ON THE WATERFRONT: Origins of Shipping Offices

The former Customs and Board of Trade offices in Tatham Street
The former Customs and Board of Trade offices in Tatham Street
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With the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s Marine Office at Tyne Dock scheduled for closure next year, we look back at the organisation’s origins on Wearside.

In 1850, moves to regulate and improve standards in the British Merchant Navy cumulated in the passing of the Mercantile Marine Act.

The old Sailors' Home and Shipping Office in Prospect Row

The old Sailors' Home and Shipping Office in Prospect Row

Among other provisions, the Act transferred responsibility for overseeing the Merchant Marine to the Board of Trade, which created a Marine Department.

Shipping Offices (also known as Mercantile Marine Offices) were established at key seaports under Board of Trade control to provide facilities for engaging seamen.

These offices were regulated by Local Marine Boards comprising members appointed by the Crown and others elected by local ship-owners.

It became compulsory for masters and mates of foreign-going ships to hold certificates of competency, Local Marine Boards being responsible for managing examinations and appointing examiners.

A Shipping Office was first established in Sunderland’s East End in 1851, although its whereabouts is uncertain. Operating under the superintendence of a Shipping Master, responsibilities included engaging and discharging seafarers under formal articles of agreement.

This helped to combat exploitation of seamen by criminal gangs - known as crimps - who sought to relieve seamen of their hard-earned wages through fraud, coercion and violence.

Sunderland seamen opposed the creation of Shipping Offices, as they saw these as legalised crimping, but eventually accepted them as a means of safeguarding their rights.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 consolidated existing legislation and expanded on the Marine Department’s duties to include all aspects of seafarer regulation and seaworthiness of ships.

The foundation stone was laid for a new Sailor’s Home at Prospect Row on the edge of the Town Moor on May 28, 1856. This fine three-story Flemish-fronted building, costing about £4,000, also contained accommodation for the Shipping Office and was formally opened on December 15, that year.

On May 16, 1907, new HM Customs offices were opened at Tatham Street next to Orchard Cottage. The three-storey building was shared with the Board of Trade, the Shipping Office having relocated there the previous week.

Designed by Mr HN Hawkes of HM Office of Works, it was constructed by Mr Warburton of Manchester. The Marine Office on the ground floor included accommodation for the Local Marine Board, superintendent, cash discharge and seamen’s engagement department and outdoor staff, such as marine surveyors and inspectors.

In 1912, the old Sailors’ Home in Prospect Row became the Boys’ Industrial School, while the Customs’ offices in Tatham Street closed in 1952 with business being transferred to the existing West Sunniside offices.

The Board of Trade vacated Tatham Street in December 1968, moving its Sunderland operation to Market Place, South Shields. Today, the premises are used as a hostel.