On the Waterfront: City’s fine traditions

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SUNDERLAND has a fine tradition of hosting visiting warships of the Royal Navy. This week we return to 1901, when eight destroyers paid a courtesy visit to the port.

Led by HMS Mermaid, flagship of Commodore Kerr, the flotilla was made up of torpedo boat destroyers operating as a training unit.

The others were named HMS Angler, HMS Bittern, HMS Cynthia, HMS Desperate, HMS Lee, HMS Porcupine and HMS Snapper.

But it had not been all plain sailing for the convoy as it battled up the East Coast from the Medway in heavy seas.

On reaching the Wear on Thursday, May 9, Mermaid took shelter behind the South Pier, while Bittern sought refuge inside Sunderland Harbour as the remainder continued north to the Tyne.

By tea-time that day, all the destroyers had rendezvoused off Sunderland, where Mermaid picked up her pilot.

Watched by a large crowd of spectators, she steamed through the South Outlet at 5.25pm, before navigating the narrow Hendon Channel into Hendon Dock. A procession of destroyers followed, all of which were guided to their berth by a naval officer using signal flags.

By 6pm, the whole flotilla was tied up stern-first against No. 31 Drop, with wooden gangways connecting each ship to the quayside. Commodore Kerr was welcomed by senior officials of the River Wear Commissioners, after which, crews were allowed ashore.

The warships attracted many sightseers to the dockside, who delayed arrival of a reception committee, including the Mayor, Chief Constable and other civic dignitaries.

One curious sight was of a naval rating making what was known as the real original navy plug – pressed tobacco, which was periodically sold to the men at one shilling per pound, free of duty.

A range activities and entertainment were laid on for the benefit of the crews, including a dance at Wetherells Rooms on Bishopwearmouth Green, a dinner at the Town Hall, free admission to local theatres and a church parade at the Seamen’s Mission.

The destroyers were open to the public, with an estimated 30,000 people being present on the docks at one stage.

After leaving Sunderland on the morning of Monday, May 13, onlookers were treated to a series of spectacular naval manoeuvres off the harbour entrance, before the flotilla finally steamed north for Leith.

Tonnages and year of build for each vessel are as follow: Angler (335 tons/built 1897), Bittern (360/1897), Cynthia (355/1898), Desperate (340/1896), Lee (365/1899), Mermaid (370/1898), Porcupine (320/1895) and Snapper (310/1895).

Most were scrapped after World War One, although Bittern was sunk in 1918 after being in collision with SS Kenilworth in the English Channel and Lee - a Doxford-built ship - was wrecked off County Mayo, Ireland, in 1909.