Treasure of the month

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North Pier, Sunderland (1839) - July 2009

This watercolour from our Local Illustrations collection depicts the North Pier at Sunderland, at the mouth of the River Wear, with Roker beach in the foreground.

We have no information about the artist of this colourful scene save the name J. Wood, although the collection contains a small number of other watercolours apparently by the same artist. As the collection is chiefly made up of engravings, these items particularly stand out.

By 1839, the date given on the watercolour, Sunderland was one of the largest ship-building ports in the country. The town had undergone rapid growth owing to this and other river trades such as the export of coal, glass and pottery. The river and its harbour had become a hive of industry and activity, populated by timber yards, boat builders, sail makers, rope makers, mills, warehouses, and fish markets. During this period the dock and harbour area underwent significant phases of development.

Work on the harbour's South Pier began in 1723 but it was not until 1786 that a permanent North Pier was erected. Originally a wooden structure loaded with stones and 1500 feet in length, the timber was later faced with stone by Robert Stout, engineer to the River Wear Commissioners. In 1802 Stout's successor, Jonathan Pickernell, extended the pier by 115 feet, before building an octagonal stone lighthouse towards its outer end, which is the structure depicted here.

The watercolour also shows later works being carried out, to extend the pier further still. In 1841, two years after this scene was painted, the lighthouse was painstakingly moved 450 feet to the east by the engineer John Murray. The lighthouse was eventually dismantled in 1902 as it became increasingly unstable. It was replaced by a shorter stone-built design, which in its turn was demolished in 1958. Since the construction of Roker Pier to the north, work on which began in 1885, the North Pier has often been known as the Old North Pier.

Despite Sunderland's growth as a commercial port, there was very little interest in Roker or the neighbouring Seaburn as a seaside resort until later in the Nineteenth Century. Had this scene been painted fifty years into the future, it would have been a very different one, heaving with the crowds who flocked there to benefit from the sea air.