THE term waterman probably originates from medieval times, when it was used to describe boatmen who rowed or sculled for a living by transporting passengers or goods by river.
On the Wear, it would have applied to those who operated ferries or brought coal downriver by keel.
Later, the expression became a more general label for anyone working on the water, but with opening of South Dock by Sunderland Dock Company in 1850 and its subsequent transfer to the River Wear Commissioners (RWC) in 1859, a new breed of waterman was born.
Known as dock watermen, these hardy individuals were employed to assist the dockmaster in a wide range of duties, such as performing mooring operations.
Another group of workers were dock gatemen, who operated dock gates and sluices. At one time, there were 10 sets of hydraulically operated gates, which maintained sufficient water depth to keep ships afloat at all states of the tide.
Usually opened for shipping about two hours before and up to one hour after high water, they provided the means to lock vessels through at other times.
While earlier gates required about 15 men to fix shores to hold back the weight of water, only two gatemen were needed once struts were introduced.
In 1872, the RWC Dock and River Committee recommended that dock gatemen and watermen be amalgamated to form a single body and placed onto shifts, each with seven men. Despite this change, they continued to be referred to by their previous job titles.
Among its exhibits, Sunderland Museum has a fine example of a waterman’s badge of office, which would have been worn on the breast.
A dock waterman’s authority was not always readily accepted, as in 1869, when Robert Wayman was summoned for assaulting RWC waterman, Gilbert Jamieson. Wayman had been in charge of two rafts of teak at Hendon Dock, when he was ordered to slacken a rope to allow another raft through.
When Wayman refused, the waterman attempted to loosen the rope himself but was violently assaulted. Despite the defence claiming that watermen had no authority to give such orders, nor interfere with moorings, Wayman was fined 20 shillings plus costs.
Dock watermen’s duties were not without other dangers, as a number were seriously injured while helping to moor ships. In 1876, James Harrison died after his foot was crushed while berthing the barque Derwent at coal drops in South Dock.
Many individuals were saved from drowning through the efforts of watermen, who also frequently assisted at outbreaks of fire by manning the manual pump on the floating fire engine.
As late as the mid-1980s, several men were still employed at the docks as watermen.