How the Wear’s last dredger sealed the fate of a famous Sunderland shipyard

The dredger Vedra operating in the Wear during 1971.
The dredger Vedra operating in the Wear during 1971.
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This week, we look at the Wear’s last dredger and how she sounded the death knell for a famous shipyard.

By the early 1960s, only the bucket dredger Viscount Ridley, dating from 1909, and a grab dredger built in 1930 remained in service at Sunderland.

In 1962, the River Wear Commissioners (RWC) decided to press ahead with designs for a replacement craft to carry out all dredging operations within the port apart from certain small inaccessible areas where a grab dredger could be used.

The Commissioners decided that the most suitable craft would be a non-propelled, pontoon, diesel-electric bucket type.

On January 17, 1963, it was announced that the contract had been awarded to Fleming and Ferguson of Paisley in Scotland.

The decision provoked fury among Wear shipbuilding unions, who saw this as a betrayal of its members.

Austin and Pickersgill’s Wear Dockyard at Bishopwearmouth Panns had also submitted a tender but found its quote had been somewhat higher than that of Fleming and Ferguson, who also guaranteed a shorter delivery date.

In justifying the decision, RWC Chairman SJ Adamson said: “We regard dredger building as a specialist job and having considered the tenders, we have granted the job to a company with 75 years experience who submitted the lowest tender and quoted the quickest delivery.”

Kenneth Douglass, managing director of Austin and Pickersgill said: “if we hadn’t the know-how and the facilities to undertake the work, we would not have tendered for it;” adding that by failing to win the order, which would have provided employment for 150 men for about 12 months, the yard would have to close after the launch of a luxury yacht then under construction.

At the time, the yard – formerly the SP Austin and Son yard, which had merged with William Pickersgill Ltd in 1954 – was working on the last of a trio of super yachts named Bobbina, which would be launched on March 11, 1963.

In a statement, the Wear District Committee of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions said it was astounded that the order had been placed on the Clyde.

With no further orders on its books, shipbuilding at Wear Dockyard ended in 1963.

Named Vedra, the new dredger was launched into the Clyde on October 10, 1963.

At 326 gross tons, the vessel measured 130.5 feet by 31.5 feet beam. Capable of dredging to a depth of 45 feet, she was supplied with two sets of buckets – one for mud and one for rock.

Vedra was an everyday sight on the river until the closure of Wearside’s last shipyards in 1989. Afterwards, she was sold to Tyne Towage Ltd, being cut down for use as a flat-topped barge.