Remembering the Victorian men who ‘saved Sunderland’

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A pair of forgotten heroes from the Victorian age are remembered in a new book. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner takes a look.

TWO eminent Victorians – whose work had a profound effect on the future of Sunderland – are the focus of a new book.

Victorian civil engineering "at its best". The scaffold tower is "a brilliant example" of John Murray's ingenuity, according to author Jack Curtis.

Victorian civil engineering "at its best". The scaffold tower is "a brilliant example" of John Murray's ingenuity, according to author Jack Curtis.

Civil engineer John Murray and MP George Hudson “virtually saved Sunderland” with their work on the South Dock, according to historian Jack Curtis.

But, over the decades, the pioneering pair have been largely forgotten – prompting Jack to put pen to paper and write The Engineer and the MP.

“John Murray’s design for the original South Dock was revolutionary, to say the least – winning it from the truly harsh North Sea,” said Jack.

“I can only stand with mouth agape, full of wonder, at this long-forgotten man of genius; whose skills opened up the entire Durham coalfield.

Jack Curtis pictured in the original plant room, which housed the main hydraulic equipment for Hudson Dock. The curved roof braced from steel supports are a reminder of John Murray's design skills.

Jack Curtis pictured in the original plant room, which housed the main hydraulic equipment for Hudson Dock. The curved roof braced from steel supports are a reminder of John Murray's design skills.

“But the work of Mr Hudson should not be forgotten either – as he was the chief campaigner in raising the money to finance this massive project.”

John Murray, the son and grandson of civil engineers, was born in the border town of Kelso in 1804 and trained as an engineer in London in his teens.

Then, at 28, he was appointed engineer to the River Wear Commissioners in Sunderland – at a time when the Wear was choked up and crowded with ships.

“One of Murray’s first claims to fame was to move the old Roker lighthouse to a new position, after the lengthening of Roker Pier in 1841,” said Jack.

The curved dock gates of South Dock - showing Victorian civil engineering and hydraulics "at their very best".

The curved dock gates of South Dock - showing Victorian civil engineering and hydraulics "at their very best".

“He conceived the idea of moving the complete tower in one solid piece, by resting the 300-ton structure on a platform resting on 44 cast iron wheels.

“This achievement immediately established Murray as a bold, skilful engineer. He also won a gold medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers.”

The greatest problem facing Murray, however, was the fact that the River Wear was too small for the amount of coal which required shipping worldwide.

Several engineers had already offered ideas on how to extend the Wear’s capacity – including Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson – without success.

But it eventually fell to Murray to come up with a radical plan for change – in the form of a “outlandish” design which would win his world-wide acclaim.

“Coal was the real power behind the industrial revolution, but the constant demand for more coal placed a great deal of stress on Sunderland,” said Jack.

“Indeed, the drawing of coal to fill keelboats, whose shallow draught allowed them access to the hinterland, was a very time-consuming operation.

“Clearly, things had to change if the massive output of Durham’s coalfield was to be made available to the world market – but the river was a bottleneck.”

The year 1846 saw the formation of Sunderland Dock Company, chaired by MP George Hudson – which was set up to ensure that docks were built on the south bank.

Hudson, known locally as the Railway King, used his business links with railways across the North East to raise cash for the ambitious £650,000 dock project.

Murray initially consulted with Stephenson on the design, which included a tidal harbour inlet leading to a wet dock and featured a direct entrance to the sea.

But there was not enough space to built the wet dock unless the coastline below the South Pier was reclaimed from the sea – prompting a bright idea from Murray.

“He had been engaged on preventing further damage to the Town Moor cliffs with the use of groynes when he started working on his South Dock ideas,” said Jack.

“After the tremendous feat of securing the cliffs, Murray then took the groyne idea one step further than anyone had ever dared – or even thought of doing.”

Murray’s radical idea involved building a dock “way out into the North Sea” – by using seven weighty 500ft groynes to win back land from the waves.

The groynes – shaped like half-cones, built of masonry and filled with rocks – were placed to form a protective barrier stretching across the river mouth.

Not only did the groynes protect the river, however, they also trapped vast amounts of sand – creating a false beach which stretched far out into the sea.

“Murray’s idea was absolutely fantastic in its conception. His dock was completely artificial; the site having been occupied by the sea for millennia,” said Jack.

