeed the 'Concorde's' of their time.

(Webmaster's comment. The 'Flying Scotsman' service has run, every day at 10 am, from King's Cross Station in London to Edinburgh via Newcastle. And has done so since 1862! With many different engines over that time. This engine, #4472, served for many years, and is now preserved in the National Railway Museum in York. This would have been the engine that served when Len Charlton was a child.

The photograph at right was taken in 2003, at Doncaster Works, where the locomotive was built in 1923. Do click the image to see it in its splendid full size at Wikipedia Commons.


I could dream of travelling all the way to London in about 4 hours, while eating a splendid dinner served by waiters and saw no connection at all with the dirty old chaldrons clattering along the embankments nearby.

One can only wonder what George Stephenson, surveying his new rope railway from a cold and windy hill top, would have made of it all.

Len Charlton
Abingdon, Oxfordshire
Jan. 13, 2009

I do hope that you find the above 'content' to be of interest. BUT... the section lacks an image or images of Hetton Staiths. A major omission! If you have an image of them, do please consider providing it (or them) to the webmaster for inclusion in this page. But now see here.


Later Lord Lambton built a railway line to some new drops closer to the bridges, i.e. the Lambton Drops, & indeed tunnelled under the Hetton railway lines to other do so. The two sets of staiths/drops (i.e. Hetton & Lambton) were separated by a timber yard as you can see in the map above. Later on still, in 1911, Lord Lambton took over the Hetton Staiths & all of the drops on the south bank became his property.

The next images, of very early postcards, shows the Lambton Drops taken from the west and a view of the eastern end of the Lambton Drops. I suspect that the lower image dates from the 1880s with the top image rather later. There was another card identical to the top card below but with the red lettering in the right top corner, as you can see here.

The following image is the only image I so far recall seeing that shows what appears to be a walkway, built high above the railway tracks at the eastern end of the Lambton Drops. If I am correct however, that walkway was still there in 1897 (but is gone in the image immediately above). It is, I believe, faithfully recorded at bottom right in the above map. A similar postcard was sold on Aug. 13, 2011, for GBP 10.50 or U.S. $16.58. A postcard published by M. A. Boyack, of Sunderland, postmarked in 1917.

The next splendid image, was provided to the webmaster by a kindly site visitor, who purchased it in 2011, he tells me, at the Sunderland City Information Centre. It is a beauty! You can click the image that follows for a larger version. Note however, that the caption is incorrect! The image shows 'Lambton Staiths' only. 'Hetton Staiths' were a little further west & were behind the photographer when he took his photograph back in 1910. As you can readily determine from data elsewhere on this page. I tried to adjust the image to make it a black & white, but I am not sure that I like the result. I trust that including the image here, on this non-profit & informational site, is OK to the good folks at the 'Sunderland City Information Centre', which may correctly be the 'Sunderland Tourist Information Centre', located at 50 Fawcett Street. I would be surprised if it will cause them any concern.

And the next image is of the staiths, taken from the north bank of the river & looking at the west end of Lambton Drops with Gill Bridge in the background. The image was taken by 'R. Neate', is copyright 'Northern Historical Images' & appears here with their kind permission. A fine image indeed! Which shows the 'delivery' or river side of the staiths.


Len Charlton refers in his article above to the South Docks at Sunderland being opened in 1850 with 13 coal drops. Along the western side of South Docks, of course.

A wonderful image next of 'Edenside', a small 'Rose Line' coaster of 365 tons, built at Newcastle, at the Hendon staiths. In the background at left is the 'Bartram' yard, with 'Alenquer' & 'Ambrizete' on the stocks prior to being launched stern-first into the harbour of the South Outlet. A part only of a 1948 image, believed to have originally published by the 'Sunderland Echo' - whom we sincerely thank. I now see that the image was reproduced on page 33 of 'Canny aad Sunlun ...', a large image indeed, of approximately 11 x 6 3/4 inches in size. 

