The creation of a Sunderland landmark

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A COLLECTION of unique photographs has shed new light on the construction of Roker Pier – as the 111-year-old landmark undergoes a facelift.

Engineer Henry Hay Wake helped win Sunderland’s harbour from the sea by designing the structure in the 1880s. Images of the “monument to his genius” are still treasured by his family.

OPENING TIME: The opening of the new lighthouse is celebrated in style.

OPENING TIME: The opening of the new lighthouse is celebrated in style.

“We are very proud of what Henry achieved, and proud to have him as an ancestor too. The photos are a lasting reminder of his work,” said his great-grandaughter Marilyn Stalton.

“Originally they belonged to Henry, but later passed to my grandmother Enid – his youngest daughter. After that they passed down through the family – a wonderful memory of him.”

Sunderland’s storm-bound and rocky coastline was the scene of scores of ship wrecks over the centuries, with casualties including both the iron barque Loch Cree and schooner James Horn in 1877.

Indeed, the idea of building breakwaters to the north and south of the mouth of the River Wear – to provide a safe haven for shipping – was first recommended in the 18th century. But the almost impossible task eventually fell to Monkwearmouth-born boatbuilder’s son Henry Wake in the 1880s – then a civil engineer for the River Wear Commissioners.

“Henry was not only asked to design the pier, but to create a machine to make the impossible possible,” said local historian John Brantingham.  

“The result was a crane called Goliath. Genius.

“The building of the pier was initially on a natural outcrop. Further out, on a foundation of rubble and cement, great blocks of concrete had to be laid by the 290-ton hydraulic crane.”

Divers – such as Sunderland man Ralph Punshon Scott – took a leading role in creating the pier, helping to blast out thick bedrock to create a stable foundation for the new structure.

More than 17 years later, the final concrete blocks were slotted into place and the 2,800ft breakwater – with its “huge round head” – was officially opened on September 23, 1903.

Crowds watched as the Earl of Durham placed a black commemorative block on the new lighthouse to mark the occasion – while being serenaded by the Northumberland Hussars band.

“Work on a new South Pier was also continuing apace at this time, yet again designed by Wake, and today both piers stand as a monument to his constructive genius,” said John.

“The creation of the piers is a fascinating part of Sunderland’s history, and a fascinating story in itself too. I’m just glad that photos of Roker Pier’s long and hard creation still survive.”

Today, storm-battered Roker Pier is at the centre of a £1.35million restoration programme, with the entire length of the Grade II-listed structure due to be resurfaced in the summer.

A revamp of the lantern house has already been completed, and hopes are high that further funding can be secured to open up the pier’s tunnel and lighthouse for public tours.

Cabinet Secretary, Councillor Mel Speding, said: “Roker Pier is a much loved landmark which has protected the entrance into Sunderland harbour for over a hundred years.

“But there’s no doubt that a century of storms and buffeting waves have taken their toll. We would love to see it restored to its former glory, so it can be enjoyed by future generations.”

Marilyn would also like to see the pier and tunnel revamp go ahead as her grandmother – Enid Hay Wade – laid a sovereign under a foundation stone in the tunnel during the initial construction.

“She was only a little girl, but she used to go down to the docks to watch the pier being built. I find the idea that she was involved, if only slightly, absolutely fascinating,” said Marilyn.

“My great-grandfather has been described as a mathematical and engineering genius for doing what he did. I’m very impressed, and our whole family is very impressed, at what he created.”