ON THE WATERFRONT: A relic of civil defence

The six-inch dry rising main beneath Wearmouth Bridge
The six-inch dry rising main beneath Wearmouth Bridge
Have your say

An old pipeline rising up Wearmouth Bridge’s south abutment remains as a relic of civil defence measures introduced in the late 1930s as the threat of war with Germany moved towards reality.

It is, in fact, a long disused dry rising main once used by fireboats to pump water from the river to street level.

Authorities recognised that outbreak of war might quickly be followed by enemy air attacks. In the event of air raids, the town’s water supplies would be placed under great strain in meeting fire-fighting demands.

Proposals to help conserve mains water were sanctioned by the Town Council in February, 1939, with the Borough Engineer being authorised to install a six-inch dry rising main on the east side of the bridge abutment at an estimated cost of £200.

On May 23, 1939, the Corporation invited tenders for approximately 180 feet of six-inch flanged cast iron pipes and specials (fittings) to construct the pipeline.

It appears that the “dry riser” was only ever used twice in anger, the first occasion being on April 10, 1941 when high explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped on the town centre.

Both Binns’ department stores in Fawcett Street were well alight, with other fires raging in the area.

At 3 am, the River Wear Watch received orders to take the steam fireboat Fire Queen to the old Panns Ferry landing beneath Wearmouth Bridge.

There, a hose connection was made to the rising main and instructions awaited. At 4 am, Fire Queen’s crew received orders to commence pumping.

By delivering water to bridge level, Fire Queen fed trailer pumps which replenished Mowbray Park lake, allowing firemen to extinguish the fires at Binns. It was not until 6.45 pm that the fireboat was stood down.

Although fireboats were kept busy for the rest of the war, they were not again required to feed the dry rising main until December 14, 1954 when the four-storey Joplings’ department store in High Street West was gutted by fire.

With over 100 firemen and 20 appliances in attendance, Sunderland Fire Brigade requested the attendance of the Fire Queen at 2.20 am.

Steam was immediately raised and the fireboat made fast alongside Panns Ferry landing at 3.05 am in charge of Inspector Pennington.

Four lines of hose were coupled to the dry rising main and supplied river water to fire units in Bridge Crescent until 6.30 am.

After standing by another two hours, Fire Queen returned to her station.

The riverside connection to the fire main has long disappeared due to reconstruction work, but a small brick-built cabin housing the street level outlet can still be seen on the southern end of Wearmouth Bridge.