The following, I thought, was taken at or near Gill Bridge, but Clive Ketley advises that it was in fact taken near the staiths at South Dock. What a splendid image! The image graces the cover of 'Canny aad Sunlun ...', published by Sunderland and Hartlepool Publishing and Printing Limited (Sunderland Echo) in 1983. And republished a number of times, including in 1991. The booklet does not, I was advised, identify the exact image location. But Clive Ketley came to my rescue! The image that I show is an e-Bay listing image, available here as this page is updated. I now see that the booklet does briefly describe the image - as being of four dockers walking to work in the South Docks at an unknown date, many years ago - words written in 1983.

A large version of the image is posted on the 'Sunderland Tugs and Shipbuilding in pictures' site on Facebook. Do drop by to best view it via 'Photo Viewer'.

On a sad note, Chris Wilson has been in touch asking for data about Coal Drop #21 at South Dock. That particular drop is of interest to Chris because his wife's grandfather, James Gordon Finley, died there on May 30, 1911 - run over by a coal truck, apparently. Just 28 years old - he lived at 3 Moorgate Street. If you can help Chris in his search for data, do be in touch with the webmaster who will pass your data on.

I am delighted to be able to provide next a splendid image taken in South Dock in 1951. Showing herring drifters from Peterhead, in an image stated to originate with the Sunderland Echo. It was posted on the 'Sunderland Tugs and Shipbuilding in pictures' pages at 'Facebook' - as you can see here. Click the image to view it in full size.


By 1800, the volume of coal requiring shipment from the Wear was such that transporting it by keelboats from up-river staiths had become an expensive bottleneck, & John Neasham, a Newbottle colliery owner, was thinking of a way to transport the coal to Sunderland where it could be loaded directly on to ships. Unfortunately the river banks between Wearmouth Bridge & the sea were difficult of access, but an area west of the bridge was then undeveloped & included a large garden belonging to Bishopwearmouth Rectory.

.... which stretched almost 30 acres to the riverside forming Rectory Park. William Paley gave a description of this park, ‘There is nearly a mile of wall planted with fruit trees, i.e. a rich field of ten acres surrounded with a well gravelled walk, gardens and shrubbery grounds commanding some pretty views of the banks of the Wear, two or three hot houses and a greenhouse.' On the west side of this was a dene known as the Rector's Gill. (Sunderland Antiquarian Society)

Rector's Gill became known as Galley's Gill, an extremely hilly riverside area with the Gill stream running through in a ravine & it was here, in 1812, that John Neasham built the very first of Sunderland's staiths at the end of a rope-hauled wagon way running from Newbottle via West Herrington and Grimdon Hill. I understand that this was much to the distress of the keelmen whose livelihood was threatened as a result.

John Neasham (ref. re Lambton Railway), (or maybe I. D. Nesham), owned  a group of pits at Newbottle & in or about 1812 he built a rope-hauled wagon-way from those collieries to the Wear.
John Lambton later acquired Neasham's staiths, & in 1822 the Hetton Staiths, built by Lambton's 'Hetton Coal Company, Limited', opened to handle coal brought overland from their Hetton Colliery using Stevenson's rope railway.

Where exactly were John Neasham's staiths, later the Hetton staiths? The best way to tell you is to show you. By providing what is really a very tiny section of an 1826 map, which used to be available from this marvellous but now dead site. The section shows clearly the locations of the John Neasham/Hetton Staiths (at left) & Lambton Drops (at middle), in relation to the 1759 bridge. And shows the course of Rector's Gill, & the route by which the coal wagons would have reached both parts of the riverside. The map is entitled 'Plan of the towns of Sunderland, Bishop Wearmouth and Monkwearmouth'. Engraved by W. & A. K. Johnston of Edinburgh, based upon a J. Wood survey.

