On the waterfront: Mind the gap on new bridge!

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The opening of the first Wearmouth Bridge in 1796 was an important step in unifying the townships, which would one day form the Borough of Sunderland.

With a clearance of some 94 feet below its arch at low water, there was adequate room for 300-ton sailing ships to pass beneath without lowering their masts.

But, ships would soon become larger and their masts taller, leading to a succession of spectacular blunders over the years.

Reconstruction of the bridge was completed in 1859 by Robert Stephenson, with the road deck being flattened by levelling the central hump.

It was not long before the river crossing became a hindrance to the Wear’s upriver shipyards, with some ships having to be towed into the docks, where their masts would be fitted using sheerlegs.

In 1874, first-class pilot Edward Brown was fined for causing the sailing ship Why Not to lose part of her mast by colliding with Wearmouth Bridge. Being in ballast, the pilot had not consulted the captain as to the height of his masts or whether he should proceed beyond the bridge for a berth.

Early accidents were not just confined to sailing ships as was demonstrated by a series of bridge strikes in the 1880s including those involving the steamers Vanguard, Ashbourne and Prinz Wilhelm. Captain Lambert of the Ashbourne was badly injured when her falling foremast crashed onto the ship’s bridge in 1886.

In 1887, while under tow by the tug Knight Templar, the foremast of the schooner Emilia struck the bridge span causing serious damage to her rigging.

First class pilot John M Hall was hauled before Sunderland Pilotage Commission in 1902 to explain why the German steamer Nestros had broken her masts while heading for Lambton Drops.

Although they were 110 feet high, the pilot stated in his defence that he had guessed the masts to be only 86 feet tall - leaving two feet to spare!

Commission chairman Captain Pinkney, said that he had never heard of such gross stupidity as that shown by the pilot, who was demoted to second class, licensed to pilot vessels only up to 400 tons.

The following year, the largest ship built on the Wear at that time, ran aground when it was found impossible for her partly constructed funnel to pass beneath the bridge. It took three hours to tow her clear.

In 1913, a crewman on board the steamship Alacrity was almost hit by the falling part of her topmast which had broken off on striking Wearmouth Bridge while his ship was heading upriver.

Later, we’ll look at how things did not improve with the opening of the Wearmouth Bridge we know today in 1929 - including a relatively recent mishap.