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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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1671), a ‘rough mason’, in c. 1654 bought land on the waterfront, part of copyhold property which had been granted to Ralph Bowes in 1601. Watt’s claim to this was contested, and the vice-admiralty court later found that a staith he had built there obstructed the river. After 1660, with the restoration of the bishopric, property rights were clarified, the Ettrick family taking the lease, and a lead, in constructing quays on the Wear’s southern bank.17 Developments early in the 18th century consolidated the quayside. In 1705 Ettrick’s son William built a new quay, 48 yards in length, specifically for the coal trade, which connected Bowes and Custom House quays. With his brother Anthony, in 1710 William set about another quay further east, ‘under the Coney Warren’. Even after dumping many keel-loads of stones, the tides proved too strong for construction to proceed. The Ettricks instead built their quay eastwards from Bowes quay, calling it Partnership quay. From about 1737, with the site now sheltered by the new pier, Sir William Middleton succeeded in placing Commissioners quay where his father-in-law William Ettrick had failed. Richard Fletcher, bricklayer, and John Rutledge, mason, both of Newcastle, carried out work for Middleton from 1739 on a new quay linking Commissioners quay to the rest of the harbour. The builders supplied stone and materials for a wall four yards high facing on to the river, constructed on piles and foundation laid by Middleton. They built a boundary wall behind to the Town Moor, a coble dock and stone stair. Their pay was 30s. a yard, and £10 towards the backing.

The new quays between Bowes quay and the pier accommodated a range of industries, including boat building, and Edward Hinks’s distillery on the Commissioners quay. Westwards from Custom House quay were Noble’s quay, so called by 1715 after being known as Nicholson’s in the 1670s; and Mark quay. All these lay to the east of the line of Church street, itself newly created in about 1710 on the eastern extreme of Sunderland’s original burgage plots. 19 Further upstream, too, new wharfs were constructed, some to serve the glasshouses which consumed sand ballast. Robert Ayres had a landing at Deptford by 1629. 20 Southwick Glasshouse quay was in being by 1719, but, like the glasshouse at Ayres quay, was probably rather older. Pallion quay was built before 1750. Hylton too acquired quays and jetties, from which lime was shipped, and a manure staith. 21 In Monkwearmouth, Sir Thomas Williamson was renowned for ‘tenacious preservation of his manorial rights’, and there was little development of the shore property before his death in 1703. 22 The Williamson family prospered on the income from wharfage, anchorage, wrecks and ferries, and later coal royalties. Sir Thomas’s heirs were less resistant to change, though the initiative at first came from their tenants. On the shore in 1714, hemmed around by the first of the ballast hills which would prove such a feature – and such a problem – were a ropery, a ballast and ferry landing, and several blocks of houses. 23 Within a few years the shore settlement matched in size its much older neighbour, Monkwearmouth village, though riverside development was confined by ballast heaps to a narrow strip, with a rudimentary quay and wharfs. There was nothing there to compare with the harbour front in progress on the Sunderland bank. 24

The River Wear Commission:

At the opening of the 18th century, there was a clear and urgent need for the harbour to be improved and regulated. Two channels had developed, so that the river was at risk of choking. James Fawcett, a consultant engineer employed by the newly established River Wear Commission, commented in 1718 that What seems to obstruct the progress of this flourishing place and threaten a decay in their trade is the bad condition which the river and haven are presently reduced to by the many abuses daily practised therein for private advantages and an utter neglect of the means to preserve the navigation thereof which is now rendered so very difficult and dangerous, by its channels being diverted or choked up, that no ships of any considerable burden dare risk their coming into the harbour but are exposed to the danger of loading without the bar in an open flood. 25 The Wear coal trade lobbied together for an Act of Parliament, which would allow improvement, enforcement, and collection of a coal trade levy to finance the works.