An early drawing of the staiths was made by T. H. Hair ('Hair'), whose 1839 work is next shown, described in an 1844 volume (see below) in the following words:-

'The first staiths for the shipment of coals on the Wear were erected on the site displayed in our view in 1812, when three spouts were opened. The railways were brought to the western brink of a deep ravine, called "Galley's Gill," where an extensive depot was erected; and a strong bridge of timber, at a considerable inclination, was laid across the Gill, forming an inclined plane, down which the waggon-way was passed, and through a tunnel in a projecting rock (see View), to the spouts. The erection of these works caused a considerable sensation amongst the keelmen and casters of the Wear, then, for the first time, forced forced into competition with shipping staiths; and, several similar establishments having been talked about, on the afternoon of March 20, 1815, a great number of persons, chiefly belonging to the above professions, assembled in a riotous manner, and proceeded to pull down the wooden bridge, which they effected by means of ropes. They also set fire to the depot and machinery for lowering the waggons down the inclined plane; and one house in the neighbourhood was pulled down, and several others unroofed. Many persons were injured by the falling timbers, and one man was killed. At a late hour in the night, a party of dragoons arrived from Newcastle, and dispersed the mob. The injury was estimated at £6000.

Since that period, the depot has been restored, and the bridge superseded by an earthen mound; the road beneath being kept open by an arch of brick. The projecting rock, which formerly stretched out much further towards the river than at present, was cut away, to admit of the gears being extended in that quarter; and, about 1820, drops were introduced instead of the spouts. There are now eight drops extending from the lower or eastern side of the Gill, and three on the western side (not seen in our View), to which the coals are brought by another branch of the railway. The coals at present shipped here are those from the Earl of Durham's collieries, and those of Henry Stobart, Esq., at Lumley. The export of the Marquis of Londonderry's coals from hence is now discontinued; but those from Framwellgate Moor Colliery are expected to be brought hither. The drops here are capable of shipping 150 keels per day. They are differently constructed from those on the Tyne, the waggon being suspended from the extremity of a strong framing of beams, which turns on a central axle, and lowers its load to the deck of the vessel.

The partial image below, just of the staiths, appears next thanks to David Parkinson of the U.K., who kindly provided, in fact, the much larger complete image which is visible here for those who have an interest in seeing it. David, we thank you! And, I now find, the print is available at this wonderful web site.

Thomas H. Hair? A prolific artist & engraver, c.1830/1875, noted for his industrial drawings. Who published in 1844 a volume entitled 'A series of views of the collieries in the Counties of Northumberland and Durham'. It contained engravings/etchings of 35 (or 42) Hair watercolours with an accompanying descriptive text by M. Ross, I believe of Newcastle. The Sunderland drops related text is available here. The book was republished quite recently but I hesitate to provide the specifics, finding the republication data at 'Bookfinder' confusing indeed (I searched for T H Hair). And ... other 'Hair' volumes were published also at about the same time period in the 19th century.

At left, a 1973 image of the staiths, with Hetton Staiths in the distance. In a Stafford Linsey image, I understand.

It seems to me that the above image does not show us what the early Hetton Staiths looked like, even though the 'Hair' text talks of the 'first staiths'. In fact they would seem to have constituted a quite enormous structure, both in height & in length - in height since the drop to the river at that point, (to the west of the image above), was then so great & so very sheer. Images of Hetton Staiths can be seen in a number of places at the fine 'Pictures in Print' site. They are seen in an early form, at lower right, in this wonderful 'Hartley Glass Works' image, which I encourage you to view. The staiths are also visible in other 'Pictures in Print' images, specifically here & here. At the first of those links, the staiths are but a tiny part of the total image - & harder therefore for you to view. So I next provide a composite of the two images. The structure is stated to be 'The Hetton Staiths and Self Discharging Depot on the banks of the River Wear near Sunderland'.
An enormous structure, indeed!

