On the waterfront: First sea link with the docks

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This week, we look at the original South Dock sea entrance.

The need for docks to allow shipping to remain safely afloat at all times had long been recognised.

Overcrowded with ships, mostly lying aground at low water, the River Wear presented a formidable array of hazards to vessels and navigation.

Although numerous schemes to build wet docks had been proposed, none came to fruition until North Dock opened in 1837.

In 1846, Sunderland Dock Company - chaired by “Railway King” George Hudson MP - obtained parliamentary powers to construct a much larger dock between South Pier and Hendon Bay.

John Murray, Engineer to the River Wear Commissioners, resigned his post to be appointed engineer in charge of the dock works.

Although the southern end of the new dock was designed to incorporate a north-south orientated tide basin entering Hendon Bay, directors decided to defer this work and concentrate on building the dock itself, along with a northern half-tide basin river connection.

Formally opened on June 20, 1850, the 32-acre South Dock proved vital in securing Sunderland’s position as a chief coal-shipping port.

It was decided to relocate the sea entrance to the south-eastern corner of the dock, which was simultaneously extended southwards by 13 and a half acres.

The £52,000 contract for the entrance was awarded to Pawson and Dyson in 1851, but after failing to “act with sufficient energy,” the dock company took over the contract in 1852, much of the work being sub-contracted.

The entrance comprised a one and a half acre half-tide basin, leading into a tidal harbour, sheltered by a masonry pier to the north-east and a south-western open timber-work breakwater.

Gates for the half-tide basin were manufactured by Butler and Co of Stanningly Iron Works; their frames being of cast iron with East Indian teak planking.

Two pairs (No 4 and 5) were installed at the inner end, with another set (No 6) at the seaward end.

Hydraulic machinery by Armstrong and Co of Elswick, enabled opening and closing of sluices, gates and a railway bridge.

Laden ships, previously constrained by their draft in crossing the harbour bar, could now transit between the river and sea via the deeper south entrance.

On Mar 5, 1856, newly built Admiralty gunboats Manly, Mastiff, Magnet and Mistletoe became the first vessels to sail via the new entrance.

The steamer Black Diamond was the first cargo ship to leave the river through the dock, this being on April 30.

In 1859, the dock came under RWC control when Sunderland Dock Company was taken over by the Commissioners.

Due to construction of the replacement New Sea Lock, which would open in 1880, the old south half-tide basin closed to traffic in 1877.