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The Ella Sayer pictured in 1907.
The Ella Sayer pictured in 1907.

Esparto grass imported from North Africa was once an important part of the river Wear’s trade.

Used for quality paper making, the majority of the cargo was despatched to the local Hendon and Ford paper mills.

Unfortunately, esparto grass can self-heat, resulting in spontaneous combustion - a common cause of shipboard fires.

Such was the case when the 2,549 gross ton cargo steamer Ella Sayer arrived at Sunderland on March 5, 1907.

The vessel arrived on the river and with it a cargo of the esparto grass from Tripoli in Libya.

About 5 am on March 7, fire was reported to have broken out on board the Newcastle-registered vessel lying at East Quay, Hendon Dock.

The alarm was quickly raised, with a party of River Wear Commissioners (RWC) dock watermen and gatemen quickly arriving in charge of Dockmaster Capt Leask.scene at the docks under the command of Superintendent Yelland.

In addition to this, steam was raised on the fire boats Fire Queen and Fire King belonging to the River Wear Watch.

Completed by SP Austin and Son in 1886, the vessel Fire Queen was then assigned to protect the docks and was the second of three Wear fire steamers that carried the name.

The more powerful Fire King, built in 1906 by Henry Scarr of Hessle, was stationed in the river.

Both floating engines moored alongside Ella Sayer and soon began pumping in charge of River Police Inspector James Lakin.

Using a hydrant, RWC staff had made little impact on the fire which had broken out among esparto bales in Number 2 hold and spread to the ship’s bunkers.

At the height of the outbreak, ten water jets were being deployed - six from Fire King, two from Fire Queen and one each from the horse-drawn steamer and RWC hydrant.

Amid clouds of smoke and steam, large volumes of water pumped caused Ella Sayer to become low in the water.

Even so, the fire continued to spread, threatening to consume bales in the other holds and causing the foredeck to buckle.

At one point, consideration was given to scuttling her but such an extreme measure became unnecessary as fire fighters slowly gained control and limited the fire’s spread.

At the time, the Salvage Association surveyors reported that the fire had been extinguished by 5pm, the vessel and cargo being “very much damaged.”

Fire floats then pumped her dry.

After the vessel was repaired, she sailed for Marseilles on April 20.

Ella Sayer was built by Tyne Iron Shipbuilding Co in 1898. Owned by the Ella Sayer Steamship Co and managed by Fisher, Renwick and Co, she would be torpedoed by a German U-boat in the English Channel in 1918.

Our picture shows Fire King and Fire Queen at work during the fire.