The River Wear Commission, the group who transformed Sunderland into a modern port town

At the turn of the 18th century, change was afoot. The small town of Sunderland on the south bank of the river wear was beginning to grow exponentially. Only a century earlier had the Tudors created a salt panning industry there, and with it the River Wear had began to develop into a commercial port. The River served as a gateway to the rich coalfields of County Durham which surrounded it, but more work needed to be done to ensure the success of this growing settlement and cope with the passage of larger ships…

In the year 1717, the River Wear Commission was subsequently created under Parliamentary authority. Its job was to transform and prepare the river for commercial shipping. At the time, the River Wear did not look like what it does today, that’s because its passage to the sea is artificial. Rather, in the early 18th century the mouth of the river was in fact a natural delta like formation with large sand banks, multiple channels and rock beds which made it more difficult for shipping to get backwards and forwards.

This colourised map is an edited version of the first one created by the River Wear Commission. As we can see, the pathway to the sea was jagged and uneven. The port did not yet exist.

The commission, led by James Fawcett (yes, the street was named after him), would employ scores of engineers who subsequently terraformed the mouth of the river, dredged it and created an open passage.

As described by the Port of Sunderland’s website: “The Wear gradually changed from a pastoral backwater into a thriving industrial River, the complexities of harbour management were skilfully undertaken by some of the great engineering and administrative professionals of their day.”

In having transformed the river, the commission subsequently overseen the creation of its first piers, which included the old South Pier and the old North Pier at Roker.

In the centuries that followed, the commission essentially became the caretakers of the river. In the early 20th century, the commission moved into a new building on the corner of John Street and St. Thomas’s Street.

This building was later given a Grade II listing, and recently subject to a comprehensive refurbishment. It now serves as a modern office space.

In the year 1973, the River Wear commission ultimately come to an end as Sunderland Borough Council assumed control over the port and responsibility for the River as revenues began to shrink.

The subsequent decline of the city’s shipbuilding industries likewise sadly nullified the need for such an organisation to ever make a return. Yet, we continue to owe a significant aspect of our heritage to the work the River Wear commission achieved.