On the Waterfront: Broadside into the Wear

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AMONG dozens of shipyards that once lined the banks of the Wear, Robert Thompson and Sons’ Bridge Dockyard was unusual in its practice of launching vessels broadside.

 In 1854, Thompson became established at Southwick, later extending yard facilities with the acquisition of Bridge Dockyard by 1883.

 Although Southwick remained the main shipbuilding nucleus, some ships were launched from Bridge Dockyard, which incorporated a graving dock, known as Bridge Dock.

 Until SP Austin and Son Ltd’s pontoon was commissioned in 1903, Bridge Dock was probably the Wear’s most prolific ship-repair venture.

 The dock was situated just west of Wearmouth Railway Bridge on the river’s north bank, with the remainder of the site stretching upriver.

 As the width of the river and yard layout hindered conventional launching methods, a number of ships were launched sideways into the Wear.

 These launches always attracted great curiosity, with hundreds of spectators crowding every vantage point to witness the huge splash as a vessel entered the water.

 First to be launched in such a manner was the 1,096 gross tons Newcastle-registered, Hoselaw, on October 18, 1883. She was an iron screw steamer fitted with two compound surface condensing engines

 Owned by George Reid and partners, she had a short-lived career, being wrecked on January 21, 1885. After leaving Bilbao for Stockton-on-Tees under command of Captain James Brigstock with a cargo of mineral ore, she struck rocks near the Isle of Tudy, Finisterre, France, becoming a total loss.

 In May, 1884, a second broadside launch took place, when an unsold and unnamed ship was launched without ceremony.

 This is believed to have been the steamer, Gratitude, which was bought by EW Morgan and Co, but afterwards acquired by Japanese interests and renamed Mikawa Maru.

 Later requisitioned by the Japanese Navy, she met her end in 1904 during the blockade of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese war.  

 Forcing his way into the channel under heavy Russian gunfire, her commanding officer, Lieutenant Sosa, rammed a boom, before scuttling the steamer in the inner harbour entrance.

 Subsequent broadside launches at Bridge Dockyard included those of the steam trawler, Lincoln (1890) and barquentine, Regent (1892); together with the steamships, Protector (1899), Essex (1894) and Amiral l’Hermite (1903).

 The 386-ton Regent was the last sailing vessel built by Thompsons. An oil painting of the ship under sail by celebrated river police artist, John Fannen, is presently on display in the shipbuilding gallery at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

 Two Royal Navy frigates are also known to have been built at Bridge Dockyard during World War One, together with the cargo ships, Castlecapel and Sunray.

 Robert Thompsons and Sons’ yards eventually closed in 1933, after measures to eliminate redundant building capacity were introduced.