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«Docks and Port Driven by the needs of the coal trade, port and harbour were dramatically transformed over the course of several centuries. These ...»

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Docks and Port

Driven by the needs of the coal trade, port and harbour were dramatically

transformed over the course of several centuries. These improvements in turn

stoked a relentless expansion in coal sales. The insignificant medieval fishing village

had already developed into a small but flourishing port, based on salt and coal

exports, in 1600. While still referred to as a creek belonging to Newcastle, in reality

Sunderland was already a significant seaport by the 1630s. 1

Sunderland was largely concerned with trans-shipment, moving coal from river craft into ocean-going vessels. The colliers brought in great quantities of sand ballast, the disposal of which intensified problems at the river’s mouth, where shifting sandbanks, unregulated building on the riverbanks and abandoned boats were obstacles to negotiating the winding and fast-flowing waters. Yet this was, at least before long-distance railways, the only feasible outlet from the Wear coalfield, around New Bridge at Lumley. Wear coal-owners and, increasingly, commercial interests within Sunderland itself had ample reason to invest in harbour improvements. Potential profits dwarfed the costs of port development, colossal though those were. 2 The process of developing inland and overseas trades was aided by Dutch sea charts and navigational guides published from 1586, when Lucas Aurigarius noted a ‘promontory commonly called Sunderland’ in his atlas Speculum Nautic. Aurigarii.

Blaevw’s The Sea-Mirror offered specific guidance to sailors in 1625: ‘on the north point stands a beacon in the water, there you must run in…’ and beyond that, past the river’s entrance, is ‘a narrow place, where a long ship shall scarce be able to wend, within it, it is wide enough, and every where good anchor ground’.

Bishopwearmouth and its fine anchorage were mentioned in later Dutch atlases, in 1637 and 1670.

Capt. Greenville Collins, hydrographer to Charles II, charted the entire coastline during the 1680s, noting that Sunderland lies at four leagues to the north of Hartlepool, and seven miles to the south of Tynemouth bar. It is a tide haven, where at high water, a spring tide, is 12 ft.

water, and 2 ft. at low water; but within Lady Hole there is 21 ft. at high water on a spring tide, and nine at low water. A little within the bar, just without the mouth of the river are two beacons, called the Stell beacons, as you enter the Lady Hole, and there you lie by the quay side of Sunderland. Great colliers, that are laden with coals, and have not water enough over the Stell, take in the remainder of their coals in the road, brought out in keels.

Here, Collins confirms that, even at this early date, coal was often transferred from keel to sea-going collier out at sea, to avoid fully-laden ships grounding in the harbour entrance. The ‘road’ led northwards out of the river mouth; Lady Hole was the point where the river narrowed on passing Sunderland and the custom house.

Evidently a second beacon had been placed since Blaevw’s account of 1625. 3 As trade grew, ballast-dumping aggravated the silting and congestion in the harbour.

Ships shed ballast at the quays, before filling up with coals or salt, but as larger vessels found increasing difficulty in approaching the quayside, keels and lighters carried away their sand ballast and took coal out to them. Early in the 17th century, the bishop ‘for the convenience of ships calling’, and doubtless anticipating a profit, built ‘a wharf staith for casting of ballast’ on the Sunderland side of the river.

Expenses were shared with Ralph Bowes, longstanding leaseholder of the bishop’s ferry, saltpans, and ‘the waste’ – the waterfront between high and low water marks.

This quay, its construction supervised for the bishop by John Richardson esq., was at the eastern end of the harbour, extending into the tidal area. Revenue from this new quay, it was said, soon reached £130 a year – 7,800 tons of sand at 4d a ton.

Yet confusion surrounded this new facility. Several local residents, George Lilburne among them, profited from the free-for-all by allowing ballast to be unloaded near their own quayside properties, some by claiming to be officers of the bishop, while others obstructed the bishop’s men. By 1630 a ‘great sandbed’ had grown beside the quay. 4

Harbour improvements in the 17th century:

Harbour management before 1700 was largely a matter of reacting to natural changes in the river. The harbour’s dangerous sandbanks were marked by beacons, the most important one warning mariners of the Stell shoal. This was knocked over in a flood, probably Selby’s flood of c. 1627, by a ship owned by ‘old Adrian the Fleming’. The Stell beacon was afterwards relocated, for the flood had shifted the main shipping channel northwards. Edward Lee later recalled that after the Selby flood, the river extended some 80 yards into what had been dry ground and saltgrass near Monkwearmouth hall, sweeping away a ‘whinny lordag’ (little house), an ancient fishery, and the valuable salt grass shore stretching 80 yards in front of the hall. The elderly John Sheppardson, recollecting these events from his childhood, believed than human intervention had had its effect upon these apparently natural changes.

Clearing the north and south sides of the river for salt pans and wharfs ‘at the upper end of Sunderland upon the shore or sands of Bishopwearmouth’ he thought had tended to divert the river towards the northern shore at Monkwearmouth. Other inhabitants noted that intensive building of houses and quays, pushing the town itself north into the river’s course, had forced the main flow closer to Monkwearmouth. In particular Sir William Lambton’s quay at the ‘salt pan midden or the ash heap at the upper end of Sunderland’ choked the stream, pressing it from its natural channel.





The result was that ships rode to the north and a sandbank was cast up on the south side. 5 Whatever the precise cause, the Monkwearmouth landings, ‘on waste and unbuilt ground’, experienced a boom in traffic as a result of the navigational changes. ‘Ships plying and trading’ followed the new channel to the northern shore. That entire shoreline along with rights to collect anchorage, landing and beacon dues from ships, was leased from the Dean and Chapter of Durham by one proprietor. From 1621-3 this was Robert Widdrington (or Woodrington), who with his associates was keen to encourage activity. The result, from about 1630, was several new wharfs and facilities at Monkwearmouth, including a ballast quay, east of the previous ballast ground, constructed in 1632. 6 The low-lying Monkwearmouth shore proved more suitable for ballast than the higher and more developed land south of the river.