“But, as the spaces between his groynes filled up with pebbles, rocks and stones, he was free to begin work upon our docks on this new, and artificial, beach.”

Hudson laid the foundation stone for the half-tide basin on February 4, 1848 – with 30,00 people joining a procession through the town to celebrate the project. Within months the whole of the wet dock area was “dug and dry” and, over the next few years, underground chambers, sluice gates and a sea channel were constructed.

The wet dock, by now called Hudson Dock, was opened by its namesake in 1850 and in 1856 a channel between the sea and docks, linked by a gated half-tide basin, opened.

“Hudson Dock became a real hive of activity up to, and including, the Second World War – as shipping increased to keep pace with the demands of industry,” said Jack.

“Every tide saw an influx of ships into the port. There was coal, oil, petroleum and wood coming and going. Later in the war there were truckloads of munitions too.

“That was the Hudson dock of my childhood – alive and vibrant, just as its two great creators envisaged it.

“It was John Murray’s land, won from the sea. His skills were written across its broad acres – with underground culverts, massive turntables and enormous hydraulic controls.”

Sunderland Dock Company sold the docks to the River Wear Commissioners in 1859 however, and it was under a new engineer, Thomas Meik, that a new dock, Hendon Dock, opened in 1867.

Further improvements were made over the next few decades too, including the enlargement of Hudson Dock and the transformation of the half-basin into a sea lock.

But the basics of Murray’s original ideas and designs remained in place for 120 years – helping to “virtually save Sunderland” and generating mass employment for generations.

“My mother’s family made their home on land John Murray won back from the sea. They looked upon the docks as their spiritual home, as I still do,” added Jack.

“I doubt any port in the world had two greater champions working for it than John Murray and George Hudson. These two men dominate 19th century Sunderland for me.

“They stride across our history; two men of immense stature fit for Arthurian legend in the breadth and scale of their marine enterprise and achievements.

“Their combined aim was not to just build a dock; they wanted to build a dock which would make Sunderland into one of the foremost ports in the British Empire.

“The building of our docks is the story on one of Britain’s premier civil engineer’s skill and vision, allied with another great man’s entrepreneurial flair. They should be remembered.”

•The Engineer and the MP, featuring words by Jack Curtis and photographs from John Brantingham, is on sale now at £5 from The Donnison School, Church Walk, Sunderland. Tel: 565 4835.

A monument to the Railway King Hudnson

MEMORIES of George Hudson’s involvement in Sunderland’s South Docks may have faded from memory – but a monument to the Railway King still stands today.

Indeed, it was the desire of the newly-elected Wearside MP for permanent recognition that led to the creation of the pillared splendour of Monkwearmouth Station.

Hudson, then chairman of the Midland Railway company, wanted to mark his successful election of 1845 in style – and commissioned the station in 1848.

Designed by Sunderland architect Thomas Moore, Monkwearmouth was far grander than the inadequate Brandling Junction station it replaced.

With a stone facade based on the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, it was certainly an imposing building that had been designed to impress.

An iron and plate glass roof even covered the tracks, with the glass made by Hartley’s – a glass firm based at the Wear Glass Works in Deptford.

The Sunderland Herald newspaper hailed the building as being of great “architectural beauty”, with a “chaste simplicity and neatness of the whole design.”

It added: “The exquisite proportion and symmetry, and the workmanlike finish, combine to render it a great ornament to the town and a credit to all concerned in its erection.”

Monkwearmouth proved a busy station between 1848 and 1879, catering for well-to-do Victorian travellers, as well as handling shipments of cows, sheep and even circus animals.

But it also proved popular with criminals too, becoming known as a pick-pocketing hot spot within a year of its opening. Many complaints were raised in newspapers at the time.

In 1879 however, when the North Eastern Railway company extended the line across the river for the first time, Monkwearmouth lost much of its importance as a major station.

Trams to Roker and Seaburn ran from outside the station, however, from that time. At first they were horse-drawn, but from 1900 passengers enjoyed the comfort of electric travel.

Monkwearmouth was also used by scores of shipyard workers travelling to Newcastle and South Shields between the wars, as well as by young evacuees during World War Two.

By the 1950s, however, parts of the station had become derelict and passenger numbers were dwindling. In 1967 it was closed to travellers and in 1970 all railway use ended.

The once glamorous building was eventually saved from dereliction by Sunderland Corporation and, in the 1970s, it became the first railway station in the country to be converted into a museum.