A Feb. 2015 update - Fast forward to WW2. I next present an image of Zealous, a collier not built at Sunderland - rather built at Goole in 1902. It was at Hetton Drops when Sunderland was bombed by German aircraft on the night of Jun. 4, 1942. A bomb landed in the river & damaged Zealous moored alongside the Hetton Staiths. Fire Queen is busy pumping her out. Click the image below to see it in full size at Facebook's 'Sunderland Tugs & Shipbuilding in Pictures'. We thank 'Tyne & Wear Museums' for making the image available.



A vivid memory of my childhood was being woken from sleep by the sound of coal trains running along a railway embankment some four streets away. Sometimes I watched the trains as they clattered past my friend's backdoor but the colliery steam locomotives were too small to be of much interest to a small boy & the story that the railway was once rope-hauled all the way from Hetton sounded very unlikely to me. I was much more interested in Burn Park at the bottom of our street.

This was a small narrow ravine with a little foot-bridge over a stream running between big drains at each end of the park. I used the bridge daily to & from my first school & the stream was quite an attraction to a six year old. Normally just a trickle, it was deep & fast after rain, a story I greatly exaggerated to my friends. We just called it 'the burn' but one day an old uncle told me 'why lad that's the old Gill', & continued 'it goes right through Sunderland to the river at Deptford where it runs under Gill Bridge. Mind you it used to be much bigger..' Of course I knew Wearmouth bridge & Alexandra bridge but this was a new one, unknown to me & in fact it was not until I explored Sunderland's history that I realised that the coal wagons I had heard, & the stream I had watched so long ago, were on their way to run together under Gill Bridge to Wearmouth staiths.


At one time the area where the Gill ran into the river was owned by the church & known as Rector's Gill but it had also been called Galley's Gill to identify it as the shore where Danish Vikings first landed in AD866. Over the years some remains of boats said to be galleys have been found there & the name certainly has historical accuracy.

This is where, in 1812, the first Wearmouth staiths were built by John Neasham along with the first Gill bridge - which was in effect an inclined wagonway used to run the coal wagons from Deptford high ground down to Galley's Gill floor. As can be seen here, the area was very hilly & much effort was spent cutting back & tunnelling the cliffs. This bridge had a very short life indeed as it was wrecked by rioting keelmen in 1815. In the rebuild, the ravine was partially infilled & the stream diverted through a conduit so that the wagonway could run over the infill on a reduced incline & this was the system bought by Lambton in 1822.


Over the following years various small bridges were made to access parts of the Gill some of which appear on images of the staiths. But as surrounding industries & housing developed there was a need for a pedestrian bridge to run right over the staiths & railways. As the original rail bridge had now been filled in, the new pedestrian bridge acquired the old name. An 1837 map shows no trace of the new bridge but the 1850 map below (which came from this now dead site) shows it running from Dock St. near Wearmouth Bridge to Farringdon Row, which suggests the 1840s as the build period.

The undated image at left, kindly provided by author Keith Cockerill, is of great historical interest because it shows that the bridge (at right) included two 'trussed arch' iron sections spanning the deepest part of the gill.

The splendid next image, of 'Hartley Glass Works', shows that the iron arch bridge ran high across the gill, but pedestrian access to the bridge from the west was by a raised walkway, after the in-fill was completed.

Between 1850 & 1890, Lambton Staiths expanded even further & the railway was rerouted to run westwards from the staiths. In cutting the cliffs further back from the river, both Dock St. & the Gill Bridge were demolished. The bridge was replaced, some 150 yards to the south, by an all-timber bridge which ran from Fontaine Road & Gill Bridge Avenue in the east to a different point on Farringdon Row at its western end.

We do not know the exact date that this timber bridge, which at its deepest point ran over the Lambton rail depot, was built (probably in the 1880s), but we do know that in 1934 it was unsafe & was demolished by cutting the supports & using a Lambton locomotive to pull it away from the depot which is very obviously in danger in this photo. A 'British Pathé' News clip of its demolition can be seen here.

A new concrete Gill Bridge was built in exactly the same position & this is the bridge that appears in the background of many photographs of the staiths including this image.