Widdrington leased out the ballast operation, first to John Richardson, then to John Wilson in 1631. 7 After Selby’s flood, efforts were made to repair walls, banks, and other defences.

The county commissioners of sewers, on behalf of the bishop, pursued builders of unauthorized staiths, and those casting rubbish or otherwise impeding river traffic.

These commissioners were also tasked with planning future management of the port, perhaps by raising a tax on ship-owners and riverside proprietors. But although several cases were brought to the Court of Exchequer, no advances were made towards solving the river’s longer-term problems. 8 Backed by the Court of Admiralty in 1663, Bishop Cosin reasserted his right to appoint a water bailiff to assert some control over the harbour. The litigious incumbent, Michael Crake, lost the office he had held since 1638. George French, who was appointed water bailiff in 1682, faced the same longstanding problems as his predecessors, for ships persisted in casting ballast within the sea marks. French took similar action, ordering that ships shed their ballast in water deeper than six fathoms and at least a mile beyond the harbour mouth, and instructing customs officers to clear ships only if their ballast had been dropped offshore. 9 The bishop also won his claim to hold a vice-admiralty court at Sunderland, appointing John Tempest vice-admiral, Richard Matthew judge of the court and Walter Ettrick registrar. Court records from 1662-6 show that the bishop’s rights were being stoutly protected. Building quays too far into the Wear, or obstructing navigation, brought fines and other punishments. The court also judged disputes between ships about broken rudders, and investigated ships which delayed too long at anchor when they should have been loading coals. During 1665-6, on the bishop’s behalf it surveyed all quays, wharfs and staiths, measured straits, narrows and depths of the river, and checked whether weirs or fish-garths (fish traps) obstructed navigation.10 A first significant attempt at harbour improvement saw Edward Andrew in 1669 awarded letters patent by the bishop of Durham, lord of the manor and owner of the southern shoreline of the Wear, to build a pier and lighthouse and cleanse the harbour. It appears that little came of this, as beacons marking the harbour entrance were still the only aid to shipping by 1693. 11 The port was described then as ‘much gorged, stopped up, and choked’ by shoals, sand-beds and rubbish, and unable to ‘secure 400 sail of ships at one time’. Larger colliers could not pass the harbour mouth fully laden, so were loaded, sometimes entirely, by keels offshore. Smaller ships could enter the harbour but were frequently delayed, waiting for a load and then for a tide high enough to float them out laden. Keels were also delayed on their journey from the coal staiths around Lumley, sometimes needing to wait for a high tide to float them downriver, while congestion in the harbour was made worse by their practice of lashing keels together for safety in bad weather. But more determined action was needed, and in 1675 a local coal magnate, Lord Lumley, ordered the harbour entrance to be deepened. As a result, the Stell shoal was removed and navigation greatly improved. 12 Marking the port entrance were two beacons, under the control of the lessee of ‘the beaconage and anchorage’. In 1679 this was George Forster of Gateshead, who paid £20 for the lease and was thus entitled to collect dues from ships. The bishopric surmounted various challenges to keep hold of its significant rights in the harbour and river. Bishop Crew tried to define these during the 1680s, investigating ferries, wastes between high and low water marks, anchorage and beaconage and fisheries.

Southwick’s fishing had been ‘spoiled by the changes in the currents on the Wear and the casting up of sands’. The bishop was also concerned about ownership of the Monkwearmouth ballast quay, lawfully built though in poor repair, and managed by Sir Thomas Williamson of Monkwearmouth hall, who from about 1667 held rights to anchorage, groundage, ‘moorage and portage’ of 4d. a ship, beacon duties and shipwrecks on the Monkwearmouth shore. The middle stream of the river was claimed by the coal trade, and wharfs allowed only between high and low water marks. 13

Building quays:

Quay-building did not merely boost the coal trade, but also stabilized a riverside in danger of destruction by the elements. Whereas the six acres of Panns had been reclaimed from the river by embankment, the Sunderland shore required fortification to protect against erosion. The schemes of Walter Ettrick and others consolidated the harbourside, and may indeed have saved parts of Low Street from disappearing into the Wear. The new quays provided firm foundations for building along the harbour, and by 1750 provided a complete frontage as far as the new South pier, offering protection even to the fragile shifting sands of the coney warren.14 The oldest quays on the southern shore were Bowes and Custom House. Bowes quay, built by Ralph Bowes to ship salt in about 1601, and later owned by Ettrick, the powerful collector of customs after the Restoration, extended west from the bottom of Long Bank. Custom House quay was older still, having been a possession of Finchale priory. At times reaching back as much as 40 feet from the riverside, the open area was increasingly lost to building. This quay too was bought by Ettrick, in c.

1664, who reconstructed a 50-yard stretch. 15 Other landings were less legitimate, and ballast quays, as they were so profitable, became a focus of dispute. In 1638 John Sheppardson of Bishopwearmouth took a lease of rectory lands, intending to build a ballast quay, but met with such opposition from the Bowes family that he had to go to court in York to reclaim the wharf. 16 William Potts (d. 1642), blacksmith and common councilman, had a ballast quay behind his own property, on the waste between high and low water which Ralph Bowes leased of the bishop. It was an encroachment, or may even have belonged to Bowes. Potts’s grandson, also William (d. 1679), continued to develop valuable ‘wharfs, quays and buildings without molestation of the bishops’. Thomas Watt (d.



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