Eighty years of Sunderland’s Corporation Quay

Construction of the deep water quay in Sunderland.
Construction of the deep water quay in Sunderland.
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THERE was little to celebrate as 1931 dawned on Wearside – with the “biggest shipbuilding town in the world” in the harsh grip of the Great Depression.

Indeed, a damning census report revealed Sunderland was the most overcrowded borough in England and Wales, prompting widespread slum clearances.

Despite the tough times, however, work began on creating new council estates across the town – and, down on the docks, sweeping changes were underway too.

“The idea of creating a deepwater quay within the harbour had been under discussion since the 1890s,” said Bill Hawkins, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“But it wasn’t until 1931 that work finally began, when Long Bank and part of Low Street were flattened to make way for the new £450,000 Corporation Quay, creating employment for scores of local men.

“Almost 500,000 cubic yards of rock and other materials were removed during excavation. Four oak trees, jet black and of untold age, were also found embedded in silt.”

As “Old Sunderland’s” historic waterfront fell to the demolition crews, so Peter Lind & Co. Ltd of London started construction work on the ambitious 1,062ft quay.

Mr WHS Tripp, engineer for the River Wear Commissioners, supervised as 26 huge concrete monoliths were sunk into the river frontage to support the quay platform.

And a retaining wall, around 40ft high, was also built to support High Street East – which still runs above the rear of the quay. “The project included construction of a reinforced concrete warehouse and transit shed, together with coal and oil bunkering facilities,” said Neil Mearns, the Echo’s port and shipping correspondent.

“The warehouse roof was linked directly with High Street by a bridge for road haulage. Two miles of railway track were laid and three five-ton electric luffing quayside cranes erected.”

The Lochkatrine – a 9,409-ton Royal Mail Lines cargo liner – enjoyed the honour of being the first cargo ship to berth at Corporation Quay on June 1, 1934.

A civic reception was held, when the ship’s master, Captain F. Cook, told guests: “Your quay, which I can scarcely praise enough, is one of the finest that I have ever lain alongside.”

Tragically, just eight years later, the Lochkatrine was torpedoed off Newfoundland during the Second World War – with the loss of nine lives.

“Corporation Quay was officially opened several months after the visit of the Lochkatrine, on October 10, 1934,” said Neil.

“One of the town’s most prominent shipbuilders, Sir John Priestman, declared the quay and its facilities open by cutting a red silk ribbon with a pair of silver scissors.” Sunderland Corporation, as the quay’s Owners, received Government aid to help fund construction – with the aim of increasing trade and bringing prosperity to Wearside.

Indeed, at the time of its opening, the River Wear Commissioners chairman, John Edward Dawson, wrote: “The quay quite definitely belongs to the town.

“It is, therefore, up to everybody who belongs to the town to use persistently any influence they may possess to bring trade to it.”

Alfred HJ Brown was appointed as a commercial representative, to help promote new cargo links, and regular services to London and Scandinavia were established.

Corporation Quay then played a major role in the war effort from 1941 – after the Government opted to use the almost new facility for shipping war materials.

And, once peace was declared, vessels from British India, Union Castle, Ellerman and Clan Lines used the quay to bring in cargoes of chrome ore and sisal from Africa.

Other cargoes, including timber, woodpulp, pit props, esparto grass and general goods also “contributed greatly” to the tonnage handled. But, although a major post-war port improvement scheme was implemented, hopes of lengthening Corporation Quay and building a cold store were never fulfilled.

Indeed, as the long-term decline of the North East’s traditional industries started to hit staple trades, containerisation appeared to provide part of the solution.

“The first shipment was discharged from the motor vessel Nordsee in September 1978,” said Neil. “And, in 1979, the German shipping company Rheinmass opted to use the quay for their UK-Nigeria service.

“This was a great accomplishment for the port, which saw frequent visits by the 22,345-ton sister-ships Baco-Liner 1 and Baco-Liner 2.”

During the 1960s and ’70s many local children experienced their first taste of foreign travel – after leaving Corporation Quay on board a British India Line’s school ship.

The Greek cruise liners Argonaut and Illiria also disembarked passengers for tours of the North East here during the 1980s, as did the Spanish-owned Vistamar in 2001.

And, as the quay continued to serve Wearside well, so two new 35-tonne cranes were constructed in the 1980s.  

The harbour was also deepened and the original warehouse demolished.

Later in the decade, following the opening of Nissan, direct trade links were established with Japan – paving the way for cargoes of machinery to be brought in.

Plans to lengthen the quay were shelved, however, in favour of diverting investment into another part of the port.

“Each autumn, between 1993 and 1995, the port also hosted eastern European fish factory ships, known as klondykers, “ said Neil.

“The largest of these lay alongside Corporation Quay, as Scottish fishing vessels offloaded their catches of mackerel.”

Many famous ships have also paid visits to the quay over the years, including HMS Tiger in 1965 and Falklands War veterans HMS Fearless and Intrepid.

County Durham’s adopted frigate, HMS Brazen, made several appearances prior to decommissioning in 1996 and the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible paid a visit in 1990.

Most familiar to Wearsiders, however, will be the frigate HMS Arrow – which was adopted by Sunderland between 1976 and 1993 – and, of course, the amphibious assault ship, HMS Ocean.

But, the 1993 visit of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh also proved a highlight in the quay’s history, when the Royal couple left the Wear on board Royal yacht Britannia.

“The largest cargo vessel to lie along the quay was the 36,008-ton bulk carrier Penguin Arrow, which arrived to be fitted with two Liebherr gantry cranes,” said Neil.

Today, Corporation Quay remains a “great asset to the city” – despite the face of the Port of Sunderland having changed so dramatically over the years.

“Current activity reflects the dramatic improvement in the port’s fortunes in recent years, with all berths regularly being occupied,” said Neil.

“Besides general cargo, including huge bulk carriers importing Ukrainian steel, quay facilities are used extensively by vessels engaged in subsea engineering and those operating in the offshore oil, gas and renewable energy sectors.”

•The photos shown here are mainly from the archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society. They can be viewed each Wednesday and Saturday morning at 6 Douro Terrace.