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Sunderland woman was trapped by bombs - and still got to work that afternoon

Alan Brett's book takes a look at how the Wear shaped so many lives through the decades.
Alan Brett's book takes a look at how the Wear shaped so many lives through the decades.

Imagine living a life where bombs threaten your very existence – every day.

Florence Collard did just that and twice found herself under direct attack during German air raids on coastal communities.

Alan Brett's latest book is filled with tales of the yards.

Alan Brett's latest book is filled with tales of the yards.

Her story, and other insights into Sunderland’s shipbuilding past, can be found in Alan Brett’s latest book.

The Sunderland Antiquarian Society member recently released his publication titled On The Banks Of The Wear. It is filled with stories of the people who lived, worked and played on the riverbanks.

There’s a whole section on the 700 women who worked in the shipyards during the Second World War and there were 1,000 more in the marine engine works of Wearside.

There’s the tale of Florence Collard who was bombed out of her home in Plymouth before returning to her hometown of Sunderland – where she suffered the same fate.

Shipbuilding played an important part in the early development of the town and the 2018 Tall Ships Races in Sunderland allow people the opportunity to see examples of the type of early vessels built on the Wear

Alan Brett

After another bombing raid, Florence was trapped in her kitchen and had to be rescued, but she still turned in for her afternoon shift at Bartram’s shipyard.

Other stories tell of the zig-zagging ferry which was new to the river in 1877 – and caused much amusement when it hit a Norwegian barque and couldn’t keep a straight line on the river because she was so difficult to manoeuvre.

There’s the tale of the ship that was built and launched in two halves.

And there’s even reminders of the adverts from the days when Binns sold “all your ship’s furnishings” as did Liverpool House.

Industrial Sunderland including the Wear and a shipyard in the early 1960s.

Industrial Sunderland including the Wear and a shipyard in the early 1960s.

Ship’s furniture was made by Doxford joiners and by 1965, there were 439 joiners employed in the Sunderland shipyards. There were also 17 woodcutting machinists and sawyers.

The book also tells how Sunderland played an important part in the communication revolution when the Robert S Newall works turned out giant telegraph cables.

In 1853, they made the cable that connected England with Belgium - all 100 miles of it in 100 days and costing around £33,000.

Another story tells of the Sunderland-built Charles Racine which was launched from John Blumer’s yard at the North Sands on June 25, 1892 on behalf of owners from Norway.

The Charles Racine was back in the news during the First World War when she was a neutral ship.

That status meant she could travel the world almost freely despite the conflict. However, she almost found herself in the middle of the greatest naval battle of the war.

In May 1916, she left her home port of Stavanger and was bound for Australia when her commander, Captain Abrahamsen, found himself between the ships of the Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland.

Captain Abrahamsen gave orders that the lifeboats of the Charles Racine should be swung out and ready to abandon ship.

Yet miraculously, the Sunderland-built barque was allowed to continue her passage to Australia.

As Alan’s book explains, the Charles Racine escaped a battle in which more than 6,000 British and 2,500 Germans died.

The book also records the fate of other Sunderland-built ships in the First World War, including those which were all destroyed by one German cruiser Emden.

She wrought havoc in the early months of the war in the Indian Ocean and sank or captured 20 British merchant vessels.

They included the Foyle, Ribera, and King Lud which were all built at JL Thompson’s yard on Wearside - and all sunk by Emden in September 1914.

More fortunate was the Pontoporos, a Greek steamer built in Sunderland and which had Wearside man Benjamin Barkas Forbester on board.

He was the chief engineer and he was transferred to the Emden once he had shown the Germans how the engines worked on the Pontoporos.

The Sunderland ship’s coal was used to fuel the German ship’s boilers.

Meanwhile, while he was on board Emden, Benjamin watched as eight more ships were destroyed by Emden before she came across the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney who drove her onto a sandbar off the Cocos islands in November 1914.

All this and dozens more stories are contained in Alan Brett’s book.

On The Banks Of The Wear is available from Waterstones, Sunderland Museum, Sunderland Antiquarian Society and online at www.summerhillbooks.co.uk priced £4.99.