It had always seemed that Gill Bridge was 'part of' the staiths but when the staiths themselves were finally closed in 1967 it was far too popular to be demolished. The 'Peter Liddle' image at right shows the bridge over the empty Lambton locomotive depot, with the entrance to the railway tunnel to Deptford behind, after all the rail tracks were removed.




The (renovated) concrete bridge still stands, but whereas it once ran over a hive of activity, it now runs over attractive riverside gardens with riverside walks (left). A fine new access to these gardens called Galley's Gill Road comes down from the old High Street West. Extensive roadworks have completely altered the old routes to the new gardens with the eastern approach through Gill Bridge Avenue now a cleared area once occupied by Vaux Brewery.

Similarly the westward end of the bridge at Farringdon Row, an area once occupied by Hartleys Glass Works & then by the Power Station, is today sadly just a dilapidated wilderness. There are advanced plans for offices & housing in both areas.

Gill stream still runs through Burn Park & the photograph at right, from Google 'Streets', shows that the little footbridge I crossed so often going to school, though no longer made of wood, is still in use as a very small 'Gill Bridge' in its own right.

Len Charlton


A follow-up:-


This is the logical spot to include an image of the interior of the railway shed pictured 3 images above. The image originates at 'Beamish', but was drawn to my attention by David Dixon, who comments:-
The image, above, of the engine shed on your site is from the rear & the back door is open. I assume that the photographer entered the shed on the same day to take the picture at left - I wonder if he knew the sheds were going to be demolished soon. It would appear that the doors are a different shape so this must be the front & the two pits would suggest space for two engines.
Also I initially thought that as children we did not go into the tunnels, which were open then. I have seen an image on the internet of the 'walled up' inside of one tunnel & I remember that. I thought they had done it to keep bad boys like us from going further into the tunnels but I have read it was the Hetton tunnel which was used as a 'headshunt' & was only 50 yards long. Used to reverse the direction of locomotives.
David, we thank you!


Len Charlton invites your thoughts as to the nature & purpose of some mysterious structures that were at the Gill - not in 1829 when the print is said to be dated but, Len believes, much earlier than 1829 - maybe in the very early 1820s or maybe even earlier.

The engraving which follows, drawn by W. (William) Westall A.R.A., (1781-1850), is Plate 104 from W. Westall's 'The Landscape Album; or Great Britain Illustrated', published by Charles Tilt of London in 1830. It is described as 'The River Above Sunderland Bridge'. 'Pictures in Print', the source (thanks so much!) of the engraving image which follows, states ... 'shows sailing ships on the river, with coal tubs awaiting loading, and, beyond, the iron works chimneys.'

The cluster of ships masts, partially visible at bottom left, is obviously at the mouth of the Gill virtually opposite what seems to be the lime works under construction. It is almost certainly drawn at the time of John Neasham's first opening up his staiths at Sunderland.

But what are the two mysterious tall latticed structures at bottom left, structures which are attached to the cliffs alongside the masts & sails of the ships? They could hardly be used as coal drops or staiths & a shrewd guess would be that they served as wind deflectors which could be positioned to direct wind into the sails of ships to manoeuvre them into or away from the mouth of the Gill. They each seem to have a large vane & pivot (maybe each) on tall tower structures - like a weather vane atop a barn, perhaps. Might they have been mechanically linked? Do view closely the next images.

Len Charlton indicates that he has not spotted similar structures amongst other images of staiths & docks at 'Pictures in Print' or at any other sources. Information about their purpose would be most welcome.

A modified version of the image that also shows well these strange structures.

Thanks to Andy Guy we now have an answer to Len's question. They were not wind deflectors - rather they were steam-powered cranes used to move coal from a keelboat into the hold of a waiting collier. Shown at rest. The illustrations above do not show, on each of the masts (or vanes or jibs, as you wish), a critical component - a central wheel or hub around which the cable ran which permitted the cranes to be operated.

