Spotlight on the marine pilots which guided ships into the Wear

Ever since the Wear became a haven for ships, marine pilots have been vital in guiding vessels safely into harbour. Essential to this task were the boats used to convey the pilots.

Thursday, 27th September 2018, 3:45 pm
The sailing pilot coble Emma leaving the South Outlet circa 1890s.

Before looking at the first power driven craft operated by Sunderland pilots, we examine how the Wear’s pilotage service developed.

Under Royal Charter granted in 1536, Trinity House was empowered to levy dues on vessels arriving in the Tyne. By 1606, its jurisdiction had extended to cover the coast between Holy Island and Whitby, including the River Wear, which was regarded only as “a creek of Newcastle.”

Among Trinity House’s responsibilities, were the appointment and licensing of Wear pilots (known as branch pilots), who would row or sail in cobles to meet ships inward bound for Sunderland. These craft were similar to open fishing boats, traditionally used on the North East Coast. Sunderland boats displayed their registration number suffixed by the letter S.

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It became regular practice for shipowners and masters to engage unlicensed keelmen and watermen for pilotage work, thus causing great conflict with branch pilots who suffered hardship through loss of work.

The appointment of Mr Brown as Pilot Ruler at Sunderland in 1803 was aimed at protecting the rights of Trinity House but many shipowners refused to abide by his authority, choosing to engage cheaper unlicensed pilots. His ineffectiveness led to branch pilots withdrawing allegiance to Trinity House in 1805.

Resentment towards Trinity House festered for many years cumulating with Trinity House losing its authority over Sunderland pilots and the establishment of Sunderland Pilotage Commission (forerunner of Sunderland Pilotage Authority) in 1865. This body included representation from the Admiralty, River Wear Commissioners, local shipowners and the pilots themselves.

Pilotage was often difficult and dangerous, with cobles often being unable to put to sea in rough weather. Therefore, in 1855, Sunderland pilots experimented by ordering a 45 horsepower wooden steam paddle tug, the first recorded power driven vessel in pilotage service at Sunderland.

Named Pilot, she was launched by Andrew Woodhouse of South Shields on December 19, 1855, having a length of 86.1 feet.

Although fitted out for general towage within 500 miles of the Wear, the 83 gross ton paddler was also intended for pilotage during stormy weather when a number of pilots could be carried and put on board ships.

Financed by a joint stock partnership of Sunderland pilots, including Henry Brown, Richard Crick, George Gibbons senior, John Lindsay and Thomas Wilson, the tug cost £2,300 to build.

She remained in service on the Wear until 1868, when she was bought by Tyne owners, eventually being scrapped in 1886.

Future columns will look at later pilot vessels which saw service on the Wear.