A first effort at legislation in 1705-6 was blocked by Tyneside rivals. Spearheaded by Sir William Williamson MP, proprietor of Monkwearmouth shore, the second attempt succeeded. To oversee the river and its trade, the River Wear Commission was established in 1717 and continued, but for a brief interval in the 1730s and 1740s, into the 1970s. The Commission’s early decades were marked by disputes with Durham city, which initially fell within its jurisdiction, and by problems with several non-payers of coal duty. The legislation lapsed in 1738, and was not renewed until 1747, at which time its scope was limited to the New Bridge, above the Lumley coal staiths. In practice attention focused on the port itself: building piers, lighthouses and wharfs, dredging, preventing encroachments into the harbour, supervising traffic, controlling ballast-dumping. It was a major achievement of the River Wear Commission that they controlled harbour-front development and overspill into the tidal area after 1717. There were large numbers of commissioners – as many as 66 in 1717 – but many were sleeping partners, and a small group of merchants and coal-fitters from Sunderland predominated. Most income came from a twice-yearly levy on coal exports, producing £1,234 in 1748, rising to £5,490 in 1803, all of it spent on port improvements. The Commission spent perhaps £33,000 in total during 1717-38, and £420,000 between 1747 and 1830, huge sums of money that enabled the Wear to emerge as a serious competitor to the Tyne. 26 The first major undertaking was the south pier, built 1723-30, which sheltered the harbour and directed the river’s force against the bar. Its designer was probably William Lellam, who had recently completed a similar scheme in Bridlington. At 1,000 feet long and 30 feet wide on the top, it was described as ‘one of the most magnificent and best-built in the whole world’. In 1748 the Swiss engineer Charles Labelye was brought in to prepare a more radical plan, to save Low Street and the Custom House quay, on the south side of the harbour, from imminent destruction.





Labelye’s recommendations were taken up by the River Wear Commission, the pier re-orientated, and redundant vessels sunk to close the northern channel, making that on the south deeper and self-cleansing. At Labelye’s suggestion the commission appointed their own permanent engineer. A visitor in 1760 noted ‘a pier 400 yards long and near 40 feet broad. To part of it is a wall to the south; and there are stairs down to the water, and windlasses to draw up ships or boats against the current, and the whole is flagged.’ 27 Durham city, meanwhile, launched an initiative to make the river navigable above Biddick ford, but although an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1759, the same year as a new River Wear Commission Act, the Durham scheme was never carried through. 28 Improvements in navigation on the lower reaches were becoming clearly evident. Launched at Hylton Ferry, 'five miles up the river', was a

ship of 140 tons built by William Booth, of Monkwearmouth:

This must give every well-wisher to trade and navigation the liveliest joy, when he hears that this, hitherto so much despised small river is capable, by the late improvement made in it, to float a ship of that burthen, so many miles from its mouth; a thing which till this instance, has been unknown, and is sufficient to convince all impartial people, that the late Act for making the river navigable up to the City of Durham, is no rash project, as it has been deemed. 29 Demands on the Commission were unrelenting. In 1765, with the main channel ‘much prejudiced from ballast being driven in… by the force of the sea, and from sand gravel and rubbish washed and brought down the river by the land floods’, commissioners were called together to consider their engineer’s recommendation ‘that a jettee be erected on the north side… to secure and keep navigable the entrance of the said port'. 30 A great flood in 1771 which wrecked countless ships and keels, caused substantial damage to the pier’s foundations and created a new sand bank. A petition signed by 84 ship- and keel-owners in 1774 urged an increase in port charges so that work underway to improve the south pier could be completed quickly. They volunteered to pay more themselves ‘because, even in the rude and imperfect state of the works, we have had some convincing Indications of their growing utility’. 31 John Smeaton’s opinion was sought in 1780, and the resident engineer, Robert Shout, reported that the south pier ‘stands by miracle and I think nothing can prevent its total ruin’. Subsequently the pier was largely replaced and repositioned. A large sand bed washed up across the harbour mouth in 1785, blocking entry to all but the smallest ships. Shout began work on the north pier, at first a makeshift wooden construction stretching 1,500 feet into the sea, which he rebuilt in stone by 1795.

