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Sunderland South Docks
Hendon, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear, UK
associated engineer
John Murray
Thomas Meik
Henry Hay Wake
date  1846 - 1856, 1864 - 1867, 1887 - 1880, 1899 - 1904
era  Victorian  |  category  Docks/Slipway  |  reference  NZ410572
ICE reference number  HEW 1862
Sunderland was the main port for the Durham coalfields and most of the major colliers and shipbuilders had businesses on the south side of the River Wear, so it was logical to build docks on this side too or risk losing trade to nearby ports like Hartlepool and Newcastle. The docks were constructed mostly on reclaimed land and are still in use.
The earlier North Dock (on the opposite side of the river) was too small and too far from where most people lived and worked. Ships found it difficult to enter or leave in high seas. The Sunderland Dock Company was formed in 1846 to ensure docks were built on the south bank. It was chaired by George Hudson MP — known as the 'Railway King' — who raised most of the funding for the docks from the railways, particularly the York, Newcastle & Berwick Railway Co.
The first of the South Docks was designed by the River Wear Commissioners' engineer John Murray, including initial consultancy with Robert Stephenson. The scheme comprised a tidal harbour inlet from the river leading (via two narrow gated entrances) to a one hectare half tide basin opening (through one entrance) into a 7.5 hectare wet dock, which was intended to have a south entrance leading directly to the sea — not constructed until later.
There was not enough space to build the wet dock until the coastline below the South Pier was extended onto South Rocks — achieved by constructing seven groynes there. These were spaced 107-137m apart and faced with masonry blocks with ashlar, rubble and Roman (pozzolanic) cement cores. They were between 64m and 110m long and completed in September 1848.
Digging out the marly rock began for the docks. Steam engines were used to dewater the excavations and haul spoil wagons to the top, where the loads were tipped onto the growing barrier beach and embankment to the east. Temporary dams closed the advancing south end of the work and two cofferdams the north end. Construction was shared between direct labour gangs and contractors. Mortars were produced on site from a lime kiln and mortar plant built on part of the reclaimed land.
On 4th February 1848, Hudson laid the foundation stone for the half tide basin. By the end of the year the whole of the wet dock was dug and dry, following the completion of the groynes and the installation of a cofferdam between the shore and the most southerly groyne.
The walls of the basins and wet dock are of limestone — rough blocks and rubble from the foundation course up to 1.75m below high water spring tides (the works’ datum) and alternate header and stretcher courses above that, backed with rubble. Coping stones and fenders are in freestone, with through stones of either freestone or granite. All the masonry is laid with blue lias mortar.
Coping stones are 1.2m wide and 500mm deep, set at 2.4m above datum in the half tide basin and north wet dock wall and 1.8m and 1.2m above datum on the west and east walls respectively. The stones are connected by iron dowels 150mm long and 30mm in diameter. The tops of the near vertical walls are 1.5m thick beneath the coping, strengthened by counterforts at 6.1m intervals. They enclose 7.3m depth of water at high water spring tides and the entrance cills are 1.1m above the dock floor.
The three entrance gates are framed in cast iron clad in two layers of 75mm thick greenheart planks. The gates curve in plan and are operated by manual capstans. The wet dock, called Hudson Dock, was opened by its namesake on 20th June 1850.
As larger ships were being built locally, it was soon vital to have a deeper entrance to the dock, ideally with direct access to the sea. Murray mapped the seabed in Hendon Bay, at the south end of the dock he had just built, and proposed a south east outlet.
Work started in late 1850 and three new groynes were constructed east of the original ones, backed by a masonry pier. Two of the initial groynes were lengthened and one was removed. The sea channel was begun in April 1851 but the contractors were relieved of their contract in May 1852 and the work was completed by direct labour.
The seaward end of the works was closed by a series of piled cofferdams. Steam engines pumped out the water and excavation arisings were used to increase the reclaimed area. A timber pier protected the channel’s south bank and a masonry breakwater was built further south. At high water, a tidal harbour of 7.3 hectares was enclosed between the North East Pier and South West Breakwater.
The channel wasn't a direct inlet between the sea and the dock but had a 0.6 hectare gated half tide basin between the two. The gate cill was 3m below low water springs tides, and the channel 650mm below this along the centre line, giving an 8.1m water depth at high water spring tides. The channel was 73.2m wide south of the basin and 32.6m wide at its seaward end — the narrowing produced scour currents and prevented silting, helped by four hydraulic sluices on either side. It opened in 1856.
A pair of hydraulic gates between granite quoins closed the 18.3m wide half tide basin outer entrance. Its width was later increased to 21.3m, and depth over the cill increased to 6m. The original gates had cast iron frames and teak planking.