Andy explains that breakage of the coal was a significant issue & that William Chapman & John Buddle developed a ‘tub’ system for the Lambton collieries, in an attempt to reduce the breakage of the coal.

Coal would be brought to the staiths by the keelboats not loose but rather in 'tubs' - bins whose bottoms could be opened up to discharge their contents. The keelboat would be positioned between the dock & the waiting collier & a cable from the crane's jib would be attached to a tub in the keelboat. Power applied to the central hub would, as the mast rotated, lift the tub both upwards & outwards over the hold of a waiting ship, where the tub's bottom would be opened & the coal discharged. It does not look to have been an easy process. The cranes would seem to have been in a fixed location & likely could not swing from side to side. So both the keelboat & the collier would need to be moved forwards or backwards to permit the coal to be evenly spread in the vessel's hold. And a queue of keelboats would be needed to fill a single ship with delays as each keelboat was moved to the fixed unloading position.

Andy directs me to a book by Terry Powell for illustrations of the crane, which was proudly featured on Lambton's letterhead. That book, entitled 'Staith to Conveyor: an illustrated history of coal shipping machinery’ was published by Chilton Ironworks, of Houghton-le-Spring, in 2000. The book's cover. Andy adds that it was John Buddle who introduced the crane in 1817.

Perhaps soon, we may be able to show here illustrations of such cranes. Maybe somebody has a photograph?

Robert Hunter adds that they were known as 'Gears'. And required the assistance of a fixed steam engine. They were not successful as the use of drops and later spouts continued to the end.


Visitors to the site will surely recognise the name of Keith Cockerill, who has kindly provided both text & images about Sunderland, for use throughout the site. Keith is both a keen photographer & an author. Two of his books are i) 'Bridges of the River Wear', published in 2005 in the 'People's History Series', and ii) 'Sunderland Through Time', published in 2009 by Amberley Publishing. Both are referred to here. They are also referenced here, along with Keith's third book, published late in 2010.

Now, Keith combines his skills & provides for your interest & enjoyment a 17 minute slide show about the long-gone staiths of Washington, staiths that were used for as long as two centuries for the carriage of coal, by keelboat, downriver to the waiting ships at the mouth of the Wear.

Keith refers, in his slide show, (link below), to the coal being moved, in the early days, from pit to staith by means of horses pulling loaded wagons on wooden rails - and here is a fine image that shows just that - coal being moved by horse power to a staith building or depot where it was stored as required & then loaded into waiting keelboats. We thank 'Pictures in Print' for this wonderful & so appropriate image - you can view it in, indeed, at their site in a much greater size. The print, by 'E. Barrass, mathematician of Chester-le-Street', was published in 'London Magazine' in Jan. 1766.

Here are Keith's words of introduction to his slide show, which he entitles:-

The Keelboats of Sunderland

The growth of Sunderland as a town and port was greatly influenced by its expanding coal trade. In the 19th and 20th centuries, overland colliery railways carried ever-increasing quantities of coal from the Durham Coalfield to the river and docks at Sunderland to be shipped either abroad or down the coast to London.

Before the development of colliery railways however, a very different mode of transport was used – the river itself. From the 17th century, coal was carried from local collieries down wooden-railed waggonways by horse and gravity to the many staiths on the rivers edge at Washington. Here it was transferred into keelboats and taken downriver to Sunderland for transfer into ocean going collier brigs.

For 40 years in the 19th century, both the colliery railway and river transport systems complemented each other, but the ever-increasing efficiency and capacity of the overland railways eventually sounded the death knell for the keelboat trade.

Today, Washington’s riverside offers the rambler many enjoyable walks in a peaceful rural setting, but few appreciate how busy this working river once was. Keith Cockerill has used an 1826 map of the Wear by John Rennie to identify and photograph the remains of the old staiths and quays along the river's edge at Washington. He has produced a slideshow with a musical accompaniment and has added a written commentary based on the observations of 19th century Sunderland author Taylor Potts.

