The mystery of the Billy Pitt through beach find at Whitburn

White Steel rocks in Whitburn.
White Steel rocks in Whitburn.
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This week, we take a break from the story of the Wear’s pilot boats and look instead at an interesting tale from November, 1911.

At that time William Burton, of Horatio Street, Roker, was wandering along the beach somewhere near White Steel rocks at Whitburn when he made a very unusual find.

Washed up by the sea was a flat oblong tin box covered in rust. With some difficultly, he managed to open the container and made an amazing discovery.

Inside, were a quantity of documents, many of which were so soggy they could not be read. Some, however, were well preserved and turned out to be ship’s papers including an inventory, London Custom house receipts from 1875, crew certification from 1876 and helpfully a ship’s register for the 143-ton vessel William Pitt of Sunderland, naming the owner as H Herbert and the master as R Manson.

Was the tin box a relic of a bygone shipwreck or was there a more mundane explanation?

One old Sunderland pilot insisted that the William Pitt had been wrecked off the Yorkshire coast near Staithes about 1876 but evidently his memories were confused with another ship of the same name.

William Pitt of Sunderland was a snow (two-master square rigger with a trysail stepped behind the main mast). She had been built at Perth, Scotland in 1840 during a shipwrights’ strike and had been completed by apprentices. She was regarded as a splendid seagoing vessel and sailed under several owners.

Affectionately known as ‘Billy Pitt’, she was registered at Sunderland in 1856 becoming jointly-owned by John Maude Ogden and Henry Herbert, the vessel being registered in the latter’s name. Both men were well-respected businessmen, who were involved with the Deptford Chemical Works and various shipping interests.

It transpired that William Pitt had not been wrecked but had ended her days in more straightforward circumstances at the hands of Wear shipbreakers. After completing her last voyage in 1876, she had been taken upriver and laid up opposite Ogden’s Chemical Works at Copperas Bank Quay, Deptford.

In 1878, she was sold to John Grieveson, who dismantled her at the neighbouring George Strong’s Sawmill Quay. A number of other vessels were scrapped there with ships’ timbers being cut up and sold to Wearmouth Coal Company and John Kayne’s Chemical Works at North Hylton.

The mystery of the tin box was also solved. After the death of Henry Herbert in 1895, his personal effects came into the hands of his daughter-in-law. Some time later, the box was discarded as rubbish, afterwards finding its way to the Corporation tip. It was supposed it was then dumped at sea by a refuse barge - as was then the environmentally unsound practice.