Meanwhile, plans for extending Hudson Dock southwards were underway. In August 1853, this started with the construction of five new masonry groynes south of the sea channel. The dock was enlarged to 13.2 hectares, again using the arisings to increase the area of land reclaimed. There was no need for cofferdams this time and the sea was excluded from the excavation by late 1854.
The walls of the extension are similar to the rest of the dock, though somewhat thicker on the east side. As with the rest of the dock, the extension has jetties and coal staiths along the south side and railway connections on the west side. The existing dock was deepened to match the depth of the extension, and the whole dock re-opened on 24th November 1855.
A graving (dry) dock was constructed at the north end of the river inlet, with a 13.7m wide entrance between hollow quoins and a cill 5m below high water spring tides. The dock is 105.2m long at the top and 96m long at the bottom, 19.5m wide at the top and 7.8m wide at the bottom. It too is built from granite and freestone, backed with rubble and all set in blue lias mortar.
The completed works cost some £650,000 and covered 59.5 hectares — 51.4 hectares reclaimed from the North Sea. The works fulfilled the aim of increasing trade at the port of Sunderland. Coal exports rose by 56% during 1851-58. Grain was also traded and warehouses to store it were built in 1856 and 1863 (architect John Dobson, both demolished 1992).
In 1859, the River Wear Commissioners bought the docks from the Sunderland Dock Company, with Thomas Meik as engineer. Under his supervision the river was dredged and many improvements were made to the docks, including a new 4 hectare dock (1864-67) south of Hudson Dock — named the Hendon Dock — on the spot where Murray had planned to have a pond for floating timber cargoes. All the work was carried out with direct labour.
In 1868, Henry Hay Wake took over the position of engineer and continued to improve the port. Work included enlarging Hudson Dock, providing new loading facilities and reconstructing No.19 berth. In June 1870, a new cut between the north east corner of Hendon Dock and the sea channel opened. It had no lock and was used around high tide but is now filled in. The sluicing arrangements used to flush the sea channel were replaced in 1878 and removed in 1904.
In 1876 Sir John Coode produced plans to convert the deteriorating half tide basin into a sea lock, designed by Wake. It was closed, with shipping using the river and cut entrances. Work on the lock began in 1877 and the foundation stone was laid on 12th December 1878. Cofferdams were built across both ends of the basin and it was pumped dry before demolition — excavations continued into March 1879, and the lock opened on 21st October 1880.
The lock was 146.3m long and 27.4m wide. Its granite-faced masonry walls were 4.3-4.9m thick, topped with freestone coping. There were three 19.8m wide entrances to the lock — one at its inner end and two at its seaward end — each hung with pairs of mitred greenheart timber gates. Wave screens protected the outer entrances.
The depth of water over the gate cills at high tide was between 6.7m and 8.2m. Two sluices at either end adjusted the water level. Road and rail traffic crossed the sea lock via a hogback swing bridge 39.6m long and 6.1m wide over the inner entrance. The gates, sluices and swing bridge were all powered by hydraulic machinery.
Wake also designed the piers flanking the river mouth — North Pier (also called Roker Pier, 1883-1903) and South pier (1891-1914) — which made entry to the harbour and docks safer.
The channel is now filled in and access to the docks is only from the river, which requires periodic dredging to maintain sufficient water depth. The last coal was exported from Sunderland in 1986 and the collieries closed in the 1990s.
Assistant engineer (1846-9, 1853-6): William Brown
Assistant engineer (1849-50): Henry Palfrey Stephenson
Contractor (1847): John Craven & Sons
Contractor (1849): Thomson and Hunter
Contractor (1851-2): Pawson and Dyson
Contractor (1904): Sir John Jackson (1904)
Dock gates (1846): Hawks Crawshay & Sons
Dock gates (1856): Butler & Co, Stanningley Iron Works
Hydraulic machinery: W.G. Armstrong & Co
Swing bridge (1880): Andrew Handyside & Co Ltd
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Description of the Groynes Formed on the South Rocks, for Constructing the New Docks at Sunderland (Including Plate)" by W. Brown, ICE Proceedings, Vol.8, pp.186-194, London, 1849
"On the Progressive Construction of the Sunderland Docks (Includes Plate)” by J. Murray, ICE Proceedings, Vol.15, pp.418-444, London, 1856
"Obituary, Thomas Meik", ICE Proceedings, Vol.125, pp.410-412, London, 1896
"Obituary, Henry Hay Wake", ICE Proceedings, Vol.184, pp.357, London, 1911
www.icevirtuallibrary.com
www.portofsunderland.org.uk
Additional information provided by Neil Mearns, Port of Sunderland
reference sources   CEH NorthBDCE2
Location

Sunderland South Docks