Please click on this link to view the slideshow.

For a full-screen version of the show, contact Keith at


Somewhere in these pages, I have, I know, asked the question 'how did the coal drops work?' It is not a question that I can yet answer, however it is apparent that there may be a number of answers to that question since there were a number of designs for the coal drops. They were not all built to the same design.

An early depiction of a coal drop or staith follows. Ex the wonderful 'Pictures in Print' web site, specifically at this very page. The image would seem to be at an unknown date after 1858. This particular image was published, I see, in 1872. Surely an early example of such a facility.

A kind site visitor has provided me with an image (below) which shows the coal drops used at Hendon Dock until 1897. Much later than the image above. It shows the workings of a drop of that period very well indeed, & depicts a wagon being lowered into the hold of collier Glannibanta. Yet another vessel that needs to be included in these pages! Of 853 tons, built by Joseph L. Thompson & Sons in 1875.

It would seem that the coal wagon must have been turned in some way since it is shown parallel to the water frontage. It is not clear to me what happened when it was lowered to the ship. Was it tipped? Or did the bottom open up in some way to release its contents? It seems to me that its bottom must, however, have opened up, or else the pile of coal below would not be in the central position in which it is shown.

It would seem that this illustration appeared (or maybe reappeared since it appears to date from the 19th century), in 'The Steam Collier Fleets', a 226 page volume by J. A. MacRae & C. V. Waine, published in 1990 & again in 1995 by 'Waine Research Publications' of Wolverhampton. ISBN # 0905184122, as you can read here. Which page indicates Jim A. MacRae alone to be the author, I think incorrectly.

But the coal drop illustrated looks to my eye to be rather different from the drops at Lambton & Hetton, as depicted above.


A page section added as a result of a guestbook message re an unusual Durham coal mining term.

Carbon arse. Thanks to Stan Taylor, I can advise that 'Carbon arse', a term used in the Durham coal pits, was a corruption of 'Carboniferous Trees', i.e. trees that had been fossilised over millions of years within a seam of coal. A tree which had been so fossilised in an upright position would naturally be tapered inwards at its top. And due to that tapering were naturally unstable - indeed they were notorious for dropping without warning from the pit roof when disturbed by a coal hewer. Stan adds that carboniferous trees were usually supported by shoring immediately they were discovered, to avoid possible death & injury to miners. Readers might be interested in visiting this page where images of 'carboniferous trees' are available.

May I suggest that you navigate the site via the index on page 001.PRIOR PAGE / NEXT PAGE

To top of page £ é

Thomas M. M. Hemy Data Pages 01, 02 and 03 are now on site. Plus all of the other image pages, accessible though the index on page 05.

To MV Danmark Slider Puzzle page & to the Special Pages Index.

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A site on the north bank of River Wear immediately to the west of the iron road bridge & later immediately west of both of the road & rail bridges. A shipbuilding site for generations. The shipbuilders I am aware of who had shipbuilding yards at that location are Philip & John Laing, (1793/1818), George Peverall, (from 1861 until the site lay idle), & Robert Thompson & Sons (1880/1933). There surely were many other builders at the site.

CHALDRON A unit of dry measure formerly used in England, equal to 4 quarters or about 32 bushels for grain & 36 bushels for coal. Applied to coal, a chaldron was equal to 36 bushels heaped up or in weight about 2,837 pounds. A complete definition of the word is a subject in itself, witness this page.

WREATH QUAY A site on the north bank of River Wear a distance to the west of Bridge Dock & opposite Hetton Staiths. See the top map above, to see exactly where it was. As for most river sites in Sunderland, a shipbuilding site for generations. The shipbuilders I am aware of who had shipbuilding yards at that general location are John Barkes, 1838-1869, Geo. Barker, 1853-1870, & T. & B. Tiffin, 1810-1857. There surely were many other builders at the site over the years.