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Sunderland North Dock, site of
Roker, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear, UK
associated engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
date  1834 - 1838
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Docks/Slipway  |  reference  NZ405584
ICE reference number  HEW 1861
Now converted for use as Sunderland Marina, Brunel's North Dock in Sunderland Harbour was the first dock to be constructed in response to the city's need for extra port facilities to serve the growing coal trade in the first half of the 19th century. Sunderland's increasing traffic was swelled by the completion of the colliery railways into it (circa 1820) and shipping along the River Wear to the North Sea.
Sunderland Harbour had already been enclosed by piers, which offered some protection for shipping — North Pier was begun 1786 and South Pier in 1723. Docks had been proposed first by Ralph Dodd in 1794. In the early 19th century, there were several designs made by eminent engineers — none of which came to fruition. Isambard Kingdom Brunel had been asked to advise on a dock scheme in November 1831, and produced ambitious plans that were rejected.
It was feared that the existing coal staiths upstream of Sunderland, many on the south side of the river, would not be sufficient to prevent trade being lost to other north east ports such as Hartlepool and Newcastle.
In 1834, Sir Hedworth Williamson, who owned rights along the north river bank, formed the Wearmouth Dock Company. Williamson obtained a Royal Charter for the docks and Brunel revised his dock designs. The smallest of Brunel's three suggestions was accepted. He had planned to connect the North Dock to the south bank with a double-deck suspension bridge carrying the railway to bring in more trade, but this part of the scheme was not undertaken — perhaps because of the inadequacy of a similar bridge at Stockton (1830).
North Dock covered an area of some 2.4 hectares, with a 14.6m wide entrance opening into a tidal harbour of about 0.4 hectares. It was built on undeveloped land near the root of the North Pier east of the North Sands banks that dried at low tide, so the dock opened at high water.
The contractor Joseph Welch, appointed in September 1834, won the contract on rates that Brunel thought too low and this was borne out by Welch's "inactivity" during April and May 1835, when Brunel wrote that he had "totally failed in fulfilling every one of the terms of the contract". Welch would have relinquished the contract but the dock's promoters re-let part of the contract to him at higher rates.
In 1839, a railway line was laid from North Dock to Brandling Junction near Gateshead, also under Brunel's direction.
In 1846, work began on dock building south side of the river — where most business took place — and commerce at the North Dock dwindled. Despite leading the way, Williamson's much smaller North Dock was soon dubbed 'Sir Hedworth’s Bath Tub'.
The site is now Sunderland Marina. The dock has been extended and converted into a pleasure marina with a water sports centre, 88 pontoon berths, 26 other berths and 113 moorings. Some land was used for new housing. Housed on the site are a Northumbria Police station, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Sea Scouts, boating club and restaurants. The marina was opened by round-the-world yachtsman Chay Blyth in 1994.
Resident engineer: Michael Lane
Contractor: Joseph Welch
Research: ECPK
"On the Progressive Construction of the Sunderland Docks (Includes Plate)"
by John Murray, ICE Proceedings, Vol.15, pp.418-444, London, 1856
"The Life and Times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel" by Angus Buchanan
Hambledon and London, London, 2002
reference sources   CEH NorthBDCE2

Sunderland North Dock, site of