When Tall Ships carried coals from Sunderland to the continent

The River Wear during the days of both sail and steam.
The River Wear during the days of both sail and steam.

Historian Alan Brett has taken a look at Sunderland’s shipbuilding history in recent days.

In his final instalment he focuses on sailing ships and explains how you can find out more.

Robert Thompson's shipyard at Southwick.

Robert Thompson's shipyard at Southwick.

The changing face of shipyards was illustrated In the summer of 1849.

A shipbuilder of Bishopwearmouth Panns found himself in court charged with misusing and ill-treating one of his apprentices who claimed that sawing was not part of his trade.

But his foreman said that as ships were now being built by Lloyd’s rules – the sidings being by saw instead of the axe – a knowledge of using the saw dexterously was most material.

The case was dismissed and changes in working practices were happening.

The City of Adelaide is the only one of these great sailing ships to survive to the present day and can now be seen in the Australian city that bears her name.

Alan Brett

But this was also a time when even greater changes were taking place on the Wear. Not only were they beginning to be build ships from iron but at the same time steam engines were starting to power vessels. This would eventually bring an end to the days when sailing ships ruled the seas.

One of the most famous sailing ships to be built on the Wear was the Torrens which was completed at Laing’s Deptford yard in 1875.

The composite (iron frame and wood hull) clipper set a record of 64 days for the Plymouth to Adelaide run – it was one day better than the record set by another Wear-built ship the City of Adelaide. Launched from Pile’s North Sands yard in 1864, the City of Adelaide continued the firm’s long association with building ships for the Australian trade.

The Lizzie Webber was the first emigrant ship to leave Sunderland when 30,000 people witnessed her departure in the summer of 1852. The Chowringhee and King Richard (renamed Roxburgh Castle) were another two Pile-built ships that took people out and returned with gold in their holds from the newly-discovered goldfields.

The Killoran with the Cleadon.

The Killoran with the Cleadon.

The City of Adelaide is the only one of these great sailing ships to survive to the present day and can now be seen in the Australian city that bears her name.

Two vessels launched from Doxford’s Pallion yard in 1885 both had sadder ends to their sailing days. The four-masted barque Kate Thomas was run down by the steamer India off Cornwall. Only one of her crew of 19 was saved.

The crew of the four-masted sailing ship Richard Hayward had a more mysterious end. Only four months after the Richard Hayward was launched the American barque Great Sturgeon found her drifting off the coast of South Africa with no sign of life on board – not unlike the famous Mary Celeste. The 26-man crew were never seen again.

While the last wooden ship built on the Wear went down Pickersgill’s slipway in 1880 and the last sail ship was built at the same yard in 1893, sailing ships continued to arrive in Sunderland with grain and timber before leaving with cargoes of coal right up to the middle of the 20th century.

In 1932 the three-masted Finnish barque Killoran completed a 6,000 mile journey in 144 days from Port Augusta in South Australia with 3,000 bags of wheat. Fritz Erikson, the ‘oldest Swede living in Sunderland’, called at the Killoran in the South Docks.

When he came across a fellow Swede on the Killoran he said: “It’s no good talking to me in Swedish now. I have forgotten nearly every word of my native tongue since I settled down on these coasts.”

As the sailing ships of today gather in Sunderland for the 2018 Tall Ship Races for at least one of these vessels it will be a return visit. The Norwegian three-masted sailing ship Sorlandet came to Sunderland in 1949 and 1966 at which time the officers were entertained in the Council Chambers and sporting competitions laid on for the cadets.

In the 1840s, John Hutchinson and his two sons Ralph and William had separate shipyards at Bishopwearmouth Panns – just two of over 50 wood shipbuilding yards on the Wear at this time, having started out building ships at North Sands in his native Monkwearmouth.

The story of Sunderland’s role in the early days of sail features in On The Banks Of The Wear.

Copies are available from Waterstone’s, Sunderland Museum, Sunderland Antiquarian Society and www.summerhillbooks.co.uk, priced £4.99.