In 1922, the future of the River Wear Watch, which provided Sunderland’s river police and fire boats, seemed in jeopardy due to its serious financial position.
It was only through a 1923 act of parliament authorising the levy of increased dues on shipping that its future was secured.
This was extremely fortuitous, as by the end of that year, the Watch would play a leading role in quelling one of the most serious fires ever to break out on the docks.
Just after 10.30pm on Tuesday, November 6, 1923, fire was discovered in the middle of a massive stack of pit props, 60 feet high by 100 feet wide, stored along the entire eastern side of Hendon Dock by West Hartlepool timber importers, George Horsley and Co.
Destined for local collieries, the props were numbered in hundreds of thousands.
Sunderland’s newly-introduced police box system was used to alert Central Fire Station, the call being made by River Policeman Rich.
Soon, every available fire engine was racing to the docks with the fire steamer Fire King arriving from Hudson Dock.
As flames visible for miles around leapt high into the air, fire-fighters faced a formidable task in preventing the fire from spreading to the nearby Wear Fuel Works and other timber stocks.
Sunderland Borough Police Chief Constable Frederick Crawley took command, being ably assisted by Superintendent Yelland of the fire brigade, Inspector Rochford of the River Wear Watch and a large party of policemen.
At this time, the town’s fire brigade formed a section of the Borough Police.
As creosote treated props added to the blaze’s intensity, the Watch’s other fire boat, Fire Queen, steamed from the river to lend support .
The Latvian steamer Dagmar, which had arrived with pit props from the Russian port of Wyborg, also had to be moved to safety.
Between them, the two fire boats were capable of pumping water at the rate of some 4,800 gallons per minute, which they achieved by using 14 jets, including powerful monitors (water canons).
Great care had to be taken by police and firemen to avoid injury by rolling pit props dislodged by the jets.
In 10 hours, some six feet of water had been pumped from the dock, this water being lukewarm as it drained from the quayside.
As the centre of the fire was in the heart of the stack, firemen found it extremely dangerous and almost impossible to reach its seat.
It was not until 39 hours after the fire was discovered that the smouldering remnants of the props were finally extinguished.
Nevertheless, much destruction had been prevented, largely due to the presence of the fire boats.