On the Waterfront: Something of a mystery

Have your say

As time marches on, most of the old names by which river and dock locations were once known have faded into the mists of history.

One which has survived is the curiously named Polka Hole, on the southern side of the inner harbour.

Polka Hole was a bight (a bend or curve on the shoreline) at the root of the old South Pier, stretching between the site of the Wave Basin Battery and the Tide Gauge jetty at the North Tidal Basin.

Some of these features have long since disappeared through riverside development, though the waterspace bordering the battery end, the old RNLI slipway and the northern end of Greenwells Quay is still known by this name.

But why and when this barren piece of muddy foreshore obtained its unusual name remains something of a mystery.

The earliest known published reference dates back to 1854 when a violent storm caused 31 sailing ships to be driven aground near the entrance to Sunderland Harbour on January 4.

Contemporary accounts record that five of these went ashore near Polka Hole, clearly evidence that the name was already recognised.

Fordyce’s “History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham,” published in 1857, provides further clues to Polka Hole’s origins.

In this work, he states: “In 1843, the South Pier, being in a ruinous state, was partially removed and rebuilt in a direction better calculated to resist the swell of the sea.

“A part of the pier, at the upper or western end, was taken away in 1844 and a beaching ground made in its place for the sea to expend itself, by which the harbour is rendered much quieter than before.”

Martin Routledge, Keeper of History at Sunderland Museum, said: “Fordyce’s description certainly agrees with the location of Polka Hole as shown on our map collection, although we are still trying to establish the reason and in which year the name was first applied.”

Launched in March, 1845, the sailing ship Polka may well hold the answer.

Newspaper accounts refer to the 200-ton vessel being launched from the north side of the Wear and being precipitated from a height of 100 feet into the river via a slipway between two houses.

The builders are believed to have been the Pile family, which then operated a yard on the site of Scott’s bottleworks at Southwick.

Shipping registers complicate the issue by recording Polka as being a 171-ton brig built at Newcastle in 1845 for an owner named Ormston.

Was Polka Hole named after a mishap which later befell this ship or was there an entirely different reason; and what is the significance of the word, “hole?” Perhaps Echo readers can help.