River Wear Commissioners building testament to Sunderland's past maritime influence

Standing proudly at the corner of St Thomas Street and John Street in the City Centre, the former head office of the River Wear Commissioners (RWC) is testament to Sunderland's past maritime influence.

Friday, 11th January 2019, 9:00 am
The former head office of the River Wear Commissioners in Sunderland.
The former head office of the River Wear Commissioners in Sunderland.

Erected in an era of relocating public buildings to the town centre business and commercial hub, this Grade II listed building was completed around the same time as the General Post Office, Custom House, Mercantile Marine Office, Sunderland and South Shields Water Company offices and Central Police, Fire and Court buildings.

In 1904, the RWC agreed with the Post Master General to purchase the former Post Office building at the junction of St Thomas and John Streets for £5,500. Consideration was given to the options of converting or demolishing and rebuilding the premises for RWC use.

A competition – restricted to Sunderland architects – was launched to find the best designs, with 24 sets of plans being submitted. J Henderson and J Hall of John Street proved to be the winning design for an entirely new building, while Robins and Wilson submitted the best plans for demolition and reconstruction.

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The Commissioners favoured Henderson and Hall’s scheme and gave the go ahead for the old post office to be pulled down.

The newly constructed offices were ready for use in 1907, being formally opened on March 13 that year on the occasion of the Commissioners’ annual meeting. RWC Chairman Jenneson Taylor performed the ceremony using a gold key presented to him by Mr Robert Heydon Gayner, the senior Commissioner present.

Previously, board meetings were held above Lambton’s Bank, Fawcett Street, with day-to-day business being conducted from the RWC offices at Low Quay.

Constructed in the Georgian style of architecture, the new premises comprised three storeys plus basement.

The ground floor stood above street level with access from St Thomas Street. This floor included board and committee rooms, while the first floor housed offices for the clerk, engineer, general manager and staff, besides those of the treasurer and auditor.

The top floor was for engineering and draughtsmen’s departments, while in the basement, accommodation was provided for the caretaker, with three strong rooms, store rooms and heating chamber.

An enquiry office stood within the entrance vestibule, with extensive use being made of telephone apparatus.

The premises were lavishly fitted out by James Garvie and Sons of Aberdeen with striking examples of oak panelling, mahogany and wood carving and extensive use of granite, sandstone and marble.

With the transfer of the RWC to Sunderland Council in 1972, the Port Authority was rehoused in less salubrious pre-fabricated accommodation at Barrack Street. Now in the hands of Siglion, the old RWC offices have been used for council social services purposes and as a business centre.