DURING the 19th Century, freshes and floods periodically overwhelmed the Wear, the most destructive occurring on the night of Sunday, January 17, 1841 and continuing well into the next morning.
Due to a thaw following a long severe frost, a huge quantity of ice accumulated between Wearmouth Bridge and the ferry landing. Heavy rain began to fall on the evening, with ships being driven from moorings at Deptford and Pallion, but soon being made fast.
About midnight, larger pieces of ice floated downriver. Meeting with obstructions, these were driven over and under each other to form a huge mass, cemented together for a depth of several feet.
Due to the current being impeded, the river level stood six feet higher at Pallion than at Mark Quay in the East End.
At about 4am, the ice dam yielded to increasing pressure, resulting in a torrent of water and ice rushing downriver.
Entire tiers of ships were torn from their moorings at Lambton and Hetton Staiths and swept beneath Wearmouth Bridge, breaking their masts in the process and being dashed against other vessels. Further tiers were overwhelmed and thrown into a mass of wreck, extending the width of the river opposite Durham and Sunderland Railway Staiths.
Among the casualties were Pilgrim of Lynn, Caroline Korff of Altona, and Deux Amis, a French vessel; together with Rosebud, Kirton, Seaflower and Queen Victoria, all of Sunderland.
Some ships were driven to sea, including Era of Rochester, Beatitude Lamb of London, a French barque and Jean, Gamma and Young, all of Sunderland. Most were later picked up off the Durham coastline, many without crews, but others simply disappeared.
Huge quantities of valuable timber were also washed out to sea, with coal staiths being left in ruins and quay walls collapsed when mooring posts were wrenched from their foundations.
The RWC steamer, Utility, was badly damaged and the port’s steam tug fleet was decimated, among these being Safety, Hare, Earl of Durham, George and Ann and Neptune.
About 30 keels were wrecked, along with most of the port’s small craft. Fortunately, 25 vessels, about half being steamers, sought timely refuge in Wearmouth Dock.
Miraculously, only two lives were lost, these being a boy, who drowned in attempting to escape to another vessel and a young fitter named Davidson, who was carried away by Newby’s boom after she grounded near North Pier.
The following afternoon, a passage was made through the blocked channel resulting in the ice, timber and flotsam drifting to sea.
Losses were estimated at some £91,000 and it took many months to repair most of the damage.