This brought rapid relief, creating ‘a deep and spacious channel’, allowing the tide to flow 16 feet, and vessels of 300 to 400 tons burden to enter the harbour. Colliers previously forced to complete their loading out at sea, putting the keelmen in great danger, were now able to receive a full cargo in the harbour. Soon after this Sunderland had the earliest steam dredger in the UK, powered by a 4hp Boulton and Watt engine. 32 To complete these substantial projects, and to define their powers more effectively, the commissioners drafted a bill to 'reduce into one Act the several Acts of Parliament made for the preservation and improvement of the… river'. This passed into law in 1785. 33 Both piers were repaired and extended from 1799, and improvements to them continued almost without cease into the 1840s. Shout had built 700 feet of stone pier. His successor, Jonathan Pickernell, added more, along with ‘an elegant octagonal lighthouse’ 68 feet high, in 1802, replacing a lantern hoisted on a flag-staff. There were also two neat stone lighthouse-keepers’ cottages.

The southern entrance to the harbour was marked with a tide light. 34 After Pickernell’s dismissal in 1804, Robert Shout’s son Matthew was appointed. An engineer of exceptional ability, he added 350 feet to the north pier, and built extensions to the south pier using timber framing filled with stonework, first of 100 feet, then a further 300 feet, finally adding a masonry end 120 feet in length. Shout advocated building a dock which could take 200 to 300 ships, but died in 1817 before this proceeded further. North-east England differed from every other industrial region in having no canals or docks before 1815, for the Tyne and Wear coal trade remained wedded to the idea of waggonways and river staiths. The overcrowding of river and port had not quite reached a point where heavy investment in docks and new rail links was imperative. 35 The engineering works which followed from Labelye’s report of 1748 had driven the main shipping channel southwards again. This presented an opportunity to Sir Hedworth Williamson’s tenants to reclaim land from the river and build new wharfs.

The shore of Monkwearmouth was transformed from the 1760s, with a variety of trades on the riverfront and on the sands east of the Folly Point ferry, from where ships were launched into the river mouth. There were shipyards and boatbuilders, blockmakers, coal-fitters, ships’ chandlers and carpenters, and upwards of 300 keels plying their trade from the shore. A further catalyst to improve shipping facilities on the north bank came with the huge expansion in the Fulwell hills of Williamson’s own limestone-quarrying enterprise. 36 These randomly constructed Monkwearmouth quays were soon ‘ruinous’. During the 1790s, perhaps to protect the ship-building ground, a tidal basin was formed behind the north pier. The river commissioners and Williamson differed over how best to reshape the harbour. In 1828-9, Robert Stevenson of Edinburgh proposed an extraordinary scheme to create wet docks north and south of the harbour entrance, of 20 and 30 acres respectively, and another of 36 acres at Deptford. This required the main flow of the Wear to be diverted along an open channel at Deptford, making the Salt Grass and surrounding shipyards into an island, and then through a tunnel beneath Monkwearmouth village centre. 37 A rival scheme, sponsored by Williamson, was less audacious, though it involved a railway suspension bridge over the harbour and was notable as the engineer was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. 38 Three schemes were suggested to parliament in 1832, and after some questionable manoeuvring a small North Dock was approved, supported by Sir Hedworth Williamson M.P., owner of most of the land on the northern shore. 39 The way in which Williamson had used his influence to override the commissioners’ views led to riots in the town. The North Dock played a small role in shipping coal but was seen as ‘a baronial folly’ and an embarrassment. Not until the late 1840s did work begin in earnest on the South Dock, giving the port facilities it had long needed. 40

The South Docks:

The River Wear Commission and John Murray, the engineer they appointed in 1832, were not long deflected by Williamson’s coup. A final plan for the docks was settled only after Murray had considered a number of radical proposals to improve shipping facilities. The scheme which came closest to fruition was in 1842, an idea to convert the Wear itself into a floating harbour by means of a barrage and sluices, sited between Thornhill’s quay and a new tidal basin on the ship-building area east of Folly Point. The commissioners in fact adopted the plan, but it failed because of Admiralty opposition.

Murray meanwhile constructed new piers in 1841, after which he famously transported Jonathan Pickernell’s 76-ft high octagonal masonry lighthouse of 1802, 150 yards along the extended North Pier. His plan to build a South Dock controlled by lock gates appealed to George Hudson, the railway king, who was elected M.P.



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