BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page was last updated in February 2008We've left it here for reference.More information

20 August 2014
Accessibility help
Text only

BBC Homepage

Local BBC Sites

Neighbouring Sites

Related BBC Sites

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!



You are in: Wear > Coast > Point 8 - Shipbuilding and shipwrecks

The rocks of Whitburn Steel

The treacherous rocks of Whitburn steel

Point 8 - Shipbuilding and shipwrecks

This coastline has one of the greatest concentrations of recorded shipwrecks in the British Isles which now provide reminders of the area's industrial past.

Not so long ago, this coastline was at the centre of a thriving and noisy maritime industry. Cargo ships travelled into and out of the busy ports of Sunderland and Newcastle, from the early timber vessels, to later iron and steel built ships.

From around 1865 to the early 1900s, shipbuilding was a boom industry on the Wear, the Tyne and the Tees. Local shipyards were responsible for building and launching many of the world’s ships, and at one time there were 34 shipyards in business on the Wear.

Mary Stevenson beside the propeller of the Birtley

Mary Stevenson by the grounded Birtley

Dangerous waters

With all this activity on the rivers and at the coast, not even the bright lights of Souter lighthouse could keep all the ships away from the dangerous rocks of Whitburn Steel, particularly in bad weather and in war time.

In fact, the 26 miles of coast line from the river Tees to the Tyne has a large number of recorded shipwrecks, with an average of almost 44 vessels for every mile.

There are many tales of local people enjoying the spoils, with women and children collecting precious cargoes of coal from the beach, or enjoying fish suppers from vast catches of herring spilled overboard when ships were grounded on the rocks.

Today many of these wrecks provide interesting sites for divers, who often go to great lengths to trace the history of the remains of ships they discover on the sea bed.

HMS Fame and HMS Ashanti aground at Whitburn

Navy destroyers aground during WW2

Destroyers on the rocks

One of the most famous wrecks happened during the World War 2, when a group of Royal Navy Destroyers ran aground on 17 October 1940.

It was a bleak day, with heavy drizzle and poor visibility out at sea, although the waters were fairly calm. The destroyers had been making their way to the Tyne to escort the battleship HMS King George out to sea from the Vickers Armstrong shipyard.

Men at the shore defence post at Whitburn watched helplessly, as through the mist and rain loomed a flotilla of ships, which ran aground at Wheathall Bay. Local people, hearing the noise as the iron ships scraped across the rocks, and not recognising they were Royal Navy ships, feared the coastline was about to be invaded by German troops.

The crest of HMS Ashanti

The crest of HMS Ashanti

Accounts of the wreck differ; some reports refer to four destroyers, others say there were six.

The flotilla leaders HMS Fame and HMS Ashanti ran well aground and, because it was feared that German bombers attacking Sunderland may take advantage of their vulnerable position on the rocks, the ships' crews were taken ashore.

Much of the ships' stores, equipment and ammunition were also removed and the destroyers were later re-floated and taken to the Tyne to be repaired.

Breeches buoy

A breeches buoy in the Watchhouse museum

Brave rescues

One report refers to the crew being rescued by breeches buoy, a piece of equipment commonly used in rescues at the time. It is made up of a round lifebelt inside which sit a pair of canvas shorts, so with the belt round your waist, your legs dangle through the holes.

The breeches buoy would be passed hand over hand down a line, shot from a rocket on the shore to reach the ships. Many rescues were carried out in this manner before helicopters came into use.

You can see a breeches buoy and find out more about hundreds of life saving rescues at the Roker Volunteer Life Brigade Watchhouse and Museum.

You have now reached the last point on the walk. A regular bus service, the E1 runs along the Coast Road, and will take you back to the starting point at Souter Lighthouse. Alternatively, the nearest metro station can be found at Seaburn.

last updated: 19/02/2008 at 12:16
created: 04/07/2005

You are in: Wear > Coast > Point 8 - Shipbuilding and shipwrecks

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy